Archive for Continental Films

Maigret’s Anatomy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2023 by dcairns

Something about the plot construction in Continental Films’ Maigret movies results in them being hard to remember in detail. I’ve now seen the middle film, CECILE EST MORT!, directed by Maurice Tourneur, twice, and my lingering impression is of fun characterisation, complex plotting, and a few particular moments, but I couldn’t summarise it for you. Usually we judge films to be unusually successful when they linger in the memory, but these ones defy that truism — the compensation is that they’re giddily unpredictable as they unfold before you.

Once again Albert Prejean is Inspector Maigret and André Gabriello is his breathless accomplice Lucas. Once again Maigret is the only competent man on the force, which tends to arrest defenseless, innocent, and socially disadvantaged suspects and force confessions from them while Maigret is occupied catching the real culprit. This is as close to anti-copaganda as anyone could produce in Nazi-occupied France, though of course the fact that Maigret is around to insure no miscarriage of justice goes uncorrected does lessen the blow. Still, it’s surprisingly bold. Continental being a German company, they seem to have suffered less from censorship than the French outfits.

What I remember of the plot: there’s a headless body; a corpse turns up in a cupboard, as in both the other films of the series; Lucas rushes up with exciting news but talks to fast to be understood, as in both the other films; Maigret has already figured out the development Lucas is trying to inform him of, as in etc; a clue is discovered written in condensation on a mirror, as in Argento’s DEEP RED; sinister stuff with unknown intruders secretly inhabiting someone’s home, as in LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON, an even better Continental Films Simenon adaptation; use of dental anesthetic by bad guys.

I’ve never mastered mystery writing — you have to write them backwards, it seems, starting with what really happened and then burying that under obfuscating layers which are themselves laden with dramatic suspense. Simenon is really good at it — I’d like to read the three books Continental adapted to see how faithful they are, but I’m afraid by the time I do it the plots will all have got jumbled in my head. Already I can’t recall which one has the blind man who’s killed because he saw too much.

Tourneur’s direction lacks the fancy flourishes of Richard Pottier’s in the other two installments, but his love of creative shadowplay is in evidence, giving the film a nice noirish look.

A box set would be nice!

Fifty Shades of Maigret

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2023 by dcairns

Continental Films, the German company based in Paris at the time of the Occupation, which was sort of in command of the whole French film industry, produced four Georges Simenon adaptations, comprising Henri Decoin’s classic LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON, starring Raimu, and three Maigret films, directed by Richard Pottier, Maurice Tourneur, and Richard Poittier again.

I’ve just lately watched the Poittier entries — PICPUS and LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC. I saw the Tourneur, CECILE EST MORT!, but I can’t recall a thing about it except it was great. Time to revisit.

In all three films, Miagret is Albert Prejean and his sidekick Lucas is a fellow called Andre Gabriello. The writers adapting Simenon differ, and this seems to make a big difference. (Simenon wanted to work for Continental and adapt his own works, which may tell you something about him — most of the people who did work at the studio had no choice.) Simenon like Prejean’s performance as his hero, but there was initially some concern that Prejean, primarily a light comic, was too young and too lightweight to play the dour plodder, but audiences embraced him — the only two previous Maigrets, who appeared the same year, were Harry Baur and Pierre Renoir, working for Duvivier and Jean Renoir, who were much closer in age and temperament, though Baur, like later three-time-Maigret Gabin, was a bit more explosive than the character in the books.

The strange thing is, Prejean IS too lightweight, but the films solve that by bending the character to fit — this Maigret is many times more whimsical, flippant, and cheeky than the novels’ version and, like Benoit Blanc, he’s also a celebrity detective (which is not a thing). It’s as if it was felt that taking a famous fictional sleuth and putting him on the screen just naturally required that his fame needed to be acknowledged by the supporting cast. WE’VE all heard of Maigret, so why wouldn’t the populace in the films.

