The Crank: ‘The Man on the Eiffel Tower’ Program Notes (4/25/13 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.

When Jean Renoir viewed a print of The Man on the Eiffel Tower, he said, “These are pictures of Paris you can never photograph again.” Upon its release, Burgess Meredith’s directorial debut was lauded for its equally unique and unprecedented images of postwar 1940s Paris. Whether exploring the city streets, scrambling upon rooftops, or balancing atop the Eiffel Tower, the cat-and-mouse game between Charles Laughton’s Inspector Maigret and Franchot Tone’s devious Johann Radek provides a thrilling story set against a picturesque background.

While Meredith is credited as the sole director of the film, his role as a knife-grinding murder suspect allowed for others to take the helm. A friend of Meredith, Laughton took up direction when he stepped in front of the camera. Likewise, in the few scenes where both Laughton and Meredith appear, it was Franchot Tone who sat in the director’s chair. While the multiple directors brought the risk of creating a hodgepodge of styles, the common vision of the three friends, along with the always collaborative pre-planning created a consistent, fun, and thrilling picture.

It is fitting that such a visually striking film would be made during what Meredith calls “one of the most colorful experiences of my life.” Meredith’s feelings toward production seem to be in spite of the fact that he was in the middle of a divorce with Paulette Goddard, along with production difficulties that can only be described as absurd. Filming in France resulted in a two-week delay in all of the rushes. However, Meredith, with the help of Laughton, carefully pre-planned every scene, minimizing the technical issues. What made production truly problematic, though, was the location shooting. There are no green screens and no extravagant effects in The Man on the Eiffel Tower. There is only a balancing act upon Paris’s iconic structure. Yet the chase we see on film only alludes to the legitimate danger the cast and crew put themselves in in order to create the climactic final scenes. Meredith recalls the experience: “Most of it was filmed on various levels of the Eiffel Tower, and vertigo became a serious problem. Laughton couldn’t go near the outside rails—it made him dizzy—and after a few days, all of us felt the same. Only Franchot was immune—he could walk along the outside handrail with no fear at all. I couldn’t watch him, let alone direct him. Down below, the automobiles looked smaller than beetles.”

While the high-flying stunts may have all been worth it in the end, the film was almost never seen. The Man on the Eiffel Tower is based on the novel La Tête d’un homme (A Man’s Head) by Georges Simenon. Likewise, Tone, actor and friend of Meredith, put up the money for the entirety of the production’s budget, meaning that he would be the one to strike a deal with Simenon. As Meredith puts it, “Although Tone was not afraid of heights, he was a bad business man.” A part of the agreement between Franchot and Simenon allowed for the author to destroy the film prints at any point in time he desired. Assuming a good film would prevent this outcome, Tone consented to this deal. Unbeknownst to the crew, Simenon was a bit of a wild card and did indeed seek out and destroy many of the final prints. Fortunately, some copies eluded the crazed author.

While the praise for this film’s depictions of Paris after World War II may overshadow the plot itself, The Man on the Eiffel Tower proves to gain only more recognition for its unique place in the crime-thriller genre. Laughton’s performance continues to be wildly entertaining, and the “man’s” final ascent of the Eiffel Tower is equally intense and exciting. This is made all the more incredible through the use of Ansco single-strip color film stock and technicolor processing. The poor quality of available home copies of The Man on the Eiffel Tower make this beautiful 35mm print a rarity and a treat to see.

—Michael Potterton

Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.

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“Chiller Pictures Paris Poignantly.” Washington Post. 1950.

Meredith, Burgess. So Far, So Good: A Memoir. 1st ed. Little Brown & Co (T), 1994.

“Movieland Briefs.” Los Angeles Times. 1948.

“‘The Man on the Eiffel Tower,’ from Novel by Simenon, Opens at the Criterion.” New York Times. 1950.

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