Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT: FRENCH FILM NOIR, 1946-1964

Everyone knows that the French (specifically, journalist Nino Frank) coined the term film noir. But not everyone knows just how immersed the French became in the production of their own films noirs in the years following World War II.

With that in mind, and noting the rising awareness that film noir was (and is) an international phenomenon, legendary programmer Elliot Lavine has teamed up with Midcentury Productions Executive Director Don Malcolm to assemble a twelve film, four day mini-extravaganza that will take audiences at the Roxie Theatre on a twisted, feverish journey into the heart of Gallic darkness. San Francisco audiences who had their appetites whetted for foreign noir earlier in 2014 can do no better than to congregate at the Roxie from November 14-17 to discover the hidden treasures of French film noir that this landmark series will unearth for them.

The festival will feature familiar international stars—Jean Gabin, Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura—but will place them in the context of lurid ménages and murderous deceits that have been given a uniquely French twist. It will also probe deeply into the reservoir of actors and directors whose work in France during this time frame has been unjustly neglected for the past half-century.

"It seems that the Nouvelle Vague, which revered film noir, ironically managed to push much of the French film noir movement that preceded it into the shadows," Malcolm notes. "Only a handful of these films have resurfaced in America thus far—Rififi, The Wages of Fear, Bob Le Flambeur, Grisbi, to name a few—but that's just the tip of the iceberg."

"By the time this festival ends," Lavine promises, "those who've seen these twelve films will realize just how well the French embraced the noir style—and they won't be able to stop talking about the sexy, scheming blondes who dominate the action."

French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 379. Photo Sam Lévin
It's not just Bardot, who'll be seen twice—as the leggy streetwalker opposite Jean Gabin in En Case De Malheur (aka Love Is My Profession) and as the murder-trial defendant in Henri-Georges Cluozot's social problem thriller La Verité. The bevy of blonde French bombshells bubbling under Bardot is incredible.

"Mylene Demongeot, Marina Vlady, Odile Versois, Barbara Laage, and Cecile Aubry are simply astonishing," Malcolm enthuses. "The French bring a fully adult dimension to their conception of the femme fatale, and these performances prove that in spades!" But even the non-blondes—the legendary Simone Signoret in Dédée D'Anvers, Daniele Delorme in Voici Les Temps Des Assassins (aka Deadlier Than the Male) and Catherine Rouvel in Chair de Poule (aka Highway Pickup)—will leave audiences breathless.

"We are going to have to hold a contest to see who the audience considers to be the nastiest of all the bad girls," Lavine grins. "It will be a very tough choice!"

In addition to reviving lesser-known works by master directors (Henri-Georges Clouzot, Julien Duvivier), lesser-known but equally worthy directors who excelled in French noir (Rene Clement, Claude Autant-Lara, Yves Allegret, Henri Verneuil, Robert Hossein, Eduoard Molinaro) will also be showcased. But the most incendiary double bill, concluding the festival on Monday night, November 17, showcases two of France's most legendary midcentury literary figures—two writers who could not be further apart: Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian. Sartre's play La Putain Respectuese and Vian's novel I Spit On Your Graves both tackle the still-controversial subject of American racism, and the on-screen results are electrifying.

"Boris Vian is the embodiment of French film noir in all its glory and its excess," Lavine notes. "He was the first person to embrace the idea. I Spit On Your Graves, which appeared in 1946 just as the term film noir was being coined, fuses pulp fiction and social commentary in a unique way that is still controversial and disturbing today."

"And Vian literally died for that idea of noir," Malcolm adds. "He fought director Michel Gast throughout the production of the film version, and at the premiere of I Spit On Your Graves, he stood up after the first ten minutes, cursing the screen. After a moment or two of vitriol, he suddenly clutched his chest, collapsed—and died right on the spot!"

While Roxie patrons are encouraged not to follow in Vian's footsteps during the screening of "The French Had A Name For It," there's little doubt that they will be enraptured by the rediscovery of a new treasure trove of dark thrillers done only as the French could do it.

