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French crime thrillers – the polar

In the week that sees the UK release of the first of two French films about Jacques Mesrine, the French gangster figure from the 1970s, it seems opportune to explore the concept of the polar or crime thriller in French Cinema. French crime cinema now exists in an interesting relationship with Hollywood and Hong Kong Cinema in a seemingly endless flow of influences between the three. I’ve just watched the slightly disappointing Public Enemies in which, as some commentators noted, Johnny Depp tries hard but can’t really nail being as cool as Alain Delon in a Jean-Pierre Melville film. Eventually, I hope we also get to see the latest Johnnie To crime flick with French legend Johnny Halliday in Vengeance (2009).

Here is an update of some notes I used for a day school in 2006.

The thriller and crime fiction

In any film culture, the ‘thriller’ is likely to be one of the main broad generic categories. In France, as in Britain during the later studio period from the 1940s to the 1960s, the crime thriller was arguably second only to comedy as a popular format. France has a long history of ‘crime fiction’ – the first ‘detective story’ could be said to be Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 with a character perhaps modelled on Eugène François Vidocq, a real life crook turned thief catcher who became the first head of the Sûreté in 1811 (and the basis for a feature film in 2001). Poe offers an early American connection with French crime fiction which was to become more important in the 20th century.

But the police were not the heroes of early French crime fiction. More important were ‘super crooks’ such as Fantômas and Arsène Lupin who were defeating clod-hopping policemen in films from the 1910s. It was not until the 1920s that the French police found their hero in the form of (Belgian) Georges Simenon’s Maigret.

The roman noir, ‘dark stories’ of doomed characters began to appear in the 1940s and soon set up a kind of dialogue with ‘hard-boiled’ American fiction, both being published in France under the famous ‘Série Noire’ label. In the 1950s psychological mystery/crime novels gained a higher public and critical profile through the works of writers such as ‘Boileau-Narcejac’ and Sébastien Japrisot. The former is a pseudonym for a pair of writers, Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, perhaps best known outside France for the original novel used as the basis for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and for Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1955). Japrisot’s books have also been used for films, most recently for the story which became Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (2004).

It isn’t difficult to make the links between French novels and films and American novels and films, with various French film directors turning to the work of ‘hardboiled’ writers of the 1940s, e.g. Truffaut turning to the work of William Irish/ Cornell Woolrich in The Bride Wore Black (1968) and La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and to David Goodis for Shoot the Pianist (1960). Goodis was also the source for Jean-Jacques Beneix’s The Moon in the Gutter (1983).

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien in Le Doulos (d. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)

Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien in Le Doulos (d. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)

The polar

The term polar seems to have been coined in the 1970s. Like many terms in idiomatic French, it’s a corruption or slang term, perhaps deriving from film policier. It now has a fairly loose meaning which covers films that may include ‘police procedural’ work or which may focus on the milieu of the criminals. It has also sometimes been widened to include spy thrillers and more action-orientated films. In critical usage, various French Cinema scholars have referred to the polar as a means of tracing how representations of crime, criminals and police work have changed over time. This is one of the important aspects of genre study. Because genre films are composed of elements mixed together in patterns of ‘repetition and difference’, we can use genres to log changes in references to issues of gender, race and class and to broader changes in French society. This is neatly set out by Phil Powrie (1997) in his book on 1980s French Cinema, a period when the polar was again popular. Powrie suggests three aspects of the polar that could form the basis for study:

  • its use as a ‘vehicle’ to carry comments on contemporary society;
  • an indication of the state of French-American cultural exchange;
  • the focus on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society.

Although the term ‘polar’ dates from the 1970s, we can trace it back at least as far as the 1930s when Jean Gabin was the major star of French cinema.

Pépé le Moko (1937)

Pépé (Jean Gabin) is a Parisian gangster (originally a ‘moko’ – ‘from Marseilles’) exiled in Algiers where he is holed up in the Casbah and supported by a network of people all dedicated to making sure that the police can’t arrest him. He is doomed because he can’t stop himself being attracted to beautiful women and because his network is vulnerable through the naivety of his ‘surrogate son’ and the sly manipulations of a local police officer.

The Casbah is carefully constructed and photographed in a Parisian studio – so effectively that in some ways the film looks like an early rehearsal of the famous scenes in Battle of Algiers, shot on location in 1965. Gabin/Pépé is a recognisable character in a category of films given the title of ‘poetic realism’ in which a romanticised hero from the working class is shown to be ultimately defeated. Surprisingly perhaps, most of these pessimistic films were made by supposedly ‘left-wing’ directors. In this case, the director was Julien Duvivier, not generally seen as of the left. Gabin continued to be a major star into the 1970s, dying in 1976. He set the standard for the masculine hero, rugged and brutal, but also romantic and well-dressed.

