The Moon and Sixpence (1942)

“Everyone has some sort of conscience.”

As a fan of W. Somerset Maugham, it’s always a delight to see a film based on one of his criminally underrated novels. The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin, and the film does an admirable job until about the halfway point before sliding into some sort of moral lesson about the life of its antisocial protagonist.

Writer Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall) narrates the story and he explains how he became acquainted with the London-based Strickland family. Wolfe meets Mrs. Strickland at a soiree, and then becomes increasingly curious about her ever-absent husband, Charles Strickland. Strickland (George Sanders) is described as a boring, plodding stockbroker, and when Wolfe finally meets Strickland, he seems solid and mild-mannered. Some time later, Mrs. Strickland summons Wolfe and requests that he pursue her husband in Paris after receiving news that “he’s bolted.” Imagining that Strickland has absconded with some floozy, Wolfe catches up to Strickland in Paris. There, Wolfe is astonished to learn that Strickland has abandoned his family and his career in order to paint.

Circumstances bring Wolfe and Strickland together over the course of several decades, and it seems to be Wolfe’s position in life to view the wreckage left by Strickland’s clashes with the rest of the human race. Strickland, who is an amazing amoral and self-absorbed character, leaves devastation in his wake as he moves forward in his quest to paint. Eventually, Strickland ends up in Tahiti.

George Sanders makes an admirable Strickland, but he’s unfortunately hemmed in by the script’s insistence in hacking a morality tale into Maugham’s novel. Given the times the film was made in, and the twists of the original plot, this was probably inevitable. The first half of the film is extremely strong, but then it unfortunately submerges into sentimentality. Still for Maugham fans, the film (directed and adapted by Albert Lewin) is well-worth catching.


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