The Oscars, Jean Renoir, Raymond Chandler, Auteurism, and Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose (1956)

The Killer Is Loose (1956)

In a 1954­ interview Jean Renoir said of Hollywood: “Don’t go thinking that I despise “B” pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

Raymond Chandler in 1948 in an acid essay on the Oscars, and 20 years before Pauline Kael wrote ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies’, framed his critique by saying of the motion picture “that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can.”  Though he didn’t spell it out it, Chandler was clearly highlighting the artistic choices made by the director of a film. Not until the 1950s did the enfants terribles of Le Cahiers du Cinema develop the insights broached by Chandler.

American film academic and writer Justus Nieland in a piece foreshadowing tonight’s Oscars titled ‘Auteurism and the Genius of the Market’ and published last week in The New York Times, writes:

“This logic of aesthetic judgment, in which films and their directors mutually ratify each other’s greatness has, of course, auteurist roots. The word persists today because a group of film critics in the 1950s hashed out a “politique des auteurs” that discerned, among the industrial products of American mass culture, signatures of a presiding, singular artist like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang or Nicholas Ray, among others. This Romantic view of expression, with its abiding myths of freedom, style and personality, sought to solve the problem of how industrially produced and distributed mass entertainment might also be art. But auteurism was also a category of reception, allowing cinephiles to sift and sort, and value and hierarchize, the films and directors to which they had access. In France and elsewhere in the 1950s, that meant seeing Hollywood cinema as a cultural sign of the economic and political power of the U.S… If the Oscars are important, then the best director award is the most important not just because it rewards the work of gifted nominees (and this year’s are an estimable bunch), but because the name of the director remains, for better and worse, contemporary film culture’s way of organizing knowledge about film artistry and its relation to markets and consumers. This says as much about what persists in our fantasies of aesthetic agency as it does about the strategies of the corporate present that shape, and limit, our power to discern the best.”

Hollywood ‘B’ movies of the 40s and 50s were production line ‘filler’. But for the reasons identified by Renoir and Chandler, and despite being made quickly and on the cheap, they sometimes transcended their humble aims and by virtue of the craft and artistry (of mostly journeymen film-makers) made a claim to being considered as art.

One such ‘B’ movie is The Killer is Loose made in 1956 by United Artists and directed by Budd Boetticher, who after completing this film went on to make six cult Westerns that established his auteur status. The Killer is Loose is not a great movie nor is it even particularly good. The plot is by this late stage of the classic noir cycle more of the same police procedural that noir largely devolved into as the War years receded.  A gormless war veteran working as a bank teller provides inside information for a heist, and when cornered by police in his apartment and his innocent wife is accidently shot dead by a police detective in the shootout that ensues, he swears vengeance on the wife of the cop. After a couple of years he escapes from detention and heads onto a bloody path to the cop’s wife.  The climax is a stakeout at night in suburbia. Strong performances from Wendell Corey as the disturbed killer and Joseph Cotton as the cop, and Rhonda Fleming as the hapless wife, don’t quite overcome the inertia of the scenario and plot-holes that most likely derive from keeping the running time to 73 minutes. The score is dramatic in the wrong places, better dialog is not hard to find, and the ending is predictable. What unshackles the movie is the consummate direction and editing. Deep focus outside and long fluid takes inside.  The climax is a master-class in editing for suspense. Even daylight scenes have a tension that subverts otherwise normal life in the suburbs. A journey on a crowded brightly lit bus at night holds a palpable existential terror.

In November last year The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody named the recent archive release of the The Killer is Loose his DVD of the Week, writing that “Boetticher… saw violence everywhere and was sensitive to its ambient horrors, even when unleashed with principle. This movie, with its focus on crime and punishment—and on the private lives of police officers and criminals alike—redefines the very idea of the war at home.” Brody’s video review of The Killer is Loose is featured below.

Links:

 

Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): A Work of Art

UK film writer Philip French in the Observer in 2009 related that Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) “was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième soufflé [1966]”. I can share this enthusiasm…

Odds Against Tomorrow (UA 1959) – 96 min.

