Monday, February 09, 2015

ROXIE: THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT—The Evening Class Interview With Don Malcolm

I first interviewed Don Malcolm in 2014 in connection with his retrospective of the films of Don Murray, likewise the subject of Malcolm's first documentary feature Don Murray: Unsung Hero (scheduled for a Summer 2015 release by Mid-Century Productions). Again, here is an instance where I found a friend within a conversation and—perhaps even more importantly—a professional colleague whose work I hope to monitor in years to come.

The next program Malcolm brought to the Roxie was "The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64." This program was an assemblage of rare French noirs that packed the Roxie to capacity night after night. Shortly before the theater opened for closing night, Malcolm and I crammed ourselves into the women's restroom to get away from the noise and commotion and to discuss the series. Such informality registers the ease of our friendship.

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Michael Guillén: First of all, Donald, I have to congratulate you on an excellent, truly enticing program. What I overheard repeatedly from your opening night capacity audience was how excited people were to see these rarities. Clearly, these were people familiar with the noir "classics" who have seen them recycled in various programs and are now hungry for new fare to brood and chew on. And that's exactly what you've provided in the line-up for "The French Had A Name For It." "Noir", however, is a tricky term.

Donald Malcolm: It's a flexible term.

Guillén: An elastic one that can stretch over many different films, by way of one element or another, and—as I understand it—coined by the French?

Malcolm: Nino Frank invented that term when a series of films was brought over to France after the war ended in 1946. Those films were the first batch of what we identify as film noir today: Double Indemnity (1944), etc., etc. We've actually talked about reprising that actual festival with those original titles; but, it would be difficult to pull off because everyone has seen those movies by now and they probably wouldn't come out to watch them on a big screen anymore.

With emigré directors from all over the place stopping off in France before arriving in America and becoming infected by the poetic realist movement that was happening in France in the late '30s, the sense of impending doom Europe was watching happen in Germany, the catastrophe they were seeing in the making, infected the filmmaking, which then came over to America and was brought into the home front of people who were suddenly bereft of all their young men who had gone all the way across the world to fight that war. So there was this cross-pollination going on all the way through.

Remember, we still had filmmakers like Henri-Georges Clouzot—represented in our program with the opening night double-bill Manon (1949) and La Vérité (The Truth, 1960)—who remained in France and got caught up in the Occupation, and the Resistance. They kept on trying to make films in that crazy world. Although we won't get a chance to take a look at those films in the context of what we're showing in this program, it adds to the momentum of what they would do after the war when they saw the result of the war on their country and their culture.

Les Maudits (The Damned, 1947) by René Clément, which we are showing in our program, shows the brilliant juxtaposition of what it was like to live through those moments in a fantastic story, obviously, that may not be realistic but could have happened because all those ingredients were there. The first time I saw Les Maudits I promised myself that—if I could ever pull together a program like we have for "The French Had A Name For It"—Les Maudits would have to be included. It was, in fact, the first film I thought of for the series. Clément captured the complex feelings felt by the French living through the end of that war, in a way that demonstrated the unbelievably interpersonal conflicts. And that's part of what noir is about: conflict, and not being able to resolve conflict, not being able to get past alienation and wallowing in suffering, or trying to resolve conflict too quickly, taking short cuts, that mire you even deeper.

Guillén: Essentially what I'm trying to get at is to be clear that "film noir" is a term that came after the films were made. It wasn't like these directors set out to make a "film noir"; it was a reaction—identified and named later—to the gestalt of WWII.

Malcolm: Exactly. WWII cast a lot of shadows, no less from trying to recover from the effects of the war. The lack of resolution of the expectations in coming back, all of that, is part of the American experience of the war, but it's also the experience you see in the British and the French films, migrating through different genres. It was much more fluid in Europe in the '50s than it was in America, where the noir impulse was hardened up because of black listing and fear mongering and various other elements that got involved. American filmmaking attempted to marginalize the noir impulse, whereas European filmmaking allowed it to flow and breathe through the films that they made. Whatever catch as catch can, European filmmakers remembered that impulse and felt it was still a valuable stylistic element that was still a part of what Europeans were dealing with and they showed it in all kinds of different filmic manifestations.

