The late Sacha Guitry's frivolous and acid view of the human comedy was set forth to the point of fulfillment during his more than half a century as a dramatist, actor and film-maker, and so it is something in the way of an anti-climax or reprise that his "Lovers and Thieves" should have arrived yesterday at the Guild Theatre.
It is, we are told, the French artist's last film before his death last July, and, like many of the other vehicles for his personal brand of wit, this one tears away with a laugh the mask of convention to show the true face of human perfidy and deceit.
As was often the case with M. Guitry's one-man shows, "Lovers and Thieves," known in France as "Assassins et Voleurs," has both its bright moments and its thin stretches, when the scene is thrown away to make room for unrelated and often dull asides by the renowned wit.
The dramatic framework ever so loosely encloses a philanderer, played by Jean Poiret, who is caught in the bedroom of another man's wife, enacted by Magali Noel. By one of those droll coincidences favored in Continental humor, there just happens to be a burgler in the next room. So when the husband in a rage strangles the unfaithful wife, and the philanderer shoots the husband, the burglar is stuck with the double murder.
So you see it is a very zany business, as the burglar, played by Michel Serrault, is sent to jail, and the philanderer takes up the burglar's life of crime in the way of atonement. It makes sense only within the arbitrary dictates of M. Guitry's fantastic dramaturgy. There is a crazy surprise at the end, when the burglar finally learns the identity of the man who framed him many years before for the double killing.
The over-all effect is altogether too vacant, except for the memory of several delightful episodes that represent M. Guitry at his very best. One of these comes when the philanderer is sent to an insane asylum as a resuit of the shock of his killing the husband. There is an absolutely delicious scene between the head of the hospital and the philanderer as they discuss the antics of the various inmates sitting around the dinner table.
There is another perfect bit provided by Darry Cowl during the trial of the burglar. He regales the court with double-talk, much to the confusion of the court, until it is learned that he has been summoned as a witness for the wrong trial.
Though the performances are invariably fine and M. Guitry's direction and iting show fitful signs of inspiration, the film lacks both dramatic structure and a significant theme around which to organize the discursive episodes. Above and beyond the film itself lies the interesting consideration that M. Guitry, judging by this, the last evidence, maintained his Voltairian skepticism to the end.
© Richard W. Nason, "The New York Times", Aug. 5, 1958
Source : movies.nytimes.com