ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: The Count of Monte-Cristo (975)

There are a lot of filmed versions of Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which is one of the world’s greatest novels, for my money, perhaps the best French novel (no offense to Proust or Balzac, but this one is, a mon avis, so absolutely perfect that even translations of it keep it fully intact as opposed to a loss of power that comes with translations of Sarte, Camus and especially Proust).  Dumas hits his zenith here and his ability to construct and control a plot is nothing short of breathtaking.

Many of the filmed versions are excellent, but most people will know only of the 2002 version, which is downright dreadful.  Compared to that, this one seems like complete heaven

The downside of this version is its brevity, clocking in at just over 90 minutes.  To film the whole novel, it would take longer than a Wouk miniseries, and that was simply never going to happen, not on a non-American piece that wasn’t about a war or our history.  If it were going to happen, it also would not have happened by 1975, just when the miniseries was getting its start.

Because of the abbreviated run time, gigantic sections of the novel are omitted and what’s left is very changed.  However, if one puts aside Dumas’ novel and regards this just as as television movie, the impact is terrific.  Richard Chamberlain is ideally cast as the swashbuckling and complex Dantes.

All of that is great and wonderful, but why add this one to the list of “Essential Telemovies?”  Because it behaves like a miniseries and anticipates what the miniseries would very shortly be doing.  As noted it’s unlikely Dumas would ever be considered for miniseries treatment because he’s French.  The miniseries glorified American novelists, and when it did, it wasn’t afraid of length: Haley, Wouk, Shaw, Jakes, Michener, even dear Alexandra Ripley.

In 1975, there was no way of knowing that the greatest of miniseries, or at least the most opulently filmed, would be under some sort of strict code of Americana, so Dumas squeaks in as a lesson in how to film a great book, how to handle the adventure, the sweep, the romance.  It’s packed with slumming vets, it look like a zillion dollars went into it and it stars Richard Chamberlain.  Sounds very much like a miniseries to me!  I, for one, would have thrilled to see what someone would have done with the full novel circa 1983 or so.

FYI, I’m not sure who decided it had to be so, but this version puts a hyphen in the title.  Why?  Beats me.

FYI, though the novel is so well known I probably should use character names instead of those of the actors, since so many of the novels characters have been ingloriously dumped, I’ll go with actor names (How can you do “Count of Monte Cristo” without Luigi Vampa?  It’s possible, but I’m not thrilled!).

There is much excitement on the wharf in Marseilles, where Richard Chamberlain has arrived safely after a long journey, bringing a great haul of merchandise.  His love Kate Nelligan is there, as is Tony Curtis (the movie’s biggest casting misstep), made up to look like Napoleon with a ridiculous wig, his rival for Kate’s hand.  Also stirring up trouble is Donald Pleasence, on the boat with Richard, who can’t wait to tell anyone with ears that Richard took over as captain of the ship the very second the actual captain breathed his last.  Alessio Orano is arrested for theft on the boat, another unhappy man who would be thrilled if Richard got some comeuppance.  “You must stop being so generous to the world, Monsieur Dantes, God will get jealous,” Alessio quips when Richard orders him freed.

Speaking of Napoleon, the ship’s dead captain had forced the ship to stop at Elba, though no one knows why.  Richard has a note to deliver from the captain, but he hasn’t read it.

“Another member of the club,” Alessio cracks when Tony joins him and Donald at a pub.  “What club?” Donald wants to know.  “A club for the destruction of Edmund Dantes,” Alessio says.  Okay, it’s not as subtle as Dumas, but remember, we’ve agreed to put aside the novel and just focus on the movie.  Donald tells the other two they “take advantage” of the fact that Richard has the note from Elba.

As the villains plot, Richard (who spies them together), is reveling in happiness with his father and Kate, even enjoying a wedding rehearsal.  Miniseries rules will tell us a man enjoying this much happiness is going to get kicked in the gut very quickly.  Indeed, he’s arrested as soon as they leave the church, leaving Kate to shout herself hoarse.

The prosecutor is Louis Jourdan.  Richard is stunned to hear he has any political connections with Napoleon, as all he cares about are his job, his father and his fiancee.  Louis demands to see the note Richard carries from the captain, which Louis pronounces to be proof of his innocence, because what the note contains is so inflammatory, Richard would have denied knowing of it or having it if he had read it.  However, just as Louis is letting Richard go, he finds out the name of the letter’s intended recipient, and decides to detain him.  He warns Richard not to speak to anyone of the letter and not to answer any questions as he burns the letter.  Louis is awfully upset by the name of the recipient, who happens to be his father.

Rather than spending an innocent night at the Palais du Justice as Louis has promised him, Richard is rowed to the infamous Chateau d’If, an island prison from which there is no hope of escape.  He is baffled, wondering “what have I done?  What is my crime?”  Richard melodramatically reaches his hand through the bars of a small window for his beloved Kate.

Years pass, a beard grows, and Richard has no contact with the world except to get his daily rations, until one day he hears a tapping at one of the walls.  The voice on the other side of the wall informs him Richard has been incarcerated for 10 years and when they can dislodge a stone, into his cell comes the ghost-like Trevor Howard.  The two are overjoyed to see another human being.

