The place is Paris, the underworld to be exact, where the criminals mix and scheme, and the higher classes get a kick out of mingling with them, but if there is a king of the underworld, it has to be the man they call The Rat - Jean Boucheron (Anton Walbrook). He may be a habitual thief of the finest quality merchandise he can find, but the women love him and the men fear him, though the police simply wish for an excuse to catch him and put him away for a very long time. Somehow he always escapes, as tonight when the Inspector brings a young lady Jean has recently been in the bedroom of to identify him as the man who took her jewels; however, she is so enamoured she refuses to say it was him. But how long can he carry on this apparently carefree existence?
Until approximately five minutes into the film, that's how long, in this second screen version of Ivor Novello's popular play. By this time it was getting to be something of a theatrical warhorse, but it had been made with heartthrob Novello in the lead as a silent movie back in 1925, proving so successful that two sequels were ordered in quick succession. The producers of this evidently believed there was life in the old dog yet as the script was dusted off and recast with the debonair Austrian Walbrook in the lead, already a star who would set the ladies' pulses pounding (and possibly some of the gentlemen's as well). He was most famous in his native land for his family connections, being descended from a distinguished line of clowns, but it was drama that called for Anton.
He went on to be one of the major cult stars of his era, if that isn't a contradiction in terms, but his innate humanity allowed him to bring dimensions to even the shallowest-seeming roles, and when he got a job that allowed him to shine, he could be riveting. In this case, it was a more melodramatic part he was requested to play, fair enough for keeping the audiences happy if not entirely fascinated, this sort of thing being par for the course in cinema of the time, and not doing enough to stand out too much from the contemporaries. Indeed, the only thing that was a true novelty here was that compared to the previous outings for the character, this Rat could be heard talking, and the dialogue was as hokey as the rest of it; not that this meant it was impossible to enjoy.
Actually in spite of these styles going utterly out of fashion, that could be part of the appeal, and seeing Walbrook emote in these circumstances was amusing enough: the fact that it lasted barely over an hour was a bonus too, not going to wear out its welcome in that time. As for the plot, we had that old reliable, the love triangle, as Jean is requested as an old associate's dying wish before he goes to the guillotine that the rogue look after his daughter Odile (future Countess - and science fiction author - René Ray). Now Odile looks of an age to well look after herself, but she is in reduced circumstances, and what her dad meant was that she not be sold into prostitution to make ends meet, as the local madam in Jean's lodgings is keen to get her to do. Will they fall in love? Or whoops, what about the socialite Jean has been seeing, Zelia (respected stage actress Ruth Chatterton)? Which shall he choose? Resolving itself in a courtroom drama for a murder charge, it was less interested in the class issues and more in the swooning self-sacrifice, but it diverted mildly. Music by Anthony Collins.
[The Network DVD in their British Film series looks a little aged, understandably, but perfectly watchable; a gallery is the sole extra.]