A Date with Double Exposures: Don Malcolm’s “Gallic Evangelism”
Reaches A Fever Pitch As He Aims for 101 French Noirs in 5 Years…
AS TOLD TO OWEN FIELD
An increasing fraction of the “noiristas” who travel from the Castro Theatre (lone dowager of San Francisco’s once-abundant “movie palace” tradition) to the upstart Roxie are grasping the odd, counterintuitive idea that their favorite “genre” (don’t let’s start THAT argument here!) might have a different history than the one commonly purveyed.
They’ve seen the timeline charts that “Gallic evangelist” Don Malcolm keeps expanding in scope and size with each passing edition of THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT, his insistently insouciant and impossibly eclectic foray into what he calls “the lost continent” of French noir. They know that those timelines begin in 1932, which is nearly a decade earlier than the snappy historical patter experienced at Noir City. Looking at that six-foot wide timeline, they know that 600 French noirs can’t be wrong, even if 540 of them remain swept under the rug as Malcolm enters his fifth year of ever -escalating evangelism.
Last year was the biggest French noir fest yet—20 films that proved just how deep the 1950’s French noir filmography really is. This November Don will do something similar for the 60s—a decade that the current “wisdom” holds that there really wasn’t any noir (a notion that is never quite vanquished despite abundant evidence to the contrary). But that wasn’t enough for Malcolm.
“There are so many other festivals one could do,” Don says. “There’s noir from around the world. There are other great obscure films from the midcentury period that haven’t been seen for just about as long as the French noirs. Hell, there are comedies and romances from France in the same time frame that took a hit from the Cahiers du Cinema and are in the same boat with the noirs.”
But he became fixated by what he jokingly calls “an odd round number.” With a little extra work and planning—and a spring festival, “The French Had a Name for It 5½” (running from May 10-13, 2019 at San Francisco’s Roxie) with coverage for all four decades of French noir, he could pull it off. “101 French noirs in five years,” he says. “That’s a difficult number to forget.”
AND so it came to pass that French noir became a spring thing. And it has taken some unexpected turns as it evolved—for one thing, the films Don selected began to speak to him in ways that he’d never experienced before. It has resulted in a truly astonishing product from a man and an organization that’s already been overloaded with take-home items for the faithful: postcards, wall calendars, posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs…
…AND the “mega-card” set. This spring’s festival is the first (and perhaps the only) one to have a mega-card set created expressly for it. It’s just one more unexpected development in a festival that has been the most unlikely success story in the annals of repertory cinema.
Owen Field: Did you have this in mind before you did #5 last fall? That you’d go for “101 noirs in five years”? Or did it hit you when you were carving the Christmas goose?
Don Malcolm: No Christmas goose…sorry. I knew that there were films I wanted to get to but that clearly couldn’t fit into a 1960s show. And I knew I didn’t want to wait. So I made a list shortly after New Years’ and realized that we had more than enough for a separate festival.
OF: So you went for it.
DM: Yes. And when I did the math, the “101” thing just dropped into place. There are a few folks who continue to overlook what we’re doing, you know, and this just seemed like such a wonderful reply to all that.
OF: You’ve spoken of how this festival turned into something incredibly special once you made the final selections.
DM: I knew we had to cover all four decades, and I knew we needed to find just the right group of films from the 1930s to further advance the thesis that noir begins in France…which is not a notion that anyone with a standard view of film noir is going to naturally embrace—
OF: Particularly in the USA…
DM: Mais oui! So I locked in five films from the 30s—one of which featured the great 30s actor Raimu, as a way of showing how such an established star—the Pagnol trilogy, among many others—could naturally accommodate into noir as it escalated in the late 30s.
OF: Your chart shows a huge spike in noirs made in 1937-38.
DM: That’s right. Poetic realism—which is the favored sub-genre of noir—hits its stride then, but spy noirs and policiers also burst onto the scene in those years. It was a time of great anxiety: there were also emigré directors from Germany and Russia who were instrumental in seeding the growth of film noir in France at that point in time.
OF: So Raimu…
DM: Right. Raimu was as important to the development of French noir as Jean Gabin. He brought his provincial persona to noir and made it work. When the Germans conquered France, Raimu’s provincial sensibility, his ability to be eccentric and dark, became a pathway for a new sub-genre in French noir that flourished during the Occupation period—the “provincial gothic.”
OF: OK, so that’s why you said that the 30s film of Raimu’s that you wanted to use wasn’t quite right, so you switched to an Occupation-era film (STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE, 1942).