Trevor has been digging at the wall for over three years.  He thought he was digging to freedom, but his calculations were incorrect and his magnificent tunnel let to Richard’s room instead.  Trevor takes him to his cell, where he concocted an arsenal of tools and supplies out of the meager offerings of the guards.  Richard agrees to help Trevor dig to the sea, which will take a few years, if Trevor will teach him all he knows.  There is mathematics, philosophy, languages, everything, and even enough deductive reasoning to figure out who may be behind the plot to destroy him.

This part of the movie goes by fairly quickly, proof that the run time hacks away rather oddly at the story and Richard’s jump to vengeance comes way too fast, though Trevor tries to stop him from pursuing it.  But, it’s understandable as no movie wants to be trapped in a prison when what comes next is far more exciting.  As Trevor is dying, he gives Richard a map of the island of Monte Cristo, where “one of the great treasures of the world” has been buried for close to 400 years.  “Do great charitable deeds with it,” he insists.

When Trevor dies, his body is sewn up in burlap and left in his cell until the tide is ready to accept dead bodies.  Richard moves Trevor’s body to his own cell and places himself in the burlap.  Thus, it is his body thrown into the sea with a weighty rock.  He manages to free himself from the burlap.  All he can do now is swim and swim (he had been building up his strength with exercises in his cell).  He is rescued by a Corsican smugglers who figure out he’s escaped from the Chateau d’If.

In Marseilles, the Corsicans find out for Richard that Kate is married to Tony and his father has died “of starvation.”  Revenge is all he can consider.  Fully trusting his new friends, he eventually takes them to Monte Cristo and the possibility of finding the buried treasure.  It is there, just as promised, and he swears to uphold Trevor’s desire to see it used for good deeds, also promising himself revenge.

In five years, the legend of the Count of Monte Cristo is born, a man with unlimited money who spends recklessly.  The first of his would-be victims he visits is Donald, who doesn’t recognize the white-haired imposing Richard as his former shipmate.  Donald, now a banker, is overjoyed when the Count wants to invest millions in his bank.  Donald takes him to Louis’ house under the guise of needing protection for his new mansion in Paris.  Richard is charmed with Louis’ daughter, Taryn Power, who takes him to see her grandfather, who cannot speak and communicates by blinking his eyes.  Richard is cursing him and revealing his plan when Taryn returns to the room with Mercedes’ son by her husband, Tony Curtis.

The next visit is to Tony, now a famous general, and Kate, his long-lost love.  I her quizzical look recognition?

Using common thief Carlo Puri to pose as a fake Italian count to woo Taryn, Richard has everything in place to unfurl his wild revenge scheme, honed to perfection after so many years of consideration.

He aims to ruin Donald financially, relieving him of his money and his clients in one swoop.  It’s a terrific scheme and Donald falls easily into the trap.

Alessio is next.  He has been imprisoned and blames it on Carlo, so Richard arranges for them to meet.  When they do, a giant courtyard fight ensues, which Richard watches with pleasure from above. Carlo mortally wounds Alessio and Richard has Carlo carted off to the police.  “One,” Richard says.

The hurt to Alessio is only tangential.  The real prize is Louis.  When Louis finds out Carlo is a phony to whom he almost wed his daughter, Louis decides to prosecute him himself.  Richard has other ideas during the trial, having coached him to reveal himself as Louis’ son in open court.  The story Carlo is told to tell is a whopper, one that will ruin Louis.  “Two.”

Immediately after, the plan for Donald comes to fruition, charged with embezzlement and facing utter financial ruin.  He kills himself.  “Three.”

Mercedes’ son, Dominic Guard, challenges Richard to a duel for besmirching his father’s name in the paper that Richard owns.  As Richard practices his shooting, Kate arrives, announcing, rather than asking, that “you will not kill my son.”  Dressed like Mrs. Claus, Kate admits that it’s not Tony’s fault, that she married out of loneliness.  However, Richard shows her the original letter that Tony helped put him in prison and informs her it’s not because he stole Richard’s fiancee, but because he was responsible for Richard’s father’s death.  Kate gets to give one hell of an impassioned speech and since she can actually act, it comes off well.

Before the duel, Kate apparently tells her son the whole story and he ends up apologizing to Richard, who takes a moment to admit to himself, “I am the emissary of God.  I have been spared to carry out his will.”

The revenge plot against Tony is more complicated, dealing with the wife and daughter of the Ali Pasha, whom he met in battle.  He had promised to care of the wife and daughter, but claims they are dead.  Not so, as the daughter has been Richard’s lover for a long time in the hopes of joining him in revenge.  She shows up at the military tribunal to accuse Tony (who doesn’t attempt anything further than his own Brooklyn accent) of selling her and her mother into slavery and killing Ali Pasha himself. Richard shows up and reveals himself as Dantes.  “Before you kick this dog to death,” Tony tells Richard, “he barks,” replies Richard.  “Bites!” insists Tony and they engage in a sword fight in front of the tribunal.  Richard does not kill him, but losing Tony is instead arrested.  “Four,” Richard notes proudly.

Richard is free to pursue Kate, whom he finds has gone to Marseilles, headed for Africa to be near her son, having joined the army to erase the sting of his father’s conviction.  Kate does not fall into his arms as expected.  His role as “avenging angel may not ask for forgiveness,” she says.  Has a life lived for revenge robbed him of the one thing he perhaps wanted more than anything?

Ah, there was a time when television was fun, and because of good scripts, acting and stories!

Categories: Essential Telemovies

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