Review: Albert Lewin’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” Starring George Sanders and Herbert Marshall

Elena Verdugo and George Sanders in
Elena Verdugo and George Sanders in "The Moon and Sixpence"

MGM producer Albert Lewin made his directorial debut with an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence, itself loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. George Sanders plays the selfish misogynistic artist—here named Charles Strickland—to perfection. We learn about him through his acquaintance Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall), who narrates the film and tells how Strickland simultaneously repelled and fascinated him throughout his life.

Strickland is such an unlikeable character that Lewin had to produce the film with David L. Loew independently, which clearly limited the budget but also gave Lewin room to experiment. Scenes often play out without any dialogue, just narration or Dimitri Tiomkin’s beautiful score. Most notably Lewin and cinematographer John F. Seitz play with the color scheme. While the first two acts are shot in black and white, the film then shifts to sepiatone for scenes in Tahiti, and culminates with a reel in technicolor.

Unfortunately at times, it can be hard to tell where Strickland’s sexism ends and the film’s begins. Before marrying one woman Strickland warns her that he’ll beat her. “How else shall I know you love me?” she sincerely responds. Lewin (who also wrote the screenplay) does at least avoid mocking the natives of Tahiti the way that an Abbott and Costello film would, if they are still somewhat exoticized. For whatever archaic points of view are present, The Moon and Sixpence does still remain a compelling character study conveyed in a way unlike most studio filmmaking of the era, cementing Lewin (who would next make The Picture of Dorian Gray) as a talent to watch.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on The Moon and Sixpence

Read the review in The New York Times