It’s 1880, and Georges Duroy (George Sanders) has been attempting, with little success, to find his way in Paris. His former Army buddy Charles Forestier (John Carradine) stumbles upon Georges wandering the boulevard and sets him up with a little cash and a job at his newspaper. George uses the cash to impress the beautiful dancer Rachel (Marie Wilson), until he runs into the equally beautiful young widow Clotilde (Angela Lansbury). He courts Clotilde, who puts up with a lot from George, a cad who is still seeing (or, to be more accurate, sleeping with) the dancer. She chooses to ignore his indiscretions, calls him her “Bel Ami,” and expects him to be her husband. But Georges has been waiting around for his sickly friend Charles to die, and when he finally does, he immediately marries his widow (Ann Dvorak), who is not only as cunning as Georges in the ways of social mobility, but had been writing Charles’ newspaper articles to great effect (and several promotions), and plans to help Georges write his, too.
Based on the Guy de Maupassant novel Bel-Ami published in 1885, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is the story of an unmitigated cad and his insatiable quest for money and power and women. Curiously, the film is serene, tasteful, sometimes even bland, surely in the service of the Production Code which was still in effect at the time.
Critics were harsh on the film for what Variety called its “scrubbed-face version” of a scandalous story, and it’s true that the toning down of the tale hinders the film. Clotilde in the novel is married, for instance, and Rachel is a prostitute (or “prostie” as Variety called her back in 1946). But the salacious nature of Georges’ schemes remains, and besides, the main point of the film is the cruelty inherent in a money- and power-obsessed society, and to watch as Georges struggles — or, frequently, fails to struggle — against his own better judgment and taste.
To describe Georges’ machinations as “private affairs” is a misnomer, or perhaps just plain irony, as everyone seems to know exactly what’s going on in that beady little mind of his. The women are especially keen, many of them adopting Clotilde’s pet name for George for themselves. In a fun bit of role reversal, Warren William appears as Laroche-Mathieu, a businessman who knows exactly what Georges is up to and pronounces him despicable; 15 years earlier and William would be doing the exact same things in a pre-Code to a series of lovely ladies working in the steno pool at his New York conglomerate. And one of those ladies was probably Ann Dvorak, who gives a fascinating turn as Madeleine.
Bosley Crowther — dear, sweet Bos — once again completely fails to get the point of a film by complaining that every character is “utterly artificial,” as though this were a flaw and not a feature. The artificial gentility surrounding the grotesque moments highlights them, in the exact same way the smooth, glowing black and white makes Max Ernst’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, shown in a brief Technicolor shot, practically jump off the screen.
From the very first frame of this film, I knew this flooring, allegedly from the MGM “elaborate ballroom set,” would show up, and it finally did toward the end of the film.
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami was written and directed by Albert Lewin, who also wrote and directed The Picture of Dorian Gray. Bel Ami is almost its sequel, up to and including that shot of Ernst’s painting, which was highlighted in the film’s publicity at the time. The studio held a contest for a painting depicting the Biblical theme; the entry by Salvador Dali may not have won the contest, but nowadays is far more famous than Ernst’s work.
Though Bel Ami is somewhat ahead of its time, Georges’ caddish nature is often tame by comparison to our own. We’re not such great people here in this futuristic year of 2016, so when Georges unveils his nefarious scheme to write a gossip column where he contradicts gossip “in such a way as to confirm” it, for instance, people nowadays may just yawn and shrug and say, “Great, you invented The Daily Mail, how exciting.”
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami has recently been restored by UCLA, and has been released on Blu-ray by Olive Films in a fantastic print. It’s worlds better than that old VHS release which looked like a grey smudge with the occasional parasol visible through the fog.