By Pam Grady
The Stockholm Syndrome was not yet recognized in 1970, but Robert Hossein’s Falling Point (Point de chute) provides a thrilling depiction of the complex. Screening as part of Donald Malcolm’s MidCentury Productions’ “The French Had a Name For It,” his ongoing survey of French noir taking place at the Roxie, Nov. 12-14, this intimate drama stars pop star Johnny Hallyday at the height of his beauty as Vlad, a kidnapper holding teenage Catherine (Pascale Rivault) hostage at an isolated seaside cabin. While his confederates (Hossein and Albert Minski) are away dealing with the ransom, Catherine’s escape attempts perversely draw her closer to her abductor.
Exquisite sound design and Daniel Diot’s luminous cinematography emphasize the remoteness of the location and the pair’s enforced togetherness. Minimal dialogue amps the suspense in a film that displays Hossein’s talent for building tension and his empathy for those living outside society, whether they be criminals or the criminally insane.
Falling Point screens as one of the opening night features of “The French Had a Name For It,” an evening devoted to Hossein, the cinema giant whose career spanned more than 70 years before his death from COVID-19 at 93 in December 2020. He began and ended his career as an actor. Claude Lelouch’s Love Is Better Than Life (L’amour c’est mieux que la vie)in which Hossein has his final acting role, premieres in France in January 2022. But Hossein was also a director and screenwriter, who found his greatest success with crime drama and film noir.
The triple bill that makes up the Hossein tribute provide a snapshot of his writing/directing career from three different decades, beginning with 1958’s Blonde in a White Car (Toi le venin). Hossein stars in his third feature as Pierre Menda, a television personality down on his luck after losing his job and then all of his money gambling in Nice. As he walks along an isolated road at night, a blonde in a Cadillac convertible pulls up. Her offer of a ride turns into a frank come-on, but the erotic temperature drops when she pulls a gun. When he tracks the car to a palatial house, he discovers nearly identical sisters, wheelchair-bound Eva (Hossein’s then wife Marina Vlady) and Hélène (Vlady’s real sister Odile Versois). The women are smitten, offering their guest a home and a job. He is not sure which one threatened him nor does he consider the notion of an offer too good to be true. But then he is not thinking with his brain in this stylish thriller.
Siblings are also at the heart of Hossein’s 1964 revenge tale, Death of a Killer (La mort d’un tueur), as Hossein plays Pierre Massa, a thief whose ardent feelings for his younger sister Maria (Marie-France Pisier) hardly seem natural. He can barely contain his anger when she falls in love with his pretty boy confederate Luciano (Simón Andreu), disdain that only intensifies after a heist goes south and Pierre decides Luciano is a rat. Following Pierre’s movements in the immediate aftermath of his release from prison, Hossein vividly depicts the explosion of five years of pent-up rage as Massa stalks the streets in search of payback.
A final Hossein feature plays along with Jean-Pierre Melville’s debut feature, 1949’s The Silence of the Sea (Le silence de la mere) during the Sunday, Nov. 14, matinee. In The Secret Killer (Le vampire de Düsseldorf), Hossein is Peter Kurten, the Weimar era serial killer who also inspired Fritz Lang’s M. Taking place in the final months of Kurten’s reign of terror, this disconcerting drama draws parallels between the rise of Nazism and the killer’s crimes while limning a portrait of a pathetic criminal obsessed with a showgirl (Pisier again) who treats him like the gum beneath her shoe.
Men for whom a life of crime is a momentary and mistaken career choice figure into Augusto Genina and Marc Allégret’s 1931 The Lovers of Midnight(Les amours de minuit), which shares the Saturday, Nov. 13 matinee with Maurice Tourneur’s 1932 In the Name of the Law (Au nom de la loi), and closing night’s 1943 Journey Without Hope(Voyage sans Espoir), which finishes this edition of “The French Had a Name For It” with 1956’s Deadlier Than the Male (Voici le temps des assassins). In fact, the 1943 drama is a remake of the 1931 film. In both, a bank employee attempting to start a new life with a pile of cash stolen from his employer has an unfortunate meeting with an escaped convict who enlists his showgirl lover into helping him relieve the man of his money only to have her take a shine to the handsome stranger. The nightclub scenes in The Lovers of Midnight are livelier and Daniele Parola’s Georgette in that film is spicier than Simone Renant’s Marie-Ange, but both actors are terrific as women who fall head over heels to their peril.
Four years before his international breakthrough with Z, Costa-Gavras made his directing debut with his 1965 thriller The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartment tueurs), screening, Saturday, Nov. 13. Yves Montand is the detective trying to solve the murder of a woman on a train, killed while five people slept in the berths around her. Was the killer among them or someone else altogether? But the killing on the Pullman car is only the first, as the movie becomes an Agatha Christie-like whodunit. In the meantime, romance blossoms between Daniel (Jacques Perrin) and Bambi (Catherine Allégret), among Montand’s suspects—and perhaps potential victims.
Filling out Saturday’s double-bill is Trap for Cinderella (Piège pour Cendrillon), starring Dany Carrel in a bravura triple performance. André Cayatte’s suspenseful drama, which counts playwright Jean Anouilh among its screenwriters, weaves back and forth in time as Carrel’s amnesiac, recovering from injuries incurred in a fire, tries to piece together her identity. Told she is Italian shoe heiress Michele and that her working-class Parisian cousin Dominque died in the fire, she cannot remember Mi, Dom, or any life that she might have had before. Distrusting Jeanne Moreau (Madeleine Robinson), the employee and “friend” who claims to have all the answers, the young women embarks on her own journey of discovery. Is she spoiled Mi? Envious Dom? Does she really want to be either?
The French cinema celebration does not end with this weekend. Malcolm is continuing his tribute to Hossein over the holidays with a double bill on Saturday, Dec. 12. Henri Vidal and Serge Reggiani are escaped prisoners whose chance meeting with a 17-year-old (Marina Vlady) leads her to seeking revenge in Hossein’s dark 1955 first feature, The Wicked Go to Hell (Les salauds vont en enfer).
In Paris Pick-Up (Le monte-charge), Hossein is not the director but he is the star of this bleak Yuletide noir as an ex-convict who gets mixed up with tiger-coat-clad femme fatale Lea Massari. Not a very merry Christmas for the con, perhaps, but added to the bounty of “The French Had a Name For It,” the double-bill is the perfect gift for cinephiles. See you at the movies.
To enjoy a Gallery of trailers, excerpts and posters for these movies go here.
“The French Had a Name For It” tickets for the weekend are now available from the program pages on Midcentury Productions as well as at the Roxie website. $14-$16 or GET A FESTIVAL PASS ($60 for 11 films – 20% off) for the Nov 12-14 weekend here.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, SF Weekly, Box Office and other publications. She is president of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.