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The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

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The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

Postby ChiO » November 15th, 2014, 1:38 pm

Cultural imperialism.

Too often film noir is thought of as an American film form. Those that are not American (or, at least, not in the English language) are then consigned to the “Foreign Film” ghetto. Or, that those non-American films noir that are in general commercial release are the only ones, or the only ones worth seeing. Last night at the Roxie, however, a festival opened that proclaims "The French Had A Name For It: Film Noir In France 1946-64” – a festival full of rarely seen films from the country that discovered film noir.

The festival opened with two by Henri-Georges Clouzot, perhaps the French director associated with French film noir who is most popularly known by American audiences because of LE CORBEAU (1943), QUAI DE ORFEVRES (1947), WAGES OF FEAR (1953), and DIABOLIQUE (1955). In his MANON (1949), two lovers are trying to escape – he rescues her from villagers who think she is a Nazi collaborator and they escape to Paris. Through his brother, they engage in the illicit, he in the black market and she in a high-end brothel. Then, together, they escape Paris for Palestine. Or, they think they will escape.

This, my first viewing, hit a sweet spot for me – lovers, enduring much travail, but spending eternity together. Love triumphant. The only way that this love gets to triumph, however, is that the lovers have gone through Hell and, in the end, they may think they have gone through Hell, but the reality is that they have not completely gone through it, but merely constantly experienced it. There simply is no escaping Hell. The moral ambiguity that I saw demands that I see this film again if only to confirm that ambiguity. Also, this film is a prod for remembering that the French popularized existentialism, part of the essence of film noir.

Speaking of existentialism, this first viewing of LA VERITE (1960) had me reliving Camus’ The Stranger. A young woman (Brigitte Bardot) is on trial for the murder of a lover. Various witnesses, supplemented by the constantly sparring prosecutor and defense counsel, tell the story largely by flashback. A complex picture of the murderer emerges, a woman who vacillates from being free-spirited and elated to being fickle and morose. And sexual freedom – or, the idea of sexual freedom – underlies it all. The result is an appearance that she is less on trial for being a murderer than for exhibiting socially unacceptable behavior and portraying every human frailty. She also is a living demonstration that every act has a consequence and – as the finale builds to an operatic crescendo in the courtroom – humans would rather not accept that.

Seemingly contrary to my introduction, there is an audience hungry for the films at this festival, at least for a segment of the population in San Francisco and others willing to fly in for it. The box office opened at 5:30pm for a 6:00pm screening, but by 4:45pm a line was forming. By 6:00pm, people were still streaming in. The theatre was sold-out and people turned away. When I stepped outside between screenings (I and the vast majority of others who were there for the first were also there for the second), a double line extended to the end of the block. More turned away. Elliot Lavine aka Dewey, Don Malcolm, the Roxie and all others who helped put this festival together must be commended, applauded and thanked for making these films available for a long weekend. One hopes – if all actions do indeed have consequences – this provides an impetus for future related festivals and for making these and similar films commercially available.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles

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Re: The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

Postby ChiO » November 16th, 2014, 3:43 pm

November 16, 2014

We were treated with a fantastic French foursome.

LES MAUDITS aka THE DAMNED (Rene Clement 1947) kicked-off the day by forcing me to reflect on the American film noir cliché (all the while noting that a cliché often is a cliché due to its underlying truth) of the alienated U.S. veteran returning from World War II. In France there were also the related matters of invasion and occupation of ones native land, the Resistance, collaborators and escape. Those concerns provide the basis for LES MAUDITS.

