'Stavisky': Resnais' 'Almost' Masterpiece

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alain Resnais' 1974 "Stavisky," which plays tonight through Sunday at the Laemmle Monica Showcase, is a superb film which, despite its fascinating subject--the fall of a swindler turned international entrepreneur--still seems somewhat incomplete.

Yet, there are so many beautiful and extraordinary things in it--the period decor, Sacha Vierny's stunning cinematography and a magnificent supporting performance by 77-year-old Charles Boyer--that it probably qualifies as that frustrating film type: an "almost" masterpiece.

It's a real objet d'art film, yet its core is a furious indictment of financial corruption; screenwriter Jorge Semprun also wrote "Z." In the movie, Jean-Paul Belmondo's Serge Alexandre Stavisky, despite a past as a petty crook, has insinuated himself into France's highest circles. When his card-house fell, so did the Daladier regime.

Semprun obviously wants to expose the chicanery of the rich, of whom Stavisky himself was a charming counterfeit. Resnais, on the other hand, fills his frames with gorgeous re-creations of high-style haunts in Biarritz and Paris. An ironic tension develops. Are we charmed by Stavisky's style and surroundings? Or can we sense catastrophe looming behind him?

I've often wished "Stavisky" were an hour longer, so we could see the rest of the story (Serge's sordid early career), and particularly so we could see more of Boyer, whose poignancy, delicate mastery and supreme subtlety and grace, as Baron Raoul, easily steal the movie.

By contrast, Belmondo plays Stavisky with relative lightness. And, ironically, the actor who was to take his place as France's rough-hewn movie idol shows up briefly as well: Gerard Depardieu, as an impassioned young inventor, seeking Stavisky's patronage. Yet, flaws aside, "Stavisky" is unusual, highly intelligent, exquisitely beautiful . . . and much underrated.

Information: (213) 394-9741.

Chills and Thrills: LACMA's "1941: Hollywood's Extraordinary Year" series, reprising more than 90 films from that annus mirabilis , has its most bountiful weekend: a triple feature on Friday and a nine-movie "Series film" marathon on Saturday.

Friday's is an all-Universal Studio bill, with Lon Chaney Jr. in the archetypal horror movie, "The Wolfman," plus two wildly anarchic comedies: W. C. Fields in his self-scripted "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," and Olsen and Johnson, in the rarely-seen movie of their legendary Broadway show "Hellzapoppin"--a madcap Pirandellian jape in which writer Nat Perrin tries to out-Marx the Marx Brothers.

The series marathon starts at 11:30 a.m. and continues through midnight, with contributions from the Bowery Boys, Sidney Toler's Charlie Chan, Ann Sothern's Maisie, Lew Ayres' Dr. Kildare, Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan and others--including William Powell and Myrna Loy's Nick and Nora in "Shadow of the Thin Man" and the most popular series characters of all, the bucolic small town Hardys (Mickey Rooney and company) in "Life Begins for Andy Hardy." My special recommendation: the 5:50 p.m. movie, "Topper Returns," second sequel to 1937's "Topper": an old-dark-house mystery comedy, directed by Roy Del Ruth, whose Jonathan Latimer-Gordon Douglas script is, in some ways, a model of fast, racy B-movie writing.

Information: (213) 857-6010.

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