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SCAPEGOAT, THE(director/writer: Robert Hamer; screenwriters: Robert Maer/Gore Vidal/from book by Daphne Du Maurier; cinematographer: Paul Beeson; editor: Jack Harris; cast: Bette Davis(Countess de Gue), Alec Guinness (John Barratt/Count Jacques De Gue), Irene Worth (Francoise de Gue), Peter Bull (Aristide), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Annabel Bartlett (Marie Noel de Gue), Leslie French (Lacoste), Pamela Brown(Blanche), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston); Runtime: 92; MGM; 1959-UK)
“It’s a one-idea film involving a case of mistaken identity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A mystery thriller from the pen of Daphne Du Maurier, tepidly adapted to the screen from Gore Vidal’s murky script in a workman-like way by Robert Hamer. It’s a one-idea film involving a case of mistaken identity, where a despondent, middle-aged, unmarried, provincial British professor while taking a holiday in France, is mistaken for the French Count Jacques De Gue. Alec Guinness has the double-role playing Professor John Barratt and his look-alike, the Count. It is a dual role he plays admirably, but he does not leave any lasting impression in either part.

The look-alikes meet in a pub and drink together all night to celebrate the coincidence of looking like each other. Sharing their life stories Barratt tells of how he has no one to love and no one who cares about him, as he complains that he has too little of a life. The Count, on the other hand, says his life is too rich, that he has a chateau, a title, an income dating from the 19th century for his title, a wife and a mistress, and severe business problems. Afterwards they go to the Count’s hotel room in town and order through room service a bottle of champagne. The Count spikes Barratt’s drink and switches clothes with him, leaving him alone next morning as his chauffeur Gaston (Keen) arrives to take him to his estate. When Barratt tries to explain who he is, vociferously disclaiming that he is the Count and that he wants to go to the police. Instead, Gaston calls the Count’s physician (Howlett). He informs him the family received a telegram that he’s delusional after being in Paris for two weeks — and that he now thinks that he is someone else and that he should humor him and bring him back to the estate, where he will give him a physical examination.

At the estate Barratt meets the wife the real Count despises, Francoise (Worth), and his precocious young daughter Marie Noel (Bartlett). In a cameo role, his morphine-addicted acerbic mother (Bette Davis) chews-the-scenery. She is either seen as a bitter old lady who is bed-ridden and wants to possess her evil son, or is dressed in black and speaking with a sulfurous tongue at the police inquiry. He also meets at the dinner table his embittered sister Blanche (Brown) who wears a large cross around her neck and his embezzling brother-in-law Aristide (Bull). Aristide runs the glass foundry the Count hasn’t been to in 14 years and is now in danger of closing as the family business for 150 years. That happens to be the reason the Count went to Paris to get a new lease of life for the shaky business.

The only happiness the Count seems to have is in hunting game and being with his Italian mistress Bela (Nicole), who is a noted horsewoman. He meets her every Wednesday afternoon in her apartment after he drops his daughter off for her music lessons.

Barratt after an initial reluctance to do the deception finds he relishes looking after people and living a family life, and warms to the idea of being the Count. He wants to help them all, but he wonders why the Count pulled the switch — Is it to let him solve his problems? Or, Is it to let the Count be someplace else?

Warning: spoilers to follow in the next two paragraphs.

Francoise is killed on the day Gaston drives him to his mistress, as she falls out the window. But after a police inquiry it is called an accident.

Barratt discovers something in the will about the Count inheriting a huge sum of money if his wife dies without giving birth to a son, and he recalls his wife’s fear that he will kill her. Her death brings the real Count back to town, and allows for the slight twist to the story in the final scene.

The film’s main fault was that it failed to maintain the tension. The three weeks that Barratt played at being a French nobleman was hardly believable. This is a good story as written for a book, but did not work as a film. The middle part seemed to be going nowhere and by the time the payoff came, the confrontation between the morally concerned Barratt and the villainous Count seemed too artificial.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”