Director – Robert Wise

Writing credits:
William P. McGivern – novel
Abraham Polonsky (front John O. Killens) and Nelson Gidding – screenplay

Cast:
Harry Belafonte – Johnny Ingram
Robert Ryan – Earle Slater
Shelley Winters – Lorry
Ed Begley – Dave Burke
Gloria Grahame – Helen
Will Kuluva – Bacco
Kim Hamilton – Ruth Ingram
Mae Barnes – Annie
Richard Bright – Coco
Carmen De Lavallade – Kittie
Lew Gallo – Moriarty
Lois Thorne – Edie Ingram

Produced by:
Phil Stein – associate producer
Robert Wise – producer
Harry Belafonte – co-producer (uncredited)

Original Music -John Lewis

Cinematography – Joseph C. Brun

Editor – Dede Allan

Film filmed on location in the town of Hudson in the Hudson River Valley, New York City, and at the Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx.

“There is no idea, no theory, no way of  life that cannot be reshaped, illuminated and
made more human by being subject to the imagination and criticism of the artist.”
– Abraham Polonsky

UK film writer Philip French in the Observer in 2009 related that Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) “was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième soufflé [1966]”. I can share this enthusiasm.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a work of art: truly the culmination of film noir and deserving of much greater recognition not only as a consummate film but as the harbinger of the re-invention of noir in the 60s by Sam Fuller in Hollywood and Melville in France. Most commentators see Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil (1958) as the valedictory film noir of the classic cycle, but to my mind that film’s cross-border setting and non-urban locale do not truly reflect the big city alienation that distinguishes the classic noir cycle. In Odds Against Tomorrow, New York City and its industrial fringe are quasi-protagonists that harbor the angst and desperation of life outside the mainstream – sordid dreams of the last big heist that will fix everything. But as always in the noir universe the relentlessly deterministic metropolis in cahoots with capricious fate kick those dreams out of the ring.

A disgraced ex-cop on the cusp of old-age plans a ‘dream’ heist that will see to his retirement, and he needs two desperate men to help do the deed. The ex-cop, Dave Burke, played by Ed Begley, moving from wild optimism to a quiet desperation, does his research well and identifies two guys that are hungry enough to take the bait. Robert Ryan is Earle Slater, a moody violent veteran who after killing a man is just out of stir, and living with a loving woman played by Shelley Winters, who supports them both. But Earle can’t stomach being supported by a woman, he is no longer young, and he is going nowhere. Harry Belafonte plays a young black jazz musician, Johnny Ingram, with a betting addiction, and who is in hock to a local hood and can’t find the dough. Burke particularly needs a black guy as the hijacking and impersonation of a black café delivery waiter is essential to his plan. Earle is unsure about the job, but his frustration and circumstances bring him round. Johnny sees the plan as wobbly, and anyway his creditor, a hood named Bacco, who has a soft spot for him, is taking instalments for the interest. But in a particularly mean act of treachery Burke convinces Bacco to play hard-ball and demand immediate payment, by guaranteeing the debt. Belafonte gets himself in deeper by playing fast and loose with a gun when pressed for payment, and alienates Bacco big time.

The scene where Burke propositions Bacco is nicely crafted by director Robert Wise. Bacco is in central park feeding pigeons on an open expanse of grass against the city skyline as Burke approaches. After some small-talk as Burke also feeds the pigeons, Burke makes a sudden movement towards Bacco which spooks the birds and gets Burke up-close to Bacco so that he can sotto-voce hatch his stratagem.

Both Earle and Johnny are angry men. Earle a racist at every opportunity denigrates Johnny, who is estranged from his middle-class black wife and young daughter. She wants a life for the child and Johnny will only put her aspirations in jeopardy. Although they still love each other, she won’t take him back. Johnny betrays a seething resentment against an excluding white society triggered by a visit to his wife’s apartment when she is hosting a school PTA meeting, which includes white parents:

Ruth Ingram (flaring): I am trying to make a world fit for Edie to live in. It’s a cinch you’re not going to do it with a deck of cards and a racing form.

Johnny Ingram: But you are, huh? You and your big white brothers. Drink enough tea with ’em and stay out of the watermelon patch and maybe our little colored girl will grow up to be Miss America, is that it?

The suppressed rage of these two men and their mutual antagonism have explosive consequences.

The day of the heist dawns and the gang heads up-state to an industrial town on the Hudson river. The robbery goes down but goes horribly wrong. Burke is dead at the scene, and in a chase that culminates in an oil refinery, Earle and Johnny blow themselves to smithereens in a final shoot-out atop a gasoline silo. There is no romanticism and the scene is reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949)only in its technical aspects. When the bodies are recovered at the refinery in the final scene, race is a ‘dead’ issue:

Cop to another cop: Well, these are the two that did it.

