Bonjour! Guest Shadowplayer Phoebe Green, known to the comments section as “La Faustin”, started writing this piece on Maurice Tourneur’s last movie in response to The Late Show Late Films Blogathon, but didn’t get it finished that week. But here it is at last, and I’m thrilled tAo be able to publish it — one of the best things to come out of that adventure in joint blogging. The movie is a typically shadowed, moody, droll and soft-spoken thriller from one of the most distinguished and underrated of filmmakers — I await a subtitled copy or an evening with Benshi film described David Wingrove to be able to view it properly, but from glancing at the French VHS and reading Phoebe’s piece, I feel like the movie’s an old friend. One I just haven’t met yet.
No, not “Dilemma of Two Angels”, although that’s how a flustered American biographer of Maurice Tourneur translated the title of his last film. Impasse des Deux Anges (1948) is named after a real dead-end street in the Saint Germain quarter of Paris, but long before Armani and Ralph Lauren made the neighborhood home; back when Simone de Beauvoir described to Nelson Algren the local businesswoman who made her living reselling the tobacco picked from discarded cigarette butts.
This is an alluring agglomeration of a film, where the star-crossed love story theoretically driving the intrigue recedes into the background as successive fascinating whatsits pop up. Tourneur himself felt the suggestive magic of studio sets for unknown productions glimpsed as he went about his own work. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he wrote, to take a group of such empty sets, shut a writer in with a list of actors, a bottle of whiskey and a typewriter, and let him out when the bottle was empty and the script complete?
The sets of Impasse are the work of Jean d’Eaubonne, responsible for the sharply specific Paris of Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi as well as the oneiric worlds of Orphée, Madame de … and Lola Montès, among others.
After the titles, drifting diagonally up against the background of a silvery/sooty impasse and blasted by a doomy waltz, we’re prosaically in a bank where safe deposit box 13 is being opened for the Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He is retrieving from the diamond necklace conferred by Louis XIV on the Marquise de Fontaines and worn since then by every Fontaines bride on her wedding day. (“Tradition is the superstition of the well-bred,” observes the Marquis, whose mondanity, a smooth blend of Herbert Marshall and Sacha Guitry, is given a dubious edge by the memory of Herrand as Lacenaire in Les Enfants du Paradis.)
He is observed from the street by two hollow-cheeked crooks, Minus and Bébé (Paul Demange and Reggie Nalder), who alert their boss, “Le Vicomte”. He, back at the office, is leafing through newspaper articles on the Fontaines necklace and on tomorrow’s scandalous marriage of music hall star Marianne to the Marquis, while awaiting an American visitor, “le spécialiste”, who is to steal the necklace that night.
“Le spécialiste”, when he shows up, is Paul Meurisse, with a Warner Brothers deadpan so emphatic it’s funny. (Perhaps a souvenir of Meurisse’s 1930′s cabaret act, singing peppy popular songs gloomily.) The senior crooks effortfully welcome their brooding, silent guest in franglais (“Pleez come ‘ere” … “Very honoré”) until he puts them out of their misery by telling them he is more Parisian than they. There is some huffiness about “the fashion for Anglo Saxons” for big jobs, echoing M. Tourneur’s reception upon his return from Hollywood. Requesting a cigarette, Jean, the “spécialiste”, turns down the secretary’s proud offer of her “Loockies”, tossing her his own pack in return for a Gauloise, savored in close-up.
Now we’re at the musical hall rehearsal of “Le Chevalier d’Eon”, where journalists have come to capture Marianne handing over her leading role to her understudy. Marianne is a brunette Simone Signoret, fabulously leggy in silk stockings and tricorne, as down to earth and glamorous as Marlene Dietrich taking a cake out of the oven.
This is why little American girls want to be French when they grow up.
Antoine, meanwhile, has outraged his sister by refusing to sign the marriage contract the family solicitor has drawn up. He will not accept any protection from the law of community property; he is throwing himself heart and fortune into his first romantic folly.
Marianne returns to her hôtel particulier where that evening she will host a reception for the des Fontaines relatives en masse – “Saint Germain — the Faubourg, not the Café de Flore,” she notes worriedly to her retinue. (This includes a bespectacled bluestocking come to drill her on the imperfect subjunctive, but instead offered her choice of an evening gown – Volupté or Vol de Nuit – for her wasted pains.) It’s an impressive place – Bébé and Minus, casing the joint from the street, remark that it’s easier for a woman to be honest and still do well than it is for a man.
Antoine presents Marianne with the necklace, to be kept in her safe overnight. It’s obvious that this is a “marriage of reason” for her – she treats her fiancé with slightly sardonic respect and distance, not letting him supply the money she gives to fawning old stager who appears to pay his respects, and when he requests that she change her stage name Marianne (“it’s as though I were marrying the Republic”) to Anne-Marie she refuses because “That’s my real name” – something she’s never revealed to him before.
