In this early Jean Renoir film with a magically delicious femme-noir and a brilliant car chase at night, were sewn the seeds of French poetic realism that flourished later in the 30s in the films of Marcel Carné and others.
La Nuit du Carrefour is a largely faithful adaption of Georges Simenon’s gloomy pulp policier ‘Maigret at the Crossroads’. Renoir in a television introduction to the movie in the early 60s said the screenplay is deliberately episodic and the rough-edges exaggerate the obscurity of the story to create an atmosphere of mystery. A review of the film in Time Out says the rough edges come from Renoir running out of cash before completion, while a story put about by Godard says that some footage is missing. It is a moot point though as the picture is great as is.
The cinematography of Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien is dark and brooding, with foggy rural night scenes infiltrating even interior shots. An exhilarating car-chase at night filmed from the pursuing car in real-time uses only the car headlights, and is an exemplar of the creative fusion of director, camera, and editor. The editor is Renoir’s wife, Marguerite.
In the film, a city detective investigates a murder in a small rural burg, with suspicion surrounding the strange foreign tenants of a mysterious house: a bizarre ménage comprising a stoned b-girl and her reclusive ‘brother’, who as a foreigner with a weak alibi is the immediate suspect. The girl Else, played to delicious perfection by Danish actress, Winna Winifried, steals the picture. Renoir has aptly described Else as a ‘bizarre gamin’. You want Else to be in every scene – she is stunning and her turn is so lascivious. While in the book Else has more depth and is certainly less screwy, I think I prefer her screwy and sexy! Particularly memorable is the ambivalence of the relationship between Else and the detective, played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre, which is woven into the mis-en-scene with erotic abandon and casual elegance. My poetic homage to Else is here.
The story plays as a classic who-done-it, but by the end the veneer of the bucolic ville is stripped away to reveal a rotten reality where almost all residents, both workers and bourgeois, are complicit in a drug-trafficking racket, that segued into murder over the loot from a jewel heist. The irony is that the early suspect, Else’s brother, is innocent, while Else has been trapped by her past into a forced complicity that will see her released from jail early.
If you like your noir dark, sexy, mysterious and sharply witty, go for it!