Netflix Update No. 43: “Love in the Afternoon”

January 10, 2011

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon"

“Love in the Afternoon,” a 1957 movie directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, is entertaining in several ways, but it is also seriously flawed. The principal flaw was in the casting, no matter how good the names Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier, may sound when listed in the same credits.

Audrey Hepburn

The film, which is said to have been Wilder’s paean to director Ernst Lubitsch, is a subtle, witty, lightly slapstick romantic comedy concerning a Parisian private detective, his cellist daughter, and an international playboy with whom they both become involved. Detective Claude Chavasse (Chevalier) is engaged by Monsieur X, a cuckolded husband played by John McGiver — later the accommodating jewelry salesman in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — who wants to know who his wife has been seeing. Chavasse determines that the guilty party is millionaire Frank Flannagan (Cooper) a globe-hopping businessman with at least a girl in every port. Chavasse’s daughter, Ariane (Hepburn), who studies cello at a Paris conservatory, is fascinated by her father’s profession and questions him incessantly about his clients and, in the face of his reticence, snoops in his files. After she overhears Chavasse’s client declare that he will go to the Hotel Ritz and shoot Flannagan, she feels compelled to warn the target — whose photos in the files have beguiled her.

John McGiver

Ariane, after getting no satisfaction from the police, goes to the hotel herself and makes her way into Flannagan’s room just in time to allow the paramour to escape so that the husband discovers Flannagan with Ariane instead. This encounter, of course, is the beginning of a series of meetings between Flannagan and Ariane, but she refuses to give him any information about her identity, and he takes to calling her “thin girl.” As is his habit, Flannagan eventually leaves Paris for other resorts, and it appears that the “affair” — to all appearances a chaste one — is over. But about a year later, he is back in Paris and the two accidentally meet at an opera house and the liaison, such as it is, continues, with Ariane filling Flannagan with fibs about the many men in her life — many of them based on things she has read in her father’s case files. Flannagan doesn’t know whether to believe these stories or not; that, plus the lack of any information about the girl, increasingly agitates him.

Maurice Chevalier and Audrey Hepburn

This being a movie, Flannagan and Monsieur X happen to meet in a Turkish bath and Monsieur X — still clueless about his wife’s dalliance — discerns the broad outlines of what is troubling Flannagan and recommends that  he engage Chavasse to find out the truth about the “thin girl.” Flannagan does so, and Chavasse quickly figures out that the girl Flannagan is talking about is Ariane. Since Chavasse, through his investigations,  is intimately acquainted with Flannagan’s track record with women — kiss them and run — he reveals the truth to Flannagan and urges the tycoon to leave Ariane in peace. Flannagan sets out to do that, but at the last moment, as his train is already beginning to roll out of the Paris station, he lifts the tearful Ariane on board and the two ride off in each other’s arms.

There are a couple of leaps in logic in this plot. One is that Chavasse had reported that Monsieur X’s wife was having an affair with Flannagan, but Ariane’s intervention made it appear that Chavasse had been wrong. That raises the question of why Monsieur X would recommend Chavasse as an outstanding detective. Another is that at the end of the film, after Chavasse has tried so hard to convince Flannagan to leave Ariane alone, the old man stands on the train platform with a satisfied smile on his face as his daughter rides off with the playboy.

Billy Wilder

Hepburn, Chevalier, and McGiver are delightful in this film. The big flaw — which was pointed out by critics at the time — was that Gary Cooper, who was 55, was much too old to be a credible partner for Hepburn, who was 28. Cary Grant, 53 at the time, had turned down the role because of the age difference. To complicate matters, Cooper — a friend of Wilder’s — was not in good health. He looked older than he was, and he looked drawn and tired, and that was exacerbated by the fact that the film was in black and white.

Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in the closing scene.

An interesting sidelight is that this film had two endings — one for American theaters and one for European. In the European version, which was released under the title “Ariane,” the audience was left to use its imagination about what took place between Flannagan and Ariane after the train left the station and closing titles started rolling.

In the American version, however, because extramarital sex was at least publicly frowned upon in the mid-1950s, the film closed with a voice-over in which Chevalier explains that Flannagan and Ariane got married and were “serving a life sentence in Manhattan.” The film was a failure in the U.S., but it was a hit in Europe.

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2 Responses to “Netflix Update No. 43: “Love in the Afternoon””

  1. bronxboy55 Says:

    You’re right: With a cast like that, you’d expect a solid film. I don’t think I’ve seen it, and probably won’t. But thanks for the overview.

    That photo of John McGiver immediately reminded me of Mr. Terrific, a dumb television show (about a superhero) that lasted one season, if that. Actually, I liked it, but I was twelve.

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    I wouldn’t discourage you from seeing it. It kept us entertained in spite of the odd choice of Cooper for the role. Also, I enjoyed Chevalier. I have seen him only in roles in which he plays the quintessential French bon vivant. This part has a lot more substance. Meanwhile, “Mr. Terrific” is a new one on me. I like McGiver. His role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a little masterpiece in itself because of the balance he creates between the insular employee of a stuffy upscale store and the compassion of one human being for another.

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