Morgue attendant: Which is which?

Cop: Take your pick.

Abe Polonsky’s impressive screenplay takes William P. McGivern’ s basic story and adds deeper characterisations, while removing McGivern’s dramatic and poetically redemptive ending. Polonsky’s denoument is harshly final and without sentiment or pity, but he adds more depth to the Dave Burke and Johnny Ingram characters. In the book Dave Burke is thinly drawn and is not in on the actual heist, and Johnny Ingram is not fully drawn until after the heist. Polonsky had to use a front as he was still blacklisted 10 years after the punks at HUAC destroyed his career. Robert Ryan himself was an activist committed to liberal causes such as SANE and the ACLU.

In June 1999 film writer Louis Proyect attended a screening of Odds Against Tomorrow. After the screening Polonksy, Belafonte, and composer Tom Lewis spoke on a panel hosted by John Schultheiss, a critical contributor to Polonsky’s ‘Odds Against Tomorrow: The Critical Edition’ (Cal State, 1999).  Proyect reported:

In a montage of ‘race understanding’ films from the mid 1950s, Schultheiss [explained] how unique Odds Against Tomorrow was. In prior films such as The Defiant Ones, there is a plea for racial tolerance but the black character is always sacrificed in the process. Chained to white racist escaped convict Tony Curtis, fellow escapee Sidney Poitier constantly goes out of his way to show the audience that he will turn the other cheek, while Curtis keeps slapping it. Belafonte explained that he wanted to depict a black character who would not stand for any humiliation. It was also a way to tell Hollywood that he would not kowtow to their idea of how a black character should behave. [Note by Tony D’Ambra: Schultheiss apparently did not mention Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s noir No Way Out (Fox 1950), starring Sidney Poitier, which pre-dates The Defiant Ones, and could be seen to have an empowered black protagonist.]

Belafonte had put his own fortune and reputation on the line. Waiving his fee as an actor, and fronting a quarter-million dollars, he sought to break new ground cinematically. In Schultheiss’s commentary on the film, Belafonte is quoted, “My own personal desire was to put things on the screen that reflected the deeper resonance of black life, things that had never been approached before, even within the United Artists realm.” His partnership with United Artists was a reflection of the special role of the company in Hollywood, which was to be obliterated by corporate ownership a decade or so later. Formed by Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s, United Artists was cooperatively owned by actors, screenwriters and directors who wanted to make uncompromising films…

Schultheiss posed a provocative question to Polonsky. How did his belief in progressive politics square with his decision to write a film with criminals as central characters, who had no socially redeeming qualities? Was it difficult to make what was essentially an entertainment about hardboiled criminals, when his stated beliefs revolved around transforming American society? Polonsky, never one to mince words, practically spit [sic] out his reply. He said that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system…

Belafonte made two decisions that reflected his own uncompromising beliefs. He hired Abraham Polonsky to write the film, who was still blacklisted. Belafonte’s connections to this world was rooted in his own experience as a blacklistee. What enabled him to break free of McCarthyite repression was his unique folksinging talent, which attracted the support of Ed Sullivan who featured Belafonte regularly on his popular Sunday night television variety show. [Writer Paul] Buhle told me that despite this, Sullivan was a run-of-the-mill red-baiter, who had viciously attacked Polonsky in a newspaper column in the same year Odds Against Tomorrow was being filmed.

The cast is uniformly strong, with a young Belafonte holding his own with veterans Begley and Ryan. Belafonte in a nuanced portrayal convincingly captures the contradictions of a man the prisoner of a gambling habit who loves his family dearly. Begley is pitch perfect as the desperate yet naïve mastermind. Ryan is brilliant as the moody troubled veteran with a rampant anger and racial hatred, who yet manages a tenderness that attracts and holds a decent woman, then cheats on her in vengeful anger when they fight. Gloria Grahame as a young mother and neighbor, who is memorable in a small role, is perversely attracted to this seething violence. The seduction scene is packed with a fierce eroticism.

