This extraordinary film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer published in 1954 in between The Price of Salt (that later became Carol) and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The French title means ‘The Murderer’ – I’ve also shown the English, Italian and German titles in this post. As far as I can see, the film follows the novel fairly closely – shifting the action to the area around Nice in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France, but keeping the names of the characters. I confess that I was quite surprised that the behaviour of the characters in the film was indeed based on Highsmith’s characters – but then I shouldn’t be surprised. The film’s narrative is actually very recognisably ‘Highsmith’, but the presentation is definitely odd.
In outline we have the familiar Highsmith model – two men linked in some strange way, involving murder and with the female characters mainly functional rather than ‘active’. The wonderfully named Melchior Kimmel is a bookseller who one night murders his wife after arranging an alibi. An architect, Walter Saccard, is trapped in what he feels to be a painful marriage and is chasing a young music student. He reads about the murder of Kimmel’s wife in Nice Matin and decides to visit the bookshop. Later he investigates Kimmel’s alibi and sets in motion the extraordinary incidents that will tie the two men together. The third crucial (male) figure in the narrative is a deranged police detective, Corbi – the like of which I’ve rarely seen before. Highsmith certainly doesn’t do police procedurals! I won’t spoil the narrative any more if you want to read the novel.
Co-productions were common in France in the early 1960s, especially with Italy and Germany. (In 1963 there were 36 ‘French’ productions and 105 ‘co-productions’ listed for the French film industry –Encyclopedia of European Cinema, ed Ginette Vincendeau, Cassell/BFI 1995.) In this case, the co-production was presumably a factor in the casting of Gert Froebe as Kimmel. Others in the audience expressed the view that Froebe was dubbed (he swears in German several times) and that Yvonne Furneaux (who had been at Oxford and worked in the UK film industry) was also dubbed as Saccard’s wife Clara. My poor ear for French couldn’t distinguish if this was the case – much of the dialogue seemed to be shouted anyway! The important production issue is really that this is an example of what François Truffaut famously dismissed as ‘le cinéma de papa’. Le meurtrier was scripted by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, Truffaut’s main villains, and directed by Claude Autant-Lara, a director he put in the same category. Truffaut wasn’t alone. Most of the critics on Cahiers du cinéma loathed directors like Autant-Lara. Jacques Rivette in 1957:
I think that Autant-Lara, Clément and Clouzot are all sickening . . . people who have been corrupted. (quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, ed Jim Hillier BFI, 1985: 39)
Rivette was arguing that Autant-Lara and the others were simply interested in making money and that they would refuse to work ‘on the street’ like Rossellini, making ‘social films’. This perspective needs to be placed carefully in context. Like much of the Cahiers polemic there are many issues to be aware of. Truffaut’s charge was that the ‘cinema of old men’ was too attached to literary sources, that it relied on tight scripts and studio sets and that it peddled a form of middle-brow entertainment with little artistic expression. Truffaut himself used similar kinds of ‘literary texts’ early in his career, ranging from literary novels to Série Noire thrillers and his true cinematic auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, had already adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in 1951. By 1963 when Le meurtrier appeared, Truffaut’s charge had lost much of its impact following René Clément’s Highsmith adaptation Plein soleil, released in 1960. Clément was another of the ‘old guard’ but his version of The Talented Mr. Ripley was in glorious colour, had a great Nino Rota score, camerawork by Henri Decaë (who photographed Truffaut’s 400 Blows) and outstanding performances by a young Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. In fact it has been claimed to be Highsmith’s favourite of the adaptations of her work (she died in 1995). Seeing it today Plein soleil looks as fresh, youthful and exciting as anything from La nouvelle vague. But is this true of Le meurtrier?
Much of Le meurtrier is shot on location around Nice and these scenes feel ‘modern’, but the interiors are shot at the Victorine Studio in Nice and these aspects do feel quite old-fashioned. The reality is that Autant-Lara and his collaborators were indeed ‘old men’ as seen by Truffaut. The director was nearing 60, the writers were roughly the same age or older. Many of the others in the creative team were born before 1914. This doesn’t make them poor filmmakers but it does help to explain part of the animosity of young critics who wanted themselves to be young filmmakers. Two other bits of trivia may or may not be interesting. The shoot included two couples. Marina Vlady (who plays Ellie, the music student) had been married young to Robert Hossein who plays the deranged detective. They had already split up by 1959. Later Vlady would become known as the central ‘character’ in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). Yvonne Furneaux married the director of photography on the film Jacques Watteau in 1962 – before or during the shoot. Maurice Ronet is the real star of the film and he seems to have been happy to appear in the films of the ‘old guard’ and those of the New Wave filmmakers.
I don’t think all this background necessarily ‘explains’ why the films feels so ‘odd’ but it helps. I was certainly ‘entertained’ by the film, even if I found some scenes to be quite poorly executed. Highsmith’s narratives are often dependent on very unexpected behaviour by characters and by coincidences accidents that might be expected in melodramas. In the other adaptations these are acceptable and perhaps hardly noticed because of the performances and the maintenance of a tone that accommodates the violence and the black comedy. I wasn’t sure that was the case in Le meurtrier. Sometimes it was impossible to ‘suspend disbelief’. Who, it might be asked is ‘The Blunderer’ of the title? It could conceivably be any of the three leading male characters. Kimmel is overweight and very shortsighted (his glasses remind us of Strangers on a Train). Saccard lies very badly and makes a string of mistakes in what he does and how he talks to the detective – and the detective himself is just extraordinary. The music score has been interpreted as an attempt at the kind of scoring used by Hitchcock, especially with Herrmann. I didn’t think it worked and it only made it more difficult for me to work out what kind of film this was.
I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’. These niggles aside, however, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this example of mainstream French cinema of the early 1960s.
For details of the ‘Adapting Miss Highsmith’ Season go to the website.