Eugene Francis Vidocq (George Sanders) did not have the greatest of starts in life, as he was born in a prison to a single mother who used to steal bread to be put away so she could have her babies under a roof, at least. Vidocq was the twelfth of those, and learning from his parent, grew up into crime, specialising in theft, imprisoned himself though a cake baked with a file in it thanks to his friend Emile Vernet (Akim Tamiroff) meant he escaped and set off to an adventure that would transform his life. A chance meeting with an artist who wanted them both to model for his religious frieze of St George slaying the dragon set off a course of events he would not have predicted...
Vidocq was a real person, and focus of some fascination down the centuries from his heyday in the early eighteen-hundreds where he became the Chief of the Parisian police, reasoning in this unlikely turn of events that nobody knew more about crime than a criminal, therefore he was ideal for the position. There were many stories about him, some of them true, some of them propagated by Vidocq himself in his memoirs which this film was supposedly drawn from, but it was not really, Hollywood simply took his name and invented a whole new vehicle for professional cad Sanders to play, giving him witticisms to purr in his trademark, coldly urbane tones and a little romance.
Here he was given two leading ladies to woo, one a theatre performer called Loretta played by Carole Landis, who we meet first, the second the granddaughter of the Marquise (Alma Kruger), the simpering Therese de Pierremont played by Swedish import Signe Hasso. Hasso was being built up as a replacement for Greta Garbo now the megastar had retired from the screen, but she never quite caught on with the public; the stage was her real love, and though she was always happy to do guest spots for television it was there her heart lay, as well as in her writings, she being quite the renaissance woman who lived to a ripe old age. Not so Landis, whose troubles are well-documented.
This was one of Landis's final roles before she took her own life a couple of years later, not even out of her twenties, and feeling depression thanks to her career dwindling in her view plus a desperately unhappy affair with fellow star Rex Harrison (who found her body). She is one of those stars - Marilyn Monroe is the most obvious - who was such a luminous presence on the screen that it is difficult to believe how dejected she was when you learn her tragic fate, and she certainly stole her scenes here in one of her last tries and showing what she was made of in this, though you can tell it was far from lavished with a large budget with its borrowed costumes and rickety sets. Such was her lot in life: supporting roles in A pictures and occasional leads in B movies, but thanks to her beauty and talent, she has been a discovery for many a buff down the decades.
Really, the cast was the best thing about A Scandal in Paris - you could not exactly use it as a history lesson, and the script (by Ellis St Joseph) only intermittently sparkled when Sanders (who also committed suicide, coincidentally enough) was given a line of cruel humour to deliver ("Only the heartless succeed in crime - as in love"). But there was a lightness about the tone that made it an easy watch, even if you had the impression that cast would rather be in more prestigious surroundings, and behind the camera was Douglas Sirk, before his expertise in melodrama was tapped in the following decade, and way before he was rediscovered by critics as one of the most perceptive directors of the Hollywood system. You don't get much evidence of that here, but if you can set aside the "strictly for the money" mood that too often pervaded the picture, it was decent enough company for just over an hour and a half, especially if you were drawn to this era. Music by Hanns Eisler, including a very nineteen-forties showtune for Landis to sing.