DM: That’s correct. In his provincial house, Raimu is trapped and defeated—just like the French people. A sinister force invades his home and a man is murdered. His niece and her friends are accused. Raimu the discredited lawyer suddenly finds the courage to mount what seems like an impossible defense against forces trying to pin the crime on a group of innocents.
OF: Ah, yes. Allegory!
DM: Amazing that the Nazi-run company that produced STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE didn’t see all that, isn’t it? It’s a noir, but it has the special qualities that wartime seems to impose on such films. There is a kind of poignancy in its darkness rather than something more brutal and hard-boiled. And that decision had a big impact on how the rest of the films fell into place.
OF: And made you into an artist.
DM: (laughs) Well, THAT was the most unexpected thing ever! And it all began with Raimu, because I had become interested in a cellphone app called Snapseed that my website designer Ted Whipple had installed on my phone. It’s a crude variation on Photoshop, but it has a number of unique features that slowly became dangerously habit-forming for me.
OF: If I’m remembering correctly, you discovered the “double exposure” function and the rest was history!
DM: Absolutely. And it came together for FRENCH 5½ when I got the strange idea to take an image of Raimu and superimpose a stairway right through the center of his head!
OF: We’ve all felt that way at one point or another…
DM: Probably more often than we’d care to admit. But when I saw the result, something changed in a fundamental way. This was a new way into the emotions and the existential conditions within noir.
OF: So do you think that this accidental intersection of film programming and artistic inspiration changed the course of what got selected for FRENCH 5½?
DM: Yeah, I think it did. There were certain films—LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR, the first noir—that were going in no matter what might have been happening with this, but they clearly fit into that existential space. But there was a yearning quality that insinuated itself into those double exposures, and the films that tied in with that emotionally became fodder for that work…and then found themselves in the film lineup.
OF: So THAT explains Fernandel!
DM: Fernandel is unto himself, of course, and I defend him against any and all comers. No one today knows, though, that he had incredible range—and when I found that car in the snowy parking lot image and remembered the cold landscapes in the surreal, black comic noir THE FLYING WARDROBE, it was as if the double exposure image had been predestined. [EDITOR’s NOTE: THE FLYING WARDROBE makes for an amazing change of pace on the festival’s Opening Night—Friday, May 10—following a slam-bang 60s thriller, THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS.]
OF: And you satisfied the FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT requirement to feature Jeanne Moreau by finding a film she’s in with Fernandel!
DM: Yes, MEURTRES. I’d wanted to get that into a festival for quite awhile, but just couldn’t quite find the right spot. Moreau is 22 in this film. She says she was just learning, and it’s true that she’s not quite radiating that ineffable smoldering mystery that made her so compellingly overwrought later on, but you can see it’s all there, even when she’s a relatively “nice” girl.
OF: It is truly fascinating to see her so fresh-faced.
DM: She was happy to leave behind that innocence.
OF: Speaking of innocence, you have an image in that double exposure set that’s rather creepy that you entitled “Besieged by Innocence”…
DM: Yes, that goes with OBSESSION, which plays with MEURTES on Saturday night. I found an image of a dollmaker with a closet full of doll’s heads and superimposed it onto a still from OBSESSION—a pensive shot of Michèle Morgan and Raf Vallone.
OF: The purple in the image was arresting…was that a bit of commentary on the “purple prose of Cornell Woolrich” (who wrote the story from which the film was adapted)?
DM: No, that’s your highly colorful interpretation, but—I like it! When people see the film and ponder that title, I think they’ll grasp the irony in it. It’s a terrific film, one of only a mere handful of French noirs shot in color.
OF: Which films got added as a result of this “artistic intervention” you experienced?
DM: Oh, let’s see…we mentioned THE FLYING WARDROBE. And of course STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE with Raimu. When I realized I wanted films from the 60s as a kind of preview of the show we’ll do in November—all 60s—I remembered director Leonard Keigel…
OF: You screened his LEVIATHAN a couple years ago.
DM: Yes, a very wrenching, powerful film, from ’62—I like to call it “the last provincial gothic” as it’s set in a small town. Keigel followed it up with an austere, surreal remake of a famously spooky ghost story based on a Tchaikovsky opera, THE QUEEN OF SPADES—
OF: That was also made by a British director in the late 40s…
DM: Yes, Thorold Dickinson, with Anton Walbrook chewing the scenery. People love it, but I think it’s a bit overheated. Keigel wanted to focus more on the countess who has the soul-destroying secret, so he coaxed Dita Parlo, a major star from the 30s, out of retirement.
She gives a very moving performance, and right after I’d watched it I looked for some images on-line and I found a dreamy shot of her from this time period—older, but still with that mysterious look in her eyes—and when I brought it over to my phone it happened to get stored next to an image of a plane flying through clouds with a jetstream behind it…
OF: Let me guess…double exposure?
