Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)


When I flipped through my 100 Mystery Classics box set and I saw Charles Laughton was in one, I was intrigued. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past, especially “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Les miserables”.

Was “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” a hidden gem of Laughton’s career, or is it something he’d rather not talk about?


A rich American woman is killed in Paris and Inspector Jules Maigret (Charles Laughton) is on the case. He has plenty of suspects to pick from. Was it Joseph Heurtin (Burgess Meredith) the diminutive knife tinkerer? Was it Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) the nephew with the most to gain? Or was it Kirby’s estranged wife Helen (Patricia Roc) or Kirby’s mistress. And then there’s the mysterious Johan Radek (Franchot Tone) a man who seems to keep turning up in relation to the crime. Maigret continues his investigation but begins to feel that the killer may be playing a dangerous game with him.

Good Points:

  • A very good performance by Franchot Tone, and solid performances by the rest of the cast.
  • The murderer is an interesting character.
  • The setting of post war Paris is captured really well.

Bad Points:

  • The overall plot seems to be lack a focal point – who is the protagonist?
  • The movie takes a while to heat up.
  • The murderer is revealed early on, which takes away some of the suspense.


When the movie is over you’ll remember two things about it. The photography of post war Paris and the character of Johan Radek. The murder mystery itself is solved early on, but the game between the murderer and Inspector Maigret almost carries the rest of the film – almost. As a whole the movie never comes together. Too many points of view cloud the narrative too much and by the end of the film you wonder what the point really was.

Score (out of 5)

Visual Aspects: 4

Sound Aspects: 3

Acting: 4

Music: 3

Script: 3

Direction: 2

Entertainment: 2

Final Grade: 3

In Depth Review

Color me shocked when I saw that Bergess Meredith not only appeared in the film but that he directed! I didn’t know that Meredith had ever stepped behind the camera, much less directing Charles Laughton. A quick look at IMDB reveals that originally the film was directed by Irving Allen, until Laughton threatened to walk off the set. Meredith stepped in and directed the film with Laughton directing scenes that Meredith was in. If that story is true it does explain some of the issues I have with the film, one that almost works, but misses the bar.

Visually there is one thing going for this movie, it was filmed in Paris in 1948 or 1949 – right after World War II ended, and you get the feel the city is still recovering from the recent past. In a way it reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s films made right after the war – where everything has a raw feel to it. On top of an interesting travel log of Paris, you get some interesting shots all around and inside the Eiffel Tower. With the tower featured in the title you would hope to see it up close and personal. Well never fear, the climax of the film takes place on the famous landmark, and it is actually pretty effective. The rest of the camera work is pretty standard.

Sound effects and music are functional. Once again, 40’s style music ends up blaring a bit too much in places. I give the score a bit of a pass because it doesn’t’ drown out dialogue or anything. The sound effects are pretty standard as well.

I came for the performances by Laughton and Meredith but it was Tone who surprised me. He captures a bi-polar personality really well. One minute he is taunting the inspector and jeering that he has the upper hand. Next minute he’s afraid for his life, or in an even darker place where he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Tone makes it convincing, even if he does go over the top in places; it seems fitting with the character. He brings an edge to the film, because you believe he is capable of anything at any time. At the same time he does get a bit grating with his holier than thou attitude. But a man like that would get on your nerves, so points for realism!

Laughton seems to be channeling a similar character to the one he used “Witness to the Prosecution” and “Les Miserables”. Not too surprising since both of those characters were guided by law and order, just like his Inspector Maigret is. There are times his stuffy but cunning personality does get a bit abrasive, but it works for the most part. The only downside is that the performance lacks the crackle I’d seen him use before. There are times where Laughton seems tired, and if the stories are true – maybe he was. I also wonder if his take on the character was what the film needed. I almost wish that the role had been a little lower key, more watchful and less blustery.

Meredith is also playing a variant on characters I’ve seen him play before. In this case he’s the sad sack loser who just can’t seem to do anything right. It’s a performance that reminded me of his most famous role from “The Twilight Zone” in “Time Enough at Last”. But by the end of the film, Heurtin has had enough and when he decides to take the law into his hands we get a sense of his desperation and anger.

The rest of the cast does a good job. They are either red herrings, or pieces of the puzzle and most of them perform just fine. I did enjoy the role of the professor who taught Radek and realized that he was unstable. He plays off well with Laughton in his scene.

Actual dialogue in the script isn’t too bad, but sometimes states the obvious or action that we just saw. A bit of trimming would have helped. As to story construction, I’m at a bit of a loss, because if there were directorial problems, I wonder if the script or the directors are to blame for one of the major faults of the film. I’ll mention the issue here, because I wonder if the novel this is based on worked the same way.

The construction of the film is as follows. We meet the nephew and understand he has money problems and a rich aunt. He receives a note telling him that there is a way to take care of the aunt. The aunt is killed and Heurtin is at the scene of the crime, but claims he’s innocent. We see Heurtin in prison and his escape. We then follow the inspector as he tries to catch Heurtin as well as the real killer. The real killer is found but there is no evidence. The rest of the movie has the real killer and the inspector trying to outwit each other. Heurtin is the smoking gun and he comes forward and points the finger at the killer. There’s a big chase. The killer is brought to justice.

This may have worked OK in the book, but for a film the movie switches perspective on us too rapidly. It starts with the nephew, but he is dropped pretty quickly and we settle with Heurtin for a while. Then we’re with the inspector until he meets Radek, and then it seems to switch between the two. This switching ends up changing the type of film we are watching. Is this a mystery? Not really because the killer is revealed about half way through the film. A thriller? Not really because the innocent man, Heurtin, disappears for about a third of the film. Maybe a character study of Radek? Perhaps but the Inspector gets a lot of screen time. Fine then it’s a character study of the inspector. Nope, he doesn’t’ show up till about a third of the way through the film.

Seriously the script is a mess. It really needed a central focus, pick a character to be the main one and follow them. My bet (and my suspicion that the book did this too) would be to use the Inspector as the focus. Start the film with him arriving at the scene of the crime and finding Heurtin. Then follow him as he pieces the crime together and confronts Radek. Then the cat and mouse game between him and Radek would have had a bit more bite. In a way this could have been like a 40’s version of “Seven”, with Laughton taking on the role that Morgan Freeman had and Tone playing John Doe. Instead the messy script never grounds the viewer.

One the directors should have caught that, and done their best to streamline the film, either in the editing room or while filming. But your main problem is that two of your actors are also directing. I wonder if neither wanted to lose some of his performance moments even if they didn’t serve the chosen storyline. Technically the film is directed well enough, but the fact that there is little to no impact to the viewer at the end makes me believe that the ball was dropped.

Still it’s not a horrible effort at all. You’ve got some good performances, an interesting character in Radek and some great scenery to look at (although the washed out dingy print I saw didn’t do it justice). It kept me interested for most of the running time. But by the end, I was getting a bit tired of the cat and mouse game. Tone’s performance was fitting, but it also made his character annoying with his gloating and sneering. You know that the Inspector is going to win, and you just wait for that hammer to fall.

I should also mention the very Hitchcockian chase up the national monument climax. Seriously folks, it looks like they were really climbing up the girders of the Eiffel Tower, and I can imagine it was fun to film. Some rear project ruins the effect at times, but for the most part, it looks genuine. It might even top the similar scene featuring Roger Moore and Grace Jones in “A View to a Kill” in 1985. In the end, “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” isn’t a bad little movie - a good bit of entertainment that could have been a little bit more with some more attention to the script.

Check out James Lileks take on the film here.

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