vt A Kiss for a Killer
France / 98 minutes / bw / Michel Safra, Speva, Cinedis Dir: Henri Verneuil Pr: Michel Safra Scr: Henri Verneuil, Annette Wademant, François Boyer Story: The Sucker Punch (1954) by James Hadley Chase Cine: Christian Matras Cast: Henri Vidal, Mylène Demongeot, Isa Miranda, Jean-Lou Philippe (i.e., Jean-Loup Philippe), Simone Bach, Antonin Berval, Jean Galland, Ky Duyen, André Roanne, Marc Valbel, Alfred Adam.
My knowledge of French slang is minimal, and even more so of French slang as it might have been used in the 1950s, but as far as I can work out the sense of the word manche used here is “empty sleeve”, so that a reasonable translation of the title might be The Chump and the Babe. UPDATE: Reader Luc Secret, to whom my very great gratitude, has offered the correct explanation in the comments below.
The chump is Philippe Delaroche (Vidal), a lowly mid-thirties employee deputed by his superiors at the Pacific Banking Corporation to facilitate the purchase by a fabulously wealthy client, the widowed Stella Farnwell (Miranda), of her new car. He tries to wangle a 10% commission for himself out of the car dealer; when Stella immediately discovers this, he glibly presents it to her as a cunning ploy of his to save her 10% of the purchase price. She sees the lie, but is amused enough to accept it. She’s intrigued, too; soon after Philippe gets back to the bank she phones to say she wants him to take over the management of her account from his boss, M. Edmond (Valbel).
Spending much of his time at Stella’s chateau just outside Nice brings Philippe into protracted contact with her pretty young secretary, Ève Dollan (Demongeot); he’s attracted, but not much more—especially since he already has a pretty girlfriend at the bank, Sylvette Guibert (Bach). What he doesn’t realize until Ève points it out to him is that Stella has fallen in love with him. He’s embarrassed and confused—even more so when that night Stella insists on accompanying him to a wrestling match, hijacking the ticket he bought for Sylvette.
After he brings Stella home to the chateau, she emotionally blackmails him into becoming her lover, and in due course the pair are married—with the newspapers calling Philippe names like “Mr. Cinderella” and deriding him, accurately it seems, as having married Stella purely for her money. As wedding guest M. Edmond says with both wistful envy and some relief, “It could so easily have been me.”
For honeymoon the couple cruise across the Med in Stella’s yacht to Venice. Stella brings her support staff, Ève and houseman Chang (Duyen). The morning after the newlyweds’ first night, Philippe gets up early for a swim and accidentally—or so it seems at the time—comes across Ève skinnydipping. Even before the honeymoon is over, Philippe has embarked upon an affair with Ève. When Stella nearly has a drowning accident, being saved by Philippe, it sows the seeds of a dreadful idea in the adulterers’ minds . . .
Back home, Stella, by now pretty suspicious that there’s something going on, becomes ever more domineering. Adding to Philippe’s concerns is his discovery that Ève has another lover; she swears her heart lies with Philippe but, looking at the bigger picture, the other guy does have money so she’d be better off marrying him while carrying on her assignations with Philippe. Of course, should Stella die and Philippe inherit her fortune . . .
Together Philippe and Ève devise the supposed “perfect crime”: next time Philippe’s old pal l’Inspecteur Malard (Adam) calls round with buddies for an evening of belote (cards), a clever trick with a tape recorder will give Philippe the alibi of dictating business correspondence in the next room while in fact he’s off pushing Stella’s car over a cliff—with Stella inside it, of course.
This murder sequence is certainly the dramatic high point of the movie. As Stella drives along the cliffside road in foul weather, we see—as she does not—Philippe pushing himself up from where he’s been lying in front of the back seat, his menacing eyes appearing in her rearview mirror. After he bashes her unconscious, he starts replacing one of the front wheels with the previously punctured spare from the trunk—the puncture being the “explanation” for why her car careers off the road. When he’s done with the job he discovers that Stella has recovered consciousness, and is wandering wraithlike and confused along the road. He grabs her and thrusts her back into the car, then pushes it off the cliff-edge . . . only for the flap of his coat to catch in the car door, almost pulling him to his doom alongside Stella. He gets home just in time to receive the phonecall from the emergency authorities to tell him that his wife has been in accident. Rushing there with Malard, he finds that, against all the odds, Stella has survived—but only long enough to give Philippe one last long, accusatory stare.
As soon as the murder is done, Ève starts giving him the cold shoulder. It proves that Stella has left all her money to her estranged son Robert (Philippe), who just happens to be the young lover whom Ève has been seeing on the side. It can be only a matter of time before Malard sees through the tape-recorder ruse, and Philippe has set himself up to be the perfect patsy . . .
This is one of the best of the James Hadley Chase adaptations—admittedly not a high barrier to hurdle but, even so, this is a deliciously wrought piece, in its way almost a thematic precursor of movies like The LAST SEDUCTION (1994), with a mercenary femme fatale skillfully setting up a chump to take the rap for her crimes. The three central performances are excellent, with the slight caveat that, while Miranda, as Stella, is indeed somewhat older than Vidal’s Philippe, she’s still a handsome woman, so that his sly moués of distaste at the prospect of sleeping with her seem incongruous. Both Demongeot and Miranda had long and distinguished careers. Vidal’s was cut short just a couple of years after this movie when his depression and severe drug addiction (of which there’s no betraying onscreen evidence here) induced a fatal heart attack; he was just 40.
In her autobiography, Tiroirs Secrets (2001), Demongeot recalls the approbation the movie and Verneuil received from one critic because of a scene in which, in Stella’s office, Ève nonchalantly scarfs an apple: clearly a clever symbol of the temptations of Eve/Ève, etc. The truth, according to Demongeot, was that there was supposed to be a lavish basket of exotic fruits there but Verneuil’s assistant forgot to arrange for it. So in desperation the assistant ran out to a nearby restaurant and came back with . . . a bowl of apples. Verneuil went with what he had.
This is a fine piece of French noir and, particularly in light of its director and its excellent cast, it’s surprising that it seems largely to have dropped out of sight.
On Amazon.com: Une Manche et la Belle (DVD)