Screening the evidence

Watched LA TETE D’UN HOMME, Julien Duvivier’s Maigret film, made at exactly the same time as Renoir’s take on the Simenon sleuth, LA NUIT DE CARREFOUR, and based on the same book as the later Meredith/Laughton MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER. I essentially watched the film by mistake, as part of my researches into Pathe-Natan, based on a filmography that erroneously cited the film as shooting at Natan’s studio.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake I can’t regret as I loved the film when I first saw it at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and I loved it just as much this time. Harry Baur is a near-definitive Maigret. Impossible for the high-octane thesp to match the air of depleted nothingness Pierre Renoir brought to it, perfectly capturing the human, dour functionary of the books, but Baur dials down his towering charisma and actually seems to shrink into the part, despite being by some way the biggest man on screen. Duvivier helps by casting the gangling sunflower Alexander Rignault, with his big flapping orang-utan hands, so there’s one actor taller than Baur, if not bulkier.

Valery Inkijinoff is amazingly sinister as the psychopath Radek. A Russian with eastern features, he had a looong career playing Eskimo, Chinese, Japanese, Red Indian, and even occasionally Russian. Given the role of a lifetime, he manifests an incredibly compelling screen persona — his delivery seems a little overemphatic at times, but it really doesn’t matter, because his LOOK and his posture are so utterly hypnotic. We’re talking Peter Lorre levels of you-can’t-look-away-ness.

One very interesting effect — Pathe-Natan may be nowhere in the mix, but Natan’s friend the inventor Yves Le Prieur contributed his Transflex… let me explain. Le Prieur is best remembered as a co-inventor of the scuba, but he also came up with air-to-air rockets for WWI and a translucent movie screen called the Transflex which facilitated rear projection. If you use an ordinary movie screen, you can’t get a bright enough image on the reverse side, but the Transflex was opaque enough to hide the projector, but see-through enough to show a strong image to the camera.

Le Prieur declined to patent his invention, and it swiftly found its way to America where it was deployed on JUST IMAGINE and LILIOM. Of course, it was a huge help, after some Hollywood fine-tuning, on KING KONG, but sadly the inventor is rarely credited.

In this scene, one of Maigret’s assistants questions a series of witnesses. In fact, he’s standing in front of a Translux upon which the background and his interviewees are projected. In a series of dissolves which have already been produced in the lab, the backgrounds melt away into one another while the detective remains in place in one continuous shot, as if he were teleporting from one location to another. The process of the law captured in a process shot.

There’s also a sequence in which the desperate fugitive/patsy steals bread from a child, which seems very much influenced by James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, although the shots are actually entirely different ~

Wow. Click and enlarge any of these stills for your daily beauty fix.

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15 Responses to “Screening the evidence”

  1. One of my favourite sequences is at the start of the film, when Willy Ferrière enters the bar and he chats to the girls, one of the girls complaining about slow business, blaming it on “respectable women who just give it away to their husbands” It’s a pity the French soundtrack can be difficult to follow at times.

    Another Duvivier I like is La Fête à Henriette.

  2. Seeing it for the first time was… delicious. Inky’s presence/performance was probably the most memorable aspect of the film, followed by that singer whose song we hear on a record player more than once, a haunting piece of music. Don’t recall Baur’s Maigret that well, but after having seen his Valjean you can bet I’ll sit up and pay more attention the next time. An undeniably noirish film.

  3. Let’s face it: Duvivier is a MAJOR filmmaker.

  4. Inkijinoff is strange and yeah I am glad he got a decent role with Duvivier. He was amazing in Pudovkin’s crazy-brilliant STORM OVER ASIA.

  5. D Cairns Says:

    Oh great, that scene’s amazing. And it seems to be the film’s addition to the story, along with the idea that Inky is terminally ill. It’s amazing how sympathetic he becomes considering everything he does is utterly horrible — murder for hire, framing an innocent, blackmail, attempted rape… up until that last offense, he definitely is more appealing than his clients. It’s a good job Maigret is there to supply some moral perspective!

  6. Thank you Peter, for driving home the reason why I found this aspect of the film so memorable. It’s been a few years since I’ve last seen this film, that one and only time, the first of three Duviviers David and I sat through and enjoyed together that spring at the MoMA (along with LA BELLE EQUIPE and LA BANDERA).

  7. D Cairns Says:

    Had the pleasure recently of meeting Lenny Borger, who programmed that retrospective. An authentic American in Paris, he is a real Duvivier booster.

  8. Guy, I see that La Tête d’un homme screened at MoMA lasts 98 minutes, whereas at MUBi it says the running time is 90 minutes. I wonder if there are two different versions?

  9. Peter, your guess is as good as mine. Of course we would all hope that the longer version is the one we get to see. Devid makes reference to LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR in his post, according to what I’ve read there is still to this day an entire reel missing from that.

    David, I think that’s great. Maybe someday Criterion will get on the bandwagon and make Duvivier’s films accessible to a wider audience, here and elsewhere. I think Eclipse’s Raymond Bernard set is a step in the right direction.

  10. ccatmcat Says:

    Duvivier’s Maigret is terrific, and I really need to see the Renoir film; it’s amazing that with such provenance it’s so hard to see. I’ll have to go on the hunt! Even more obscure, I think, is the other 1932 Maigret, Le Chien jaune, in which Jean Tarride cast his father as Maigret.

    I’m not quite such a fan of Inkijinoff: I guess he comes across for me as more of a (malevolent) presence rather than a skilled performer, but it may just be that his style isn’t my cup of tea. I have Pabst’s Le drame de Shanghai, in which Inkijinoff features; must see how he is in that.

    I love the way that Duvivier essentially neutralizes Alexander Rignault’s huge frame, either by cramming into the far reaches of the frame while someone else looms large in the foreground as in an early shot featuring Inky and Rignault or placing the other actors above him (the shot you have above of Inky/Rignault is reproduced later only with Baur in almost the same spot in the frame).

  11. The Pabst film has some great facework — Inkijinoff rubbing shoulders with the compelling, and genuinely malevolent, Robert LeVigan.

    I haven’t seen, nor had I heard of, the Terride… maybe somebody has a source?

    The missing reel of Carrefour occurred during shooting, and accounts differ on what happened. I suspect it was a missing reel of rushes, which might have ended up as only a few minutes of screentime. The narrative of the film is disjointed, elliptical and elusive, but seems very controlled — I’d be astounded if a whole ten or twenty minutes were missing. We can be pretty sure the footage isn’t going to turn up, at any rate.

  12. I came across the Tarride by chance, while browsing through Jean Tulard’s Dictionnaire du cinéma (the actors volume), which I do probably more than is strictly healthy. The entry for Abel Tarride lists a handful of films and notes that Tarride was the first screen Maigret, in his son’s film, which seems to be the elder Tarride’s main claim to fame.

    The film also features, since you mention him, M. Le Vigan,, further increasing the curiosity value… From my online research, it was shown, in a somewhat restored version, on French TV in 2008. As to a copy… no idea.

    That was me above — for some reason lately WordPress keeps logging me in with an old ID that I haven’t used in years.

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