Guillén: That's an interesting way to look at. In contradistinction to a film noir coming out of Hollywood, which were stylistically "hardened" as you say, the amount of humor in these European noirs is striking. At first, the humor made me question whether these films could be considered noir because they weren't unrelentingly bleak, as I had come to believe noirs were supposed to be. The humanity of subsidiary characters was also significantly pronounced. So this humor, this humanity, throws the viewer temporarily off track, but when the blow comes, the blow comes hard and final. Can you speak further to that freedom Europeans took with the noir impulse? I think it would be inaccurate to call it a genre?

Malcolm: To be glib and humorous, hopefully at the same time: vive la différence!! When we talk about the element of fatalism in film noir—fate taking over and obviating free will and independent control—the French express that much more broadly, and at the same time with more nuance. It manifests in these films. The films in this series retain a lot of ideological political undertone. There are a lot of working class people in these films who are honored and shown as the salt of the earth. You see that particularly in Édouard Molinaro's Un Témoin Dans La Ville (Witness in the City, 1959) where the cab drivers act in solidarity. The irony, as Anastasia Lin said in her essay for the souvenir program, is that this patriarchy they have brought themselves into is something they're willing to work with because they have found a way to create happiness within themselves within the constraint of that patriarchy. The women don't seem to mind. The women seem to be happy having their ability to be themselves within that arrangement. It's weird. So when that romance is destroyed by Lino Ventura's character killing the cab driver, the avenging power of that working class group comes to the fore in an amazing way. Hardly believable, probably, but it's palpable and has been set up through the film. Those nuances that look at social structure, class structure, are floating around, as well as being embedded into the films and being talked about in an overt way. As opposed to America where much of that has been quashed in the films because American audiences don't want to think about class inequality. The French accept it and, in odd ways, embrace it.

Guillén: I'm glad you mention the class structures embedded in these narratives. Equally nuanced is the gender structures. You reference Anastasia Lin's argument about what women are willing to put up with in a patriarchal framework and—as she proposes in her essay—they express an odd feminism; a "feminism without feminists" (per the title of her essay). The women in these films aren't trying to maneuver corporate structures to become CEOs or judges; their stories are more about survival and using what they have at hand to seize and hold onto power.

Malcolm: I recall that—in one of the essays that was in last year's Noir City magazine within a segment on Dan Duryea—Anastasia Lin wrote an interesting line about a late noir that Duryea was in from the '60s that was set in England, which again has more of that class element. Duryea plays a ne'er-do-well who is much less canny than usual for a Duryea role. Lin remembered that there was a woman character in that film who was trying to nurture this ruffian into being an acceptable mate. Lin's comment—which goes to the root of a particularly feminist idea that might not be as familiar to us in America or absorbed as yet, but is really insightful—is that the first feminist act is to tame the cave man so he can be a suitable mate.

That's a long process, unfortunately, given the world, biology, and whatever set of combinations you have to become equal. It's a tough row to hoe. Women have certain advantages in heterosexual relationships but they also settle for being less powerful in other ways. That's been a trade-off, a compromise, for years, which gets back to what you're saying about the French women in these films. What's interesting is that the women who can find an inner life—as Anastasia Lin has insinuated—are the ones who withstand or grow out of the situations in which they find themselves caught. They are, as you say, the ones who survive. The women who can't find an inner life or are thwarted—like Danièle Delorme's character in Julien Duvivier's Voici le temps des assassins (Deadlier Than the Male, 1956) or Catherine Rouvel's in Duvivier's Chair de Poule (Highway Pickup, 1963); basically, a double feature about two women who could not find an inner life—it's not their fault. They had no alternatives but to be that way, which is part of that patriarchal structure. It's bend or break, which is an interesting problem.

Guillén: Can we shift to discussing how you shaped this program?

