French for Madagascar Adventure, Aventure Malgache is another of Hitchcock's propaganda war movies and one more that didn't see the light of day until decades later when the director's legacy, even if far from his trademark projects, was too precious to pass up on. It is also one of the two films made with the French audience in mind.
The film's main protagonist is Paul Clarus, a very talkative ex-lawyer from Madagascar. Backstage at the theater, he and two other Frenchmen prepare for stage and Paul uses that time to tell them the story of his life in Madagascar during World War II.
Because he played a rather important role, secretly smuggling away his countrymen who want to join the fight against the Nazi Germans, his tale is very interesting.
Paul Clarus is actually a real stage pseudonym of Jules François Clermont. In other words, hidden behind a different name, Clermont plays himself, and does so to full extent - everything that is depicted in this film actually happened to him! It really is a biographical movie.
Clarus went further than just telling Hitchcock or his writers how it all went down and instead, after being contacted by Hitch, negotiated a fee for rights to the story and wrote the script by himself, before it was revisioned and finalized.
Main actors do a great work. They are very professional, their characters are convincing and interesting. Alfred didn't go wild with unconventional filming techniques and instead stuck with the basics, but there is professionalism and attention to detail in every scene. It doesn't need crazy camera work anyway.
Paul Bonifas, which played the anti-hero Michel, remained anonymous in the credits, as everyone else except Hitchcock. In real life, he was much less villainous, actually being the founder of The Molière Players, a troupe of actors filling the cast.
His identification after war was easy - he liked to play in movies as much as in theater plays. Never landing a main role, or even playing a supporter character in a popular one, his appearances were frequent enough for film aficionados to connect the dots.
[Interestingly, the movie enemies had one thing in common in real life: both operated radio stations that tried to mobilize people to join the fight against the Germans and their allies. Aventure Malgache informs us about Clermont's involvement, while Bonifas worked for Radio Londres after a forced London retirement from active duty, because he had been heavily wounded during a mission.]
The story demonstrates a simple fact: that during times when everything is upside down, anyone we know might have some crazy background story. Some ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances do extraordinary things. A typical Hitchcock theme, but this time it's just a nuisance rather than sitting at the center of things.
First flop with this picture comes in right at the start. At the beginning, there is written explanation why the movie has been made. It praises France, their military efforts and French Resistance.
From there, an introduction to the story of the film takes place. The font is the same, only smaller and the background changes, there is not even a few seconds pause break to separate them. All very confusing. You didn't often see Hitchcock make such basic mistakes.
Just moments later, he makes another one. Just as the viewer's brain finishes to get a hold of information and draws the line between what is real and what is this picture's plot, we are taken backstage where a group of theatre actors talks about their profession.
We barely settle after this confusing start and moments later, one actor transports us to Madagascar, where another story is taking place.
It is arguably the most chaotic start to any Hitchcock film and looks like the work of someone who is in a hurry and comes up with interesting complex ideas, but then is too impatient (or time-pressed) and wants to just get it over with.
The movie's propaganda profile can be mostly seen by how the French folk who decide to sneak out on boats and fight against the Germans are painted. Devoid of any bad qualities, they are all one-dimensional characters, saints in human forms. Pierre's farewell talk to his wife is especially artificial and sounds like man reading a Resistance brochure more than a dramatic conversation between lovers.
And here Hitchcock draws himself into a corner. He always had a perfect sense of how his actor's performance will be seen by the audience and had no problems with making it as authentic as it needs to be. But this is not your average Hitchcock movie.
It is a propaganda film first and foremost, but Hitch tries to kill two birds with one stone and make it an entertaining story on its own.
This bizarre mix is troubled with internal conflicts, which the director does nothing to resolve. If Pierre acts realistically and is a human struggling against conformity to leave his wife and serve his country, he will be cinematic, but will be useless in conveying the propaganda message. If he is the talking brochure, he serves his propaganda purpose, but viewers will find him less entertaining.
Hitchcock's big failure with this film is a big failure with his approach. War is not entertainment. War is terror. You don't convince people to make tough choices by sneaking the message in an entertaining package. You do so by doing exactly the opposite - getting people out of their comfort zones. Hitchcock lacked this simple understanding.
What's more, he lacked basic political common sense as well. Lowest common denominator needs to be applied to these kinds of films to make sure that everyone gets it, is moved and decides to step up his patriotic act. That's what these movies are for. Instead, Hitch created a convoluted picture which insults everyone and then some.
British Ministry of Information (wartime propaganda arm of the government) must have been pleased to find out from Hitchcock's creation that their (and his) country are the "least of all evils" and their coming to Madagascar can have terrible negative consequences. French, who were supposed to be the recipients of this film, are Nazi collaborators so it's best to steer clear of them.
And what about the Madagascar itself? Best be independent, guys! (which they actually did later) Oh, how the British and the French must have cherished that idea. In other words, Aventure Malgache is a short class on how to make a propaganda film so that it never sees the light of day.
Clermont was not exactly an asset either. The film tells a true story, so just like the movie content was a political faux pas, Clermont's actions were as well. For example, he couldn't come back to Madagascar, because his activities made him many enemies among the country officials.
Snakes in the grass who managed to change their affiliations successfully (as opposed to a certain person from the film) would love an opportunity to punish him when given the chance.
Wartime sensitivities and complex political dependencies have their timeframes, so it was just a matter of time when the film will get published. Hitchcock's two French propaganda films Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache managed to anger the bureaucrats so much that it took nearly five decades for that to happen though.
After it landed on some strictly forbidden list, next generations of officials were still reluctant to release it. Even his name behind the project couldn't make it shorter.
Aventure Malgache needs to be compared to Bon Voyage. After all, these two films were made one after another, with the same purpose, and some of the parties involved were the same. The latter comes out on top, mostly because it doesn't try to be two things at once. Bon Voyage fails so much to be a propaganda movie that it's more entertaining because of it.
There, Hitchcock's slip actually benefits him. Although, government officials interested in this film must have had a different opinion.
One crime both commit is the inclusion of Hitchcock's characteristic dark humor that we all know and love. Bon Voyage was generally serious, but ended on a light note. Aventure Malgache finishes with a rather cruel joke and is filled with light-hearted gestures in the seemingly grievous circumstances, which are entertaining on their own, but are another failure in terms of propaganda.
Fighting the Nazis wasn't exactly a joking matter for most when the war was still on.
However, Aventure Malgache is still an entertaining film that's worth watching, especially because it's not a big time investment. Back then, Hitchcock was in great form and even with limited time and resources, he made something interesting.
One requirement to enjoy it is to prematurely bury the thought that it was supposed to be a propaganda film. It would spoil all the fun. Aventure Malgache is not worth prioritizing over his ordinary works though, and if you can only stomach one propaganda film in Hollywood style, Bon Voyage is a better choice.