“Le Vicompte,” acting as an extra servant at the reception, lets “guest” Jean in to snag the necklace. As he returns from emptying the safe, inevitably, he and Marianne meet and recognize each other.
They leave the reception together, to the dismay of Jean’s accomplices and eventually of Antoine (Marianne’s faithful butler can cover for her only so long). They will go away together.
They remember the last time they saw each other – and in double-exposure, we see the ghosts of their past selves. A younger, poorer Jean gets out of a taxi, kisses a plain, frizzy-haired Anne-Marie goodbye, and goes off in the taxi – where, unseen by Anne-Marie, plainclothesmen handcuff him. The ghosts of even earlier selves walk on the quais – she’s bored being a shopgirl and a friend of hers might be able to get her on the music hall stage; he’s a notary clerk, not having been able to afford to become a lawyer.
They try to return to their old love nest, his attic room in the Impasse des Deux Anges, where they grew geraniums and fed pigeons. It’s a boarded-up ruin now, skittered through by a fierce little stray cat of a girl – Danièle Delorme – a hanger-on of the gangs that have made the lot “leur market“, she says, for American cigarettes and contraband. Her name is Anne-Marie. She resists Marianne’s attempt to connect with her – “Were you ever poor?” – but helps the pair escape the pursuing Bébé and Minus and defies the latter’s quasi-paternal bullying (“Kids today!”)
The couple are forced to take refuge in a half-built apartment house (“the money ran out”) in a neighboring lot, a framework of boxes within boxes. A young man living in the only occupied apartment shelters them in and offers to bandage Jean’s bullet wound with US surplus mercurochrome and bandages. He is fascinated by the presence of “real gangsters” – taking possession of Jean’s gun, then letting the gun take possession of him. “I’m not a kid, I’m strong.” Holding them at gunpoint, he backs out of the room.
Alone, Marianne and Jean face what he has become – a thief, an outlaw with, he feels, no possibility of return, a “specialist.” He blames her – she wanted pretty things, he was afraid if he couldn’t afford to give her them she would abandon him for a man who could – but, gently, she refuses to accept his accusation. Shots ring out from downstairs – once you have a gun, you can’t help using it. “Another one who says, ‘I’m not to blame.’”
Jean tells the panicked boy crouching over the man he’s killed to say that a lone intruder with a gun came through his window and went down the stairs. Jean will shield the boy and Marianne.
Back at Marianne’s place, the Marquis and the butler speak. The butler, it turns out, is Marianne’s godfather. He knows that she left with Jean – he also knew from the first, as Marianne did not, that Jean had gone to prison for theft. Antoine leaves.
Jean asks Marianne to let him take cover for the night in her house. Once inside, received with paternal disapproval by the butler, Jean goes upstairs for a few moments, then settles down for the night in the pantry. Marianne calls her agent to reopen the question of the South American tour she rejected.
The next morning, Antoine returns to confirm that he wants to marry Marianne and to declare, as he never has before, that he loves her. The wedding is on. Marianne and the marquis get into a rather funereal limo (or is it just a premonition of Maurice Tourneur’s fate that makes it seem to glide so menacingly?) and set off down the avenue. As they do, shots ring out – Jean has been gunned down by Bébé and dies, shrugging off a policeman’s question of who did it: “It’s not worth it …” In the car, the couple barely registers the disturbance. Marianne loosens her furs and reveals the necklace. Fin.
One last thought: The scenarist Jean-Paul Le Chanois (see Tavernier’s LAISSEZ-PASSER) — a Jew, a Communist, a résistant well before the CP climbed on the bandwagon — worked for Continental Films during the Occupation. Perhaps there is a relationship to be drawn between this gyroscopic personal equilibrium and what seem to be contradictory impulses in the scenario – the pull of the romantic miserabilism and fatalism of pre-war poetic realism playing against the counter-attraction of personal achievement and material comfort. Or perhaps the French and the American faces of Maurice Tourneur?
 Thanks to the indefatigable IMDB reviewer “dbdumonteil” (3816 reviews and counting!) for the title. Has no one remarked on the delightful appropriateness of the name Tourneur for the father and son directors? “Tourner”, literally to turn or roll, as in “Roll ‘em!” is still used colloquially for “to shoot” a film. Marcel L’Herbier titled his memoirs “La Tête Qui Tourne“, a pun on the expression “my head is spinning”. Bad luck for any eventual translator that Pauline Kael already claimed “Reeling” for herself.
 Thanks to Francomac and his French film (plus) blog for the clip and screen caps.