Expanding and redrawing Ginette Vincendeau’s incomplete map of French film noir
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Let it be said here first: I come to praise Ginette Vincendeau,1 not to bury her. The great French film scholar is arguably more qualified than anyone to write a book-length study on French film noir – though, despite a prolific career, she has shown little inclination to define or undertake such a project on its own merits. Her 2019 Sight & Sound essay “How the French Birthed Film Noir” is her only such attempt. While it is a worthy introduction, it often veers into an unfortunate and predictable conformity (driven by what appears to be a systemic need to genuflect to America’s increasingly dubious claim on noir’s “origin theories”).
Having spent nearly a decade in combing through the lost, discarded, and “hidden in plain sight” noir films made in France from 1931 to 1966, an effort resulting in the “canon” being expanded in size from roughly 40-50 to more than 600 (yes, 600!) films, I come here to clarify when Professor Vincendeau is pushing toward a new understanding of French noir, and when she continues to stroll through the fog of critical neglect that has surrounded these films over the past 60 years, in part due to a lingering worldwide over-inflation of the aura of the Nouvelle Vague. This essay will attempt to shine a light on what I’ve called “the lost continent” of French noir, an area explored in an ongoing series of festivals since 2014, where more than 100 of these French noirs have been restored to the public.
And it should be stressed that our positions have a good bit in common with respect to the origin and nature of French noir and its relationship to the increasingly dispersive notions of “noir” that continue to cloud our historical understanding. When amplifying her areas of dissembling, I will endeavor to be gentle in what follows, in recognition of the fact that the historical distortions surrounding this material do not originate with her.
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The first key area where Prof. Vincendeau’s and my approaches diverge is in the level of significance for 1930s “poetic realism” and 1950s “heist noir” that has become a critical truism over the past 30 years. By no means do I wish to dismiss these two categories of French noir. Instead, I propose we reevaluate their relative importance in an expanded history that must necessarily include more than five-sixths of the noirs made in France from 1932 to 1966 that remain virtually unseen in the non-French-speaking world for more than 50 years. Indeed, this is a body of art that has rarely been analyzed – or even screened – in France due to a peculiar aesthetic hegemony that is a lingering aftereffect of the Nouvelle Vague (NV).
Clearly, a complete survey would require at least a book-length study. For now, then, it is better to weave key discoveries and concepts into a presentation expanding on the film selections Vincendeau has made in the latter part of her Sight & Sound essay (choices that closely adhere to the systemic bias referred to earlier). This essay augments her set with a series of “replacement films” that will create a more comprehensive overview of the range of themes and subtypes within classic French noir. It will also reference dozens of other films that are relevant to an expanded view of French noir’s “lost continent.”
Vincendaeu’s list includes 12 films. I retain eight (demonstrating a large affinity for her overall viewpoint). To achieve my stated objective, I’ve added eight films, which provides us with a broader, more encompassing historical overview.
Below I show how this revised chronological listing looks once I’ve removed four films and added eight:
Vincendeau Original List of 12 from Sight & Sound per “The Big Sigh”
1932 La nuit du carrefour (Renoir)
1937 Pépé le moko (Duvivier)
1938 La bête humaine (Renoir)
1939 Le jour se lève (Carné)
1939 Le dernier tournant (Chenal)
1943 Le corbeau (Clouzot)
1947 Quai des Orfevres (Clouzot)
1949 Une si jolie petite plage (Allegret)
1954 Touchez pas au grisbi (Becker)
1955 Rififi (Dassin)
1956 Voici le temps des assassins (Duvivier)
1962 Le doulos (Melville)
Eight Supplemental Films
1941 L’assassinat de Pere Noel (Christian-Jaque)
1943 Voyage sans espoir (Christian-Jaque)
1947 Non coupable (Decoin)
1947 Les jeux sont faits (Delannoy)
1949 Les eaux troubles (Calef)
1949 Le silence de la mer (Melville)
1962 Leviathan (Keigel)
1963 Chair de poule (Duvivier)
I have removed what I would argue is the overemphasis on ’30s poetic realism and ’50s heist noirs in terms of how we should characterize French noir archetypes. (Note that this is not a reflection on the quality of these films.) This reformulation is intended to achieve the following:
- Adds crucial weight to the Occupation noirs and their influence over the development of a pivotal subgenre (the “provincial gothic”) that is missing from virtually all accounts of French film in the 1940s and ’50s.
- Reintroduces other crucial subtypes found in the immediate post-WWII years that embody thematic directions Vincendeau’s original list either ignores or dismisses out of hand.
- Argues for a reevaluation of Melville contra to the approaches taken in Vincendeau’s study Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris that is more in keeping with the insights of director-historian Bertrand Tavernier, who emphasizes the duality in Melville’s work, in part from his own personal interactions and subsequent reflections suggesting that his ’60s gangster films are the beginning of a transgressive “neo-noir” separate from (and arguably anathema to) the classic French cycle in its late phase during the 1960s.
- Provides a running quantitative inventory of the 600+ noirs (of all subtypes) produced in France from 1932 to 1966.
Recall that I’ve noted how few of these films have been discussed systematically – or, for that matter, even seen – in France since the late ’60s. Critical approaches, building from post-NV arthouse precepts, marginalized noir as a formulaic genre and cast it into the bowels of the cinematheque, where it languished as its formulas were reworked with greater explicitness and escalating calculation. The current canon of roughly five dozen films (which Vincendeau boils down to a dozen) has issued forth from an international inflection building from the Cahiers du Cinema’s auteurism. It has left us with an astonishing terrain vague to reclaim – one that most do not even know exists!
We cannot stress that last point enough. Readers will be contending with a great disadvantage in this essay: most will be at a total loss regarding the eight films I’ve added to the list. That’s because these films literally have not been screened anywhere in the past 50 years (with only the rarest of exceptions, such as Melville’s early masterwork Le silence de la mer, which has been subsumed into his myth). These films have only begun to escape from French cinematheque archives in the last decade, and even in the recent rush of France’s large studios (Gaumont, Pathé, Studio Canal) to release them – often at the behest of Bertrand Tavernier, a relentless advocate – they have barely made a dent in the public consciousness. That was the impetus behind our series of exploratory festivals, where we’ve gone beyond making a dent – all the way, perhaps, to two smashed headlights!
So, operating in that half-light, what follows will build from the generally solid foundation that Vincendeau has provided. However, we will take it much further by referencing other notable films related to those “anointed” as the cream of the crop. As we examine these films chronologically, I will quote a salient passage from her essay as it pertains to each of the eight films retained from her list, along with additional commentary – with my supplemental films interpolated in the in-between spaces. And I will try to make the case for the eight films that further flesh out this list despite the fact that for virtually all readers they are unseen and thus can only, at present at least, be “ghostly emanations.”
FRENCH NOIR BY THE NUMBERS: 1930s
1932-35: 19 noirs 1936-1940: 72 noirs
Key subtypes: policier, poetic realism, exotic/spy/war, flawed hero
(subtype definitions at the conclusion of the essay)
1 – LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR (1932, Jean Renoir)
“The almost too elegant Pierre Renoir (the director’s brother) introduces viewers to Maigret’s famous ‘sponge’ detection method, silently soaking up the eerie atmosphere. In his sights are the beautiful Else (Danish actress Winna Winfried) and her ‘brother’ Carl (Georges Koudria). The pair’s literal and metaphorical foreignness contrasts with the Frenchness of the neighbors at the local garage – some played by friends of the director, whose innovative shooting method beautifully serves the emerging noir cinema.”
Vincendeau elsewhere cites Renoir’s “casual early brilliance,” an evocative phrase that almost makes it clear that the director actually invented the archetypal visual atmosphere of film noir as an afterthought of his effort to adapt Georges Simenon’s source novel. That “eerie atmosphere” is what translated subliminally into the strains of noir that followed in the wide but mostly unrecognized wake of La nuit du carrefour. These strains morphed into the policier, poetic realist, and exotic subtypes that blossomed in the late ’30s as France faced down the threat to its existence looming on its eastern border.
