Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gangsters, Murderers, and Detectives

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog arguing about how the French films of the 1940s and 50s are more consistently excellent than those of the New Wave. Well, here’s more proof. I’ve just recently caught up with three films by some of the major French directors of the era, some of which are minor classics, some nearly forgotten. They all deal with crime and intrigue in some form or another, and all of them exhibit the kind of expert control of pacing, style, and content that I think is the trademark of that era of cinema.

Quai des Orfevres (1947)

Literally translated as Quay of the Goldsmiths, this was the first film Henri Georges Clouzot made after a brief period of blacklisting in the wake of the controversy surrounding Le Corbeau. The film is a character-driven murder mystery/police procedural that follows sultry singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) and her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). As the story opens, the drab and mild-mannered Maurice is becoming increasingly jealous of Jenny, whose burgeoning stardom is starting to attract the attention of wealthy and powerful characters like Brignon, a debauched elderly businessman whose hobby is wooing young women with his ability to help their careers. The story really kicks into gear when, following a secret rendezvous with Jenny in which they plan to “discuss her future,” Brignon ends up dead inside his mansion with a head wound. In what amounts to some sensational plotting, both Jenny and a distraught and vengeful Maurice, who was planning to murder the old man, think themselves responsible, and the couple soon start to unravel as they feel the police closing in on them.

This might sound like enough plot for a whole film, but Clouzot fits this all in to the first thirty or so minutes by using his trademark razor-sharp attention to detail to establish it all with a remarkable economy of scenes. From here, the tone of the story shifts rather dramatically with the introduction of Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a world-weary police detective who is assigned to Brignon’s murder and soon begins investigating Jenny and Maurice. Even though he’s not introduced until well into the story, and even then only in a supporting role, Louis Jouvet flat out walks away with this film. His Antoine is not your typical movie detective, tenacious and driven to solve the case by any means necessary. Instead, he is a slow-moving, avuncular kind of guy who would much rather spend time with his adopted son than catch criminals. In one of the film’s best moments, Antoine is given a chance to make the classic determined detective speech to one of the other characters, but shrugs it off with a simple “I don’t give a damn.” That’s the kind of great character moments that a director like Clouzot brings to this kind of material. Throughout the story, he constantly subverts the easy, plot-driven style of the suspense genre in favor of these little touches, always striving to avoid the cliched and superficial. This style, along with the cool, restrained presence of Antoine, proves to be the perfect antidote to the hyperbolic (and admittedly sort of annoying) performances of Delair and Blier, and helps drive the film home to a rather clever conclusion.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954)

If Jouvet’s Inspector Antoine was a clever reversal on the typical police detective, then Jean Gabin’s performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot) does the same thing for the stereotypical criminal character. Gabin’s Max, the cool-as-ice thief at the center of the film, is an aging gang leader in search of the proverbial “last big score.” Unlike a lot of movie criminals, though, Max isn’t just trying to strike it rich, he’s really just sick of the game. In every scene, Becker goes out of his way to make it painfully clear just how tired of the criminal lifestyle Max is, whether showing him listlessly walking into his sparsely-furnished apartment, or just brushing his teeth. He has the perfect vessel for this world-weariness in Gabin, who looked quite a bit older than his 50 years when this film was made in 1954. He, along with Rene Dary as his right hand man Riton, make for two of the cinema’s most unlikely gangsters with their gray, slightly thinning hair and expanded waistlines. But this all just helps sell the the idea that these are thieves whose glory days are well behind them, and who now seem more at home eating crackers at the dinner table (as they do in one of the film’s more memorable scenes) than they do taking down scores. This idea is reflected in Becker’s style and plotting as well, as the director avoids showing us a number of the requisite crime movie scenes (most notably the unexplained heist that drives the whole story) in favor of the kind of small moments that help put the story in perspective. When it does come in the film’s final few scenes, the action is indeed well choreographed and exciting, but the fact that it's perpetrated by characters whom Becker has so lovingly established as past their prime makes the situation (and, for that matter, the film genre in which it takes place) all the more shocking and absurd.

Elevator to the Gallows (1957)

Louis Malle is a director I usually associate with slightly rambling character-driven dramas like the brilliant Atlantic City, so I was surprised to find that Elevator to the Gallows, his first film, is a tense, irony-filled crime movie. The story follows businessman Julien (Maurice Ronet), a former legionnaire and hero of the Indochina war, who is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau). The couple resolve to kill the husband, a crime that is ingeniously depicted in the film’s opening sequence when the athletic Julien scales the outside of his building with a rope, guns down the man, and scales back down, all the while maintaining his alibi that he was quietly working in his office. He executes the crime with stunning precision, save for one crucial piece of evidence, and when he goes back to retrieve it, he inadvertently becomes trapped in the building’s elevator. While Julien spends a desperate night trying to escape, Florence, convinced she’s been ditched, wanders the city streets frantically looking for him. At the same time, a rebellious young couple played by Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin steal Julien’s car and take it for a joyride, eventually stopping at a hotel and committing an inexplicable crime of their own.

If that complex plot description doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a film that values multiple (often absurdly flawed) perspectives of the same event, and it is the way these character’s fates and paths become intertwined that helps drive the story forward. In many ways, the film seems to exhibit several of the tendencies of the existentialist movement that was still prominent in France at the time of its release, as whole plot points are brought on by random and cruel bits of chance. Similarly, every character at some point or another is forced to act on the flawed or incomplete knowledge brought on by their skewed perspectives, and the result is a hilariously ironic series of exchanges where all the principles eventually incriminate themselves and each other. Moreau’s Florence is one of the major players in this regard, as her desperate search for her lover ends up being his undoing, but she is just one part of a tangled web of misunderstanding and coincidence that eventually becomes almost tragic in its implications. Like all the other actors in the film, she isn’t really given much juicy dialogue-- this is a film that prizes action above all else-- but Moreau’s screen presence here is formidable, and provides us ample evidence of why she would eventually become a major star. Likewise, her lonely walk through the Paris streets at night gives Malle a real chance to flex his directorial muscles, and he provides some of the best looking location shooting you’re likely to see this side of the New Wave, all of it accompanied by a now-famous improvised jazz score by Miles Davis. This great style, coupled with the film’s rich themes of chance, fate, and consequence, amounts to a truly superior film. This is the kind of movie that directors like Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino have strived to make throughout their careers, and you could make an argument that neither has ever pulled it off with this kind of simplicity and elegance.

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