A serial killer in German-occupied Marseilles!
vt The Beasts of Marseilles
UK / 96 minutes / bw / Dial, Rank Dir: Hugo Fregonese Pr: Daniel M. Angel Scr: John Baines Story: Seven Thunders (1955) by Rupert Croft-Cooke Cine: John Wilkie Cooper Cast: Stephen Boyd, James Robertson Justice, Kathleen Harrison, Tony Wright, Anna Gaylor, Eugene Deckers, Rosalie Crutchley, Katherine Kath, James Kenney, Anton Diffring, Denis Shaw, George Coulouris, Marcel Pagliero, Gaylord Cavallaro, Leonard Sachs, Martin Miller, Carl Duering, June Cowell, Andreas Malandrinos, Edric Connor, Peter Augustine.
I don’t usually post on a Monday, but today is, according to Aurora and others, National Classic Movie Day (twitterpatable at #NationalClassicMovieDay). So, ever one to leap aboard a passing bandwagon, I bring you this . . .
In the book of Revelation, Chapter Ten, there’s reference to seven thunders that “utter their voices”; the title of this movie, then—or more accurately the title of its source novel—refers to matters apocalyptic, and sure enough there’s a small-scale apocalypse served up toward the end when the Germans move in to raze the Old Quarter/Old Port region of Marseilles.
It’s 1943 and the trawlerman Salvatore (Pagliero), a Jean Gabin type with a crusty exterior but a heart of gold, brings to the Old Port slum of Marseilles two escaped British prisoners of war, Dave (Boyd) and Jim (Wright), so they can hide out until a passage can be arranged for them to England.
The fisherman Salvatore (Marcel Pagliero) is a stalwart of the Resistance.
Very soon they encounter, in the apartment block where they’re hiding, Lise (Gaylor), an orphaned young woman who’s using her wits, among other things, to survive the Nazi Occupation. The first encounters aren’t promising: Dave accidentally kicks her as she crouches on a landing; when later he catches her trying to steal their boots, she bites him in escaping—leading the two Brits to call her Dracula’s Daughter for a while. But then one night Dave saves Lise from the attentions of a drunken, oafish beer barrel of a German soldier (Shaw) who’s attempting to rape her in the street, and before you know it she’s expressed her gratitude to him in the traditional way.
Dave, although engaged to his girl Sue back in Salisbury, England, is happy for the fling. What it takes him a while to realize is that Lise, for all her flighty flirtatiousness, has fallen genuinely in love with him.
Lise (Anna Gaylor) and Dave (Stephen Boyd) realize they’re in love.
The men get their supplies from the local store/bistro, Chez Dédé, whose proprietor, Dédé (Malandrinos), may overcharge but can be relied upon not to betray them. Another habitué of Chez Dédé is the impoverished Emile Blanchard (Deckers), who’s helping runaways and Jews escape across the sea to Spain.
On being approached by an Austrian Jew on the run, Heinrich Schlip (Miller), Emile tells him how to get in touch with his associate, the rich Dr. Martout (Justice), who’ll spirit him away as he’s done for so many fugitives before.
Emile to Schlip: “We are comrades in distress. I chose the wrong politics, you chose the wrong parents.”
Schlip (Martin Miller) calls at Martout’s home.
What Emile doesn’t know is that, far from aiding refugees to escape, Martout is robbing them of all their possessions, murdering them, and dissolving the bodies in quicklime in his cellar. Martout explains this to Schlip after feeding him a drugged cognac:
Schlip: “Forgive my curiosity. You did say you were not a medical doctor. What exactly is your profession?”
Martout: “My profession? Murder.”
James Robertson Justice as Martout. “My profession? Murder.”
Martout is very proud of his career as a murderer—in fact, he reckons he’s likely the best murderer there has ever been. As he tells an increasingly woozy Schlip, the Austrian’s going to be his 96th victim. Ideally he’ll reach the magical 100 soon.