Winna Winfried adds what we might call the erotic component to the femme fatale that had been absent in earlier cinematic incarnations. Over the next 30 years, a not insignificant portion of French noirs would circle, moth-like, around a self-igniting flame of precocious, wantonly wayward girl-women, who intuitively controlled the destinies of those around them via a kind of hormonal force field. This reaches its ultimate incarnation in the infantile “wild child,” which surfaces after WWII with Cecile Aubry in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s slyly incendiary Manon (1949). The archetype later finds its perfect storm of embodiment in Brigitte Bardot – particularly in Claude Autant-Lara’s En cas de malheur (1958) and Clouzot’s La vérité (1960).
What is startling to fathom is how so much of the archetype is embodied the first time out. Vincendeau clearly seems to sense this, but like most other critics prefers to downplay it. This is in contrast with the American-centric school of criticism, which clings to its 1941-58 benchmark because of films with highly pronounced noir archetypes as totemic endpoints – The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil. More astonishing still is that, after having created it on little more than a whim, the protean Renoir simply set aside the formulation, barely revisiting it during his subsequent career.
However, what Renoir abandoned was taken up by many talents:
- Julien Duvivier (1933’s La tete d’un homme)
- returning expatriate Maurice Tourneur (1932’s Au nom de la loi)
- journeyman Jeff Musso (1938’s Le puritain)
- the brilliant but mercurial Pierre Chenal (entries in all four subtypes of French noir existent during the decade)
- Marcel Carné (an ever-darkening journey past “poetic realism” into full-blown noir).
This new form soon diffused to the United States, smuggled in by emigrés Anatole Litvak, Robert Siodmak, and Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt, all of whom stopped in France en route to Hollywood (along with better-known refugees such as Lang, Wilder, and Ophuls).
These directors constitute a group that expanded the layers of early film noir in its various incarnations in France and (later) in America. (A more eclectic appropriation of these noir themes/plots emerges at various points in the works of Jacques Becker – who, in 1932, was Renoir’s young assistant director on La nuit du Carrefour.)
2 – PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1937, Julien Duvivier)
“At first sight, Pépé le moko, which takes place in sun-drenched Algiers, belongs to French colonial cinema and is an unlikely candidate for film noir. But this tale of gangster-on-the-run Pépé (Jean Gabin), whose downfall is set in train when he falls for beautiful Parisienne Gaby (Mireille Balin) while hiding out in the Casbah, bears the imprint of many noir narratives. Also noir-tinted is the hold the past has over Pépé and those surrounding him, all steeped in nostalgia and fatalism, including chanteuse Fréhel in her moving song.”
Vincendeau neglects to mention that Duvivier had already tried his hand at noir-melodrama hybrids as early as 1931, when he revitalized the career of Harry Baur. Today Baur’s greatness as an actor is well known, but he’s not yet seen as the key leading man in “dark French film” during the first half of the ’30s, having been eclipsed by Jean Gabin’s spectacular emergence from 1935 to 1939. Elsewhere she is right on the money, showing us how poetic realism synthesized the other noir elements into its bewitching atmosphere, valorizing the criminal and creating a tragic romantic framework for what might otherwise be hackneyed tales of tawdry lowlifes.
It is Duvivier who first generates this intoxicating alchemy, which resonated most with the contemporary audience in France because of its ties to a romantic view of colonialism and a symbolic connection with the pervasive resigned-to-its-fate undercurrent that gripped France in the years immediately preceding World War II. The explosion of film noir in all the subtypes I mentioned in 1937-38 caused a sensation at the box office and a swift backlash among film critics. It was those critics (and not Nino Frank nearly a decade later) who actually invented the term “film noir” at this time, as a derogatory reference for films overly suffused with this shrugged-shoulder pessimism. But here, then, is the precise gesture that animates the dominant viewpoint in all of French noir – the shrug often accompanied by what might best be termed “the Big Sigh.”
We could use an “exotic” noir on the list – such as 1938’s La maison du Maltais, which introduces a more mysterious variant on the femme fatale as embodied by beauty-queen-turned-diva Viviane Romance – but these films, like poetic realism itself, became more expendable after the onset of war (the horse being “out of the barn” and goose-stepping in the streets of Paris by then). Films of this subgenre would morph into spy noirs, which would mutate in tone and approach over the course of time in response to the changing shape of world politics.
3 – LE JOUR SE LÈVE (1939, Marcel Carné)
“Through striking use of flashbacks, the film tells the story of François (Gabin), a factory worker romantically involved with young florist Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) as well as with Clara (Arletty), assistant to louche entertainer and seducer Valentin (Jules Berry). François kills Valentin out of jealousy over Françoise and despite support from those around him, kills himself when the police close in.”
Vincendeau elsewhere references how Le jour se lève symbolizes France’s imminent fate (World War II was just months away when the studio released it). Further, it’s important to note the formal touches that Carné so masterfully employs: for example, the multiple flashback structure, borrowed almost immediately by Orson Welles and cemented into 1940s American noir to such an extent that many still mistakenly consider it synonymous with noir.
Applying an inventory of noir elements to Le jour se lève indicates that this film is only a distant cousin of poetic realism and is much more in the mainstream of noir, where class and socioeconomic issues are more pivotal in creating an “end-state” crisis as opposed to a glamorized criminality. It is Jean Gabin’s arc as a tragic hero that, oddly, elevates the story in such a way, even though it bears only a superficial resemblance to his other roles.
4 – LE DERNIER TOURNANT (1939, Pierre Chenal)
“The film contains the key noir narrative elements of doomed love and inability to escape the past, and classic noir visual style: Chenal and Christian Matras’s virtuoso camerawork and low-key lighting were apparently admired by Orson Welles. While Le dernier tournant testifies to Chenal’s taste for American crime literature, his version marks its Frenchness in two ways: a greater moral ambiguity and a different gender pattern. Where Tay Garnett’s 1946 American version (The Postman Always Rings Twice) emphasizes the erotic charge of the femme fatale and Visconti’s version (Ossessione, 1942) the attraction of the young male hero, Chenal gives most weight and sympathy to the husband, played by Michel Simon, significantly the greater star of the trio.”
Pierre Chenal’s historical significance in the development of French noir is still awaiting its proper interpretation: Vincendeau ignores his prodigal but potent career in an attempt to typecast him as beholden to American hard-boiled fiction. Prior to Le dernier tournant, Chenal produced works in all four subtypes of ’30s French noir, outstripping even Duvivier.
What’s truly notable here is that Chenal is the only director in the ’30s to follow Renoir into a presentation of adolescent romantic-sexual precocity, locating it more definitively within the prurient underbelly of a hapless patriarchy. Sympathy may be extended to Michel Simon’s character, but even his oddball proletarian stance is based on an unspoken “gender complicity” that smothers female agency even as it espouses a courtly form of emotional slavery.
Chenal initially wanted to emphasize the erotic charge of the femme fatale, approaching Viviane Romance to play Cora. But Romance, saturated by such parts by this point, declined, considering it to be redundant: it was then that Chenal turned to 18-year-old Corinne Luchaire, fresh from impressive performances in Prison sans barreaux (1938) and Je t’attendrai (1939), two dark melodramas from Russian emigré Leonide Moguy. Chenal induced Luchaire, a natural blonde, to play Cora while wearing a black wig (intended, apparently, to produce a kind of “teenaged variation” on Romance’s celebrated sultriness).
But Luchaire was self-conscious in the role as a result of wearing the wig, and gives a more interiorized performance. Her aura creates a fascinating tension between a more latent, ethereal sex appeal and a willful, teenaged romantic intensity – which, in turn, evokes an elevated level of pathetic attraction in both Simon (playing the hapless, salt-of-the-earth huband) and Fernand Gravey (the crude but courtly – and often downright confused lover). The two men bond – and, fatefully, clash – over their competing forms of desire for her.