Malcolm: We tried several different approaches when we were shaping the program. We didn't know when we started this that we would end up having the response we've had. We had no way of knowing. We were working in the dark on this. We tried a number of parallel approaches to create some sizzle. Theme was part of it. We're fortunate in that—within the last three of four years—we've found ways to acquire good screenable versions of these films with subtitles. We have enough critical mass to show at least another couple of festivals' worth of programming that are fairly comparable in quality and interest. This first program—"The French Had A Name For It"—is pretty spectacular. We had enough to work with that we could pick and choose and try to pursue some themes to group into double-features (i.e., "Be Careful What You Search For", "The Hazards of Streetwalking", "Whites vs. Blacks in a Black & White World", etc.). With "Be Careful What You Search For", for example, we had two films—Un Témoin Dans La Ville (Witness in the City) and Robert Hossein's Toi, le venin (Blonde In a White Car, 1958)—where the characters ran into the Cornell Woolrich trap that floats around in all of noir: that if you stick your nose in the wrong place or if you do one thing wrong, everything will go to hell. So that's what happened on that night for everyone in those two movies.

With "Whites vs. Blacks in a Black & White World" we paired Marcello Pagliero and Charles Brabant's La p... respectueuse (1952) with Michel Gast's J'irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes (I Spit On Your Graves, 1959). Both films are very unique. Only a few films in America deal with the issue of racism. These French films are unique because they show American racism from a foreign perspective, which is irredeemably and unrelentingly harsh. The question is how well will people receive them? Especially given how much current discussion of that issue is popping up all over the place.

Guillén: Why the concerted effort to present us with a gallery of blonde-headed femme fatales? One of the most provocative assertions in the publicity for this festival was your pronouncement that "Bardot is noir."

Malcolm: [Chuckling.] Well, we thought that might help bring in some segment of the audience to the theater.

Guillén: Yet watching the two characters she plays, they were not what I would consider femme fatales. Both roles were more ingénue Lolita types who ruined men's lives. Her performance in La Vérité was, admittedly, powerful. And Claude Autant-Lara's En Cas de Malheur (Love Is My Profession, 1958) was of particular interest to me because it came off throughout most of the film as a kind of sexual romp, yet approached noir in its very sad, defeated ending.

Which leads me to ask my real question: in a lot of these films the violence is indirect by contrast to Hollywood noirs where guns are blasting in the hands of deadly dames or dudes. In the films in your program it seemed that in very definitive moments of violence that redirected the narratives, the violent acts were not shown. Can you speak to that? Were there censorship laws in place that forbade violence? Or was that just an aesthetic trend or a stylism unique to French filmmaking?

Malcolm: Remember that we are seeing in these films a pushing of the envelope in terms of nudity, which we see in many of the films. We see Bardot running across the screen nude. We see Mylène Demongeot come up out of the water barebreasted in Henri Verneuil's Une Manche et la Belle (A Kiss For A Killer, 1957). So, though there's not necessarily censorship, you have filmmakers pushing the bounds. These filmmakers are the Otto Premingers of France en masse.

But to answer your question, I think it was a stylistic choice. They kind of wanted to lull you to sleep and then hit you hard. This was particularly true with a director like Claude Autant-Lara who was well-known for wanting to be provocative and to shock audiences in particular kinds of ways. In Love Is My Profession, he set that film up to make sure you were stunned by its ending. You had a premonition in the back of your mind that there was something that might happen and that the story might darken, but just when you began to relax, when you saw the two lovers get back together, you thought their reconciliation would avoid a dark ending. But it actually leads to a much more shocking ending and turns the narrative, just as you said, back on its head in a way that enforces the sense of defeat.

Our claim that Bardot is noir was clearly a bit of salesmanship—and I like your comparison to Lolita—but, with these roles, especially Love Is My Profession, what I think you see here is comparable to such American films as Vincent Sherman's Nora Prentiss (1947) where Ann Sheridan is not really asking these men to act like idiots, but they just do! They can't stop themselves from whatever reaction they're having to her, whether it's chemical or otherwise. The same holds true with Jean Gabin in Love Is My Profession. Watching him in that film, you wonder why his character is doing this? We can see why he might want to sleep with Bardot, but what was the point of staying with her? What drew him into the need to do that? Was it a strange combination of a fatherly impulse and trying to have both relationships at the same time? Was it some kind of a forbidden fruit concept? Who can say? But Bardot is a lightning rod for that.