What makes Odd Against Tomorrow a work of art? Undoubtedly it is the result of a synergy grown from the craft and commitment of a talented film-making team. I have spoken of the screenplay and the cast, and now I need to address the polished achievements of those that put the movie together. Together with DP Joseph C. Brun, Wise re-casts New York as the noir city, with a deep focus, canny lighting, and killer perspectives. As a cinematic city of a haunting cold beauty, a brooding realm where its denizens tread bright boulevards in a bleached-out bizarre dream dreamt by ‘mad men’. The AFI informs us that in an interview Wise said: “I did something in Odds Against Tomorrow I’d been wanting to do in some pictures but hadn’t had the chance. I wanted a certain kind of mood in some sequences, such as the opening when Robert Ryan is walking down West Side Street…I used infra-red film. You have to be very careful with that because it turns green things white, and you can’t get too close on people’s faces. It does distort them but gives that wonderful quality—black skies with white clouds—and it changes the feeling and look of the scenes.” [Robert Wise On His Films (Silman-James, 1995) p. 157]. Those stark monochrome compositions are wonderfully evident in scene after scene. The framing and lighting is stunning. Indeed, the picture has a sort of late-period neo-realism with a French noir patina. The photography shows a city in the throes of a radical re-invention that is adopting the angular mood evident in the new model cars on its streets – all thrust, sharp angles, and fins. The doomed protagonists stand out as anachronisms in this bold new world, and only Johnny puts on a brave front with a flashy white sports-car and dark glasses.

Composer John Lewis’s edgy modern jazz score, played by an ensemble that included Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass, Connie Kay on drums, Bill Evans on piano, and Jim Hall on guitar, is demanding and intrusive in a way that gives it an unprecedented role in proceedings. It takes on the role of a Greek chorus that exceeds its mandate by persistently and loudly challenging the protagonists’ actions. Though the soundtrack has quiet piano interludes and significant long silent scenes where nothing much happens – particularly an extended sequence in which each gang-member waits out the afternoon before the heist alone in a desolate industrial landscape on the banks of the Hudson river, its calm beauty sacrificed to the garbage strawn in the water along its shores, and to an overcast desolation. In one scene, Johnny sitting on a dock spies a disturbing object in the water – it turns out to be a ‘white’ doll entangled in kelp and garbage. A commentary by Ted Farlow for a 2008 MoMA screening of the movie nicely conveys the artistry at work: “Bill Evans [on piano], harmonizes beautifully with Dede Allen’s taut editing—with its stretches of haunting silence and its use of shock cuts in place of traditional fades and dissolves—and with Joseph Brun’s stark black-and-white cinematography”.

In the December 31, 1958 issue of Variety, a staff writer deftly encapsulates the movie’s strengths: “Director Robert Wise has drawn fine performances from his players. It is the most sustained acting Belafonte has done. Ryan makes the flesh crawl as the fanatical bigot. Begley turns in a superb study of a foolish, befuddled man who dies, as he has lived, without knowing quite what he has been involved in. Shelley Winters etches a memorable portrait, and Gloria Grahame is poignant in a brief appearance. Joseph Brun’s black and white photography catches the grim spirit of the story and accents it with some glinting mood shots. John Lewis’ music backs it with a neurotic, edgy, progressive jazz score.”

I am edging towards seeing Odds Against Tomorrow as greater than Wise’s other noir masterpiece The Set-Up (1949).

A must-see, Odds Against Tomorrow will screen at the NY Film Forum Wednesday August 17 at 1:00pm, 4:45pm, and 8:30pm. It is available on DVD.

 

Tarkovsky’s Ubiytsy (‘The Killers’ USSR – 1956): A wounded God bereft of hope

Ubiytsy (‘The Killers’  USSR – 1956)

Directed by:
Marika Beiku (Instructor)
Aleksandr Gordon
Andrey Tarkovsky

Writers:
Ernest Hemingway – short story
Aleksandr Gordon and Andrey Tarkovsky – screenplay

Cinematography by Aleksandr Rybin and Alfredo Álvarez

Cast:

Yuli Fait -Nick Adams
Aleksandr Gordon – George
Valentin Vinogradov – Hitman Al
Vadim Novikov – Hitman Max
Yuri Dubrovin – 1st Customer
Andrey Tarkovskiy –  Customer
Vasili Shukshin  – Ole Anderson (‘the Swede’)

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Killers, his influential short story about a Chicago mob hit, in 1927.  The pared-down prose and hard-boiled dialog very much mirror the emerging pulp fiction of the period.  Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Dust, was published in early 1929, and W. R. Burnett’s novella Little Caeser appeared in the same year.  But perhaps what distinguishes Hemingway’s story is its downbeat fatalism.  A fatalism that was to emerge a few years later in the early 30s in the French poetic realist films of Marcel Carne and others, and only to emerge in Hollywood movies  over a decade later in the early years of the classic film noir cycle.

