Les Intrigantes (1954)

France / 95 minutes / bw / Memnon, Alliance Générale de Distribution Cinématographique Dir: Henri Decoin Pr: Henri Lavorel Scr: Jacques Robert, Henri Decoin, François Boyer Story: La Machination (1951) by Jacques Robert Cine: Michel Kelber Cast: Raymond Rouleau, Jeanne Moreau, Raymond Pellegrin, Etchika Choureau, Marcel André, Claude Borelli, Jacques Charron (i.e., Jacques Charon), Paul Demange, Louis de Funes, Robert Hirsch, Jean-Louis Le Goff, Jean Olivier, Renée Passeur, Paul Azaïs, Guy Pierrauld, Raoul, Roger Saget, Jean Hébey.

A movie that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be—a lighthearted crime comedy or a darker tale of betrayal and detection—and that thus finds itself oscillating between the two styles.

In Paris, the next production of the Théâtre Paul Rémi is to be a manifestly dire musical, based on Greek myth, called Rendez-Vous sur l’Olympe, directed by Mickaël Pakévitch (Hirsch), who just happens to be romantically involved with one of the production’s stars, Jany Noël (Borelli).

Etchika Choureau as Marie.

A few days before opening night, however, the theater’s angel, Bazine, falls to his death from a high catwalk over the stage, and the obvious suspect is the theater’s co-owner, Paul Rémi (Rouleau), who was up there with him. Paul’s guilt seems even more probable when it’s announced Bazine’s will has bequeathed to him all the deceased’s shares in the enterprise.

Paul’s wife Mona (Moreau) vows to stick with him through thick and thin, and, Continue reading

La Foire aux Chimères (1946)

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“Can you imagine the torture of feeling the sun’s warmth without being dazzled by its light?”
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vt Devil and the Angel; vt Carnival of Illusions
France / 93 minutes / bw / Cinéma, National Dir: Pierre Chenal Pr: Ralph Baum Scr: Jacques Companéez, Ernst Neubach, Louis Ducreux Cine: Pierre Montazel Cast: Madeleine Sologne, Erich von Stroheim, Louis Salou, Yves Vincent, Claudine Dupuis, Jean-Jacques Delbo, Margo Lion, Pierre Labry, Georges Vitray, Georges Cusin, Merove, Line Renaud, Gustave Gallet, Annette Poivre, Frouhins, Denise Benoît, J.P. Moulinot, Dora Doll, Howard Vernon, Devienne, Paul Delauzac.

I watched this in the form of the restoration done by the French Ministère de la Culture’s Archives du Film du Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie. As you’ll see from the screengrabs, the picture quality is a little soft; what you can’t see from the screengrabs, of course, is that the sound isn’t of the best. Even so, the restoration is very watchable and the movie itself quite enchanting, with a dark streak of noirishness revealing itself in the later stages, after the earlier Beauty and the Beast fairytale is over.

Erich von Stroheim as Frank.

It’s the 50th birthday of Frank Davis (von Stroheim), the man in charge of the printing of banknotes for a major bank. Frank is a lonely man and a prickly personality as a consequence of the facial disfigurement he suffered some long while ago—in combat or in an accident, we’re not told. (I think we’re meant to assume it was an accident involving the acids with which, as an engraver, he must work.) His subordinates, especially the younger ones, despise him for his irascibility and his humorlessness. Here’s an exchange early on in the movie as Continue reading

Chambre Ardente, La (1962)

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An ancient curse, a modern crime!

vt The Burning Court; vt Das Brennende Gericht; vt I Peccatori della Foresta Nera
France, Italy, West Germany / 109 minutes / bw / International, UFA-Comacico, Taurus Dir: Julien Duvivier Pr: Julien Duvivier, Yvon Guézel Scr: Julien Duvivier, Charles Spaak Story: The Burning Court (1937) by John Dickson Carr Cine: Roger Fellous Cast: Nadja Tiller, Jean-Claude Brialy, Perrette Pradier, Édith Scob, Walter Giller, Duvallès, Héléna Manson, René Génin, Claude Piéplu, Dany Jacquet, Gabriel Jabour (i.e., Gabriel Jabbour), Laurence Belval, Antoine Balpêtré, Claude Rich, Carl Brake.

Chambre Ardente - 0a opener 1

Chambre Ardente - 0b opener 2

The celebrated John Dickson Carr mystery novel upon which this is based was at the time somewhat controversial, because its solution more than hinted that the supernatural was involved; for obvious reasons, this was regarded by mystery buffs as breaking the rules. (I remember reading the novel many years ago, and I’m surprised that this element didn’t trouble me. In my mystery reading I’m usually pretty prim about such infractions.) The conclusion to the movie, too, breaks the rules of straightforward mystery plotting, albeit in a different way—one that may well infuriate some viewers.

The movie starts with a scrolled and spoken preamble:

“On July 17, 1676, Marie d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, accused of witchcraft practice[s] and convicted of having poisoned her father, her two brothers and numerous other persons, was burnt at the stake on a Paris square, after having had her head cut off. Her ashes were thrown to the wind. Before her death she cursed the lover that betrayed her and all his descendants. The following tells the story of that curse.”

