Thanks to slick pacing and strong performances, this starts off nicely and never lets up. Both Barrymores (John as the Duke and Lionel as the Police Prefect) might be the infamous crook Lupin. Meanwhile, the real Lupin in sending the Prefect Guerchard letters. Then we’re whisked to a swanky party scene at Gohrney-Martin’s (Tully Marshall’s) estate, complete with Sonia’s (Karen Morley’s) risque interlude with the Duke. Incredibly, the Duke convinces two bumblers that It would be good if the Prefect were indeed Lupin because then the Prefect would be on hand to arrest him. Makes logical sense in an absurd way. The double surprise of the booby-trapped safe is a nice touch too. That’s only the beginning of a slew of coincidences, deceptions, doublings, and other bits of mayhem.
Sonia’s role is interesting; she’s really working for the police, but she’s also playing both sides for her own amusement. She’s definitely having fun in the sleep-walking scene; naturally for this movie, the scene is duplicated with the roles reversed. When the Duke remarks “everything about you is a little bit dangerous, Sonia” he aptly sums up her character. The masquerading theme expands when Lupin’s men assume police guise–who are the real policemen anyway? Who is Lupin?
It seems that the Prefect has the Duke and Sonia over a barrel: if she tells the truth, she goes back to prison, if she lies to protect herself, she incriminates the Duke. Of course, though, that dilemma evaporates as Lupin’s timely message seemingly exonerates both of them. The flower-seller characters (there has to be two of them…) are great; it’s obvious that there’s more deception going on here. The ending is a culmination of all this commotion. First, the Duke trades the Mona Lisa for his ‘men’, then attempts to trade his freedom for the Prefect’s allegedly-kidnapped daughter.
The actual denouement is elegant as well as dramatic. Camaraderie, amongst peers and noble antagonists, trumps all. That’s the name of the game In this milieu. Although there’s a comic motif throughout, there’s no lack of tension, and a well-developed mystery. The romantic subplot really is the key to the main plot, as the happy couple stoke-up the chemistry, not least because they also have the best one-liners and the funniest scenes.
I wasn’t prepared for such a good movie; I expected something like the nattering ninny-fests that typified ’30s mysteries. But Arsene Lupin couldn’t be better. Supremely recommended. 10/10