Archive for Simone Signoret

Shakes on a Train

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 4, 2015 by dcairns

Nalder Express from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The truest, awfulest form of claustrophobia is not the feeling of the walls closing in, but of people closing in. Claustrophobia of the flesh — other people’s and our own. So the most impressive sequence in Rene Clement’s rather little-known wartime resistance romance, LE JOUR ET L’HEURE, is a desperate passage through a crowded train, where Henri Decae’s camera jostles about realistically, creating an entirely new form of camera movement, nosing left and right as it nudges its way through the resisting mass of travellers. Movie crowds usually part obligingly for the crew — sometimes, when the lens is wide, you can even see them doing it at the edge of frame. But this bunch of surly French passengers AIN’T BUDGING. So we squeeze along in little surges, like blood from a wound.

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Suddenly — there’s Reggie Nalder, and we know things just got worse. (I would love to see a movie where an appearance by the scar-faced Austro-Hungarian thesp signalled an upturn in somebody’s fortunes, but I fear his career, from JERICHO in 1946 to JERICO in 1991 (his filmography has more symmetry than his face!) passed without a single white knight role.

Stuart Whitman was never an actor I embraced as warmly as I do Nalder — TV’s Kurt Barlow gets a free pass, like Michael Berryman for being fabulously freakish — Whitman seemed to always herald tedium in BBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies screenings of the 70s. But then I saw him playing a persecuted paedophile in THE MARK, and I thought, I have to give him points for bravery. He’s actually a good, sympathetic presence when not called upon to embody the Glenn Ford ideal of masculinity, which is a pretty messed-up ideal. Here he plays an American airman shot down over France and enlisting the aid of Simone Signoret to escape into Spain — he hopes.

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The suspense set-up is so strong that the movie can coast from one tense situation to another, never having to rely on its slightly underwritten love story, and knowing that an actor like Signoret can fill in the blanks. The strong supporting cast, with Michel Piccolo, Billy Kearns and Genevieve Page, helps, as does the photography, despite a great deal of anamorphic mumps and rubberwalling, the combination of widescreen and wide lenses making us feel like we’re being wrapped around the actors or else buckling lengthwise into boss-eyed cylinders as we’re pressed through the doorways.

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An Angel Passes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2011 by dcairns

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.

TOURNEUR CESSA DE TOURNER  (TOURNEUR STOPPED FILMING)

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.

Maurice Tourneur.

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?

[1] 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.

[2] Thanks to Francomac and his French film (plus) blog for the clip and screen caps.

Thinking in the round

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2010 by dcairns

Watching LA RONDE again with an audience of one student (at this time of year they tend to be busy on shoots — but Joachim wrapped one project and came along to the screening the same evening, bless him: “I can go to the pub anytime.”) — struck as always by new details I didn’t remember seeing before.

When Simone Signoret rotates into view she’s standing under a little lamppost — an unlikely accoutrement for a carousel, but an apt one for a carousal.

Of all the guys in the film, Serge Reggiani may be the luckiest, getting to score with both Simones, Signoret and Simon, and he’s certainly the least grateful lover.

Always loved the scene where Walbrook leads Simone Simon through time, by walking in between sets, but this time I started wondering about the avenue of movie lights they pass — where does it lead? To other scenes in this movie, or to other movies altogether?

There’s something of an irony in Fernand Gravey playing Danielle Darrieux’s husband, since he was moonlighting as a resistance fighter during the war, spreading terror by night and shooting LA NUIT FANTASTIQUE by day, whereas Danielle’s record was slightly more spotty — she went on a goodwill tour of Germany (with Clouzot’s girlfriend) and got condemned to death by the Resistance for her troubles (a sentence which was later commuted to “Oh alright then we’ll let you off this time”). Her story seems to have been that she was trying to secure the freedom of her boyfriend, Porfirio Rubiroso, from the Gestapo. She succeeded, and being an international playboy he subsequently dumped her.

(Porfirio Rubirosa… How to explain the romantic appeal of this dashing Dominican diplomat? You know those long pepper grinders you get in Italian restaurants? Those are, unofficially, known as rubirosas. Think about it.)

I’m struck once again by the final exchanges between Gerard Philippe and Simone Signoret — what’s going on here? There’s a suggestion that she reminds him of someone, and she may in fact BE the person he’s reminded of, although he probably doesn’t realize it. And perhaps he was the young soldier who set her out on her strange path, sleeping with soldiers for free? But it’s all quite mysterioso and allusive. I watch the scene again when I get home, using the extended cut of the film that abruptly surfaced on Australian TV, without warning. The scene is longer but seems, if anything, more mysterious than before.

Plus there’s this great Walter Sickert-NIGHT OF THE HUNTER composition.

Most of the added scenes in the extended version involves Walbrook, but Jean-Louis Barrault’s whole section is a fair bit longer too. This includes an amazing transition from Barrault’s scene with the “grisette” (Odette Joyeux) to his scene with the actress (Isa Miranda). In a post-coital scene in Barrault’s split-level bachelor pad (fin-de-siecle version) Joyeux asks Barrault to put out the candles. Then a voice echoes out, “Yes, put out the candles!” Barrault looks up, and discovers that his apartment has no ceiling, and that he has Anton Walbrook looking down at him from a lighting rig. He does as he’s told, and Walbrook swivels the spotlight off Barrault and onto an entirely new scene, the theatre, where Miranda is taking her curtain calls. Walbrook announces the new scene, “The poet and the actress,” (which sounds like the set-up to a smutty joke, and almost is).

It’s a dumbfoundingly wonderful transition. The rest of the extended sequences are very welcome, but not to the same level of awesomeness, although there’s another shot of the intersticial space-time-continuum between sets, with Walbrook sweeping off into it in his opera cape, and a scene between Walbrook and Barrault in the snow outside the love nest he’s rented with Miranda, where both actors’ exhalations are visible in the cold air — Ophuls must have filmed in an ice-house, if not on location (my money’s on the former).

The reason for this long cut is apparently as follows — it was Ophuls preferred edit, but a preview audience reacted badly, so he pared it down to the version familiar to us. Following a quirky logic of his own, he didn’t much trim the opening scenes, saving his most severe cuts for late in the picture, effectively moving the scene of Barrault and Miranda’s consummation back from the countryside to her dressing room in the process. While many of Walbrook’s appearances were shortened (there’s some more business with him as a head waiter), the more extreme verfremdungseffekt moments, such as Walbrook censoring one steamy love scene by editing the film, were preserved in essence if not in length. Now Marcel Ophuls has done his best to suppress this alternative director’s cut, which I guess is his version of protecting his father’s legacy, but I can’t say I understand his logic (he’s also barred the German version of LOLA MONTES).

Even with the additional material, the film doesn’t quite have an end shot, surprisingly. There’s a cluttered frame incorporating theatre, street and movie studio all in one image, which is a nice idea but doesn’t quite come off compositionally, and then a freeze-frame of the idle carousel, which looks like something from the end credits of a US TV show. But so what? As Sidney Lumet put it, “Nothing has to be perfect,” and in a film as downright SUBLIME as LA RONDE, perfection might actually be a vulgarity.