Chenal, who was Jewish, would flee France shortly after this film. He lived long stretches in South America, returning only fitfully to make impressive films that were out of step with the times. His return after WWII produced La foire aux chimeres (1946), which features a shattering performance from Erich von Stroheim, and is now considered by some to be his masterpiece. But the film was brutally panned on its release, sending him back into exile for the better part of another decade. When he returned again, in the mid-50s, he re-energized the policier with Rafles sur la ville (1958), where he beats Melville to the punch with respect to the toxic masculinity shared by criminals and policemen alike – even leaving room to explore the impacts of such abusive behavior on the women they stalk (surprisingly nuanced performances from two forgotten actresses: infamous brunette Bella Darvi and blonde, underrated Danik Patisson).
FRENCH NOIR BY THE NUMBERS: 1940s
1941-45: 40 noirs 1946-1950: 137 noirs
Key subtypes: provincial gothic, policier, flawed hero
(subtype definitions at the conclusion of the essay)
5 – L’ASSASSINAT DU PÈRE NOEL (1941, Christian-Jaque)
The unique circumstances after France fell to the Nazis – as manifested in the Occupation years where resistance and collaboration were often indistinguishable to the naked eye – added a subversive subtext to French film noir. This subversion seeped into the consciousness of French filmmakers, remaining there even after the war was over. This tension between oppressor and oppressed reached its apex in the formation of Continental Films, a Nazi-run company that was targeted by filmmakers forming their own form of resistance (as depicted in Bertrand Tavernier’s exemplary 2002 biopic, Laissez-passer) and often insinuating subversive subtext into films they would sneak into existence literally under the noses of the Nazis.
As historian Colin Crisp2 notes, this effort involved the development of an entirely new noir subtype, the provincial gothic. Set in insular villages instead of urban jungles or exotic colonial outposts, the remoteness of the setting in these films (a dozen or so would emerge during the 1941-45 time frame) helped to mask the tone of resistance that their stories contained. The provincial gothic proved very adaptable in terms of tonality, and would continue to energize French noir well after the end of the war.
L’assassinat du Père Noel initiates this astonishing chapter in film history, anchored by a charming, elliptical performance from Harry Baur as the village globemaker whose apparent death while playing Santa Claus causes an increasingly frenetic investigation. Baur, whose characterizations in the early-mid ’30s were pivotal for the emergence of French noir, would appear in just one more film before his purported Jewish heritage would bring forth a fatal collision with the Gestapo. The conflicted atmosphere of the village stands in for unspoken real-world events (Vichy, collaboration vs. resistance, the Nazis themselves) and becomes the template for a series of more heavily freighted Occupation films, including Clouzot’s controversial Le corbeau.
Director Christian-Jaque, lightly regarded until the late ’30s, begins an astonishing period of growth during the Occupation years. He takes over the reins of French cinema from those who’ve been exiled (Chenal, Duvivier, Renoir, Raymond Bernard) or censored (Jean Gremillon) and turns out a string of superb works in various subtypes of noir, each one energized by a subtle but spirited undercurrent of resistance.
6 – LE CORBEAU (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
“The film’s extraordinary darkness and the twin themes of the letters and abortion were fundamentally opposed to the values of the Vichy regime, as well as to those of the German occupier. This did not stop Clouzot from being punished at the Liberation for working for Continental. Since then, though, Le corbeau has become the emblematic film of the French war years and a turning point in darkness on screen.”
Vincendeau does not quite capture the paradox of Le corbeau, a film that fanned the flames of escalating complexity in the relationship between occupied France and its conquerors – a relationship that became more fraught after the Liberation, when the film was (farcically) denounced as collaborationist, resulting in a two-year suspension for Clouzot.
Perhaps as a result, the director would never quite follow up on the simmering tension that he generated in this dark roundelay of attraction and betrayal. He left this behind to perfect more operatic touches in his subsequent films, relying on his actors to overcome an increasingly lethargic pacing. (His ultimate attempt to extricate himself from this pattern, 1964’s aborted Inferno, would nearly cost him his life when he was hospitalized with a heart attack during production.) He would be more misanthropic in these later works, but somehow never quite as dark as what he achieves here, where he squeezes the cumulative psychological effects of the war through an ever-tightening emotional vise.
7 – VOYAGE SANS ESPOIR (1943, Christian-Jaque)
Christian-Jaque, looking for a vehicle to feature his current wife (Simone Renant, one of six actresses he married!), reworked the script of a 1931 Augusto Genina film, Les amants de minuit. He then borrowed tone and character context from Duvivier and Carné, cast Jean Marais brilliantly against type, handed Lucien Coedel his first great role, and turned loose photographer Robert Lefebvre to employ the most gloriously overwrought superabundance of expressionistic techniques.
Overlooked for decades, this is the most flamboyantly accomplished noir of the Occupation years. Voyage sans espoir brilliantly combines the classic plot devices of pre-WWII European comedy with a darker strain of subversive appropriation. The classic romantic-triangle plot employed by Genina (a common feature across cinema nationalities in the early ’30s, and similar to the type comically exploited in Hollywood by Lubitsch) remains intact structurally. Singer Marie-Ange (Renant) awaits her escaped convict lover (Paul Bernard) in Marseille, planning to help him escape to Algeria, but her plans are upended when she falls in love with a callow bank clerk (Marais) whose robbery has become known to her lover, who plans to kill him for the loot. Paul Bernard’s character is the template for a particular type of silent criminal menace that becomes more prominent in future French noir. (He would reprise it for Duvivier in 1946’s Panique, but Jaque got there first.)
Though the film is clearly designed for Renant, who acts her heart out, there is an unsuspected surprise lurking in the character of the ship captain (Coedel), whose unrequited love for Marie-Ange leads him to a noble, visually spectacular sacrifice on behalf of Marais – who, in a brilliant touch, remains clueless about the amount of peril he’s in throughout the entire film. Coedel’s performance led to a leading role in Christian-Jaque’s third Occupation masterpiece, Sortileges, which jump-started him into an all-too-brief stardom that ended abruptly with his tragic, mysterious death in 1947.
Voyage sans espoir is the missing link between the versions of noir that predominated in pre- and post-WWII – any comprehensive accounting of French film noir needs to acknowledge its singularity and virtuosity, recognizing in it an instance where plots and genres deliriously collide, creating a film brimming over with deep themes, visual panache, and a level of escapist energy rarely approached even in Hollywood.
8 – NON COUPABLE (1947, Henri Decoin)
The Internet reviewer dbdumonteil, stalwart champion of the unjustly maligned “cinema de qualité,” is virtually the only individual to write about Non coupable, Henri Decoin’s darker-than-dark masterpiece:
This film is proof positive that Michel Simon is one of the most prodigious actors in the whole world. As for Decoin, he’s almost forgotten in France, which is a shame because some of his works equal those of his colleagues Duvivier and Clouzot.
Right from the start, we know Doctor Ancelin (Simon) is the murderer: he’s a mediocre man, the inhabitants of his small town regard him as a meek, good-but-not-too-smart guy. His partner (Jany Holt) sleeps with the garage owner; his colleagues despise him as a barfly; he is ugly, fat, and holds a grudge against the entire community. And what a community! A journalist who rejoices when a murder is committed (reminiscent of Kirk Douglas in Wilder’s Ace in the Hole); arrogant doctors whose main objective is social elevation; Ancelin’s partner, who wants to help the police just because there is a reward. This misanthropy rivals Clouzot’s world.
