An exoneration by Anastasia Lin including conversation snippets with Don Malcolm
[EDITOR’s NOTE: We return to the freewheeling discussion between Anastasia Lin and Don Malcolm that focuses—mostly, at any rate—on the twenty rare films being screened in THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 5, the singular series that starts at the Roxie Thursday evening November 15. For the first part of this irrepressible conversation, go here.]
FINALLY back on the phone with Don Malcolm after a week’s hiatus, I repeated the question that had seemingly prompted our disconnection…AL: So, Don, why the pulpy, steamy films [THANATOS PALACE HOTEL, THE BEAST AT BAY, SINNERS OF PARIS] in the Roxie’s little room?
DM: I thought I answered that question just before we were disconnected!
AL: [icily] Humor me—and our readers…please.
DM: Oh, all right. Our weekend schedule has always had roughly a two-hour layover between matinee and evening screenings. Since a sizable portion of the audience hangs out in the theatre during this time, we thought we’d add films that some of them could go see in the Roxie’s little room while they wait.
AL: But why the pulpy ones?
DM: They’re the ones with the most resemblance to American “B noir” as devotees have come to know and love thanks to Elliot Lavine’s pioneering work at the Roxie over the past twenty-five years. And, like those films, they are shorter in length—all less than ninety minutes. They fit in the available time slots…
AL: So it’s aesthetics—and logistics…
DM: Right. We didn’t want to displace anyone who felt they needed a break between screenings, so we put these films in the smaller theater.
AL: But what if more people want to see the films than can be accommodated by the cozy size of the Little Roxie?
DM: We’re repeating the films in the Little Roxie during the last three days of the festival as early shows. If there is more demand, we might be back with them again in December.
A triple bill of these films would be something to behold, particularly given the off-the-back-of-an-envelope precision of Pierre Chenal, who gets his fingernails dirty with the problems of the patriarchy from varying perspectives—particularly in SINNERS OF PARIS, where everything that happens does so thanks to men behaving badly.
But the third film, THANATOS PALACE HOTEL, an odd but evocative thriller featuring a simmering slow-boil confrontation between Henri Vidal and an especially sinister Lino Ventura, is more proof of how these unknown directors added something palpable to French noir’s singular combination of pulp and circumstance. Victor Merenda sounds like a flugelhorn-playing refugee from a pre-Castro orquestra (and he has the straight-faced audacity to stick Ventura behind a grand piano, of all things) but he delivers a film that’s as spooky as it is kooky.Daring, rare and unusual as all of this is, it’s Sunday’s lineup that turns things around so that we can see how the 50s grew out of the echoes of past French noir, and how a perverse, dynamic director (named Julien Duvivier) can get to root issues of how mise-en-scene, editing, and other elements that led toward the concept of “total cinema” that upended the old guard starting at the end of the decade. In the draft of his upcoming book, Malcolm contends that to really understand the 50s, it’s necessary to grasp what was happening in French film in 1949. And that’s where he starts on Sunday, with Andre Cayatte’s sweeping, classical-yet-anarchic Shakespearian noir melodrama THE LOVERS OF VERONA, with its double-layered Romeo & Juliet narrative, a set of winning, winsome performances from Serge Reggiani and a 16-year-old Anouk Aimee as the young lovers, and the post-WWII desperation of those attempting to recover from having thrown in with the wrong side frenetically embodied by France’s leading practitioners of thespian extremity, Pierre Brasseur and Marcel Dalio.
AL: Cayatte moved away from this film—and this kind of film—rather rapidly after this, yes?
DM: I think he recognized that going any further in the direction of this film would lead to caricature. He pulls it off wonderfully here; it’s always on the edge of going too far. Here he is also under the influence of Jacques Prévèrt—who never reaches such a fever pitch of cynical romanticism ever again.
AL: As you’ve written in your book, after this Cayatte meets Charles Spaak and it’s a whole new direction for him.
DM: Yes, social justice—a topic that had its detractors in France as the decade unfolded, but nothing like the brick wall of the Blacklist in America—became Cayatte’s métier. He would slow down the action in his 50s films, focusing more on the details of characters. But he retained his regard for female characters, and featured their stories more prominently and in greater depth than any other director during the 50s.
After the girlish beauty of Aimee, you won’t be prepared for the exotic allure of Viviane Romance, the so-called “go-to slut” of French cinema. In MAYA, directed by mercurial veteran Raymond Bernard, she is a lady of the evening who is approaching her “expiration date”—not just physically, but psychologically as well. Tired of having men seek her out for roles that titillated them, Romance snapped up Simon Gantillon’s ethereal potboiler of a play, hiring him and Bernard to shape it into an overripe tale of poetic realism gone to seed.Set in a seaside town much smaller than Algiers but populated by a similarly dissipated set of survivors, MAYA is operatic in its intensification of prior poetic realist techniques, setting up a cast of characters more resigned than desperate: the sinister glances of the diaspora have been replaced by a collective shrug. Of those we meet, only Maya wants to escape. Things swerve into outright (and outrageous) mysticism in the form of Valery Inkijinoff, who fuels Romance’s desire to transcend her plight while cautioning her that “all is illusion.” It’s a fever dream that Mexican diva Maria Felix would have killed to play—but Romance is better suited to it, for she knows that while such divas take no prisoners, they really are in a prison of their own making.