A select band of Nazis near the end of the war take a submarine to Argentina to set up a presence in the Americas. Off the coast of France, one passenger is in need of medical care. Three go into the nearby French town and kidnap a doctor who happens to be sympathetic to the Resistance. The journey thereafter pits the various characters against each other – the steadfast political Nazi versus the pragmatic Nazi general versus the industrialist Nazi collaborator versus the anti-Nazi and the anti-Nazi sympathizer. Although the second act (the journey across the Atlantic), if viewed in isolation, is not textbook film noir, the first and third acts (the start of the journey, including the kidnapping; and, the failed arrival and the chaos resulting from learning that the war is over) certainly are. The result is a tense, claustrophobic thriller draped with Doom where every character, whether as a result of his or her own agency or not, must deal with the hand that Fate has dealt. All beautifully photographed by Henri Alekan, the cinematographer for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Jean Cocteau 1946), UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE (Yves Allegret 1949) and WINGS OF DESIRE (Wim Wenders 1987).

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE gets twisted in UNE MANCHE ET LA BELLE aka A KISS FOR A KILLER (Henri Verneuil 1957). A bank clerk insinuates himself into the financial affairs of the bank’s largest depositor, a striking and sophisticated widow. Soon enough, she falls for him, they marry and he has the Dream Life, except…he’s fallen for his wife’s gorgeous young secretary. He and the secretary have trysts while she’s accompanying them on their honeymoon as they sail their yacht on the Mediterranean. If he were lucid instead of smitten, he would have recognized something amiss when, as he and the secretary step into a gondola in Venice, she says, “I knew the gondola was here. I’m used to organizing everything.”

When he discovers that the secretary is engaged to a young man, the frenzied jealousy sets in. She will not break off her engagement because she recognizes that if he divorces, he will have less money than her fiancée and, of course, money is the key to life. He plots the illusive Perfect Murder of his wife. The secretary provides his cover. The wife dies. And the will…ah, the will…provides him with a monthly allowance, but the mass of cash and assets go to her son from her first marriage. A son heretofore unknown to him. A son who is engaged to the secretary. Death seems the only way out. Marvelously shot (as it were) by Christian Matras, whose filmography includes THE GRAND ILLUSION (Jean Renoir 1937), THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE…. (Max Ophuls 1953) and THE MILKY WAY (Luis Bunuel 1969).

TOI, LE LEVIN aka BLONDE IN WHITE CAR (Robert Rossein 1958) struck me as the most tawdry and derivative offering thus far. In other words, I loved it. The opening is a reversal reminiscent of KISS ME DEADLY. A blonde in a hot white car (see title) picks up a man on a deserted highway. When asked where he’s going, he says “someplace.” She drives to an even more deserted back road. “Where are you taking me?” he asks. “Where you said you wanted to go. Nowhere.” She stops the car. They have sex (or so I surmise) that she initiates. She forces him from the car…at gun point…and abandons him. As Johnny Carson used to say, “You buy the premise, you buy the bit.” I bought.

He tracks down the car by the license plate and goes to a luxurious home. Two beautiful blonde sisters (actresses who really are sisters) live there. One is in a wheelchair because of polio (Eva) and the other (Helene) has been her caretaker since their parents’ deaths. Both are infatuated with the man. Eva appeals to his intellect – she’s a poet and he formerly read poetry on the radio – and Helene appeals to his heart. Helene is tied to and devoted to Eva, and Eva is jealous of his growing romance with Helene. But which one was the blonde in the white car that night? The secret is found in GASLIGHT. Eva tells him of dreams that she is dragged out of her bed at night to unknown locations. The poor guy thinks the Eva can walk and is driving him to distraction. Helene knows Eva can’t walk, but denies taking Eva out at night. Finally, he confronts Helene as that blonde, she slaps Eva around, and storms out, leaving him to care for Eva. Eva is elated. But nothing is quite what it seems. Fate has placed him in the arms of madness.

