France / 84 minutes / bw / BN, Éclair-Journal Dir: Pierre Chenal Scr: J. Companeez, H. Juttke Story: L’Alibi (1929 screenplay for short movie) by Marcel Achard Cine: Ted Pahle Cast: Erich von Stroheim, Albert Préjean, Jany Holt, Louis Jouvet, Vera Flory, Foun-Sen, Genia Vaury, Madeleine Siame, Roger Blin, Philippe Richard, Temerson, Maurice Bacquet, Florence Marly, Margo Lion.
Nightclub “mentalist” Professor Winckler (von Stroheim), an American expatriate phony with a penchant for monastic fancy dress, currently working the Femina club in Paris with his beautiful young stage assistant (Foun-Sen) and his manservant Kretz (Blin), discovers one night that his arch-enemy, Chicago gangster John Gordon (Richard), is in the audience. Later we find out that among the many crimes Gordon committed in the US—and for some of which he did time in Sing Sing—was the stealing of Winckler’s wife. Gordon, terrified of Winckler’s vengeance, leaves his mistress (Marly) in Paris and makes a bolt by car for London; but Winckler follows him and shoots him on the highway.
Winckler’s lovely but unnamed assistant (Foun-Sen).
The Chicago gangster Gordon’s lovely but unnamed mistress (Florence Marly).
Later that night Winckler gives one of the Femina taxi dancers, Hélène Ardouin (Holt), 20,000 francs to swear, should the cops inquire, that he spent the night with her: she is to be his alibi. (He does spend part of the night with her, but it’s hardly an episode of seething passion: he sleeps while she catches up with her knitting!) Hélène assumes this is “merely” something to do with drugs; when she later discovers there’s murder involved she’s horrified, but by then it’s far too late to back out. And when—after she mentions that the club’s bellboy, Gérard (Bacquet), walked her home that night so can disprove the alibi—Gérard is in turn murdered she realizes how high the stakes really are.
Broke taxi dancer Hélène Ardouin (Jany Holt) agrees to Winckler’s scheme, little knowing the gravity of his crime.
Commissaire Calas (Jouvet), having initially suspected Gordon’s mistress of the crime, soon comes to realize that Winckler is probably the killer. Pretending that he’s Émile Bouquart, a friend of her brother Fernand’s, he persuades Hélène to admit that the alibi’s bogus; yet, when he reveals himself as a cop, she’s able plausibly to claim that she simply didn’t want to admit to a friend of her brother’s that she’d been a-whoring.
The astute Commissaire Calas (Louis Jouvet).
Soon after, the Femina acquires a new customer, a seemingly rich and very convivial drunk called André Laurent (Préjean). At first Hélène is so horrified by her circumstance that she can’t respond to his obvious interest in her; soon this changes, though, and it becomes pretty obvious that she’s falling in love with him and he with her—which is a pity, because in fact he’s Commissaire Calas’s sidekick, set on Hélène to see if he can trick a confession out of her . . .
Hélène (Jany Holt) confronts Winckler (Erich von Stroheim) with his deception, but by now she’s too far compromised to complain.
In my A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir I think I make a fairly convincing case that, whatever the French critics might have concluded in the postwar years, film noir wasn’t exclusively a US phenomenon and that in fact French (and other European) film noir got going even before its US counterpart. This movie is yet another supportive example (and will be included in future editions); it ends on an upbeat note (perhaps tagged on to keep the matinee audience happy), but for much of the time before that it seems the future for the charming Hélène and her duplicitous swain will be grim.
Kretz (Roger Blin) stalks Hélène with murderous intent.
The dialogue’s mainly in French. There are a few lines in German—promptly repeated in French—and far more than a few in English, most of them spoken by the supposedly American mentalist Winckler; I don’t know if von Stroheim voiced these himself or if they were dubbed (they do sound as if dubbed), but the net effect is horrendous—as if Stephen Hawking had sent his voice synthesizer back in time a few decades. In the copy of this movie that I watched, the lines spoken in English were given subtitles in French; it felt odd to this anglophone that I found the subtitles easier to understand than the spoken lines.
Among the supporting roles, Lion is noteworthy as Dany, the shepherdess of the club’s hostesses and in due course Hélène’s best friend, and especially Temerson as Dany’s disreputable boyfriend Jojo; the latter performance is outrageously funny, quite counter to the direction of much of the rest of the movie, and yet somehow it fits in just fine. The great jazz that we hear performed in the Club Femina—and there’s an admirable plentitude of it—comes from Bobby Martin and his Band.
Dany (Margo Lion) and Jojo (Temerson) offer comic relief.
Great jazzman Bobby Martin (himself) plays at the club.
Pierre Chenal directed a number of movies that are of noirish interest, among them CRIME ET CHÂTIMENT (1935) and most especially Le DERNIER TOURNANT (1939)—the first movie adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). The story of L’Alibi seems as far as I can tell to have originated in a 1929 short that the prolific playwright Achard did (not to be confused with the 1929 Chester Morris movie The Alibi); he created a stage version in 1938, presumably to cash in on Chenal’s movie. Alibi (1942) dir Brian Desmond Hurst, with Margaret Lockwood, Hugh Sinclair and James Mason, was a UK remake.
André Laurent (Albert Préjean) becomes increasingly uneasy about entrapping Hélène.
One of the movie’s oddities is that, when people order a scotch, it’s not just a finger or two they get but, typically, a tumblerful. When André is admonished by a barman for having already knocked back six scotches, it might seem the barman is being unusually prudent; not when you see the sizes of them scotches, it ain’t.
On Amazon.com: L’Alibi (DVD)