At the wheel, Ancelin kills a man in an accident and gets away with it. Then he begins to think he could murder with impunity. Crime will provide him with the achievement he could not reach in his job or in his sentimental life. Some scenes will make your hair stand on end: after having killed her lover, Ancelin tells his terrified partner that he had also planned her death, and he could easily have done away with her instead. (Her response leads to more fatality.) A black cat, often shot in close-up, adds to the sometimes Poe-esque atmosphere – and even this harmless animal will play a part in the ironic ending.
Michel Simon gives a masterful performance – from a whisper to a scream, from logical reasoning to absolute madness. His longing to be acknowledged will not be fulfilled, because of people’s stupidity; because his crimes were too perfect; because of fate; because of a black cat which crossed his path: the pitiful doctor will go to his grave an imbecile to the world.
More mainstream critics have gravitated toward Simon’s work as Monsieur Hire in Duvivier’s recently rediscovered Panique (1946), preferring to carry water for a more established master. But there is simply no comparison in terms of the intensity and extremity of Simon’s characterization: Monsieur Hire is a dupe, but Dr. Ancelin is madness incarnate. Director Decoin, on a hot streak that extended through the Occupation years (beginning with 1942’s moody Les inconnus dans la maison, with its bravura performance from ’30s icon Raimu) into his first post-WWII collaborations with writer Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon (who co-wrote Decoin’s creepy La fille du diable the year before, a film featuring an astonishing performance by the tragic young actress Andrée Clément), reaches the black pit of psychological eclipse here. He takes the provincial gothic to a region that only Christian-Jaque (in 1945’s Sortileges) had managed to visit.
9 – LES JEUX SONT FAITS (1947, Jean Delannoy)
Two strains of existentialism make their appearance in post-WWII French noir: the absurdist and the didactic. The absurdist strain, as practiced by the team of Yves Allegret and Jacques Sigurd, ranges from elegiac (the tender futility of romantic love, as depicted in Dedee d’Anvers) to histrionic (the grotesque materialism boiling over in bourgeois marriage, at its darkest and most spasmodically infantile in Manèges). The didactic strain’s most noteworthy practitioner is Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre is more willing to align his characters with abstract concepts to do the heavy lifting per the need to articulate an inner life, which has the risk of stripping away spontaneity and mischance from the story. Sartre would eventually employ his take on absurdism in Huis Clos (aka No Exit), where the noir situation arises from a consistent outward projection of self-loathing by the characters. By the early ’60s, he would strongly suggest that capitalist greed was so all-encompassing as to willfully conceal and sweep away the past evidence of war crimes via a vicious circle of self-loathing and denial (in the histrionically didactic Condemned of Altona).
But in Les jeux sont faits, we have heavenly bureaucracy imparting a heady second chance to those who discover a soul mate after death. Here, we have an oddly matched but passionately aligned couple (the steely, proletarian Marcel Pagliero and the patrician, romantically intense Micheline Presle). They are thrust right back into the fatal situations that had previously defeated them with a mandate built around their shakily rekindled idealism. Somewhere in the midst of this tale of sublime misalignment – the ache of an abstracted form of melodrama seeping into a preexisting noir situation – it is Presle’s slowly coiling crescendo of fervor that causes us to willingly suspend disbelief even in the hopelessness of the lovers’ situation. Their situation is sullied by the earthly hell of “other people,” as Sartre had previously expounded in Being and Nothingness – a state that the two lovers embody simultaneously, wispy noir pawns in a larger cosmic game.
As was the case in America and across Europe in the first few years after WWII, the energy of the noir virus applied itself to variations of dark melodrama and found a fleeting modern gothic with sufficient resonance to encompass tales with themes and archetypes rooted in the past. Les jeux sont faits is a singular product of that moment in time, another work that emerged from France’s unique strain of film noir as a tool of the writer as auteur (as opposed to the director, per the self-serving insistence of the Nouvelle Vague).
Subordinated to the tonalities of the writer, a director such as Jean Delannoy can, in the service of those writerly imperatives, fashion a noir that is not so much brutal as agonizingly bittersweet. All in all, it is a brief, fleeting moment of sublimity – one that we should cherish for having come into existence at all.
10 – LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949, Jean-Pierre Melville)
The early Melville developed most of his later narrative/mise-en-scene strategies in his first work. Here he displays it without the fetishistic American references and descent into criminal mythology that would ultimately undercut the purity of his break with cinematic conventions. Aligning himself with the aesthetic-philosophic rebels (Bresson, Calef, Allegret), Melville creates the quintessential resistance film, laden with voiceover and the slow-cooked imagery of Henri Dacae. He reminds us that the subversion that noir provides is always implicit in space before it becomes explicit in time. And he revels in the ironies that only noir can encompass in his faithful adaptation of Vercors’ celebrated wartime novel that features a Nazi who is not a monster, and a love that achieves its shattering coherence by not being consummated.
Melville’s “progression” into policier and gangster narratives is widely celebrated as a synthesis of two national styles, but it can really be seen as a slyly formulaic application of his original “anti-cinematic” style to increasingly lugubrious variations of Jules Dassin’s riff on Becker’s 45-degree twist on the gangster picture. It’s only when Melville moves back to a Bressonian subject – Léon Morin, pretre (1961) – and/or returns to memories of the war – L’armée des ombres (1969) – that he reclaims a narrative pulse capable of synthesizing actions with feelings. Le silence de la mer is the original flashpoint of Melville’s creative inspiration, welded to a particularly acute representation of the ironies and contradictions in human nature. As with the other key works of 1949 that cluster here on our revised list, this film commands reverence due to its singularity and not because of its representativeness.
11 – UNE SE JOLIE PETITE PLAGE (1949, Yves Allegret)
“The great matinée idol Gérard Philipe plays Pierre, an orphan who revisits a seedy hotel from his youth located on a rain-swept beach in northern France (the ironic ‘pretty’ beach of the title). Like Gabin’s characters, the sad Pierre is haunted by the past, but he is powerless rather than tragic; his solitary suicide lacks the epic or social dimension of Gabin’s in La bête humaine and Le jour se lève.”
Vincendeau’s pick seems more perfunctory than principled here – she goes on to suggest that the post-WWII absurdist wing of existentialism is “morbid,” wallowing in a kind of self-pity that is a path directly back to misogyny. (She is clearly projecting forward to director Allegret’s next film, Manèges (1950), where its women are beyond the pale.)3 If so, then why is this film on her list? Is it the intensity of the noir imagery, fleshed out in the darkness and the infernal, unremittingly foul weather that is as much a character in the film as the human beings? Is it Yves Allegret and Jacques Sigurd driving a stake through the heart of the provincial gothic, with the orphaned criminal-on-the-run victimized by his pathetic return to the rotten world he thought he’d escaped?
It doesn’t appear that she grasps the dark Platonic parody in the three enclosed spaces in which Philipe attempts to sequester himself. First, he’s alone in a sepulchral hotel room, stalked by a grifter (an especially menacing Jean Servais) convinced that Philipe is carrying valuables with him from his murder victim.
Then he sequesters himself in the decaying barn, where, overcome by remorse, he is comforted by the hotel maid (Madeleine Robinson) in a lingering moment of platonic love that is Pieta-like in its visual arrangement.
Third (Platonic overload alert!) is the windswept beach cave where his last hopes for redemption are dashed when he encounters the coarse sociopathy of the current indentured orphan who has no use for his belated platitudes.
Thus reason, passion and appetite have all failed him, here on the accursed beach he remembers all too well, in a prison of a hotel where he hears the voice of the Piaf-like singer he killed as it is played over and over by the dreadful, clueless hotel guests. Faced with the advent of hollow men in a hollowed-out society, Philipe surrenders to the absurd and ends his life not with a bang, but with a whimper.
12 – LES EAUX TROUBLES (1949, Henri Calef)
Choosing between three films that blow up their subgenres reveals how arbitrary lists such as these must ultimately be. The choice, though, at least affords us the opportunity to demonstrate how 1949 is the richest year in French noir.