The point is that both films show the growth of her iconic symbolism in French film and French culture at the time. In Love Is My Profession, she's a bit of an idiot who's too gullible and dies because she's not savvy enough to understand that her lover Mazzetti (Franco Interlenghi) is dangerous. In La Vérité, we see her in a variation of that character where she is more grown-up, but the dark element within her personality is drawn out from her bad, ill-timed, ill-fated love experience. We see a deeper, darker side to her, which we don't see so much in Love Is My Profession. It's an interesting progression. We thought of putting the two films together as a double-bill, but (again) we didn't know we would have such a great response and we thought it would be safer to move the films around. Besides, we had plenty of films that had prostitutes in them to couple prostitutes together in a number of different ways. We hedged our bets by separating those two films into separate double-bills to help the attendance. It turns out we didn't need to do that. If we would have played them together, however, we could have seen the interesting progression of her character from naïve to worldly. With La Vérité, Clouzot was basically putting Bardot as a cultural icon on trial.

Guillén: It's indeed a shock that Bardot's character is murdered in Love Is My Profession, but what seemed especially dark for me was that Gabin's unborn child was murdered; his hope for the future was murdered. That's when this sexual romp turned into a horrible statement about unflinching fatalism. His imagined and longed-for future of paternity is destroyed.

Malcolm: And when you think about his childless marriage to Edwige Feuillère, that could conceivably explain why he wanted to find a younger woman.

Guillén: As a cinephile, one thing I love is the importance of subsidiary characters in noirs, both American and European. For example, the housekeeper in Voici le temps des assassins was delightful. She had so much agency! She was crucial to helping me understand the dynamic in that narrative. Can you speak to that? What has happened to the importance of character actors in American films? Why don't we see faces like this anymore? This was especially pronounced in Un Témoin Dans La Ville with all the variant faces of the cabbies.

Malcolm: Unfortunately, that is the case everywhere in contemporary film. Maybe not so much in England, because they seem to still have some kind of dental issue that they haven't been able to resolve over there. [Laughs.] So it creates a little more of that over there than elsewhere.

One of the great constants in filmmaking around the world at that time was the recognition that those faces added a realistic dimension so that the narrative gained a sense that it could really be happening because the faces looked real. Not everyone can be impossibly beautiful. But we've lost that. One of the things that came out of the myriad maelstrom elements of the '60s was that we had to fetishize youth to the point where it's almost laughable when you watch a film on the screen with guys and girls who have no gravitas trying to provide it. That's the simplest way to say what's lacking in most of what we see today.

We have some, but not nearly the percentage of films that aren't trying to be blockbusters. America and the studio system played into their own factory system, using the same actors over and over again, picking the "best" ones who would become familiar and were good at providing variations on a theme, in terms of the characters they played in those films. But it wasn't just America. That was obviously the case in England and France as well.

In Italy, you have a totally different thing happening after the war. They said, "To hell with actors!" They went right for the faces that were on the street. It's a similar impulse as with some of the films in this series. They try to give you a sense of realism so that you can be a story that you feel can really be happening.

Guillén: Understood, yet what I have to commend you for is that I feel that you have introduced me to a new pantheon of French stars, writers, composers, and cinematographers. For example, I loved Jean Weiner's romantic music in Voici le temps des assassins. And of all the rarities on display at "The French Had A Name For It", what's emerged as my favorite is Henri Vidal in Verneuil's A Kiss For A Killer. It's narrative tracked more with those familiar to me from American noirs, bearing literary traces.

Though you have, as you say, marketed the women in the series, whose stars have a particular allure, you've likewise introduced a strong ensemble of male co-stars. Other than for Les Maudits, I'd never seen any other film with Henri Vidal. His handsome virility completely ruled the screen in A Kiss For A Killer. He reminded me of Burt Lancaster blended with a young Richard Basehart. I thought he was just great.

I was also quite taken with Robert Hossein in Blonde In A White Car, which I enjoyed, even though it was not as well-received as some of the other entries in the series. Someone complained to me that it was not a noir film; it was a horror film. He likened it unto Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Do you feel that's correct or fair?

