Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel,”The Moon and Sixpence” tells the story of Charles Strickland (George Sanders), who leads a respectable life working for the London stock exchange. He has a lovely wife, married for seventeen years, and children. Then one day, at forty years of age, Strickland walks out on his life. Leaves his family, his job and goes to Paris to live a bohemian existence as an artist. No explanations are given nor does Strickland care about his wife and children’s future, He pretty much says “They somehow get along, I can’t worry about it.”
Like the novel, the film is narrated by a third person character; author Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall) who seems to be a fictional stand-in for Maugham. Four years later Marshall would literary portray Maugham in “The Razor’s Edge.” Wolfe follows Strickland through his life as he runs off to Paris, living the life of an artist in search of the elusive truth. He refuses to sell any of his works, searches for no praise and does not seek desire to prove anything to anyone. He is an artist purely for art sake. At the end of the film, after his death, based on his request his wife destroys his work.
At one point when Strickland becomes ill, another less talented artist, Dirk Stroeve (Steven Geray), and his wife Blanche (Doris Dudley) take him in bringing him back to health, Strickland repays his artist/friend Dirk by stealing his wife. Later when he decides to go off to find himself in the South Seas (Tahiti) and no longer having any use for Blanche, he indifferently dumps her despite her promises she will kill herself. He leaves, she dies, he shows no remorse. In Tahiti, Strickland does find someone he cares for, a pretty native, Ata (Elena Verdugo) who he marries and who loves him dearly. He also paints at a voracious speed however, within a few years Strickland dies a hideous death with leprosy.
“The Moon and Sixpence” is the portrait of the artist as a cad and who better epitomizes the cad persona than George Sanders who made a career of being unscrupulous and uncaring. In “All About Eve”, he was Allison DeWitt, the cynical scathing theatre critic and in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” he was the immoral Jack Favel. As the callous Charles Strickland he utters the lines “the more you beat women, the more they love you for it.” A line that easily displays the unsympathetic contemptible smug outlook he had for life and especially women. (Sanders found himself in the center of a storm when women’s groups protested his verbiage. As he stated, defending himself, in his 1960 autobiography, “Memoirs of a Cad”, these were Maugham’s words he was saying, not his own).
Maugham’s novel is a surface only fictional recreation of the life of Paul Gauguin. Don’t look for a fictional Van Gogh, who Gauguin spent some two months painting with in Arles. And since Strickland had to die a hideous death to pay for his contemptible life he was blessed with leprosy where as Gauguin died from syphilis.
The film moves at a slow pace, laden with too much narration, not only does the author Wolfe narrate but later in the film two other characters as well. Also, there seems to be too many unnecessary scenes with secondary characters that could have been eliminated. While the aforementioned Sanders does well, Herbert Marshall as the writer Wolfe is rather stiff and looks uncomfortable for the majority of the film. Director Albert Lewin makes an interesting if not totally successful use of film by shooting most of it in black and white, separating the Tahitian scenes from the Paris scenes by giving a reddish tint to the Tahitian segment and for the final scene displaying Strickland’s masterpiece mural, in full color (Lewin would use this technique again in his 1945 film, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). Lewin was wise not to show us Strickland’s paintings throughout the film (except for the final color sequence) which leaves the audience to depend on the words and judgment of the other characters. Subsequently, we are not forced to look at poor substitutes and think they are masterpieces.
The VCI DVD contains two versions of the film, the original theatrical release in B&W/Color and a full black and white version.