The night closed (as if night ever closes on noir) with the atmospheric hit of the festival to my eyes, UN TEMOIN DANS LA VILLE aka WITNESS IN THE CITY (Eduardo Molinaro 1959). A married woman is tossed from a train by her lover. The murder charges against him are dropped when it cannot be proven that it wasn’t suicide. The woman’s husband breaks into the killer’s house and kills him, making it look like a suicide. The Perfect Crime. Except…just before the murder, the victim had called a cab. When the murderer leaves the house, the cabbie sees him. The murderer flees. Then the murderer realizes that the cabbie is a possible witness to the otherwise Perfect Crime. Now he must hunt him down and kill him. The cabbie realizes the next day when he reads the newspaper that he had been waiting outside the victim’s house and saw the fleeing murderer. It’s now a cat and mouse game…with the killer tracking down the cabbie, and the fellow cabbies tracking down the killer.

The nighttime Dread and relentless stalking is the finest this side of BLAST OF SILENCE, made around the same time, but released a year later. The long climax reminded me of M (more Losey than Lang) with the cabbies standing in for the criminals. Fabulous cinematography courtesy of Henri Decae – BOB LE FLAMBEUR (Jean-Pierre Melville 1956), LE SAMOURAI (Jean-Pierre Melville 1967), LE CERCLE ROUGE (Jean-Pierre Melville 1970).

All screenings (except the second screening of the evening of TOI, LE LEVIN) were to a packed house again. Also, I failed to mention yesterday that the program designed for the festival is stupendous.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles

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Re: The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

Postby ChiO » November 17th, 2014, 3:53 pm

November 17, 2014 (in re: Sunday)

Elliot and Don dubbed the Sunday matinee “The Hazards of Streetwalking.” That’s how to pull in a crowd, and they did. The 250 seats of the Roxie were again full.

Up first was DEDEE D’ANVERS aka DEDEE OF ANTWERP (Yves Allegret 1948). Given my love for UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE aka SUCH A PRETTY LITTLE BEACH (Yves Allegret 1949), my hopes were high. They were exceeded.

Night. Fog. Wet city streets. Dawn. And a camera that slowly catches it all. Simone Signoret is the prostitute on the docks of Antwerp looking to separate from her pimp. The other prostitutes at the brothel and the brothel’s owner encourage her to leave, but the pimp has a violent hold on her. She meets a cargo ship captain who happens to know the brothel owner and, it appears, is engaged in some illicit activity with him. They fall for each other. She leaves the pimp. The pimp is distraught. They both are looking for the captain…she for escape to a new life, and he to eliminate the cause of the end of his life.

With a conclusion that is shocking, beautiful, depressing and exhilarating all at once…as the car drives into the dawn.

Jean BourgoinMR. ARKADIN (Orsen Welles 1955), MON ONCLE (Jacques Tati 1958), BLACK ORPHEUS (Marcel Camus 1959) – provided the masterful cinematography.

Gitte follows Signornet…and that is tough. In EN CAS DE MALHEUR aka LOVE IS MY PROFESSION (Claude Autant-Lara 1958), Brigitte Bardot and a gal pal, hookers who are looking for a little extra cash, try to pull a watch repair shop robbery with a cap pistol. It fails. Bardot has to conk the head of the shop owner’s wife with a crowbar. Not good. The gendarmes pick up her pal. Bardot goes to the ace of Parisian criminal lawyers, Jean Gabin. He’s skeptical about taking the case – hard case, bad witnesses, and a client with no money. She raises her skirt and offers what she has. The placid, uninterested look on Gabin’s face is priceless. As is her look of frustration when she sees his look. He takes the case. And wins. And their affair begins, much to the ever-growing chagrin of his accepting wife.

But Bardot has a lover on the side, a young handsome medical student. Jealousy grows in every corner as Gabin showers her with more and more luxury. What has been generally an amusing bedroom farce with hints of angst and doom, mounts to a depressing conclusion where death is the only exit.

This movie pushes the film noir envelope. In one way, I found it the least interesting and engaging film of the festival to date. In another way, that confounding of film noir expectations makes it a fine addition. Worth another viewing now that I know – or think I know – where it’s going.