Malcolm: What's the horror? That she could actually walk? The novelist Frédéric Dard is sort of like Raymond Chandler with his tongue in the back of his cheek, playing with the conventions of noir, sexual relations, and turning it upside down. The question is: what does the tone need to be? We can founder on that question for the rest of our lives and into eternity. My feeling is that Robert Hossein's character has a noir moment when he decides that he has to find out what the hell happened. Everything else that should be going on in his life should prompt him to say, "You know what? I'm getting the hell out of here. I'm not even going to worry about it. That was weird and I don't even need to know what happened." But, instead, he needs to know, and when a character needs to know you enter Cornel Woolrich territory and his form of noir. You move onto, as we said, "a primrose path littered with thorns." Don't forget, they kept sending him roses. They weren't sent idly.

Guillén: Hossein was also charismatic in Highway Pickup. Clearly these actors, Henri Vidal and Robert Hossein, are well-known actors, big names, in France? And yet I know little about them.

Malcolm: That's because a lot of these French titles were discarded with the advent of the Nouvelle Vague. They were rejected for being too much like the studio movies of Hollywood. But we're now in a position to rediscover who was working at the same level as the Hollywood actors we are accustomed to and have internalized in America. These actors and actresses are cooking with the same gas—maybe better gas in some ways than what we have here. I agree that we tried to be fair to the guys. We had two Hosseins, two Vidals, two Gabin; but, as you suggest, they don't quite make the same play as the female stars—we didn't make a postcard for them—but, they did get their moment to shine.

I'm glad you appreciate Henri Vidal. I hope to show more of his work in future festivals. His is a sad story. He's a guy who got lost and died young. It's one of those "might have been" stories. He could have been another Gabin in his own way. But Gabin persevered and was still there, whereas Vidal had a lot of troubles. He married Michèle Morgan and was in her shadow. I've not found a biography of Henri Vidal. I hope someone has written one and—if they haven't—I hope someone will because he's an interesting actor and a tragic figure. Well worth a book. Many of us would read it.

Guillén: My other favorite would have to be Deadlier Than the Male.

Malcolm: Danièle Delorme did something special in that film: she out Jean Simmon-ed Jean Simmons. You can see how that life of resentment that she grew up with twisted her into a desperate person. It's a magnificent performance and so wonderfully counterpoised to Jean Gabin being the inattentive, rock-faced guy he is. He's gullible in a fatherly, avuncular kind of way, being drawn into and believing Delorme's scheme. She does a great job of convincing people. She has the right look. It isn't that she's a beautiful femme fatale. This is more realistic and more like what happens in real life. This is how someone who has that capability—whichever gender they are—to seduce, manipulate and take control of other people without their ever necessarily knowing what's happening. It's a fascinating performance. It's fascinating to watch her grow more monstrous. It builds beautifully. It's a magnificent film.

Guillén: An image that impressed me within the series was the courtroom scene in La Vérité where the judge is seen doodling distractedly and then you see what he is drawing are spider webs. That, for me, could almost be a presiding image that haunts this entire series.

Malcolm: Exactly!

Guillén: So what's the future of this ongoing series? "The French Had A Name For It" has done so well in San Francisco. I've never seen the Roxie packed to capacity like this with people turned away at the door, many of them attempting to come to the Roxie for the first time. Part of that is admittedly attributed to Mick LaSalle's stellar write-up in The Chronicle, but—as we've been discussing—the selection of films is exceptional. You're bringing us more?

Malcolm: Yes, especially now that we've seen the response. We still have a lot of films left to choose from and we'll spend a lot of our time searching for every single film listed in the souvenir program's Timeline of Pivotal French Film Noir. We don't have them all, obviously, but we are researching. It's an unknown continent and fascinating. It's enthralling to have all that to look forward to.

The success of "The French Had A Name For it" at the Roxie confirms for me that San Francisco—a town that I wish I still lived in—is probably body for body the best cinephile city in America. It's just a joy as a programmer to see people come out for something new. The cinephiles here are at the top of the list, as far as I'm concerned. I'm so grateful that they proved me right by coming out to see our festival!