Hemingway’s story is all of 10 pages long: an act in three scenes.  Two loquacious hit-men enter a dinner in the late afternoon in a sleepy diner in a God-forsaken burg.  They are there to kill the ‘Swede’, a guy who has a habit of having dinner at the diner around six.   Nothing personal, they don’t now the guy, strictly business – and they make no secret of it – one of the hoods telling the other more than once that he talks too much.  The Swede by seven has not turned up and the machinegun-toting men head out to find him. A patron called Nick that had been holed in the diner runs to the Swede’s boarding-house to warn him. The Swede is laying on his bed undecided on whether to go out, and when told of the hit-men accepts this news with weary unsurprise and then rolls-over on his bed to await his fate.  Nick returns to the diner telling the owner George of the Swede’s strange reaction. The story closes with these words:

“I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s
going to get it. It’s too damned awful.”

“Well,” said George, “you better not think about it.”

This is essentially the scenario that opens the classic 1946 film noir adaptation by director Robert Siodmak, also titled  The Killers.  That film’s screenplay by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, and John Huston (uncredited), is not so much an adaptation of Hemingway’s story, but an imaginative response and more strongly a rebuttal to one of the last lines at the end of Hemingway’s text spoken by Nick, the guy who runs from the diner to warn the Swede of the killers’ arrival: “I’m going to get out of this town”, Nick said… “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful” After establishing the absolute resolve of the killers in the opening sequence, which is essentially faithful to Hemingway’s text, Siodmak’s picture ventures on to explore the burning questions in the mind of the audience.  What did the Swede do to warrant this retribution? Why doesn’t he run?  The Hollywood script was re-filmed in 1964 by director Don Siegel.

In 1956, the  soon-to-be-great Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, was a film student at the USSR State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK).  As his first film project he chose Hemingway’s story. The 19 minute feature has been preserved and the very faithful adaption eloquently portrays the scenario’s underlying fatalism. I hesitate to credit the movie as a Tarkovsky effort as it is demonstrably a collaborative work where no individual dominates.  The cast and crew were all VGIK students, and the sets were designed and supplied by the students.    The screenplay is rightly stringent, the camera-work and editing fluid, the acting of a high order, and the direction accomplished.

Under the guidance of instructor Marika Beiku, the film is rendered in the same three scenes from the story.  The first and last scenes in the diner were directed by Tarkovsky, and the second scene in the Swede’s room at his boarding house by fellow-student Aleksandr Gordon, who also plays the diner-owner.  It may be an heretical view, but I consider Gordon’s segment superior.  It is shot close-up in a small room with subdued lighting and from low angles, producing a doomed claustrophobia, with an external window light producing somber shadows from a partially open-shutter.  The Swede is smoking and stubs his cigarette out on the wall besides his bed, with the camera lingering in a close-up on the wall as the stub is determinedly ‘rubbed-out’.

The acting is uniformly impressive.  Of course being students the cast is all young, but the intelligent casting of two baby-faced students as the two almost effete hoods was a stroke of genius.  The strongest performances are by Gordon as the diner-owner and Vasili Shukshin as the Swede.  Both inhabit their roles with a worthy gravitas and maturity.  Gordon as both director and actor makes the diner-owner a very deep character and his presence hovers as a wounded God bereft of hope yet perhaps still clinging to a sliver of compassion for the fools that strut the stage beyond his terrestrial lunch-counter.  Compare with the formulaic treatment of the diner-owner in Siodmak’s film as an inconsequential elderly ‘pop’ figure as scared as he is bewildered.

An original and essential film noir. Watch it here.  Read Hemingway’s story here.

Books Digest: Crossfire, Jewish Directors, and Streets With No Names – Part 1 Jewish Noir Directors

This is the first in a series of posts in which I will cover books on film noir that I have been reading, and which aficionados of film noir will find interesting.

For this first post, I have chosen DRIVEN TO DARKNESS: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers University Press, 2009 ) by Vincent Brook.

