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November 22, 2022

French Noir Collection

speaking of murder.jpg
Speaking of Murder / La Rouge set Mis
Gilles Grangier - 1957

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Back to the Wall / Le Dos au Our
Edourard Molinaro - 1958

Witness in the City / Un Temoin dans la Ville
Edouard Molinaro - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

If there was ever a home video release that should have come with commentary tracks, or at least a booklet, this three film collection would have benefited from some extra care. Ideally, French film noir expert Ginette Vincendeau would be the person for such a task. Anyone else would be forced to rely on Professor Vincendeau's writings as well as their own personal investigations into both the history of the genre and of lesser known French films and filmmakers. Especially for the U.S. based film cinephile, there is a limited understanding of French cinema based on those films that were imported for the art theater circuit as well as the vaulting of the filmmakers associated with the Nouvelle Vague at the expense of almost everyone else. Vincendeau would remind us that aside from being a French term that first became popular in in describing certain Hollywood films, film noir has its roots with several French films from the 1930s that explored people who lived in the margins of society.

The two directors here, Gilles Grangier and Edouard Molinaro, are not part of Francois Truffaut's despised "Cinema de Papa". Neither are they transitional figures between generations like Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker. Instead, they are craftsmen who essentially made French films primarily for a French audience. Grangier is in need of further research as a director with a record of commercially successful films locally, unknown abroad. Described by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, Grangier ". . . was a working-class film-maker who came up from the streets of Paris, and started in the movies as a stuntman, grip, prop boy, any job he could get." Bradshaw's article was written in conjunction with a retrospective at Lyon, France in 2021. The two films from Molinaro are both early works when the director specialized in crime films for his first five years. The films are both interesting to watch within the context of a career with Molinaro making an international reputation with his comedies, especially, La Cage aux Folles.

Jean Gabin carries his own freighted history in his roles as a crime boss since the mid-1950s. In Speaking of Murder, Gabin is Louis, the owner of a garage who augments his income with a trio carrying out the occasional robbery. His younger brother is out on parole, with the police leaning on him to help bust Louis. Family honor trumps honor among thieves. Grangier saves the visual panache for the climax with Gabin pursued on a staircase. The title translates as "the red light is on", the signal for when a heist is to take place. Among the better known supporting cast members are Lino Ventura as Gabin's volatile partner in crime, Marcel Bozzuffi as the younger brother and Annie Giradot as Bozzuffi's less than faithful girlfriend. Jacques Deray, best known for directing several films starring Alain Delon, served as an Assistant Director.

Back to the Wall is the outstanding film in this collection. An industrialist discovers his wife has a lover and creates a blackmail plot against the two. The plot gets disrupted by an unforeseen event. What was Molinaro's debut feature after a decade of short films comes closest to the classic concept of film noir. The music by Richard Cornu seems to have taken its cues from the scores Max Steiner wrote for Warner Brothers melodramas in the 1940s. The influence of Orson Welles is apparent from the many shots making use of depth of field, deep shadows, extreme angles and emphasis on scale with someone or some object in the foreground with a character seen at a distance. The opening scene is almost dialogue free while Gerard Oury is seen methodically cleaning up an apartment, removing and disposing of a corpse. Jeanne Moreau stars as Oury's wife in a year that included Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, cementing her place as one of France's top actresses. Claude Sautet, who would make several notable crime films, served as the Assistant Director.

Witness in the City was Molinaro's second film. Not as stylized, the story zig-zags from following a man murder a woman on a train to his being released from criminal prosecution. The narrative shifts to being about the husband of the murdered woman. Lino Ventura, in an early starring role as the wronged husband, takes his revenge. Seen by chance by a taxi driver, Ventura is certain of being identified. The film is based on a novel by the team of Boileau and Narcejac, source authors for Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. There is nothing otherworldly here though there is some suggestion of horror with the opening scene murder and the hanging of the wife's lover. Molinaro also employs a jazz score. What is also notable is the elaborate car chase scene that included a reported 400 Parisian cab drivers that concludes in an actual zoo. What the film has in common with other works by Boileau and Narcejac is the fatalism. The image of Ventura behind bars edited with the shots of the caged birds might strike some as too obvious. Sandra Milo plays a cab company dispatcher, while Francoise Brion briefly is seen as Ventura's wife. Gerard Oury also had a hand in the screenplay.

Reviewing the filmographies of the directors, writers and several of the actors, there are a variety of connections to be found mostly in French crime films. The most obvious connections are with Jean Gabin who reestablished his stardom as an aging gangster for most of career from the mid-1950s. Lino Ventura would switch more frequently between cop and criminal and would co-star with Gabin. For myself, my appreciation of French crime films became deeper following the viewing of several films and having more of a sense of the history that these actors brought with them.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 22, 2022 08:24 AM