Tale of Two Cities, A (1935)

A Tale of Two Cities (1935), directed by Jack Conway.

A clever but drunken and dissolute barrister, redeemed by his love for a good woman. Tragically, she loves another, but that won't stop him from giving his life to save her husband from the guillotine.

It amazes me we do not see more films made from this book. We get The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) more often than Sydney Carton, which is perhaps understandable: action fantasy beats a story of love and ultimate sacrifice.

Despite the cast of thousands, historical sweep, realistic sets and costumes and sturdy supporting cast, one thing brings this movie to life: the essential Ronald Colman. Maybe that's why we don't see new versions -- he is irreplaceable.

The depth and sensitivity of his performance is remarkable. Watch him watching Lucie. See him sitting in church with her on a snowy Christmas Eve, out of place but thinking, wondering if there is a way back. He awaits execution, afraid but undeterred. Note how he cares for the poor little seamstress who will die with him. It's a gift to him: having someone to care for takes his mind off of his own trouble. That's a thought.

Dickens shows us the horrors of the extremes: first of the callous brutality and injustice of the Ancien RĂ©gime, but then of the revolutionary mass bloodletting of The Terror. (Yes, that is what its members called the new regime). And what, by comparison, would occupy the safe, sensible center? Why, that would be England: stuffy and muddling through, but basically decent and never going too far wrong.

Only in Dickens: one of the English characters is a comical grave robber. Basil Rathbone is an eminently stabbable aristocrat. Fritz Leiber, father of the SF/fantasy writer, is his assassin. Horsey Edna May Oliver pits English rectitude and gumption against the insane revolutionary zeal of Madame DeFarge, would-be child killer.

The lighting and shadows seem better here than in other films of the era.

Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur are both credited as "arranger: revolutionary sequences". How true.