Volpone

At the Brattle

You have to stand in line to praise Volpone these days. It has been around so long, and so many people have guffawed at its bawdy fun, that there is really a dearth of new ways to say the film is a great comedy.

Ben Jonson's satire of morals, dwelling mostly on their absence in XVI century Venice, toys with the problem of what men will do for money. If they want it badly enough, Jonson decided that "anything" was the answer, and worked it out in terms of wife-swapping, son-disinheriting, and general self-abasement. These are the pastimes of three confirmed lickspittles groveling after the fortune of a nouveau rich merchant. Each reaches a more advanced state of abject greed than his neighbor, and all an egged on by Volpone's social secretary, Mosca.

With Jonson's material, Harry Bauer, Louis Jouvet and a compliment of minor, but not lesser, actors create one of the funniest pictures before the modern era of slick underplaying. As Volpone, Bauer mugs and minces, as funny when he is playing dead as he is doing setting-up exercise of languid slapstick. His voice and his face alternate as the best things in the picture.

In the role of Mosca, the amanuensis of immorality, Jouvet is a cunning rascal. He argues an insanely jealous husband into offering his wife to Volpone in token of friendship with the considered aplomb of a conservative stock broker.

Everything about this film is a delight, and even the normally shoddy production standards for early French films have been raised. The photography is clear and most of the sound track intelligible. But were both sound and picture murky, Volpone would still rate its reputation and success.