DM: Yes, it definitely became a kind of fever in the blood. The two images were meant to be merged, and then, when we colorized it—
OF: — It’s strangely comforting to know that noir can be phosphorescent!
DM: So that one counts, too, even though the genesis was different. Something similar happened with THE DESERTER, the beautiful, tensely brooding World War I tale [EDITOR’s NOTE: playing Sunday afternoon May 12] where Jean-Pierre Aumont first really shows his acting chops. The girl he’s in love with is Corinne Luchaire—
OF: The doomed daughter of the Nazi collaborator who died young—
DM: —Right, and famous mostly for playing Cora in Pierre Chenal’s LE DERNIER TOURNANT, the first adaptation of Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. She has her own gaze—a kind of dreamy forboding—and I remembered the troop train shots in the beginning of THE DESERTER…
OF: So at that point you came across the train track shot that you then superimposed into her face…
DM: Yes, it was another uncanny moment. And when we did the festival trailer, my friend Paul Westmacott found some actual moving train footage in one of the movies and used it in a key sequence. When I saw that, I reminded him of Luchaire’s face and the “track of her emotions,” and so she became part of that sequence.
OF: It’s a very evocative moment. And there were others, right?
DM: The last four films—WICKED CITY, PORTRAIT OF A KILLER, which both screen Sunday night, and MAIGRET SETS A TRAP and THE HEAD OF A MAN, two great Maigret stories that close the show on Monday the 13th—all of them wound up with double exposure images.
OF: You had fun with THE HEAD OF A MAN, didn’t you? Finding the right lines with which to obscure and reveal the face at the same time?
DM: I’d become familiar with a series of works by a British artist named David Smith where he created variations of image patterns inside a space dominated by a black box.
OF: Noir is a black box!
DM: More often than not, for sure! And this particular one, even in its black and white form, really did obscure and reveal at the same time—which is one of the narrative intensifications that reach their greatest use in noir. And I kept adjusting it so that you could see and not see the rest of the head of this man in the space outside the box…
OF: Valery Inkijinoff, who’s scary as hell in the film.
DM: It turned into a beautiful image of a dangerous man, which is often what we get in film noir. The Maigret night—closing night—would be my favorite if I were absolutely forced to choose. You have Gabin’s absolute perfect fit for the part—
OF: And went on to play it several more times.
DM: -But when you see Harry Baur in his turn as Maigret in HEAD OF A MAN from 1933, you realize that Gabin is really channeling Baur’s take on George Simenon’s world-famous character. Simenon is careful not to spell it out too explicitly in the novels, but Baur captured Maigret’s fascination with the criminal mind…a fascination that put him in danger, because he wanted to play cat-and-mouse with these guys, many of whom turned out to be these unhinged criminals!
OF: You wrote in the press kit how Gabin is honoring Baur in the way he plays Maigret.
DM: I think that’s true. They’d played together in the 30s, when Gabin was young and Baur was…well, he was still old…and he has a very similar thing around the eyes…an unexpectedly gentle, yearning look that it was said made women love Baur intensely despite the fact that he was not physically attractive. That look is one of a strange, yearning rapture to understand something alien—and it’s amazing how Gabin channels Baur’s look …I do think it’s an hommage, and people will see it for themselves when they watch the two films.
OF: Do you think you’ll do something like this again—fall out of bed, become an artist, and make all these startling images?
DM: I think I might explore how far it can go in terms of channeling images—but selectively rather than trying to apply it to every festival. A book of such images might be possible, but it remains to be seen if all this has a life beyond its uncanny appearance as part of FRENCH 5½.
OF: I think the mega-box set, with its unique combination of these images, will a brisk seller.
DM: That would be very gratifying. But you know what—we’ve buried the lede again!
OF: How’s that?
DM: We forgot the main attraction on Opening night (Friday, May 10). The murder investigation where the police can’t keep up with the dead bodies! THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS!
OF: You didn’t do double exposures of the murder victims, did you?
DM: No! But I might try it now that you mention it!
OF: Regardless of that, it’s a tremendous 60s thriller—with plenty of familiar faces—and an elevated body count.
DM: This is the first feature film from Costa-Gavras, and it’s just about the last classic noir, French or otherwise. He never made a film quite like this again, and we can’t wait to see how the audience reacts to it.
THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 5½ plays Friday May 10-Monday May 13 at the Roxie Theatre. Tickets $14, seniors $12, all-festival passes $60.
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 600 films, most unseen in the US for decades) and also curates the A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND series.