That year, poetic realism turns mystical in Raymond Bernard’s Maya, where Viviane Romance, for so long the reigning “slut” of French cinema, reaches a fraught apotheosis as a diva-victim occupying a realm of cosmic suffering similar to Mexico’s María Félix. In 1949, too, the corrupted postwar world of Paris’ port city (Le Havre) is shown in its full proletarian grime, with a brutal marriage anchoring its jagged narrative in Marcel Pagliero’s neorealist/noir hybrid Un homme marche dans la ville, a film cast adrift by critics due to its incendiary politics.
In this next incarnation of noir singularity – Henri Calef’s prescient blending of provincial gothic and art film – we see the apotheosis of another undervalued French actress: Ginette Leclerc, best known as the conflicted vamp in Le corbeau. In Les eaux troubles, she, like Philipe’s character in Une se jolie petite plage, returns to a coastal town in Brittany after an unsatisfactory stay in Paris. But while Philipe’s character is on the run from a murder, Leclerc’s Augusta is returning to solve a mysterious death in the small, tribal fishing village where the hazards of a harsh, seafaring life have cemented ancient patriarchal ways.
Calef, a protégé of Pierre Chenal who came into his own in the years immediately after the war, is not interested in the tempestuous sea waves á la Gremillon (whose Remorques, like Les eaux troubles, was also based on a novel by Roger Vercel). He embeds in his film the tidal pull of the ocean for those on the land, who must brave the raging waters when they overflow onto the flattened beaches and deposit a hazardous harvest to be collected at great peril. It was on one of these frenzied nights that Augusta’s brother died; and, hardened by her brush with civilization, she pursues every clue as to what actually happened. These clues, contradictory and perverse, lead back to her proud, aloof, weather-beaten father (Eduard Dalmont), who wishes to punish her with them, as revenge for having challenged the ways of the village.
Astonishing, confounding, filled with rapturous images and violent emotion, Les eaux troubles is part of a turning point in French cinema, one that is most clearly exemplified in the Festival du Film Maudit held in the same year – 1949 – in Biarritz (another remote coastal town). It was here that French film’s most artistic practitioners – Cocteau, Bresson, Jean Gremillon – joined with scholars and future auteurist filmmakers – André Bazin, Alexandre Astruc, Roger Leenhardt. Importantly, they had the rapt participation of precocious (often teen-aged) “cine-club” members whose names – François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Doniol-Valcrose, Leonard Keigel – would become variably well known in the years to come. One might humorously superimpose a post-dated symbolism to the character of Les eaux troubles’ real-estate swindler (André Valmy, a forgotten actor who is a kind of talisman for these films, missing only an appearance in Maya, but prominent in Clouzot’s Manon – also 1949 – as well) whose job it is to sort through the old ways and make a lucrative career out of destroying them. In the film’s most astringent irony, it is the swindler (and not his own daughter) to whom the old man delivers the revelation of his son’s tragic fate.
Calef would not join those who would transform (some might say transmogrify) French cinema in the years to come. Like his mentor Chenal, he was mercurial, idiosyncratic, spellbound by the spectacle of psychological fracture. In Les eaux troubles, however, he crystallized a watershed moment in cinema, and did so in a way unlike any other: the film, in a manner related to the forces at work in Maya and Un homme marche, remains just as unsettling today as it was when it was first made.
FRENCH NOIR BY THE NUMBERS: 1950s
1951-55: 97 noirs 1956-1960: 128 noirs
Key subtypes: gangster, heist, policier, provincial gothic, flawed hero/flawed couples,
(subtype definitions at the conclusion of the essay)
13 – TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (1954, Jacques Becker)
“By toning down the violence and racism (and downright unpleasantness) of Albert Simonin’s eponymous Série noire novel, Jacques Becker gave French film noir a hugely successful new twist, creating the French gangster film in the process. Many others followed, but Grisbi encapsulates the genre. Gabin is superlative as Max, a Pigalle underworld godfather to whom even his enemies defer. Max is aiming to use the proceeds of his last heist to retire in style, but finds his plan disrupted by rival Angelo (Lino Ventura, in his film debut) and the ineptitude of his friend Riton (René Dary).”
Becker, Decoin, and Gilles Grangier “saved” Jean Gabin from his gallant attempt at becoming a character lead in the years immediately following WWII, forcing us to dig deeper to witness the full range of what this marvelous actor could really do. (His courageous work in Decoin’s La vérité sur Bébé Donge, two years before Grisbi, is just beginning to be seen as a career highlight.) But we must give Becker props for re-energizing the policier, which was then appropriated by many as a way back into a mythology that allowed a new form of detached alienation to take hold in French noir. That energy helped sustain it for another decade before the Nouvelle Vague and the extinction of black-and-white filmmaking finally put a bullet in its head.
Aside from the languid pace (admired a bit too much by Dassin and Melville), Becker’s tartness in insisting that pneumatic young women are fascinated with aging gangsters gave as much life to the age-old truth that “the older men get, the younger they wish.” This put a pseudo-philosophical sheen on what otherwise would be mere exploitation. His greatest gift to the next decade of such filmmaking, however, was the discovery of Lino Ventura, whose hulking presence and astonishing range of homely expression would anchor the policier subtype like no one else, transcending its demise and re-appropriation into the “no holds barred” world of the post-New Wave.
Also surfacing in conjunction with Grisbi and Rififi (removed from the list due to redundancy) is a second wave of indigenous crime writers – Albert Simonin, August le Breton, and Jose Giovanni, who were responsible for the retooling of criminal characters around gangsterism, heists, and prison stories, adding a patina of existentialism to tales that Melville would eventually populate with American references that were not originally part of the novels. Pardoned criminal Giovanni would become the most lionized of this group, pushing his criminal tales into a template for the endless parade of paint-by-numbers neo-noir vehicles that followed.
14 – VOICI LE TEMPS DES ASSASSINS (1956, Julien Duvivier)
“This collaboration between Julien Duvivier and Jean Gabin – their seventh since Maria Chapdelaine in 1934 – belongs to the darkest seam of French cinema, fusing Zola-style naturalism with crime and misogyny. Gabin plays Chatelin, a successful restaurateur in Les Halles, who falls for Catherine (Danièle Delorme), the scheming daughter of his former wife. The evil mother-daughter duo will stop at nothing to get his money…”
Duvivier, the Diogenes of French cinema, leaves us wondering whether it is the destruction of the male bond or the attempted revenge seduction for false appropriation of wealth that is the greater crime against the “natural order.” Never remotely resembling a feminist in any of his films, he nevertheless creates a potent platform for feminist revenge in Voici le temps des assassins, with his sidelong revelation that it is often the women themselves who will apply the brakes to those who would too openly upset the economic applecart wielded by the patriarchy.
In her escalating desperation to escape the polar pull of a revenge-besotted mother (Lucienne Bogaert, a pathetic schemer of apocalyptic proportions) and Gabin’s sadistic maternal gatekeeper (Germaine Kerjean, who knows that when all else fails, whips are the best way to toe the line), Delorme’s Catherine bungles her fateful opportunity to pit the symbolic son (Gérard Blain) against the symbolic father (Gabin). Her dead end comes to grisly fruition not at the hands of the patriarchy but via its grief-maddened, four-legged “best friend.”
A flurry of films about deceptive (and often unreadable) women followed into French theatres in the wake of this film – including two of Robert Hossein’s early works, Les salauds vont en enfer (1956) and Toi le venin (1958). Delorme’s histrionic frenzy in the film’s final act reminded American distributors of the unhinged Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, prompting them to appropriate that film’s original title for Voici’s American release: Deadlier Than the Male.