In Driven To Darkness author Vincent Brook argues that the development of film noir in Hollywood was largely driven by emigre Jewish directors; and that the the noir motifs of the femme-fatale and the weak and ambivalent noir protagonist, have their origins in Jewish folklore, the historical oppression of Jews, and the German expressionist theater of the early 20th century.  He argues his case by reference to the films of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Edgar G. Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls, John Brahm, Anatole Litvak, and Fred Zinnemann.

While Brook presents his case in detail and with a broad historical sweep, I am not convinced.  The Jewish influence exists, but it does not explain the rise of noir. Brook supports his thesis principally by reference to plot elements, based on the (questionable) presumption that these derive from the director and not from the script. Many of the films cited by Brook have screenplays (or are from stories) written by non-Jews, and the influence of the American hard-boiled crime fiction of the 30s and 40s is not given sufficient consideration.

Nonetheless, I found particularly interesting the chapters on Fritz Lang. Brook presents the novel view that Lang in his films noir is escaping his Jewishness and perhaps seeking expiation for something he may have done in Germany before he fled the country. Lang’s recollections of his life in Germany and his reasons for leaving, have been found to be unreliable, and this has been of interest to scholars. Lang’s first wife died by his own hand. He claimed to have accidently shot her. There is a lingering suspicion in some quarters that Lang actually murdered her. Brook hypothesises this presumption of guilt and sees real parallels in a number of Lang’s noirs, particularly Scarlet Street (1945), where a weak artistic male protagonist is driven by lust and jealousy to kill the femme-fatale who has betrayed him. By the end of the movie, the killer is so consumed by guilt that he lives a deranged homeless existence in a noir city, so hopelessly dark, that it shattered the closed romantic realism of Hollywood for good. Brook’s analysis has a particular cogency in the case of Scarlet Street. The film was Lang’s first independent Hollywood feature and he “was allowed the luxury of working for three months on the script with Dudley Nichols” (Andrew Spicer, ‘Film Noir’, 2002, p123).

Recommended.

La Nuit du Carrefour (1932 – France): Moody and surreal!

La Nuit de carrefour

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.

Is placement of the off-kilter ‘virginal’ portrait deliberate?

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!

The Cinematic City: “the meaning is in the shadows”

When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed 1944)

When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed 1944)
King Bros/Monogram 67 mins
Director: William Castle
Cinematography: Ira Morgan
Score: Dimitri Tiomkin

“as When Strangers Marry illustrates, it is precisely through the triggering of sensations that film noir speaks most eloquently. A mode of signification that privileges connotation over the denotative, cause-and-effect logic of linear narrative, the highly-wrought noir aesthetic ensures that the ‘meaning’ of the noir city is not to be found in the narrative’s surface details but in its shadows, in the intangibles of tone and mood.” – Frank Krutnik, ‘Something More Than Night’, The Cinematic City (ed David B. Clarke), p 98-99

When Strangers Marry, made by the King Brothers, an independent production team signed to Monogram, was shot in ten days for under $50,000 and marketed as a “nervous A”. But Monogram could not get a percentage deal and the movie opened as a b, doing good business and garnering critical praise. James Agee said of the movie: “I have seldom, for years now, seen one hour so energetically and sensibly used in a film. Bits of it, indeed, gave me a heart-lifted sense of delight in real performance and perception and ambition which I have rarely known in any film context since my own mind, and that of moving-picture making, were both suffi­ciently young”.

The Origins of Noir: The Case for the Policier

“Renoir’s second talkie, La Nuit du carrefour (1932)— my all-time favorite French noir, and the sexiest movie he ever made…  his edgy adaptation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret at the Crossroads, filmed in a foggy suburb that vibrates with off-screen sounds and a mysterious Danish heroine (Winna Winifried), cries out for discovery.” – Jonathon Rosenbaum

In 1931 Georges Simenon’s crime novel La Nuit du Carrefour was published by the French pulp magazine Police Magazine:

La Nuit De Carrefour (1932)

In 1932 Jean Renoir in his second film adapted the story for the screen:

La Nuit De Carrefour (1932) La Nuit De Carrefour (1932)

La Nuit De Carrefour (1932) La Nuit De Carrefour (1932)

La Nuit De Carrefour (1932) La Nuit De Carrefour (1932)