After he’d hidden the body of his unfaithful wife’s lover, almost nothing went according to plan!
vt Back to the Wall
France / 93 minutes / bw / Société Nouvelle des Établissements, Gaumont Dir: Édouard Molinaro Pr: François Chavane, Alain Poiré Scr: Frédéric Dard, François Chavane, Jean Redon, J.L. Roncoroni Story: Délivrez-Nous du Mal (1956) by Frédéric Dard Cine: Robert Lefebvre Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Oury, Philippe Nicaud, Claire Maurier, Gérard Buhr, Joëlle Janin, Robert Le Béal, Micheline Luccioni, Pascal Mazzotti, Jacqueline Noëlle, Jean Marie Rivière, Jean Lefebvre, Colette Renard.
Le Dos au Mur is a superb piece of domestic noir that should be far more widely known than it is.
In a long introductory sequence we see industrialist Jacques Decrey (Oury) go at night to the apartment of his wife’s lover, Yves Normand (Nicaud). After a minor commotion, Yves is dead on the floor—but his corpse doesn’t stay there for long. Moving with quiet deliberation, Jacques packs a few of Yves’s belongings into a suitcase, as if to give the impression the man has gone away on an unexpected vacation, then wraps the corpse in a rug and carries everything to his car. He drives to his industrial plant and buries the body under concrete in the middle of a new wall.
The late Yves (Philippe Nicaud).
Jacques (Gérard Oury) hefts the rug-wrapped body.
This opening sequence is played out with a beautifully measured pace, refusing to hurry itself. Any possibility that we might become impatient with Jacques’s careful progress is avoided by the dramatic musical score (by Richard Cornu) which, Bernard Herrmann-style, manages to interpolate dramatically strident chords just when they’re likely to have the most potent effect. It’s a technique that would be easy to overdo; here it’s done just right.
Driving home at last, his task over, Jacques begins to reminisce about the events that have brought him to this point: “It all began three months ago . . .” Almost all of the rest of the movie, save for the dramatic climax, is told in flashback.
Three months ago Jacques arrives home a day early from a hunting trip and discovers his wife Gloria (Moreau) saying a smoochy goodbye to Yves on the doorstep. He stays out of their sight, then creeps off to a cheap hotel to spend the night.
Gloria (Jeanne Moreau) tries to phone Yves to tell him Jacques’s home early.
Jacques (Gérard Oury) gets his first glimpse of the guilty couple.
Rather than have the matter out with Gloria, Jacques pretends ignorance. He hires a seedy private eye, Mauvin (Lefebvre), to trail Gloria and take incriminating photographs of the two lovers. Adopting the identity of a recently deceased employee, Louis Berthier, Jacques sets up a poste restante account and sends Gloria a blackmail letter, in hopes this will disillusion her of the affair, assuaging his guilt by reminding himself that, ultimately, he’ll be the one paying himself the blackmail money.
What he fails to understand is that the relationship between Gloria and Yves is not something new. They met years ago when they were both at drama school, and swore undying love. But then he was offered a role in a prolonged tour of North Africa, during which he acquired himself a mistress; by the time he got back Gloria had opted for security rather than the life of a struggling actor by marrying Jacques. Now Yves fills in the time between his rare acting gigs by playing the piano at the Nordland Bar, owned by Ghislaine (Maurier), another of his ex-lovers.
Yves (Philippe Nicaud) seeks advice from his boss and ex-lover Ghislaine (Claire Maurier).
Jacques doesn’t realize, either, that Gloria’s view of Yves is not as romantic as one might think:
Yves: “I love you. If I had money I’d keep you.”
Gloria: “If you had money, you’d gamble, you’d drink, but you wouldn’t keep me.”
Since the first blackmail letter produced the demanded payment but didn’t disrupt the affair, Jacques sends another, demanding a further 500,000 francs: “I forgot to include in the last bill the cost of photographs . . .”
And so it goes.
Jeanne Moreau as Gloria.
Despite Ghislaine’s prior relationship with Yves, the two consult her about their predicament. It’s she who has the idea of sending a couple of her tough friends, Mario (Buhr) and Paul (Rivière), to stake out the post office where Jacques picks up the consignments of blackmail money. They do indeed pick him up, but he soon explains the real situation and buys them off. He then enlists the aid of Ghislaine in a new plan—to convince Gloria that it’s Yves who has organized the blackmail as a means of extracting dough from the rich husband. Since Ghislaine still nurtures hopes of recovering Yves for herself, she doesn’t need much persuading . . .
Mario (Gérard Buhr, left) and Paul (Jean Marie Rivière, center) sort things out with Jacques (Gérard Oury).
About 15 minutes from the end I began to grin as I realized how beautifully I’d been bamboozled by the movie—for an hour or more I’d gotten things quite wrong about some very important elements of the plot. It’s a very clever piece of sleight-of-hand, because all the evidence is there upon which to base a correct interpretation of events, and yet I think it’d be a rare viewer who wasn’t as misled as I was. And I really wasn’t expecting the ending, although there again all the necessary evidence was in plain view.
Although it’s the dour Jacques upon whose resolute shoulders the tale rests, the movie’s not without some moments of relieving humor. Some of these are provided by the PI, Mauvin, and his wife Josiane (Renard). When Mauvin’s first hired by Jacques, Josiane makes a great flounce about how Jacques isn’t the only cuckold around here, know what I mean? Later she reinforces the message:
Madame Mauvin: “You’re ugly, cheapskate, and you’re a cuckold. . . . I am the wife of a cuckold!”
Mauvin realizes this is mere attention-seeking, and is unfazed by her claims. It’s all very French, and Renard is quite captivating in the role of would-be adulteress.
Mauvin (Jean Lefebvre) and Josiane (Colette Renard), the main source of humor in the movie.
Also very captivating is Maurier in the role of the world-weary bar owner Ghislaine. Of the two female leads, Moreau is clearly the intended star—and of course she’s the household name. Yet it’s Maurier who has by far the more interesting character in this movie, and she too has had a very distinguished cinema career. Another bar to have been much more recently graced by her presence was the Café des Deux Moulins, the bistro that’s the focus of attention in one of my favorite modern movies, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001; vt Amélie); she plays the bar’s owner, Suzanne.
Le Dos au Mur is among the most beautifully cinematographed movies I can recall seeing in quite a while. The filming makes the black-and-white seem positively opulent, and time after time shots are so superbly constructed that one wants to print individual frames out and put them on the wall. There’s something of the same feel, I think, to the cinematography here as there is to Franz Planer’s work in Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). A couple of the many frames that caught my eye:
I found Le Dos au Mur on Vimeo via rarefilmm.