Archive for Jean Servais

Noir is Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 28, 2020 by dcairns
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Two French crime stories. I first wrote about THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS, Costa-Gavras’ directorial debut, when it was only available to me as a pan-and-scan off-air recording from Scottish Television, dubbed into English. Now seeing it in widescreen and French and decent definition, its youthful vivacity combines nicely with its dark sensibility. But it’s far from nihilistic — Costa-Gavras clearly loves his naïve young couple, and his sniffle-afflicted detective (Yves Montand gets to be a handkerchief actor). It goes like a train. The novel by Sebastien Japrisot is also excellent but the solution to the mystery involves a fairly wild coincidence of murderers, if I recall it aright. CG changes the ending and it makes more sense. Probably his least political film for years but it does slip in some social comment, however maybe it’s highest achievement outside of the kinetic thriller dynamic is the miniature character portraits it offers en route.

RIFIFI is of course too famous to require comment on its spectacular cinematic merits, particularly the 45-minute (can this be right? It isn’t: see comments) silent heist. What makes it so tense and exhilarating IS the quietude. Director Jules Dassin’s European comeback after the blacklist, it shows his willingness to let the bad guy heroes BE bad guys, until the third act, when he gives anti-hero Jean Servais something noble to do, and includes a speech about how the real tough guys are those born to poverty who nevertheless go straight. He couldn’t help himself — Dassin needed some nobility to get behind.

Servais, visibly dying, is a magnificently raddled central figure (you can see him as a fresh-faced juvie lead in LES MISERABLES 20-something years earlier), shrivelled in his baggy suit. During the feverish final journey by convertible through Paris, he’s accompanied by a little boy with a toy cowboy pistol, draped in an adult coat to keep warm, who comes to seem like a crazy parody of him. Dassin, working with editor Roger Dwyre for the first time, creates a sequence of pure rhythm — from his very first short, Dassin has a heightened sense of visual and aural rhythm. If you start to notice it, even his supposed “worst” films become impressive.

Askew

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2012 by dcairns

Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…

The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.

As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.

Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).

Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”

Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.

This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.

There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.

Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.

But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)