PICPUS is written by the fascinating Jean-Paul Le Chanois (a Jewish communist resistance member working for a German film company) who later became a hate figure for the nouvelle vague as a director of the cinema du papa school, but it needs to be noted that Henri-Georges Clouzot was head of the script department at Continental, and the humour smacks of his playfulness, black comedy and grotesquerie in, say, L’ASSASSIN HABITE… AU 21, and even LE CORBEAU. Fiona became convinced of this.

The plot in this one is insanely convoluted, and then magically boils down to a simple confrontation with very little summary required. A nice job of screenwriting.

There’s a crazy sequence where we’re suddenly at the Last of the Mohicans Archery Club and everybody’s wearing an Indian headdress — it’s interesting that Maurice Tourneur, who directed (co-directed, really) MOHICANS in Hollywood, was around, and would make the sequel. But he doesn’t seem to have ever been attached to this one — I now have a copy of Christine Leteux’s book Continental Films, which produces the receipts.

By the time of LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC, the last Continental production as the occupation ended, scripted this time by the great Charles Spaak, the comedic tone has been modified a bit to allow more emotion, and Prejean’s Maigret has reintegrated the character’s original interest in psychology and humanity — his interest in why is greater than who. But this had been blended with Prejean’s light persona, so that Maigret can say he’s forgotten all about the murder he’s supposed to solve, because he’s more concerned with the human fallout.

This is the film whose shooting is documented in Tavernier’s underrated LAISSEZ-PASSER — Spaak completed the film in prison after being arrested, and this partly explains why there’s so much talk about food in the film — the writer was starving and couldn’t think of anything else. But the film’s concentration on the theme of paternity becomes even more moving when you know that Spaak’s wife, pregnant with their first child, had also been arrested. They got out OK in the end.

Poittier’s more interesting than I had somehow assumed — he throws in a splitscreen shot in PICPUS (as Lucas briefs Maigret on a murder, we see the discovery of the body played out in a little box) and an impressive sequence shot in CAVES.

It’s curious — I tend to rate movie Maigrets on their resemblance to the literary figure, but Prejean’s portrayal demands to be judged differently, on the basis of how successful his warping of the role is. And it’s extremely successful, on its own terms.

All the facts here come from Leteux’s book and Tavernier’s film. Some of the speculations are mine.

Vital titles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2009 by dcairns





The ’30s was a GOLDEN AGE of titles, I tells ya! And that goes for logos too.


Continental films is probably the most infamous of these, since they were a German company set up in Paris during the occupation. Filmmakers like Marcel L’Herbier and Maurice Tourneur made films there — while Tourneur’s son Jacques was making movies in Hollywood — but they were never political. Goebbels had said that French movies “should be light-hearted, frivolous and, if possible, stupid,” which suggests that he really missed his vocation as a Hollywood studio executive (a stressful job, but if it all goes wrong you can “return to your roots in community theater” rather than feeding cyanide to the wife and kids). All the filmmakers who worked at Continental were tainted by the connection to Germany, although they were no more guilty of collaboration than anyone whose work aided the economy — most of them felt they were struggling not only for their own survival, but to keep French film-making alive. See Bertrand Tavernier’s marvellous and funny LAISSER-PASSEZ for more details.

The biggest scandal was caused by Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU, of course. A tale of a poison-pen letter campaign in a small town, it was actually hated by the Germans, since it made anonymous denunciation look like a bad thing (although the S.S. were receiving so many anonymous tip-offs from the French citizenry, they couldn’t even investigate them all). London Radio pronounced a death sentence on Clouzot for this unpatriotic movie. After the war, as the denunciations continued, this time for collaboration (if you had annoying neighbours, the occupation and its aftermath was a golden opportunity to be rid of them) and LE CORBEAU was banned, with its director receiving a lifetime ban from film-making. This was later commuted to five years, and within three, Clouzot was back, with MANON — which is even more savage. “I directed it with my whole heart,” said Clouzot.