A two-part exoneration by Anastasia Lin
including conversation snippets with Don Malcolm
- JUST WHAT IS HE DOING TO US THIS TIME?
Is there such a “thing” as “too much of a good thing?” Devotees (and I use that term, er, charitably) of internet porn might disagree, but even cinephiles (who also like to watch…) may feel that the inestimable Don Malcolm, he of the flashlight and the Lost Continent, just might have had his pith helmet too tightly affixed with his latest Roxie extravaganza: a 20-film collection of forgotten French film noir that moth-flames the 1950s with a heightened level of relentlessness.
So it seemed best to just ask the man that question, right off the bat:
AL: So are you going too far this time with THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 5?
AL: Not happy with “mini-festivals” anymore?
AL: This isn’t going to be one of those interviews where you give nothing but
one-word answers, is it?
This isn’t unusual when one first approaches Malcolm on the subject of the ever-escalating effort that the Lost Continent of French noir has become. He’s found so many of these films—so many more over the past couple of years than he originally defined as the so-called Lost Continent that it seems he’s added five peninsulas, eight archipelagos, and something equivalent to the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the original land mass…
- THE NUMBEROLOGY OF THE “LOST CONTINENT”
In order for the reader to appreciate this from the get-go, it was necessary to brave another interrogative exchange:
AL: Can you tell us just how the number of French noirs in what you’ve called “The Lost Continent” has grown over the years?
AL: (exasperated) Enough with the one-word answers, already!
DM: (pauses for effect) All right… We’d originally identified 160 films from the 1930s to the 1960s that we saw as being the true extent of the French film noir canon.
AL: And when was that?
DM: That was in 2014, just prior to the first FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT festival.
AL: And what happened after that?
DM: The research continued—and the number of films continued to grow. In 2015, we revised the number upward to just under 300. The following year we displayed a new timeline chart with just over 400 titles.
AL: And where does that stand now?
DM: The new timeline chart, which will be unveiled at FRENCH 5, brings the new total to just under 600.
AL: I take it all back—it is a Lost Continent!
DM: Thank you. Can I please have my flashlight back?
Malcolm believes that they’ve found all of the “lost” films (which weren’t really lost, but more about that later). But this continual process of discovery has kept his book project in development longer than he’d expected, and it changed his thinking about how to present the material to an audience.
AL: So no more darting between the four decades?
DM: Not here in San Francisco—at least not in November. We’re ready for something more focused and in-depth.
AL: Why the 1950s now?
DM: The range of material there is so great that it cries out for this approach. It ties together what we’ve done thus far. The change across the decade is highly instructive, and the festival lineup is geared to display that to the audience.
And, indeed, the first poster for FRENCH 5 shows how the twenty films in the festival lineup fall into place with the fifty-five (55!) films that have been previously shown. The festival program, formerly a booklet, has been redesigned to focus on the twelve years of the French noir timeline that are pertinent to the FRENCH 5 lineup. Even pared down, it’s a Big Gulp.
AL: So how many noirs were made in France in the 1950s?
DM: Approximately two hundred and twenty.
AL: How does that compare to America?
DM: There were more noirs made in the US in the 1950s—but it’s all front-loaded. The US made twice as many noirs as France in the first half of the decade, but France made more noirs in the second half, and by a not-inconsiderable margin. By 1959, noir is over in the USA, but it’s still going strong in France and continues to thrive into the mid-60s.
The chart (yes, we’re a bit wonky…) reveals it all. Malcolm attributes the slowdown in the US to the lingering effects of the Blacklist; free from that stigma, French noir continues to fire on all cylinders, adding a more pronounced political component as the decade progresses.
Malcolm reminds us that the New Wave, which
Makes its splash at tail end of the 50s, “may have
disparaged the filmmakers of the prior generation
who had often embodied the language of film noir, but they began by appropriating film noir as a platform for their efforts.” The mid-to-late 50s is also the period in which French heist films created a strain of noir that has become the dominant narrative for defining what French film noir is.
