Holt — In the Name of the Law!

Watched Pierre Chenal’s L’ALIBI as I’m on a Chenal kick. Not sure yet whether he’s stylish and fun or something better.

L’ALIBI has Erich Von Stroheim as a mindreader/gangster called Professor Winckler — he shoots a rival in the face and then turns up at the apartment of poor-but-honest dance hall hostess Jany Holt — he offers her a wad of money to claim he spent the night, and she accepts, much against her better judgement.

Enter police chief Louis Jouvet, as mercurial and dolorous as ever, but much, much slicker in appearance than his flic role for Clouzot in QUAI DES ORFEVRES. Holt is now getting grilled by the cops and threatened by Stroheim. And now enter Albert Prejean, a likable drunkard who falls for Jany and also becomes the cops’ top suspect. Will our girl crack under the pressure? Will the villainous Dr Winckler try to silence her first?

Pleasures include Von’s broken French, which leads him to monologue in English for protracted periods, and so we get a rare audio-snatch of Jouvet speaking the Queen’s tongue — quite well. He could have been a star in Hollywood but he didn’t need to; then there’s Von’s spooky telepathy clinic, complete with oriental assistant Fun-Sen (who had a pretty cool career, working with Ophuls, Siodmak, Carne, Pabst, and Tourneur Snr); and there’s the set-bound artificiality of it all, a noirish fist clenched around actors until Prejean arrives with a sudden gust of exterior locations.

Interesting to contrast Prejean, a casual collaborator with the visiting Germans a few years later (not that he seems to have been political, he just didn’t see any reason not to shake any hands that were proffered) with Jany Holt, a Romanian emigré at this point married to Marcel Dalio, who would become a covert resistance hero and win the Croix de Guerre from General de Gaulle. She’s slim and brittle like a glass sculpture, impossibly chic and altogether alluring. And she has a way of holding her mouth when she’s thinking, bared teeth which don’t quite meet to form a grin, suggesting the pensive state of a bite not taken, that’s very Jean Arthur.

13 Responses to “Holt — In the Name of the Law!”

  1. Stylish and fun would be enough to satisfy me, but something better would be even better. Any film that offers Jouvet and Von Stroheim together has me in the door. Louis was perhaps the better actor but Von Stroheim is always a delight. Jouvet was also pretty stylish (and fun too) in Delannoy’s BETWEEN ELEVEN AND MIDNIGHT, made around the same time as QUAI DES ORFEVRES. And my but that title grab at the top looks lovely. Lovely.

  2. Von Stroheim always strikes me as a better actor in French — his difficulty with the language adds vulnerability. At times here he affects almost complete incapability with the language, and there’s a very funny scene of Jouvet trying to supply him with le mot juste.

    “I’m very -”
    “No, I’m not sorry. I’m very -”
    “You’re not helping.”

  3. Soon to be viewed…

  4. It’s as teriffic as it is unique.

  5. I enjoyed the studio-bound sections much more than the later breezes from outside; the back projection car chase early on had a a kind of crazy visual energy whereas the location work seemed to come from a completely different movie, as though Chenal kind of squashed a romantic comedy in at the end of his noir film.

    I loved the Jouvet-in-English sequence, too; I wonder whether he got any Hollywood offers during his lengthy sojourn in New York in the early 1920s, although it’s hard to imagine Jouvet without his voice.

    The wartime biographies of so many French actors from this period make for a fascinating backdrop; the offscreen lives of the actors in, say, Entrée des artistes, tend to obscure the film itself.

  6. If he’d done nothing but ensure Ophuls’ escape from the Nazis, Jouvet’s greatness would be assured. As is, his resonant voice and lugubrious face match each other beautifully. He could have done great in silents, but might not have gotten leading man offers.

  7. Even as it is, his leading man roles are relatively few — he really does enliven some pedestrian fare, though he got to stretch his muscles a good deal more in L’Alibi. That face off with von Stroheim is an absolute delight.

    I’m kind of torn between regretting that the Ophuls-Jouvet Ecole des femmes never saw the light of day, and delighted that it didn’t because Ophuls was safely on his way to the US.

    I went to see Jouvet’s tomb recently; one of the greats, and more than worthy of the visit.

  8. Oh, where is it?

    What I’ve read of Ecole des Femmes makes it sound truly enticing, getting into the playfulness of La Ronde but ten years early… and more extreme.

  9. The grave is in Montmartre cemetery; a fairly plain black slab. I must have a picture somewhere — I should probably find it and put as it the final step when I watch the last of his films, or at least his available films.

  10. Ah, he’s a neighbour of the Clouzots, then.

  11. Yes, indeed; it’s a crowded spot, with another man of the theatre, Sacha Guitry, around the corner (speaking of complex wartime bios). And then, of course, there’s Dalida…

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