But Duvivier was blunt in his insistence that his film was about the evils of appetite, regardless of gender. “What happens to Catherine is what happens when one swallows evil whole,” he said. “One’s bloodstream can overwhelm the mind, and it’s then when we exist in the blinding light of a permanently darkened soul.” Like Diogenes, Duvivier posits that the only timeless truth is found in what passes fleetingly from man’s lips to his stomach – we must know what we consume in order not to be consumed by what we do (or do not) know.
FRENCH NOIR BY THE NUMBERS: 1960s
1961-66: 113 noirs
Key subtypes: gangster, heist, policier, provincial gothic, flawed hero/flawed couples,
(subtype definitions at the conclusion of the essay)
15 – LEVIATHAN (1962, Leonard Keigel)
Le doulos, Vincendeau’s lone ’60s entry, is an accomplished Melville policier that also happens to show us the way to the soulless nether regions of neo-noir. Only Serge Reggiani (with roots in French noir dating back to the ’40s) holds out against this headlong rush into a leaden homogeneity of style and affect. As Bertrand Tavernier notes, Melville’s characters narrow in scope even as his screen opens up: “The urge toward archetypes leads us away from needed human detail, and film becomes only an exercise in style.”
But even as noir was being appropriated (and slyly marginalized) in the early works of Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol, there were still practitioners continuing to push the margins of what such dark films could do. Robert Hossein, Edouard Molinaro, one-hit wonder Jean-Charles Dudrumet, Gérard Oury, Georges Lautner, and (in his unique way) Georges Franju brought fresh blood to French noir during the early years (1959-64) of the New Wave’s ascendancy. These practitioners balanced a reverence for previous narrative motifs with a playfully recursive approach to character development and editing techniques. (Hossein would eventually go further into the understructure of noir than anyone else, using his early theatre training to push his films closer to unsuppressed displays of forbidden desires, as in 1964’s La mort d’un tueur.)
In the midst of this upheaval, a lost voice from the post-WWII cine-clubs surprisingly emerged with a remarkable synthesis of noir and art film. Leonard Keigel reinvoked the provincial gothic while updating and streamlining the more outré midcentury efforts of Cocteau and Carné. Keigel, the Cocteau protégé and precocious organizer of the Festival du Film Maudit, languished in ill health for several years during the 1950s before joining the circle of expatriate novelist Julien Green, whose 1929 novel Dark Journey had long fascinated (but confounded) filmmakers. The names of the directors interested in Green’s mordant tale of thwarted love are a Who’s Who of creative filmmaking: Eisenstein, Pabst, Visconti, Siodmak, Cukor, and Jacques Tourneur. All of these men wanted more control over the screenplay than Green was prepared to surrender, so young Keigel was groomed for the task. Louis Jourdan, a bankable star in search of more adventurous material, was attached to the project, which attracted Madeleine Robinson and Lilli Palmer in short order.
Most crucial, however, was the participation of photographer Nicolas Hayer (whose other film in 1962, oddly enough, was Le doulos). Hayer’s rare skill in combining the flamboyant with the austere creates a unique collision between the emotional and visual arcs in Leviathan, resulting in a devastating roundelay of thwarted love and masochistic cruelty. Marie Laforet, fresh from her doe-eyed suffering in Plein soleil (1960), is a tragic pawn between Jourdan and Palmer, brought to a unique form of ruin by a series of violent, paradoxical events. The final scene is a heartbreaking benediction of the love that raises itself to madness to keep it from falling into an abyss of hopelessness.
In his long-delayed debut, Keigel manages to capture what might best be termed the “transfigurative extreme” in French noir, and does so in a way that approaches true tragedy. Not only is it the last provincial gothic, it is a more successful (albeit more opaque) use of the mythic mode than what his mentor Cocteau was able to achieve in Orpheus (1950). This work extends a counter-tradition in French noir – the longing for a dark “art film” that explores flawed characters without excessive symbolic convolution – that manifested as a subterranean force in the 1950s and deserves a more thorough examination. It is among the purest products of the principles espoused at the Festival du Film Maudit – and, after enduring nearly half a century as a film maudit itself, is at last available for viewing. (Prepare yourself for a wrenching experience.)
16 – CHAIR DE POULE (1963, Julien Duvivier)
Unlike American noir, which by the early 1950s had abandoned its hard-boiled classics in favor of psychopaths and corrupt cops, the French had a notable “deuxieme souffle” with lurid tales deriving from the Hammett-Chandler-Cain axis. A good bit of this came from one source – not any of those Americans, in fact, but rather an Englishman who was not above plagiarizing their works as part of his mercurial hommage to the originators of hard-boiled fiction.
His name was René Raymond, but he was better known by his nom de plume James Hadley Chase. He had caused a sensation in Great Britain with his lurid, louche No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which became one of the most notorious films of 1948. Its calamitous reception ended Chase’s chance to have his novels adapted for the screen in his home country, and it wasn’t until 1957 that the French discovered that they could transpose Chase’s ersatz American locations to their homeland with felicitous results. No less than four Chase adaptations appeared in French cinemas that year, including two superb thrillers, Une manche et la belle (directed by accomplished veteran Henri Verneuil) and Retour de manivelle, which featured Michèle Morgan cast stunningly against type as an icy schemer. Chase’s films fit perfectly into this “unreadable” femme fatale vogue that had emerged in parallel with the gangster/heist series.
Chase would have a total of 14 novels adapted into French noirs over the 1957-1965 time frame (more than even the infinitely more celebrated Boileau and Narcejac of Vertigo fame), thus making a crucial contribution to France’s galvanic “last gasp” of classic black-and-white crime films. Of these, the greatest is Julien Duvivier’s Chair de poule, featuring one of the sexiest (and most vicious) femme fatales in the world history of noir (Catherine Rouvel).
In a remote village in the southern mountains, she has married – James M. Cain alert! – a much older man (Georges Wilson) who owns a truck stop. Along comes a handsome, gentlemanly escaped convict (Robert Hossein, in a role made for his mysteriously deadpan airlessness) who has been picked up by the husband. The complications grow from there with little or no effort in the hands of a master such as Duvivier, who creates memorable grotesques that leap off the pages of Chase’s novel Come Easy, Go Easy, and by doing so amplifies the mordant, elegiac tone in the book.
Add in a somber, poignant score from Georges Delerue, plus a seamlessly symmetrical narrative featuring Hossein’s feckless partner in crime (Jean Sorel), and you have a recipe for a virtually perfect recapitulation of film noir AmeriCain(e). Duvivier’s consummate set-pieces and his parallel escalation of tension and irony make Chair de poule into the most accomplished French noir of the 1960s. Tough, cynical, and astringent, but with a distant echo of romantic resignation, it shows how the French have always been at the top of the heap when it comes to making new wine from old skins.
* * *
How do we characterize the “end” of classic film noir?
On this issue, theory and history are fudged across the board. This is in large part due to the bias that categorically denies any scenario that doesn’t privilege noir’s origin theories within the maelstrom of American exceptionalism. The truth: well after noir is moribund in America, it continues to flourish in France, even during the advent of the Nouvelle Vague, whose flashiest purveyors (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol) all cribbed from it with impunity. But the New Wave auteurs quickly adopt different poses, while noir further expands its scope in the 1960s, re-energizing earlier practitioners. In addition to Duvivier, veterans such as Decoin, Edmond T. Gréville, Christian-Jaque, Henri Calef, André Cayatte, René Clément, and François Villiers all find fresh approaches to noir during the ’60s. The total number of noirs made in France in the ’60s (as shown in the decade summary above) and the range of subtypes utilized indicate that this was anything but a used-up framework for filmmaking.
The most uncompromising works at the tail end of classic French noir look back and look forward simultaneously. Cayatte’s Piege pour Cendrillon (1965) collides memory, fractured identity, and sexuality with a cerebral explicitness that is singular to classic noir’s imminent implosion. Dany Carrel emerges from her sex kitten stereotype with a trio of characters ranging from haunted to haughty to uninhibited, within a film that both transcends and is immersed in the interstices between art film and exploitation. Robert Hossein’s Le vampire de Dusseldorf aka The Secret Killer (1965) recalibrates the pre-dawn of film noir itself with a startling take on Fritz Lang’s M. The transformation of heartthrob Hossein into a gnomic psychopath is almost as shocking as the events that play out in early ’30s Dusseldorf.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Pierre Schoendoerffer digs beyond the “noir of war” so forcefully on display in his highly lauded 317eme Section (1965). Schoendoerffer previews the future substructural psychology of the world in a shattering examination of a haunted soldier in the aftermath of two French “proxy wars” (Indochina and Algeria) in the deceptively titled Objectif: 500 million (1966). In this film, the daring aerial heist is a metonym for what proxy wars and an increasingly sociopathic politics would impose on the world over the next 50 years.
“A man can only be three things,” says Bruno Cremer’s raging, reeling warrior: “a poet, a captain, or a king.” Of course, he is neither a king nor a poet: he is the type of man that the more cunning of his tribe have learned to use up and throw away, knowing there is always more testosterone to be tossed on the fire. His faith in the honor of his actions shattered, and trapped between love, money, and revenge, Cremer’s character embodies the “cul-de-sac” of a world reeling from a terminal case of cultural PTSD.
* * *
A fully developed road map of French noir from 1932 to 1966 – the classic period ends here, when black-and-white is officially declared extinct – has been constructed in tandem with a series of film festivals to expand on this overview and properly situate the nearly 600 classic French noirs that remain “hidden in plain sight.” The section below, “French Film Noir Subtypes,” provides a high-level summary of the key subtypes of the genre that developed, evolved, and mutated over four decades. (Each of these subtypes will be viewed through the lens of French noir in my full-length study, scheduled for release in early 2021.)
After decades of neglect, the major French companies – Gaumont, Pathé, and Canal – are at last making these films available. It will, however, still be some time before they are accessible en masse for English-speaking audiences. Ironically, the independent film impresario René Chateau, in amassing more than 100 of the lesser-known noirs as part of his holdings, may have provided the greatest long-range service to the effort to reconstruct this discarded history. Even with the monumental achievements of director/historian Bertrand Tavernier, whose Journey Through French Cinema is an auteurist treasure trove of pre-Nouvelle Vague directors,4 two-thirds of the films discussed here remain extremely difficult to see. It is vital that joint efforts in France and America come together to make these films available for rediscovery.
Ginette Vincendeau has shown us the right way into the actual origins of film noir, but remains overly invested in the “official story” that has created a truncated and skewed “French noir canon.” The outlines of a more complete, coherent, and comprehensive history are at hand, despite the disruption to a half-century of received wisdom that will doubtless wish to remain stubbornly in place.
The full story lies in wait, but will it be revealed? Can the true history of French noir – indeed, of film noir itself – emerge to tell its tale in the light of day? We’ve lit a candle here, so as to better penetrate the darkness. . . .
FRENCH FILM NOIR SUBTYPES with brief descriptions & historical placements
† subtypes containing adaptations from Georges Simenon
POLICIER: Police/detective investigating crime, usually in Paris or other urban setting.†
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 31-35, 36-40, 41-45, 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
POETIC REALISM: Colonialist/Popular Front overlay on stories often featuring conflicted charismatic villains.
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 36-40, 46-50
EXOTIC/SPY/WAR: Smugglers, con-men, espionage – later examinations of post-WWII colonial wars.
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 31-35, 36-40, 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
PROVINCIAL GOTHIC: Small-town “nest of vipers” tales, with added emphasis on madness, decadence.†
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 41-45, 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
GANGSTER: Organized crime, internecine turf battles, often generational in nature.†
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
HEIST: “Caper films,” robberies, “perfect” crimes and parodies thereof.
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
FLAWED HEROES: Similar to Gothic, but more focus on single characters or flawed couples.†
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 31-35, 36-40, 41-45, 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
HARD-BOILED AMERI(CAIN)E: Potboiler novels of lust, greed, murder modeled on Cain or Chase.
Active in half-decades (most active in bold): 36-40, 41-45, 46-50, 51-55, 56-60, 61-66
* * *
FILMS DISCUSSED OR MENTIONED IN THIS ESSAY (chronological order)
The following list constitutes a very bare-bones filmography for French film noir as it evolved from 1932 to 1966. The full filmography (600+ films) will appear in Don Malcolm’s forthcoming The French Had a Name for It: The Lost Continent of Classic French Film Noir 1932-66 (winter 2020-21).
*Films on Vincendeau’s “top 12” list
†Films on Vincendeau’s “top 12” list but removed by Malcolm
#Films added to the revised “top 16” list by Malcolm
La nuit du carrefour aka Night at the Crossroads (1932, Jean Renoir)*
La nom de la loi aka In the Name of the Law (1932, Maurice Tourneur)
La tete d’un homme aka The Head of a Man (1933, Julien Duvivier)
Pépé le moko (1937, Julien Duvivier)*
La bête humaine aka The Human Beast (1938, Jean Renoir)†
Le puritiain aka The Puritan (1938, Jeff Musso)
Le jour se lève aka Daybreak (1939, Marcel Carné)*
Le dernier tournant aka The Last Turn (1939, Pierre Chenal)*
L’assassinat du Pere Noel aka Who Killed Santa Claus? (1941, Christian-Jaque)#
Remorques aka Stormy Waters (1941, Jean Gremillon)
Les inconnus dans la Maison aka Strangers in the House (1942, Henri Decoin)
Le corbeau aka The Raven (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)*
Voyage sans espoir aka Journey Without Hope (1943, Christian-Jaque)#
Sortileges aka The Bellman (1945, Christian-Jaque)
Fille du diable aka The Devil’s Daughter (1946, Henri Decoin)
La foire aux chimeres aka The Devil and the Angel (1946, Pierre Chenal)
Panique aka Panic (1946, Julien Duvivier)
Les jeux sont faits aka The Chips Are Down (1947, Jean Delannoy)#
Non coupable aka Not Guilty (1947, Henri Decoin)#
Quai des Orfevres aka Jenny Lamour (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot)†
Dédée d’Anvers aka Dédée of Antwerp (1948, Yves Allegret)
Un homme marche dans la ville aka A Man Walks in the City (1949, Marcel Pagliero)
Les eaux troubles aka Troubled Waters (1949, Henri Calef)#
Manon (1949, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Maya (1949, Raymond Bernard)
Le silence de la mer aka The Silence of the Sea (1949, Jean-Pierre Melville)#
Une si jolie petite plage aka Such a Pretty Little Beach (1949, Yves Allegret)*
Manèges aka The Cheat (1950, Yves Allegret)
La vérité sur bébé donge aka The Truth About Our Marriage (1952, Henri Decoin)
Touchez pas au grisbi aka Hands Off the Loot! (1954, Jacques Becker)*
Huis clos aka No Exit (1954, Jacqueline Audry)
Du rififi chez les hommes aka Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)†
Voici le temps des assassins aka Deadlier Than the Male (1956, Julien Duvivier)*
Les salauds vont en enfer aka The Wicked Go to Hell (1956, Robert Hossein)
Une manche et la belle aka A Kiss for a Killer (1957, Henri Verneuil)
Retour de manivelle aka There’s Always a Price Tag (1957, Denys De La Patellière)
Rafles sur la ville aka Sinners of Paris (1958, Pierre Chenal)
Toi le venin aka You, the Venom or Blonde in a White Car (1958, Robert Hossein)