With just under 600 films noir now identified, Malcolm is confident that such a narrative is “incomplete at best, and just plain wrong at worst. I don’t meant to disrespect the directors who’ve been anointed over time as The Big Three—Becker, Clouzot and Melville—but there is so much more to French film noir. And FRENCH 5 goes right into the heart of the decade where the primary myths about these directors and their influence on French noir are housed.”
- SO, ACCORDING TO FRENCH 5…JUST WHAT DOES 1950s FRENCH NOIR REALLY LOOK LIKE?
What’s apparent from the start of THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 5 is that there are a ton of lesser-known but highly capable directors who are being showcased instead of the Big Three. “Right now American rep cinema is essentially playing those three guys over and over again,” Malcolm notes. “I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: there is so much more.”
There are a few well-known names to be found in the list of sixteen directors whose films comprise the FRENCH 5 lineup. I tried to push Malcolm around on this point, just to stay in practice:
AL: So Marcel Carné is well-known…
DM: But not as a noir director. We showed PORTES DE LA NUIT, his disastrously received follow-up to LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS—and how does anyone follow a film like that, anyway?—which is at least as dark as LE JOUR SE LEVE, but it sent him into a career tailspin that has obscured the fact that he made his hardest-hitting noirs in the 50s: our Opening Night [November 15] film, THÉRÈSE RAQUIN, from 1953, is among his best.
AL: OK, but René Clair…
DM: Well-known because he was one of the cinema de papa guys spared by the New Wave. He waited till the very end of his career to make a throwback to poetic realism with a noir twist. It’s called PORTE DES LILAS and it epitomizes the French ability to leaven their films noir with comedic elements and not lose their edge. Clair was paying attention to what was going on around him.
AL: And that brings us to Julien Duvivier, who dabbled and darted back and forth across genres…
DM: Right—Duvivier is acclaimed, but his 50s work is mostly unseen. They’ve recognized his 30s work, thanks mostly to PEPE LE MOKO, and they rediscovered PANIQUE, “get back in the saddle” noir from 1946, but the period between that and VOICI LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS, the 1956 film that’s arguably his darkest, is completely lost. We’re showing two of his most extended narrative experiments that he made early in the 50s which were clearly ahead of their time, including LA FETE A HENRIETTE, best described as a meta-noir comedy.
AL: I do love how the screenwriters—who keep interjecting themselves into the story—keep bickering over what works in terms of building a story in film.
DM: Yes, Duvivier and his screenwriter Henri Jeanson were cooking with gas when they got together for HENRIETTE. It’s a film crying out for rediscovery and its rightful place in film history.
After Carné, Clair and Duvivier (who, Don somewhat sternly suggested to me, should not be called the “Little Three”…) there are thirteen additional directors whose 1950s film noirs are part of FRENCH 5. Who are they, and how did they get so lost?
Some of them were expatriates (and France has been a haven for expatriate directors since practically the dawn of film).
One of the most interesting is Marcel Pagliero, whose working-class, heavily neo-realist influenced UN HOMME MARCHE DANS LA VILLE plays on Opening Night (November 15) after Simone Signoret in THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.
AL: Pagliero was something of a socialist and a renaissance man, I take it?
DM: He was politically committed to a working-class perspective, but people on both sides spent time chipping away at him. The Communists detested UN HOMME because it showed how hard it was for the workers to organize and how easy it was for them to succumb to cynicism and despair. The young turks like Truffaut questioned his authenticity. Both of them missed out on a first-rate film with several noir stalwarts—Ginette Leclerc in her transitional phase between tart and matron; noir everyman Robert Dalban as her surly, disgruntled husband; and Dora Doll as a frisky young woman teetering between respectability and what we might call “the ways of the street.”
AL: And that doesn’t even cover the most interesting, to me at least: Jean-Pierre Kerien.