AL: Let’s talk about Julien Duvivier in the 50s for a moment. It is a crazy decade for him.
DM: Unquestionably. He was uprooted by WWII, and had his dalliance with Hollywood; the films he makes upon his return just ricochet all over the place for the next dozen years.
AL: It seems that once the 50s arrive, he’s straining against genre limitations. Does he get it out of his system, so to speak, with the two films you’re showing (SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS and LA FETE À HENRIETTE)?
DM: I think he has a crisis right then when Black Jack (1950) turns into a protracted fiasco. Duvivier liked to work quickly: the tales of him yelling at actors stem mostly from his desire to get things over with.
AL: Is that why he seems to love short bursts of narratives in his film? A form of aesthetic ADHD?
DM: He was a man who wanted to control adversity and dole it out on his own terms. When it bit back on Black Jack, he sat down to make an epic film of short takes about a place he’d become homesick for twice.
DM: And these two films, in all their dizzying dynamism, are all about his dark but radiant love for his adopted home town—a town in which, years later, he’d die in a car accident while making a movie about a man who lost his memory after being in a car accident!
Sunday night is truly something completely different—even for a festival that, over its first four years, has thrived on improbable but inspired juxtapositions. Duvivier gives us an omniscient narrator in SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS, and he’s kept busy by seven intertwined tales that span twenty-fours in the life of the city. The film’s spasm of noir is built around an unhinged sculptor trying to curb an incipient madness manifesting itself in murderous impulses.Galvanized by the bickering he endured while co-writing the film’s script with actor René Lefevre, Duvivier sent for his old writing partner Henri Jeanson (his collaborator on PEPE LE MOKO, among others) and they’d soon concocted a new type of “meta” film where we watch the film emerge from the arguments of two screenwriters with competing impulses for the genre that should dominate the film’s action and atmosphere—comedy, or noir.
The result, LA FÊTE À HENRIETTE is a giddy comedy liberally laced with forbidding yet ultimately hilarious spasms of darkness. The lead actors chosen (Dany Robin and Hildegard Knef; Michel Auclair and Michel Roux) are perfect in their opposite sides of the same coin presences, and they never telegraph any sense of artificiality that would undermine the film’s deadly satirical dialectic. Ever impish, Malcolm suggests that it’s a noir meta-comedy—or maybe a comic meta-noir. (I’ve learned by now not to take the bait, and neither should you.) Regardless of how you analyze it, HENRIETTE is truly unique—and a perfect palate-cleanser after watching fifteen out-and-out noirs.
(Watch the most unusual opening scenes of LA FÊTE À HENRIETTE)
- THE LOCKED ROOMS, THE SUNKEN SHIP…AND THE STOCK MARKET
AL: So now we are in the home stretch.
DM: Just a locked-room takedown, a trip to Hell, the first “film soleil,” and a tale of uber-patrician decadence left!
AL: And with some of the biggest names in classic French film to boot. Gabin, Darrieux, Arletty…
DM: We can’t afford to have anyone stay home, now, can we? Stuffed as we are into the first part of Thanksgiving week, after all.
AL: I think these films inhabit a common state of mind, despite their disparate stories and settings.
DM: It’s called noir, Anastasia. Despite what many people think, the French invented it.
Of course, what I meant was that the four films being screened at the conclusion of FRENCH 5 (Monday-Tuesday, 11/19 and 11/20) share a particularly embedded mordant tone, one that doesn’t come out and hit the viewer in the first minutes of the on-screen action, but that builds in a pointed but off-hand way until halfway through, when you are suddenly saturated by the enveloping darkness—even when the film is playing out in the bright sunlight.
I think this comes from the fact that all four films are from the latter half of the 50s, and they are all working against the prevailing trends: the heist films that have become shortcuts for noir narrative, tone and atmosphere. These films are more matter-of-fact in arriving at their shattering moments; they don’t rely on set-pieces. They are made for the actors to live in the roles—even HUIS CLOS (NO EXIT, the famous but now more distantly remembered play by Jean-Paul Sartre) is cunningly rearranged by director Jacqueline Audry (practically the only woman director in France at the time) to force a sense of reflection on the actors. They are chastened even as they fight each other for dominance in their tiny, hellish space. (It is Arletty’s most astonishing performance.)
