Saturday, March 27, 2004

Dinner at the Ritz

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2004 in Jay's Living Room (ReplayTV'ed off WGBH)

It's a good thing my cable package doesn't include Turner Classic Movies, because I would never leave the TV. There'd always be something that at least catches my attention enough for me to set the ReplayTV. Like this 1937 movie, for instance, which ran a few nights ago on WGBH, at sometime like two in the morning. The description looks mildly interesting, and seeing the lead actress billed as simply "Annabella" made me curious in a sort of anthropological way - she must have been some kind of superstar, right, or someone who crossed over from something else to merit just the single name... But now she's all but unheard of.

Perhaps the reason for that is that she jumped from making movies in her native France to doing English-language films; this was one of her first, according to the IMDB (which also shows that it was apparently well-enough liked to get theatrical re-releases later). It's a convoluted little trifle, not tense enough to be a thriller nor carefree enough to be a romantic comedy. In it, Ranie Racine goes on a quest to find who murdered her father (and made it look like suicide), in the process defrauding the depositors at his bank. Trying to do right by those depositors has left her penniless, though, so she conspires with a diamond merchant who was impressed enough with her charisma at the estate auction to concoct a schme where she poses as a displaced Spanish aristocrat, to add sentimental value to the jewelry they would sell.

Though running only about an hour and twenty minutes, it seems longer; the pace is glacial at times. It seems to take a third of the movie's runtime just for papa to die and get the story started, and even the comedic bits have very little spark. As much as critics may decry what MTV has done to the way we watch film and television, this movie is on the opposite end of the scale, where you almost need to be doing something else (say, a crossword puzzle) to keep your whole brain occupied for most of the film's runtime.

This does have its appeal, though. Though Annabella's English is awkward, she is a beautiful, engaging presence. I was reminded of Jennifer Garner in Alias several times during this movie, as Ranie dons various disguises to infiltrate the worlds of her enemies. She doesn't engage in gunplay, but she's no damsel in distress, either, swimming to the other side of a boat so that she can listen at a window and retrieving crucial information. Her co-stars, including Paul Lukas as her fiancé and David Niven as the agent investigating her father's financial woes, are all right, but she's clearly the star.

It's an interesting movie, though no classic. It's one of the dozens of average movies that get released every year, but which we forget about, thus making years gone by look either chock-full of brillaince or schlock, when the majority of the films produced then are probably with Dinner At The Ritz, sitting right in the center of the bell curve.

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