It appeared that most of the matinee audience would be staying for the next screenings. I stepped outside for a moment. The box office line ran down the block and wrapped around the corner. Then there was the separate line for festival pass holders and advance ticket purchasers. Another blockbuster in the making. I never dreamt that the evening’s salute to Julien Duvivier would be such a draw.

CHAIR DE POULE aka HIGHWAY PICKUP (Julien Duvivier 1963), Duvivier’s penultimate directing credit, is a tour-de-force in treachery, misdirection, conniving, avarice and evil. What is not to love? Another take on Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the plot is so detailed that recounting it is next to impossible and, luckily, not really necessary. A safe-cracker on the lam. Taken in by the owner of an isolated rest stop and his much younger (need I say sexually charged?) wife. The owner’s derelict ex-inlaws. The safe-cracker’s friend and partner, for whom he went to prison, who arrives to save him. The owner’s safe that his wife wants cracked. And a high body count.

For every move by a character there is a counter-move, and each move and counter-move may or may not reflect the character’s real motive. In the middle of it all, the wife – a femme fatale that out fatales all other femmes. Jane Greer, Peggy Cummins, Beverly Michaels, Cleo Moore, Marie Windsor, and even Barbara Stanwyck would be in awe of Catherine Rouvel. Simply incredible. Based on a James Hadley Chase novel, with cinematography by Leonce-Henri Burel (NAPOLEON (Abel Gance 1927); A MAN ESCAPED (Robert Bresson 1956); PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson 1959)).

With no time to catch a breath, we plunged into VOICI LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS aka DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (Julien Duvivier 1956). Jean Gabin is a renowned chef. The sweet, young naïve Daniele Delome is the daughter of his ex-wife, but not his daughter. She had a tough life with her mother that is even tougher now that her mother is dead. She seeks his assistance. It turns into love. But she also falls into love with a young medical student (what is it about medical students?) who Gabin treats as a son. Jealousy ensues.

Jealousy, however, is about the only emotion or act that is honest. Delome loves nobody. Delome’s drug-addled mother is alive and with her, helping to plot her way to Gabin’s wealth and prestige. Whereas Rouvel’s femme fatale is marvelously and maliciously cunning, Delome adds madness. As the festival’s incisive program notes state, think of ANGEL FACE (Otto Preminger 1952) and “Jean Simmons on steroids.” It is, however, the madness that is the undoing of her cunning. All beautifully photographed by Armand Thirard, the go-to cinematographer of Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Ten cinematic wonders down, two to go.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles

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Re: The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

Postby kingrat » November 18th, 2014, 12:47 pm

I say, like a Mary Roberts Rinehart heroine, "Had I but known!" I count myself lucky to have seen one of these films, LES MAUDITS, which I love. Sartre's NO EXIT with Nazis on a submarine.

But where will it be possible to see the others? LA VERITE has been on TCM, I think. Maybe the TCM Film Festival could show one of them? The Palm Springs noir festival? Time travel?

Thank you so much for writing about all these movies and giving us the feel of them.

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Re: The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

Postby ChiO » November 18th, 2014, 6:37 pm

At the Roxie - November 21-26 for a redux.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles

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Re: The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-64

Postby ChiO » November 19th, 2014, 10:24 am

November 19, 2014 (In re: Monday night)

Monday night’s offerings were French takes on U.S. race relations – stereotypical, harsh, telling – “Whites vs. Blacks in a Black & White World.” The Roxie should have also had a tape loop of the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” playing during non-film time.

At the start of LA P…..RESPECTUEUSE aka THE RESPECTFUL PROSTITUTE (Charles Brabant 1952), a White hotsie-totsie singer (Barbara Laage) and (ahem) hostess sits in a train’s Colored car. The passenger’s of the car are taken aback. Soon a White drunk – a man she came to the car to avoid – starts pawing her. Then he turns to harass two of the male passengers. The other passengers leave the car. He pushes and kills one of them. She is the reliable, the White, witness.