The character of Martout seems obviously to be based on the genuine serial killer Dr. Marcel Petiot, who used a very similar scam in Paris during the Occupation. Petiot in fact had a long killing career before WWII, but it was the occupation that enabled to turn his hobby to profit. Petiot’s activities were exposed in 1944 and, after a period on the run, he was eventually brought to trial in March 1946 and guillotined in May of that same year. It’s not certain quite how many people he murdered, but most estimates fall in the 60–65 range—far fewer than the fictional Dr. Martout’s claimed tally.
The Führer himself has become concerned by the fact that the Old Port is a nest of thieves and fugitives, according to SS Colonel Trautman (Diffring, wasted in a tiny role), who arrives to tell the local Nazi authorities that they have fourteen days to solve this problem or they’re likely to find themselves serving on the Russian Front, from which, legendarily, no German soldier ever returns.
There’s an all too brief cameo from Anton Diffring.
One of those local Nazis, Major Grautner (Duering), is all in favor of destroying the slum; it’s “crawling with the worst criminals in Europe.” His superior (Sachs) is appalled—surely it’d be an act of inhumanity to turf upward of 20,000 people, most of whom are innocent, out of their homes, while killing many others who, again, are often likely innocent. Trautman’s sneering attitude toward the idea of human principles echoes Martout’s boasts about his proficiency as a murderer. There is, both seem to be saying, no such thing as society, and it’s a matter of pride that the strong should use every opportunity they have to destroy the vulnerable.
The first Nazi attempt to deal with the problem is to scour the quartier inspecting everyone’s papers. There’s a comic sidebar in which Jim is saved by the middle-aged Englishwoman Madame Abou (Harrison), who lives in the upstairs apartment with her French (and, daringly for a 1957 movie, black) husband (Connor). While Jim has good forged papers, he doesn’t speak French, so Madame Abou leaps into bed with him as the Germans approach, then does a lot of bluffing as Jim pretends to sleep.
Madame Abou (Kathleen Harrison) has befriended Jim (Tony Wright).
Dave and Lise have chosen to hide out on the roof. There they’re cornered by the fat German officer who earlier tried to rape Lise. After a rooftop fight with Dave, the man falls to his well merited death. Loud cheers from the peanut gallery.
Lise (Anna Gaylor) looks down through the trapdoor from the roof to check for pursuit.
The fat would-be rapist (Denis Shaw) fights it out on the rooftop with first Lise and then Dave.
It’s now essential that Jim and Dave escape the building. Luckily Lise knows there’s a secret exit through Madame Abou’s bedroom to the brothel (euphemistically signboarded “Cabaret”) next door. The madame there, Madame Parfait (Kath), is disposed to help the two young Brits; what’s odd is that they leave the hole they’ve battered through the partition wall wide open, so that any searching Germans would find out immediately where they’d gone.
The estimable Madame Parfait (Katherine Kath) faces down a German soldier.
Although the loss of a few of the hated Germans during the operation—Martout gets two of them—is no great cause for grief, there are other casualties. A fresh-faced young German corporal, Eric Triebel (Kenney), taunted by some of the local urchins, in a panic lets fly with his machine gun, killing Renee (Cowell), daughter of Emile Blanchard and his shrewish wife Thérèse (Crutchley).
Eric (James Kenney) realizes to his horror that he’s killed the child Renee Blanchard.
Thérèse Blanchard (Rosalie Crutchley).
Thérèse has been nagging Emile all this while as if the privations imposed on them by the Occupation are somehow all his fault, and after Renee’s death she’s disposed to blame that on him too. Yet, when he saves her from her attempted suicide, it finally dawns on her that he might have been sticking around for reasons other than mere habit:
Thérèse: “I thought you’d gone too.”
Emile: “Would you have missed me if I had?”
Thérèse: “You’re better than nothing.”
From that point on she’s confident in Emile’s love, and expresses her own for him.
Emile (Eugene Deckers) begins to realize that Martout might not be quite the selfless hero he’s alwaysbelieved him to be.
Before then, though, Emile has sought help from his old pal Martout, and been mortified when the man rejects his plea. Martout pretends the reason is that, without sufficient liquid financial resources, any refugee is bound to have a hard time of it in a foreign country:
Martout: “My poor Emile. Come back when you’ve robbed a bank or something and I shall see what I can do.”