DM: Who gives a seamlessly multi-layered performance as the man in the middle of all the madness surrounding him. The best way to say it is that he gives a remarkably subtle “unsubtle” performance…
Friday night, which features two more 50s noir vehicles for the unsinkable Jeanne Moreau, introduces us to two more obscure directors, Pierre Billon (helming the piquant carny-gangster noir JUSQU’AU DERNIER) and another expatriate, Luis Saslavsky, who wandered from Argentina to Spain and finally to France, where he helmed a series of increasingly florid noirs, including LES LOUVES, with an all-star cast surrounding Moreau (Micheline Presle, Madeleine Robinson, François Perier) in a precipitous tale of classic “deadly sins on the march” (greed and lust, primarily, with top notes of envy and wrath thrown in for good measure).
AL: What about Pierre Billon? I understand the film you’re showing is his last one…
DM: Yes, and the English translation of the title is oddly appropriate: UNTIL THE LAST ONE. And for most of Billon’s career he was accused of style over substance—but here, at the end, he seems to put it all together.
AL: Saslavsky was attracted to dark subjects well before coming to France, right?
DM: Yes. He actually worked with John Alton in Argentina before the “painting with light” guru became the godfather of noir photography. Saslavsky was making full-on noirs there in the 40s and his films in Spain and France in the 50s are a natural progression. He deserves a retrospective of his own…
AL: LES LOUVES is one of several films that deal with the Occupation period, and it gains a lot of tension from that.
DB: It’s Boileau and Narcejac—the VERTIGO and DIABOLIQUE novelists—digging deep into the underbelly of betrayal. And the Occupation period in France is simply drowning in betrayal. This is the film where Moreau synthesizes “sexy” and “strange”—and we’ll see her variations on it from this point forward in her career.
Saturday is the peak marathon day, where filmgoers can watch up to six films, including four featuring the actor Malcolm considers to be emblematic of the shifting tone of the 50s—Henri Vidal. A handsome hunk who died in December 1959 after a long bout with heroin addiction, Vidal waged a losing battle against typecasting throughout the decade. While several of his films have been shown in previous FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT shows, it was clear to Malcolm that Vidal captured the escalating frenzy of the French “decade of noir”:
AL: So set the stage for us. More noirs in the 50s, with a spike in production at the end of the decade…
DM: Right. Two big players in that time frame: Robert Hossein—who we’ve chronicled in earlier shows—and Vidal, who throws himself into noirs at a frenzied pace in 1957-59.
AL: And is making other films at the same time!
DM: Perhaps instead of “frenzied pace” I should have said “killing pace.”
AL: Your Saturday evening triple bill shows his early 50s interest in noir as well.
DM: He was clearly attracted to the material—it always had a strange autobiographical component for him. He found characters whose feelings and actions mirrored his own state of being. But as the 50s continued, the quirkier roles dried up as the noirs being made started to become more formulaic. Younger actors started picking off the more unusual roles.
AL: But he does get at least a couple of offbeat roles there at the end, with the film set in the “suicide motel” and in his re-teaming with Françoise Arnoul.
DM: Vidal craved unusual roles—he wanted to obliterate his looks. His face gets cut up in PORT DU DESIR, and it changes his character’s dynamic; we saw earlier, in THE WICKED GO TO HELL, that he was at his most effective when he was dirtied up and deglamorized. He kept trying to break out of the trap, but he was a depressive and couldn’t stay away from the “stuff.” He is the cautionary tale for the decade.
The two early films, impossible to see anywhere else, show what Vidal can do with accomplished, artistic directors. QUAI DE GRENELLE (1950) is astonishingly transgressive with its hunter-becomes-the-prey storyline and its gallery of sexual obsessives (led by the truly perverse Jean Tissier) eager to seduce and defile young innocents. Director Emil E. Reinert, an Austrian emigré, was just coming into his own at this time, but died at age 50 just a couple of years later.
Malcolm considers LA PASSANTE (1951) to be Henri Calef’s last great synthesis of noir, melodrama and art film, with complete character arcs for Vidal and Maria Mauban as they come to terms with a dangerous love in the midst of what might otherwise be a standard woman-on-the-run story.
Earlier on Saturday, in the matinée, Malcolm showcases another FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT favorite, Marina Vlady, whose precocious beauty (she was a full-fledged sex symbol at age 16) overshadowed her acting talent. Her success in vehicles created for her by then-husband Robert Hossein—THE WICKED GO TO HELL (1956) and BLONDE IN A WHITE CAR (1958), both screened in previous FRENCH festivals, prevent us from seeing her as an independent actress making career decisions in her own right.