The killer is the worthless nephew of a Senator. The law will protect him because he is White and the law reflects civil society, not African-American society. And, after all, everyone, whether they saw it or not, will testify that the killer actually came to Laage’s rescue to prevent a rape by the two African-American men. Or everyone, except perhaps the respectful prostitute, will so testify. Her truthful testimony could have tragic results.

Laage is magnificent. Her performance grows stronger as the film progresses, reflecting the increasing moral strength of her character. It becomes understandable why she was Orson Welles’ first choice to portray Elsa Bannister in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and Roxanne in his unmade CYRANO DE BERGERAC. Adapted from a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, this film will not be confused with a Stanley Kramer movie.

After viewing eleven heretofore-unseen films in four days, most of my brain was fried. The remainder was blown away by J’IRAI CRACHER SURVOS TOMBES aka I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES (Michel Gast 1959). Adapted from the novel by Boris Vian, Elliot regaled the packed house with Vian’s noir life (and death) backstory to the film. (The Backstory: Vian was a post-WWII Parisian intellectual and Renaissance Man – writer, musician, singer, poet, etc. His novels were unsuccessful so, in 1946, he made a bet with his publisher that he could write an American hard-boiled novel that would be a success. He created a new persona, Vernon Sullivan, an African-American who had moved to the North to escape the prejudice of the South, and wrote I Spit On Your Graves. It was a smash and he continued to have success with further books by “Sullivan.” When Gast wanted to adapt it for a movie, Vian was uncooperative, thinking that his novel could not be faithfully brought to the screen and unsuccessfully fought to have his name removed from the opening credits. He even publicly denounced the making of the film. He attended the film premiere and, within a few minutes of its start, he stood and again denounced the film…and dropped dead from a heart attack. He was 39. That is noir.) But I was still ill prepared for the white-hot hallucinations that were to follow.

An African-American man is lynched in Memphis for having a White girlfriend. His handsome light-skinned brother leaves for Trenton (note to film programmers: Trenton-noir, regardless of language, may be an untapped goldmine) vowing to avenge his brother’s death. He will pass for White and have l’affaire d’amour (truly amour fou) with White women. We are then treated to a juvenile delinquent gang, the female members of which all want to bed him, some having their wish fulfilled, and wild teenage sex and alcohol parties. He meets a beautiful rich girl while she’s horseback riding by a large lake near the gorgeous snowcapped mountains outside of Trenton (did I mention hallucinations?). She falls for him.

But she’s engaged to a wealthy young man who, inexplicably, controls the JD gang. She, however, prefers the Man from Memphis. Her fiancée and the gang learn that her paramour is African-American. She still wants him and an echo of the Memphis lynch mob ensues. They must escape – together – but to where? Where can they live their lives as one without the oppressive prejudice? They must cross the New Jersey border into Canada! They begin their trek over the rocky peaks to the Promised Land as the gang is in the hottest of hot pursuits. But, as noir amour fou must, they are doomed.

What a spectacular conclusion to a spectacular long weekend of French film noir!

My four favorites for the four days and nights (in order):

1. DEDEE D’ANVERS aka DEDEE OF ANTWERP (Yves Allegret 1948)
2. CHAIR DE POULE aka HIGHWAY PICKUP (Julien Duvivier 1963)
3. UN TEMOIN DANS LA VILLE aka WITNESS IN THE CITY (Eduardo Molinaro 1959)
4. VOICI LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS aka DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (Julien Duvivier 1956)

The Roxie is rescreening some of the twelve movies, including my #1 and #4, above, on November 21-26 due to the demand. Each of the films is highly recommended.

Here are my congratulations to Elliot and Don for this stupendous show and my fervent wish that this was just the start of a series of seldom-seen international film noir, both at the Roxie and on the road. It was, and will be, an eye opening and mind expanding treat.

FIN
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles


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