My thanks to Larsen Associates for this press release and credits to Donald Malcolm for the following program capsules.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14 / TWO BY CLOUZOT

Manon (1949, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)—In between the highly touted Quay des Orfevres (1947) and La Salaire de Peu (1952) the often-clinical Clouzot indulged his most fervid powers of lurid extrapolation with Manon, his deliriously dark reworking of the notorious Abbe Provost novel Manon Lescaut. Clouzot modernizes the tale of star-crossed Parisian lovers and transplants their escape location from eighteenth-century New Orleans to post-WWII Palestine to wondrous visual effect (courtesy of long-time Clouzot cinematographer Armand Thirard). Baby-faced Cecile Aubry sets the tone and look for a series of blond bombshells that will prove popular in French noir of the fifties. With Michel Auclair and Serge Reggiani. (100 min.)

La Verité (1960, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)—The emergence of Brigitte Bardot signaled a sea change in how sexuality was depicted on screen, and her superstardom provoked a firestorm of controversy and backlash. La Verité traded on that notoriety and placed itself squarely in the middle of the French culture wars, with Bardot literally and figuratively "on trial" for her lack of decorum. Flashbacks ignite the sordid tale of her character's misplaced love for a narcissistic composer (Sami Frey) and become the basis of a furious courtroom battle when she is charged with his murder. With Paul Merisse and Charles Vanel as the bickering barristers. (122 min.)





SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15 / SALUTE TO HENRI VIDAL (matinee)

Les Maudits (1947, dir. Rene Clement)—Henri Vidal (1919-1959) was too handsome for his own good—his early promise as a successor for Jean Gabin was sidetracked by his success in early sword-and-sandal-epics such as Fabiola (1949). Prior to that, however, he is at his best as the kidnapped doctor in Rene Clement's exceptionally tense Les Maudits, where the strangest of all possible bedfellows are trapped together in a submarine commandeered by a group of Nazis attempting to escape in the last days of WWII. Clement creates a series of interlocked, claustrophobic cat-and-mouse games that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Photographed by the great Henri Alekan (Beauty and the Beast, Such A Pretty Little Beach). With Florence Marly, Marcel Dalio, Michel Auclair, Anne Campion. (195 min.)

Une Manche Et La Belle aka A Kiss For A Killer (1957, dir. Henri Verneuil)—Director Verneuil, a Turkish expatriate best known for his helming of The Sicilian Clan (1959), is in top form here adapting a James Hadley Chase source novel (The Sucker Punch) into a well-modulated Gallic amalgam of Sunset Boulevard and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Vidal is the trophy husband of a rich dowager (Isa Miranda) who is slowly seduced into murdering her by his comely, cunning secretary (well-played by Bardot lookalike Mylene Demengeot). With crisp lenswork from esteemed French cinematographer Christian Matras (Grand Illusion, Le Ronde). (98 min.)



SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15 / BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SEARCH FOR! (evening)

Toi Le Venin aka Blonde In A White Car (1958, dir. Robert Hossein)—Suavely deadpan Robert Hossein quickly became a force on both sides of the camera with his breakthrough film The Wicked Go to Hell (1955), which also introduced him to France's blondest minx, Marina Vlady (whom he would soon marry). Hossein's key collaborator in his noir phase (1955-64), however, was novelist Fredric Dard, considered by some to be France's answer to Raymond Chandler. Toi Le Venin, from Dard's novel of the same name, is a nasty little ménage a trois in which two sisters (Vlady and her real-life sister Odile Versios) lead Hossein down a primrose path littered with thorns. Featuring subtle, evocative photography from Robert Juillard (Germany Year Zero) and a cool, jazzy score from Hossein's father André. (92 min.)

Un Temoin Dans La Ville aka Witness In the City (dir. Eduard Molinaro, 1959)—France's greatest character lead in the 1960s and 70s, Lino Ventura, has his breakout role here, as a revenge murderer who finds that his "perfect crime" was witnessed by a cab driver and must try to eliminate him. As events unfold, Ventura finds that he is as much hunted as hunter. Stunning night photography from Henri Decae (Bob Le Flambeur, Elevator to the Gallows), and an evocative score featuring jazz greats Kenny Clarke and Kenny Dorham. (86 min.)







SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 16 / THE HAZARDS OF STREETWALKING (matinee)

Dédée D'Anvers aka Woman of Antwerp (dir. Yves Allegret, 1948)—Bursting through the echoes of "poetic realism" contained within its narrative, Dédée D'Anvers showcases the emergence of Simone Signoret, a hooker with a hankering for a better life. The original French femme fatale, Signoret is both luminous and complex, presaging a series of follow-up performances in similarly-themed films over the next half-decade. With Bernard Blier, Marcello Pagliero, Jane Marken and Marcel Dalio. Evocatively photographed by Jean Bourgoin (Black Orpheus, Mr. Arkadin). (86 min.)

En Case De Malheur aka Love Is My Profession (dir. Claude Autant-Lara, 1958)—Gabin! Bardot! Oh-la-la (or, should we say, OMG)!! The trouble starts when Gabin, a distinguished lawyer, defends Bardot, a prostitute who has committed a robbery. He gets her off, and finds (to everyone's dismay, including his wife) that he gets off on her; she becomes his mistress. Alas, Gabin's efforts to "upscale" her are fraught with peril, for she has another lover, a handsome young student (Franco Interleghi), who slowly builds into a murderous rage. With Edwige Feuilliere. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon. (105 min.)




SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 16 / SALUTE TO JULIEN DUVIVIER (evening)

Chair de Poule aka Highway Pickup (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1964)—Legendary director Duvivier (Pepe Le Moko, Le Fin du Jour, Panique) was nearing the end of his illustrious career, but he saved one of the best for last in Chair de Poule, in which the essence of noir's hard-boiled school is distilled in a taut tale of fate, lust and enveloping entrapment. Robert Hossein is at his astringent best as a thief on the lam who jumps from frying pan into the fire when he holes up at a highway truck stop where he's quickly embroiled in the grasping, malevolent schemes of a hard-bitten, voluptuous vixen (Catherine Rouvel) who will literally stop at nothing to get what she wants! With Jean Sorel, and Jacques Bertand. With photography from Leonce-Henri Burel, longtime right-hand man of Robert Bresson. (107 min).

Voici Les Temps Des Assassins aka Deadlier Than the Male (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1956)—While the other French femmes fatales are "hot," none of them approach the coiled ferocity of Daniele Delorme in Deadlier Than the Male. It's possible that no one in the history of cinema is as driven by the bitter recollection of her hardscrabble youth to a life of ruthless scheming—even Delorme herself, when interviewed, shrank from the implications within the character. American noir aficionados would do well to recall Angel Face and think of Delorme's work here as "Jean Simmons on steroids." Matching her step-for-step are Jean Gabin, the target of her desperate, malevolent scheming; Gabriele Fontan, as his cold-hearted mother; and Luciene Bogaert, as Delorme's drug-addicted mother. Featuring superb camerawork from Armand Thirard (Clouzot's right-hand man), Deadlier Than the Male is arguably the definitive French film noir. (107 min)

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 17 / WHITES vs. BLACKS IN A BLACK-AND-WHITE WORLD

La P… Respectueuse (dir. Marcello Pagliero and Charles Brabant, 1952)—Barbara Laage was Orson Welles' first choice to play Elsa Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai. A viewing of La P… Respectueuse will show you what Welles saw in her … and then some! Her character, a down-on-her-luck singer, escapes the frying pan—New York City—only to land squarely in the fire—the racist, segregated South—where she witnesses a brutal race murder committed by a Senator's son. Only she can vouch for the black man who is being framed for the murder. Laage burns up the screen as she struggles to do the right thing against increasing odds. Co-directed by Marcello Pagliero (long-time right-hand man to neo-realist master Roberto Rossellini) from a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. (Full 92 min version.)

J'Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes aka I Spit On Your Graves (dir. Michel Gast, 1959)—See the notorious film that literally killed the author of its source novel at its own premiere! Boris Vian's fever-dream novel of a light-skinner race-avenging psychopath had been the focus of intense controversy beginning with its publication in 1946, and the prospect of a film version brought the twelve-year contretemps squarely back into the public eye, with Vian and director Michel Gast trading barbs in the press as the movie went into production. Ten minutes into the initial screening on June 23, 1959, Vian rose from his seat, furiously denouncing the film—at which point, he clutched his chest and collapsed, suffering a fatal heart attack! He was only 39. I Spit On Your Graves features a fine jazz score composed by Alain Goraguer, which goes down smoothly amidst all the mayhem that ensues in Gast's crude but effective evocation of Vian's dark landscape. (109 min.)

No comments: