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November 23, 2018

Clouzot: The Early Works

Magda Schneider in Tell Me Tonight

Dragnet Night / Un soir de rafle
Carmine Gallone - 1931

I'll Be Alone After Midnight / Je serai seule apres minuit
Jacques de Barracelli - 1931

The Unknown Singer / Le chanteur inconnu
Viktor Tourjansky - 1931

The Terror of Batignolles / La terreur des Batignolles
Henri-Georges Clouzot - 1931

My Cousin from Warsaw / Ma cousine de Varsovie
Carmine Gallone - 1931

Tell Me Tonight / La chanson d'une nuit
Anatole Litvak - 1932

Dream Castle / Chateau de Reve
Geza von Bolvary - 1933
Kino Classics BD Region A two-disc set

As much as I like this new collection of vintage French films, I wish there was a better title. As indicated here with the list of films and directors, there is only one film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, his directorial debut with a fifteen minute short. Film historian Peter Tonguette's accompanying booklet is titled "The Apprenticeship of Henri-Georges Clouzot" - perhaps too unwieldy for a blu-ray title, but more accurate. The six features are all linked by having Clouzot's hand in the screenplays. While none of the films are as dark or dramatic as the films Clouzot is best known for, there are repetitions of thematic concerns that would appear later.

The Terror of Batignolles is of the greatest interest here as the first film directed by Clouzot. The comic story is of a very nervous and incompetent burglar. Clouzot opens with a series of close-ups, of hands, feet, and shadows. The burglar temporarily scares himself when he sees his reflection in a full-length mirror. His attempted at theft are temporarily interrupted by the shadow of a passing policeman, kittens, and the chime of a clock. His certainty that the home owners are away for the week is also challenged.

Aside from his skill at setting up scenes of suspense, The Terror of Batignolles also plays with the theme of identity. In several of Clouzot's films, characters are not always who they claim to be, or appear to be. In the case of this first film, the self-proclaimed Terror only scares himself. But in looking at the six features, there are recurring themes of identity, with characters often misidentified by choice or circumstance. Also, marital infidelity, another frequent aspect to Clouzot's own films is a central part of several of the films he has written for others. In retrospect, these two main themes come together in Clouzot's most famous film, Les Diaboliques where appearances deceive.

Alexandre Mathillon, Lucien Muratore and Simone Simon in The Unknown Singer

Setting aside Clouzot's hand in the respective screenplays, the six features are also of interest as example of French cinema in the early 1930s. Five of the films were produced by Adolphe Osso, former chief of Paramount Pictures' French office, which also accounts for some similarities with lead actors who sing, playing opposite young starlets. While most of the directors here were journeymen, with the notable exception being Anatole Litvak, these were contemporaries of Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo, providing a wider view of what comprised French popular cinema. The one other filmmaker I was previously familiar with is Viktor Tourjansky, who's Herod the Great was seen theatrically many years ago. Tourjansky began his career in pre-Revolutionary Russia, ending almost forty years later with Italian costume dramas.

The Hollywood pre-Code films also have nothing on what is seen here. Dragnet Night's unmarried couple are seen conversing in the same bed. The premise of I'll Be Alone After Midnight has a married woman seen reading a book, A Treatise on Adultery, and setting up a liaison by attaching her engraved card on several helium filled balloons, an invitation to a cross-section of Parisian men. My Cousin from Warsaw has an older man, oblivious to the relationship between his wife and her lover, writing a opera that essentially parallels the activity in the country chateau.

Dragnet Night is notable for its use of sound and camerawork. Albert Prejean, a sailor on leave, is taking a walk through the studio set Parisian street. The camera follows him while he walks among the other pedestrians, the music from different night spots drifting in and out on the soundtrack. In The Unknown Singer, Tourjansky plays with diegetic sound as the titular singer's rival alternates between a radio broadcast and a recording of the same song, with clear differences in the audio quality. Later, the rival is driven mad by the voice of the singer, the song providing commentary to the narrative. The Unknown Singer visually is delicately lit in several scenes.

Tell Me Tonight is the most consistently entertaining film here. Unsurprisingly, Anatole Litvak had also directed an English language version at about the same time. A tenor on the lam from a demanding touring schedule meets an ingratiating conman. The two become traveling companions, and gladly take advantage when one is confused with the other. There is also brief confusion when the tenor meets the mayor's daughter, first seen in mechanic overalls. One, shall we say cheeky, visual gag has the conman striking a match against a nude statue. There is also the variation of Cyrano with Pierre Brasseur lip synching to Magda Schneider, while underneath the balcony, Jan Kiupura provides the real singing. It would be inevitable that Litvak soon afterwards became a house director at Warner Brothers. Litvak also plays with editing with the kind of bursts of barely seen frames strung together, a technique that that would be more in vogue thirty years later.

For certain Francophiles and those who love older films is the pleasure of seeing several actresses in the early stages of their careers. Dragnet Night features Annabella as a music hall singer initially misidentified by Albert Prejean as a lady of the night. A very babyfaced Simone Simon is the spunky investigative reporter in The Unknown Singer. Danielle Darrieux is the romantic interest, the daughter of a local baron, in Dream Castle. As previously noted, Austrian actress Magda Schneider stars in the French version of Tell Me Tonight. Thirty-two years later, Magda Schneider's daughter, Romy, would star in writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot's ill-fated Inferno.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 23, 2018 08:54 AM