The Scapegoat, 1959. 9/10

In this adaptation of a Du Maurier story, Alec Guinness plays two guys: a somewhat stuffy Englishman, John Barratt, and his French look-alike, the eccentric Jacques De Gue. All that happens to Barratt is that he debarks from the channel ferry into France, and immediately everyone thinks he’s Jacques. He’s further taken aback when he meets himself (that is De Gue) in a local bar. The issue is hardly resolved, however, when John goes to Jacques’ (the nobleman’s) estate.

Viola! He’s got an entire instant family: wife Francoise (Irene Worth), daughter Marie-Noel (Annabelle Bartlett), mother The Countess (Bette Davis), mistress Bela (Nicole Maurey), and sister Blanche (Pamela Brown). Cleverly, since the real Jacques is taking some kind of ‘cure’ in Paris, John stops quibbling, and fairly quickly just takes on Jacques’ persona. Everything just goes swimmingly for a bit, but then Bela starts believing his real story.

He needs to take some precautions, too, so as not to blow his cover. His precocious ‘daughter’ knows that he deliberately burns himself to get out of shooting–Jacques is, of course, by contrast, a crack shot. Then John has to pretend there’s some mix-up when Bela summons Jacques, but, naturally, John goes to her place unawares.

The next problem is Francoise’s death. After overhearing John’s argument with his mistress, we might well think the wife would be pleased, not suicidal. The police Inspector (Alan Webb) conducts an inquest–The Countess is in fine form–disdaining the police with witty and condescending responses. There’s discrepancies to deal with though.

The problem for John is that he’s achieved the impossible; he’s been in two places at once. Now John realizes he may have been set-up by Jacques. (Francoise’s estate goes to her husband, therefore a perfect motive for Jacques to dispose of her). All of that makes John “An alibi, or a scapegoat.”

So, time for a face-to-face with his doppelganger. Jacques is so nonchalant it’s funny; John of course, is more than a bit upset. Mostly for being fingered for the murder, but not incidentally, for “Living an elaborate lie in luxury the rest of your life” So they have a stand-off, resulting in a sort of duel. John has the smarts to kill the lights, leveling the odds. John gets off the first shot. He goes ‘home’ to Bela (and his ‘family’). Sounds good.

I didn’t expect a happy ending. Ok, John killed Jacques, but Jacques has murdered Francoise, and it’s only luck that Jacques didn’t kill him as well. John did the only thing that would ‘fix’ his predicament. Might be a slight problem (for the near future) burying the guy who’s not only up and well, but living it up. (Hopefully, John won’t be among the mourners at his own funeral).

This was better than I expected; most gimmick plots are predictable and formulaic. The first surprise comes after John gives up trying to explain who he is, and just ‘becomes’ Jacques. The conventional response would have the entire plot focus on righting the ship, so to speak. Fortunately, if we give license to the John/Jacques ‘twins’ conceit, and since there’s no hocus-pocus going on, the whole charade is easy to buy.

The other surprise is the murder plot. I really thought Francoise’s death was a suicide, but then I remembered that of course Jacques wouldn’t engender the mistaken identity scam as a mere parlor trick. The ‘duel’ with the two guys wasn’t a surprise–something like this was going to happen–but the tension between the confident Jacques and livid John–makes for a sudden, and suitably chancy denouement.

The performances brought this all together. Davis is gripping as the off-the-hinges good-natured hag. Bartlett couldn’t have been better as an easy-to-like girl; she’s sort of the sparkler that lights up the tone for the whole family. Guinness is masterful, clearly having fun playing a nice good guy and a nasty bad guy.

Ah, Farmermouse couldn’t stop jumping up and down over that swoopy custom-bodied white Delahaye (maybe that’s what it is). He’s got to admit that the Hillman Minxes and Morris Minors, shown near the beginning, are more his size though. Nine country roads for The Scapegoat. 9/10.


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