Screenwriters: Liam O'Flaherty, Jeff Musso
Director and producer: Jeff Musso
Composers: Jeff Musso, Jacques Dallin
Production designers: Henri Ménessier, Serge Piménoff
Cast: Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Fresnay, Vivian Romance, Alexandre Rignault, Mady Berry, Fréhel, Ludmilla Pitoëff, Georges Flamant, Marcel Delaître, Jean Tissier
Director Jeff Musso is a classic example of an artist with a career that didn’t quite work out. For the majority of his life - and this amounted to almost a hundred years - Musso tried to apply his talent to film directing. But some of his films were not released due to the fault-finding censorship, others he could not finish because of the war, while still others, filmed at the end of his life, in Peru, although they made it to distribution and adorned the history of Peruvian cinema, have almost never been shown outside of that country.
"The Puritan", which he made at the age of 30, received the prestigious Louis Delluc Prize and promised a great future and great fame to his creator, but remained in fact the only film by Musso, by which one can judge what his real auteur cinema could have and should have been.
As it is, the "Russian trace" in “The Puritan" is not at all obvious. The action takes place in France, it is based on the novel of the Irishman Liam O'Flaherty, a close friend of Musso, whose bestseller "The Informant" had already been filmed twice by that time (by Arthur Robison in 1929 and John Ford in 1935). But if it is impossible to speak about the film "The Puritan" without bringing up “Crime and Punishment” at every step, the reason for this is not only allusions to Dostoevsky's novel, which permeate O’Flaherty’s novel (sometimes as homage, sometimes as polemics). To no lesser extent, Musso’s film enters into polemics with "Crime and Punishment" by Pierre Chenal, which had been released two years earlier and had been a resounding success. Or one could say that “The Puritan” is a “sub-total” of sorts, a destination point for the path that had been forged by “the Russian trace" in French cinema between the two world wars - and which will be continued in the first post-war year by "The Man in the Round Hat" by Pierre Billon (based on "The Eternal Husband") and "The Idiot" by Georges Lampin.
The fashion for "everything Russian", which was established in world cinema after the Bolshevik revolution and lasted until the end of the silent era, was retained in earnest in the sound era of 1930s, perhaps, in France alone (although some echoes, of course, survived in other European cinemas as well as in Hollywood): from "Taras Bulba" by Alexis Granowsky to "The Lower Depths" by Jean Renoir, from "Tovaritch" by Jacques Deval and Germain Fried to "The White Nights of St. Petersburg" by Jean Dréville. It is not a matter of any special “cultural kinship”, not even of the enormous influence that the Russian diaspora of the Albatros studios (“Société des Films Albatros”) had on the local film industry. It is just that the archetype of the “Russian character” that had developed in the Western cultural consciousness turned out to be the most appropriate, organic, and beneficial for the French film tradition in particular.
Gloomy, inquisitive, restless, and - most importantly - neurasthenic characters, irrepressible in their self-examination and thrashing about in the pathogenic darkness of reflection: all these carriers of the "mysterious Russian soul" fit perfectly into the French cinema that was consecrated by the names of Delluc, L’Herbier, and Kirsanoff. The "Russian" (and above all the "Dostoevsky") neurasthenia and the French cinégénie ideally suited each other. The only catch was that the sound film demanded and made a star of a slightly different type of actor, and the polemic between “The Puritan" and Chenal’s "Crime and Punishment" goes primarily along this line. Pierre Blanchard, who played the main role in Chenal’s film, perfectly retains and conveys the required wrought-up nervousness of the hero’s inner world - but his gestures are too abrupt, they clearly lack the plasticity and vacillation that the ideal of French cinégénie is looking for, and the neurasthenia of his Raskolnikov turns into convulsiveness. Musso, however, choosing Jean-Louis Barrault for the main role in “The Puritan”, saturates the main character with those halftones and nuances, that tenderness of the author's touch, which provides the effect of the total (a few years later, the French would say “existential”) insecurity of human existence in the alienated world. He finds the point at which the character’s inner mechanism turns out to be indistinguishable from the mechanism of his vision. Many historians consider this role, and not the famous Debureau from “Children of Paradise”, to be the best in the film career of this great actor, because both Jeff Musso's “The Puritan” and the actor’s nature of Barrault, are built on half-gestures, diving into the approaching dusk and flashing out from there like moonlight. The puritan’s mask, which Musso’s main character chooses, fits loosely, it twists and slides, revealing the ambiguity of human nature. And it is not the mask, but precisely its slipping is what Barrault acts out, revealing, exactly in Delluc’s terms, the fever and the sham of being as a guarantee of its authenticity.
An over-excited and high-strung journalist Francis Ferriter stabs a prostitute in an attempt to "cleanse the world of filth". During police interrogation, he accuses another person. They let him go. Ferriter goes to wander the night streets and taverns and, acting as a preacher, tells casual acquaintances about the divine mission inherent in every person. Soon, feeling remorse, the murderer confesses to the crime.