En cas de malheur aka Love Is My Profession (1958, Claude Autant-Lara)
La vérité aka The Truth (1960, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Plein soleil aka Purple Noon (1960, René Clément)
Leon Morin, pretre aka Leon Morin, Priest (1961, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Le doulos aka The finger man (1962, Jean-Pierre Melville)†
Leviathan aka Dark Journey (1962, Leonard Keigel)#
Chair de poule aka Highway Pickup (1963, Julien Duvivier)#
La mort d’un tueur aka Death of a Killer (1964, Robert Hossein)
Piege pour Cendrillon aka A Trap for Cinderella (1965, André Cayatte)
Le vampire de Dusseldorf aka The Secret Killer (1965, Robert Hossein)
Le 317eme section aka The 317th Platoon (1965, Pierre Schoendoerffer)
Objectif: 500 million (1966, Pierre Schoendoerffer)
* * *
OTHER KEY FRENCH FILMS NOIRS FROM DIRECTORS MENTIONED IN THE ESSAY
*Films unquestionably of comparable quality to those already in the “French noir canon”
† Films already in “French noir canon”
Jacques Becker Le dernier atout (1942), Goupi mains rouges* (1943), Casque d’or† (1952), Le trou† (1960)
Henri Calef La souriciere (1950), La passante* (1951), Ombre et lumiere (1951), Les violents (1957), L’heure de la vérité (1965)
Marcel Carné Quai des brumes† (1938), Hotel du Nord† (1938), Les portes de la nuit* (1946), La Marie du port (1950), Terrain vague* (1960)
André Cayatte Le dernier sou* (1946), Le dessous des cartes (1948), Les amants de Verone* (1949), Nous sommes tous des assassins† (1952), Avant le deluge* (1954), Le dossier noir (1955), La glaive et la balance (1963)
Pierre Chenal La rue sans nom (1934), Crime et chatiment (1935), L’alibi* (1937), La maison du Maltais* (1938), La bete á l’affut* (1959)
René Clément Les maudits* (1947), La mura di Malapaga (1949), Les felins† (1964)
Henri-Georges Clouzot L’assassin habite á #21 (1942), Le salaire de la peau aka The Wages of Fear* (1952), Les diaboliques aka Diabolique† (1954)
Henri Decoin L’homme de Londres (1943), Entre onze heures et minuit (1949), Razzia sur la chnouf† (1955), La chatte* (1958), Malefices* (1962)
Jean Delannoy L’assassin á peur la nuit (1942), Le secret de Mayerling* (1949), Le garçon sauvage (1951), Obsession* (1954), Maigret tend un piège aka Maigret Sets a Trap* (1958), Maigret et l’Affair St. Fiacre (1959)
Jacques Deray Symphonie pour un massacre* (1963)
Jacques Doniol-Valcroze La denonciation (1962)
Julien Duvivier La belle equipe† (1936), Sous le ciel de Paris (1951), Marie-Octobre* (1959), La chambre ardente (1962)
Georges Franju La tete contre les murs* (1959), Les yeux sans visage† (1960), Pleins feux sur l’assassin (1961), Thérèse Desqueyroux* (1962), Judex (1963)
Gilles Grangier Danger de mort (1947), La vierge du Rhin* (1953), Gas Oil (1955), La sang á la tete* (1956), Le rouge est mis (1957), Le desordre et la nuit (1958)
Edmond T. Gréville Remous (1935), Menáces* (1940), Le diable souffle* (1947), L’envers du paradis* (1953), Port du desir (1954), L’accident (1963)
Robert Hossein La nuit des espions* (1959), Les scelerats (1960), Le jeu de la vérité (1961)
Christian-Jaque Les disparus de St. Agil (1938), Un revenant* (1946), Les bonnes causes (1963)
Georges Lautner Le septième juré* (1962)
Edouard Molinaro Le dos au mur (1958), Un temoin dans la ville* (1959), Des femmes disparaissent (1959), La mort de belle* (1961)
Edwin E. Reinert Quai de Grenelle* (1950)
Robert Siodmak Mollenard* (1938), Pièges* (1939)
Maurice Tourneur Justin de Marseille* (1935), Le main du diable† (1943), Cecile est morte (1944), Impasse des deux anges* (1947)
Henri Vernueil Les amants du Tage (1954), Des gens sans importance* (1956), Melodie en Sous-Sol aka Any Number Can Win (1963)
François Villiers Hans le marin* aka Wicked City (1949), Constance aux enfers (1964)
* * *
Images are screenshots from the films.
- Vincendeau’s career is quite wide-ranging, but her primary claim to fame is a critical biography of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose title, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, reveals its allegiance to reigning precepts as they relate to French noir. Her early work on Jean Gabin’s presence in poetic realism does not escape the standard scenarios posited for that cluster of 1930s films, privileging them in the manner of earlier scholars (among them the American Dudley Andrew). Her work on film stardom in France seems to be a rehash of well-worn ideas and offers a disappointingly limited analysis of key film careers in the context of French noir. While it’s clear from her work that she is quite capable of a greater level of synthesis in this area, there have been no writings from her beyond the Sight & Sound essay examined here that provide a deeper look into the issues related to French film noir. [↩]
- Australian academic Crisp capped a 40-year career as a specialist in French film history with a two-volume collection (French Cinema: A Critical Filmography, Indiana University Press, 2015) providing a uniquely concentrated look at classic French film via detailed historical/analytical discussions of 202 classic French films from 1929 to 1958 (a third volume, covering 1959-74, is forthcoming). In the course of these highly focused entries Crisp alludes to nearly 200 more films either by means of direct comparison or more indirect reference, including more than 100 films from our revised (600+ film) French noir filmography. It is Crisp who coined the term “provincial gothic,” though he did not directly tie it into a concept of “noir.” He was one of the first critics to push back at Truffaut’s notions of the “cinema de papa,” defending the mode of film production extant in France during the pre-Nouvelle Vague period as being as individualistic in its way as what the Cahiers crowd clamored for in their writings. He is especially strong in his coverage of the immediate post-WWII period, recognizing the revival of energy in what French critics call “the polar” but noting that there is much greater variety in the gender conflicts in all French film of the post-WWII period, a trait that also seeps strongly into what he still calls “crime films.” He notes that it isn’t until the revival of the “gangster/heist” films – the ones that Vincendeau, following the fashion of Franco-American critics who have tried to force-fit French noir to an Americanized paradigm – where this “gender equality” starts to recede. [↩]
- Gender issues in French noir, as well as in filmmaking in general, are pivotal to any analysis of the social narrative underlying the images on display, but in a survey such as this one it is difficult to address such a topic in a structured way. Feminist film theory must be overlain onto any extended examination of “noir,” regardless of its nationality; while this is mostly limited in studies of American noir to the issue of examining/recasting the femme fatale, recent studies of French film/film noir are more wide-ranging. Crisp is quite aware of the issue and often references a key work, Noel Burch and Genevieve Sellier’s The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema 1930-56, which covers this topic as regards French film as a whole, with only incidental discussions of French noir. A more recent book, Deborah Walker-Morrison’s Classic French Noir: Gender and the Cinema of Fatal Desire, is more specifically focused on gender relations in French noir and provides a useful overview, but omits many of the subtypes existent within French noir during the 1932-66 period; as a result, her study is limited to just over 100 French noirs and truncates its discussion in 1959. That said, her reading of Chenal’s Rafles sur la ville is exemplary in its appreciation of the director’s subtle but pointed use of gender issues. [↩]
- Tavernier’s three-hour documentary My Journey Through French Film was released in 2016, followed up by a series of eight television episodes that went into even greater detail, covering most of the French directors who were highly proficient in creating French noir prior to the oft-repeated but misleading narrative concerning film noir’s “birth” as a critical term in 1946 by Nino Frank. Tavernier’s discussion demonstrates that the essential ingredients we call “noir” were already ambient in the work of these directors in the 1930s; the arc of noir film was deflected by the Occupation, but it is clear that the provincial gothic preserved and altered the trajectory of noir narratives and characterizations, until they could be reconfigured in an avalanche of indigenous noir films that cascaded into existence in 1946-50 with little or no influence detectable from the American noirs that dazzled the critics. [↩]