MARIE-OCTOBRE (1959) gives us an incredible cast (Danielle Darrieux, Paul Meurisse, Lino Ventura, Bernard Blier, Serge Reggiani, and more) who move through their meta-interrogation with calculated precision and malevolent surprise. Memory plays tricks on everyone, and the truth is a slippery slope. Duvivier is totally in charge and there is no fooling around with form here—it’s the type of chewiness that will become prevalent in a strain of noir that emerges in the 1960s (until the shades of grey upon which such tales depend are extinguished by the worldwide demand for color films). Having missed the Resistance when he fled to America, Duvivier casts a jaundiced eye at the anodyne heroism falsely claimed by so many—and he has perverse fun, as usual, by unmasking the Resistance member who became a priest as a notorious ladies’ man.
(Original trailer for MARIE-OCTOBRE in French without English subtitles)
AL: Just what is “film soleil”?
DM: A clever but stupid term for noirs that reject shadows, thus somehow suggesting without an especial visual emphasis that evil is everywhere—apparently hidden in plain sight in the bright sunlight.
AL: Is PORT DU DESIR “film soleil,” then?
DM: It is if you want it to be. I think director Edmond T. Gréville had made enough films with the standard noir atmosphere by this point in his career; he was tired of that, and he wanted to make a more lurid type of film but without affectation. He liked making films about conflicted people facing some kind of peril—he didn’t like criminals much, though there were a few exceptions…Joseph Calleia in NOOSE, for example.
AL: So this really is Gabin’s first out-and-out proletarian role since before WWII, right? A man who’s lived larger than life and now just wants a simple existence—but he has a code and lets himself get drawn into a murder case.
DM: He walks through this film brilliantly—it literally looks like he’s doing nothing. He lets everyone else get the acting showcase. He’s the narrative epoxy for a story that gets nastier as it goes along, but—
AL: —Never gets dark.
DM: Sometimes a noir is a blueprint for how to survive in an evil, corrupt world. It shows you what not to do, as exemplified by a portion of its characters who do the things you shouldn’t do and suffer the consequences. But a teeming underworld really does depend on the solidarity of the working classes—PORT DU DESIR is more optimistic about the prospects for that than UN HOMME MARCHE DANS LA VILLE, which is its bookend film with similar underlying themes. Gréville slips some interesting things by us in this one.
From the unspoken solidarity of the working class to the internecine backstabbing of the aristocracy: Jean Gabin (whom Malcolm has cannily kept on the shelf until Closing Night) covers more ground than anyone really quite comprehends, and his turn as Noel Schoudler in LES GRANDES FAMILLES (1958) introduces the white-haired Gabin who would become so beloved over the last fifteen years of his career. He is forced to destroy his own son (Jean Desailly) in order to try to save his family’s crumbling financial dynasty; director Denys de la Patellière sets all this up so matter-of-factly that is truly a shock to watch all of the dominoes as they start their fatal, random, unfeeling collapse. Though he certainly didn’t have it in mind at the time, de la Patellière captures a dynamic in the Schoudler family that might seem hauntingly familiar to those observers of the tragic but farcical events currently underway in America—the land, as Malcolm reminds us, that only thinks it invented democracy (and film noir).
It’s another unexpected “twist ending” to a festival whose scope and length may prove taxing to some, but will be redeeming for those who surrender to Malcolm’s mercurial but ultimately benevolent whims.
- FIVE YEARS…AND THEN WHAT?
It should be obvious by now that Malcolm’s flashlight and the “Lost Continent” references are much more than mere shtick—even in an environment where lost “masterpieces” are rediscovered or repackaged, the sheer numbers of excellent, intriguing, notable and unseen films that he’s turned up in five years is beyond astonishing.
Where can it go from here? Ask and ye shall know:
AL: You literally didn’t know it would be like this when you first started, right?
DM: No, not like this. The research and the means of access to the films just exploded.
AL: How much more of this can you do?
DM: That depends on a lot of factors. I would estimate that there are at least another 250 films that are eminently worthy of being screened in a series of this type. Some are still missing; some have substandard print sources; so let’s say 150-175 more that could be shown in the not-too-distant future. Will we show them? That depends on a lot of factors…
AL: But you’ve talked about a big year in 2019, at least…
DM: Yes—there’s the book, which we’ll launch in the spring with a special series—probably early May. And there’s a 1960s series that’s being assembled for next November. That’s going to be a monster of a series in its own right. After that, though, all bets are off.
AL: What would you like people to take away from all this? The “bottom line,” so to speak?
DM: Three things. First, The debates about the origins of film noir are over: the French invented it. Second, French noir is much more than the “Big Three” and we need to focus on making this huge hidden canon available so that we’ll quit replaying the same films over and over. Three, the protean nature of film noir and its relationship to other film genres are best exemplified in French noir—and greater access to these films will make us appreciate the nuances of those interactions. That’s exactly what we set out to demonstrate in #5, and we hope that audiences will find that as fascinating as we do.
What makes French film noir French? Dive down to the lowest depths with our video abstract, charting six key characteristics of cinema’s most alluringly brooding genre. A video essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin for Sight & Sound’s Deep Focus: French film noir season at the British Film Institute.