Emile’s reaction is to mug Paul Bourdin (Coulouris), a recently deposed and very rich minister of the Vichy government whom Emile has recently set up with Martout. Luckily for Martout, Emile missed Bourdin’s money belt . . .
Bourdin (George Coulouris) tries to persuade Emile (Eugene Deckers) that his cause is a righteous one.
Much later, Jim opts to try Martout’s supposed escape route; the murderer’s stratagem fails because Jim—lined up to be victim number 100!—is a teetotaller, so at the first opportunity pours the drugged cognac into a nearby objet d’art. In fact, Martout’s home is stuffed with objets d’art—it’s an island of cultural luxury in the middle of a slum supposedly packed with the scum of the earth; why, we wonder, haven’t all these dastardly crooks stripped Martout’s home of all its valuables long ago?
Jim (Tony Wright) and Dave (Stephen Boyd) prepare for the final showdown.
The loss of several soldiers in the attempt to comb the quartier for criminals inspires the Nazis—under Grautner—simply to level it. They give the occupants two hours to get out before the demolition begins. Some of the most effective sequences of the movie are to be found in this final stretch, where a good deal of archival footage of the Vichy razing of the Old Port is interspersed with freshly shot material. The green screening (I assume that was the technique) is not actually very good, so that we’re aware Lise, Dave and Jim are performing in front of the back-projected scenes of havoc, but even so it’s impossible not to be affected by the destruction; for much of the movie’s last few minutes I really didn’t know if our friends were going to live or die, and I was on the edge of my seat as a result.
Some of the archival footage of the Old Port being destroyed.
Lise (Anna Gaylor) quests through the blitz to find Jim and Dave.
Among the leads, Tony Wright is quite excellent, Anna Gaylor is a somewhat irritating caricature, and Stephen Boyd is a plank of wood with a dimple in its chin.
Ironically, it’s Boyd who’d go on to have the most successful career. Brigitte Bardot chose him as her costar in The Night Heaven Fell (1958) dir Roger Vadim, and that was enough to make him Hollywood’s darling. The pinnacle of his career was probably the role of Messala in Ben-Hur (1959), but there was lots, lots more. An unusual distinction was that, in the French–Italian movie Vénus Impériale (1962; vt Imperial Venus), where he starred opposite Gina Lollobrigida, his role led to the movie being banned in the US: in one of his scenes, although he was demurely covered by a sheet, the implication that he was nude beneath it seemed so outrageous to the Motion Picture Association of America that they stepped in. There ain’t nothing more destructive of the nation’s morality than a possible lack of jammies.
James Robertson Justice produces one of his best portrayals here. He’s usually remembered today as a comic actor—think of all those Doctor in the House movies—but he could do creepy too, and he does it triumphantly here, hiding the vilest of personalities under a mask of bourgeois respectability.
Yet he’s almost outshone by some of the support cast. Kathleen Harrison’s wonderful as the Cockney to whom bravery seems second nature. James Kenney demonstrates why it’s always a mistake to give some people armed authority over others. George Coulouris and particularly Martin Miller create genuine characters with whom we can identify as two of Martout’s victims, and Shaw’s character is dependably vile.
The finest of all these support performances is surely Katherine Kath’s, as the bordello owner Madame Parfait. It would be easy to dismiss, lazily, Kath’s depiction of the character as a piece of comedy—a madam! haha! how hilarious!—but in fact she presents us with a Madame Parfait who’s a fairly formidable human being. When Dave and Jim escape through Madame Abou’s wall into Madame Parfait’s territory, she immediately takes charge . . . and decisively solves their problem.
The first classification of Seven Thunders should probably be as a war movie, yet it doesn’t sit happily in that category. Like Candlelight in Algeria (1944) and even CASABLANCA (1942), it steps right outside the genre expectations to give us something that it’s hard to pigeonhole. When I set up this site, Noirish, it was with the primary intention of covering cinema that, while not actually film noir, nevertheless shouldn’t be ignored in any consideration of film noir’s overall context. Yes, sure, I cover all sorts of other things here too, but that expansion was an afterthought. Seven Thunders seems to me to fit slap-bang into the middle of my original intention.
This is a contribution to Rich Westlake’s 1957 Crimes of the Century meme on his Past Offences blog.