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August 13, 2019

Razzia sur la Chnouf

Razzia_Sur_la_Chnouf_.jpg

Henri Decoin - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The title translates as "Raid on the Dope". It's the second of two films starring Jean Gabin using French slang in the title, the other being Touchez pas au grisbi ("Don't touch the loot'). Also on hand is Lino Ventura, who would be seen again with Gabin in other crime films. More importantly for Gabin, this is one of the films that helped return the actor to commercial viability mostly in roles as a top gangster or maverick cop.

Gabin appears as Henri, a former associate of an Italian named gangster, returning from the U.S. to France in order to re-organize the languishing heroin trade. He first meets up with his French boss, Liski, who provides the names on the various employees. Henri's job is not only to make sure sales quotas are met but also employ two thugs who act as enforcers for those proving less than reliable. Henri's cover is a fashionable piano bar. Of interest to cineastes is that Liski is played by Marcel Dalio, Gabin's co-star in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, from seventeen years earlier.

According to director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier, Henri Decoin was unfairly dismissed with other French directors of his generation primarily due to the inconsistency of his work, some of which was clearly simply for hire. Tavernier also points out how Decoin was able to take what he learned directly from Hollywood directors onto his own work. This is most obvious in some of the more violent scenes, such as the use of a shot that is almost subliminal when the thugs' victim is beat up. The image of a getaway car's windshield cracked by a bullet anticipates as similar image in Bonnie and Clyde. A shot that first appears to be tilted is revealed to be of a mirror when the camera pulls back. Tavernier compares Decoin to Raoul Walsh in how he films action, not an inapt comparison.

What really struck me was Decoin's depiction of drug addiction and a multicultural Paris, unusual for a French film made in 1955, and unthinkable for Hollywood at that time. Lea, a drug dealer looking older than her years, snorts heroin off her hand in a well-lit bar. A group of men presumably from North Africa gather in their own little bar, smoking marijuana. Lea, who's attempts to bed Henri are rebuffed, seeks solace with a shirtless African, seen performing a solo dance, the camera framing the movement of his hips. One of the other dealers is Chinese, with his own opium den. There is also some dialogue indicating that one of the drug dealers is in a relationship with his male companion. Another unusual feature is the jazzy film score by Marc Lanjean, with arrangements by twenty-three year old Michel Legrand - his first film credit.

In his commentary track, Nick Pinkerton gives Decoin short shrift, relying primarily on an overview of Decoin's career from the French film criticism magazine Positif. In terms of evaluating Decoin, at this time Razzia is the only film available for accessible viewing for English language viewers. One of the problems with discussing some older French films and filmmakers is that the dismissals made by the Cahiers du Cinema critics have been taken at face value, with a handful of those directors only more recently getting fairer reassessments. Where the commentary is more helpful is pointing out some of the actors, especially the less familiar supporting players. Pinkerton also discusses the connection between some of the French films of the 1930s with those of the 1950s, especially in connection with the novels by Georges Simenon. In the case of Razzia, the author of the source novel, Auguste Le Breton also appears as a small time hood named Auguste Le Breton. There is also a connection to The French Connection with a brief appearance by Marcel Bozzuffi. The print source appears to have been in pristine condition with beautifully rendered images. Most of the film takes place at night with a sky that is pitch black. This is French film noir at its blackest.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 13, 2019 07:56 AM