Today (i.e., in the early 1960s) Mathias Desgrez (Duvallès), the last direct descendant of Emile Desgrez—the cop who disguised himself as a priest to infiltrate the convent where Marie was hiding, became her lover and then turned her over to the authorities—is living near-eremitically in the grand chateau he built in the Black Forest for his wife, who alas died young. The only people he sees with any regularity are his nurse, Myra Schneider (Tiller), his housemaid, Frieda Schiller (Jacquet), his married housekeeper and gardener, Augusta Henderson (Manson) and Frédéric Henderson (Génin), and a neighbor, Dr. Hermann (Balpêtré), a genial doctor stripped of his license some years ago for performing an abortion. The two old men have fun exploring the occult together, although Continue reading

Maison sous les Arbres, La (1971)

vt The Deadly Trap; vt Death Scream
France, Italy / 96 minutes / color / Corona, Pomereu, Oceania Dir: René Clément Pr: Robert Dorfmann, Bertrand Javal Scr: Sydney Buchman, Eleanor Perry Story: The Children Are Gone (1965) by Arthur Cavanaugh Cine: Andreas Winding Cast: Faye Dunaway, Frank Langella, Barbara Parkins, Karen Blanguernon, Raymond Gérôme, Maurice Ronet, Michèle Lourie, Patrick Vincent, Gérard Buhr.

Maison Sous les Arbres - 0 opener

Two Americans, Jill Halard (Dunaway) and her scientist husband Philippe (Langella), live in their Paris apartment with their children Cathy (Lourie) and Patrick (Vincent). There’s a sense that Philippe has fled a project or situation that he disliked in the US, because he’s now copyediting science books for a French publisher. At the start of the movie he’s contacted by a spokesman (Ronet) for “The Organization” with an offer to go back to his old work to carry out, in noirish parlance, One Last Job. When Philippe hotly refuses, the persuasions turns to veiled threats against his family, which threats he treats as just so much rhetoric.

Maison Sous les Arbres - 3 PatrickPatrick (Patrick Vincent) finds a new toy.

Maison Sous les Arbres - 1 CathyCathy (Michèle Lourie) tries to hold the family together.

But then things do indeed start going alarmingly awry with the Halards’ world. While Philippe is off at a conference in Toulouse, Jill and the kids are Continue reading

Dernier des Six, Le (1941)

vt The Last One of the Six

France / 89 minutes / bw / Teledis, L’Union Générale Cinématographique, Citadel Dir: Georges Lacombe Scr: Georges Clouzot (i.e., Henri-Georges Clouzot) Story: Six Hommes Morts (1930) by S.A. Steeman Cine: Robert Lefebvre Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Michèle Alfa, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier, Jean Chevrier, Lucien Nat, André Luguet, Georges Rollin, Raymond Segard, Paul Demange, Odette Barencey.

A far better remake of The Riverside Murder (1935).

Five years ago six broke friends—Jean Perlonjour (Chevrier), Henri Senterre (Luguet), Georges “Jo” Gribbe (Rollin), Marcel Gernicot (Nat), Tignol (Tissier) and Namotte (Segard)—pooled what little money they had and sent Perlonjour to gamble with it. He returned having won triumphantly, and the sextet agreed to split the money six ways and each go out into the world to seek their fortune, reuniting in five years to share their wealth.

Now the impoverished Perlonjour returns to Paris, where Senterre has become a wealthy nightclub impresario; they discover that Namotte has apparently been murdered by being thrown from L’Aquitaine en route from Dakar to France. Another arrival is Gernicot, who seems twitchy and uneasy; his unloving wife, professional markswoman Lolita (Alfa), proves to be an old flame of Perlonjour’s. Gribbe has been in Paris all the while, forging cheques and betting on the ponies; Tignol was in Rouen, where he married a rich widow.

Gernicot is shot in Senterre’s luxury apartment; by the time Senterre returns with help, the corpse has disappeared. The plot really centers on the mystery of how this disappearance was effected. When Tignol’s murdered in Senterre’s nightclub during Lolita’s premiere performance there and then Gribbe is found dead in a fleapit Paris hotel, it’s obvious to all—and especially Commissaire Wenceslas “Wens” Vorobotchik (Fresnay)—that one of the quasi-tontine is murdering the others. The solution to the mystery—the identity of the killer—is obvious in hindsight, less so while you’re actually watching the movie.

It would be hard to claim this as a full-scale noir—there’s too much humor, notably from Wens’s chanteuse mistress Mila Malou (Delair) but also elsewhere—but it certainly has borderline noir status. Since it was made at a time when the French had no access to the crime movies being created in the US—those movies that would become regarded as the core works of film noir—we can hardly claim it was influenced by them; had it been made ten years later, on the other hand, we’d have been pontificating about its being derivative of the US school.

Aside from its stylishness, there are some obvious differences, especially in terms of its attitude toward sex: There’s no opprobrium attached to the fact that Wens and Mila are living together (in a US movie of the time, there’d likely be a conscious focus on the arrangement’s sordidness, assuming it weren’t just written out of the script) and, when Mila talks about a friend of hers who slept with every fireman in a firehouse, her horror is not at the promiscuity but that the friend should sink so low as to sleep with firemen. Again, part of Lolita’s shooting act at Santerre’s decadent nightclub The Palladium is to burst globes that are being held aloft by nude women, little of whose nudity is hidden from the camera; even though the scene is charming and satirically witty rather than salacious, the upholders of the Production Code would have had a fit. Just compare this with the markswoman act of Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in GUN CRAZY (1949), which the US thought was rather saucy.

Les Dernier des Six (1941) - A scene you'd not find in a contemporary US movie

A scene you’d not find in Gun Crazy (1949).

Clouzot would bring back the characters of Wens and Mila in his directorial debut, L’ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21 (1942; vt The Murderer Lives at Number 21), again based on a Steeman novel. Both movies, and others involving Clouzot as either writer or director (or both), were done for the Nazi-financed company Continental, a circumstance that was to cause him some trouble after WWII was over.

Reportedly Lacombe declined to direct the protracted Busby Berkeley-style nightclub act himself.

On Amazon.fr: Le Dernier de Six