Malcolm splits the difference with his selections vis-à-vis Vlady this year, with LE CRANEUR (1955) showing her building from her sensitive portrayal in Andre Cayatte’s AVANT LE DELUGE (1954) and occupying a kind of unique space in the history of noir: Veronica Lake with a mysterious but pronounced LGBT quotient built into her character. This intriguing film, directed by one-time surrealist wunderkind Dimitri Kirsanoff, is followed by Hossein’s last “auteurist” collaboration with his soon-to-be ex-wife, the claustrophobic war-film-turned-deadly-romance LA NUIT DES ESPIONS (1959), a film that Malcolm calls a “chamber noir.” (It’s the first of several more of these that we’ll see as the festival plays out.)
Entr’acte: PIERRE CHENAL and THE “TWEENER FILMS” IN THE LITTLE ROXIE
By the close of Saturday, eleven of the twenty films in FRENCH 5 will have already been screened. It’s saturation scheduling, but Malcolm’s method, while mad, is all for a good cause.
AL: You discovered that a good portion of your clientele could actually see an extra film on the weekends…
DM: Many wait in the theatre between the matinees and the evening shows, so we decided to add shows in the Roxie’s little room for those who’d like to see another film in the interim.
AL: So, on the weekends at least, these are the “tweener” shows…
DM: Right, and it’s part of what I should have called “Vidal and Chenal,” but I didn’t think of that until just a minute ago—oh well!
AL: Pierre Chenal is a most intriguing figure in French noir, mostly due to his waywardness. He was a giant in the 30s, but then was exiled from France for the better part of two decades.
DM: If anyone proves that noir was intuitively a French creation, it’s Chenal—and his second return to France in the late 50s to make “B-noir a la Français” only proves that he had—to repurpose David Thomson’s famous phrase—the whole equation of noir filmmaking in his head. LA BETE A L’AFFUT [playing Saturday the 16th] and RAFLES SUR LA VILLE [screening Sunday the 17th] are proof positive of that.
AL: So you’ve actually put three pulpy B-noirs in the little room, which goes against the grain of the way noir is usually programmed. Why did you do that?
—But at that precise moment, our phone connection suddenly went dead, and it would be a full week (just as it will be the case for you, dear reader…) before I found out what Malcolm’s nefarious plan was all about. Tune in again next week for that—and for a look at the very different, twist-laden second half of THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 5.
ANASTASIA LIN, often confused with the controversial Miss World, is now back at graduate studies while caring for her aging mother in Madrid and continuing to filter what she (sometimes ironically) calls “feminism of the Middle Way” into various writings, including essays on film. She has not given up on writing her meta-political thriller Palindromes, which follows the elliptical adventures of what she calls “the criminal shape-shifters of cultural opinion.” Alas, Lin reports the book keeps changing its own shape. Her association with Don Malcolm began with a blind submission of an essay on Lizabeth Scott for the NOIR CITY e-zine and may yet continue. She previously wrote about Andrée Clément for EDF.
Don Malcolm was 22 when he wrote the world’s first hypertext novel–before hypertext existed. That juxtaposition of the pioneering and the not-yet-invented has been a recurring theme in his life ever since, even as he made narrow escapes from what has always seemed to be a cataclysmic artistic destiny. Discovering film noir in the 1980s, he fell in with an increasingly disreputable crowd over the next three decades, emerging from eight years at the helm of NOIR CITY magazine as the purveyor of what now is the largest legacy of unseen foreign film noir to be found anywhere. THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT, debuting in November 2014, changed the landscape of film noir forever and Don has continued to pursue what he calls “the lost continent” with a tenacious smirk and a small (but potent) flashlight. He is completing a book that covers the full story of French film noir from the 30s to the 60s (over 400 films, most unseen in the US for decades) and also curates the A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND series.
Michael Guillen’s interviews with Malcolm at The Evening Class are essential reading.
More by and about Don Malcolm in EatDrinkFilms.