Jean Gabin (left) and Lino Ventura (right), two great stars of the polar in Rouge est mis (France 1957) part written by Jacques Audiard's Dad, Michel Audiard

Jean Gabin (left) and Lino Ventura (right), two great stars of the polar in Rouge est mis (France 1957) part written by Jacques Audiard’s Dad, Michel Audiard

Plein soleil (France/Italy 1960)

This version of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, starred Alain Delon in one of his first roles as the cold-blooded killer Tom Ripley. Delon went on to become a major star of both auteur films and popular polars, later appearing in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It was directed by René Clément, one of the directors who perhaps suffered by association with la tradition de qualité attacked by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma. Plein soleil refers to at least two of the polar’s features in the early 1960s – an origination in American crime writing and and to some extent Hollywood filmmaking in colour, on location in Italy. The Italian setting also refers to the sense of the new environment of the ‘periphery’ (i.e. ‘not Paris’) which began to appear as a locale at this time.

À bout de souffle (1959)

Now famous, alongside Truffaut’s Les 400 coups, as the films that heralded la nouvelle vague for cinephiles around the world, À bout de souffle shows director Jean-Luc Godard taking the elements of the polar and the American crime B-picture and creating something new. In the opening of the film, we see Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘playing’ with the image of Humphrey Bogart and then moving into an exciting drive from the Cote d’Azur to Paris and trashing the conventions of the ‘well-made’ film along the way.

Belmondo was both the male star of the New Wave and the heir to Gabin’s role. In À bout de souffle he is a charming young thug who dies on the street in a scene at once ‘romantic’, futile and ‘marginal’. He appeared in other polar-related films for Truffaut and Chabrol and for the ‘mentor’ of the New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville. He also appeared in more commercial films, e.g. alongside Alain Delon in Borsalino (France/Italy 1970) a 1930s set Marseilles gangster movie which refers perhaps to both the Warners films of the 1930s and to contemporary ‘buddy movies’ such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (US 1969).

Alain Delon as Jef Costello in Le Samourai – at your heart out, Johnny Depp!

Alain Delon as Jef Costello in Le Samourai – eat your heart out, Johnny Depp!

Le Samuraï (France/Italy 1967)

Delon again, for Melville and playing the ultimate hitman ‘Jeff Costello’. Melville had developed a highly individual style in his earlier polars, which were both ‘popular’ (i.e. commercially more successful than the New Wave films) and attracted cinephiles intrigued by his commentary on the crime film, American cinema, existentialism etc. Costello is clearly ‘marginalised’ and seemingly anachronistic in the Paris of the mid 1960s.

subway

Subway (France 1985)

Writer-producer-director Luc Besson is one of the figures associated with the cinéma du look of the 1980s. Powrie argues that the polar was revived in the 1980s and filled an ‘ideological gap’ left by the dramas drawing on left-wing ideas in the 1970s. Other auteur directors of the period (e.g. Beneix, Leos Carax) also made polars, but Besson has always been interested in popular genre cinema and the American connections which saw his Nikita (France 1990) re-made in Hollywood and Léon (France/US 1994) set in America, are an integral part of the history of the polar.

Other polars released in the UK include Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘realist’ study of the Parisian drugs squad in L.627 (France 1992) and Maurice Pialat’s Police (1985), a classic polar with Gérard Depardieu as a police officer falling for a mysterious woman. Depardieu could be seen as the 1980s successor to Belmondo/Delon as a polar hero.

References and further reading

Susan Hayward (1993) French National Cinema, London: Routledge

Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds) (2000) French Film: Text and Contexts, London: Routledge

(Includes papers on Le Samouraï, À bout de souffle and Nikita)

Phil Powrie (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP

Websites

Useful sites giving background on French crime fiction:

www.dartmouth.edu/~gjdemko/french.htm

www.crimeculture.com/Contents/FrenchCrimeFiction.htm

Here’s a piece I wrote a little later about Jacques Audiard and his polars:

Thomas (Romain Duris) and Miao-Lin (Linh-Dam Pham) in The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Thomas (Romain Duris) and Miao-Lin (Linh-Dam Pham) in The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Jacques Audiard (born 1952)

Audiard’s father, Michel, was a prolific writer/director of thrillers/polars, responsible for over 100 scripts between 1949 and his death in 2000. Jacques Audiard also became a screenwriter and in 1994 directed his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber. Unlike his father, Jacques began as an editor, before moving to writing and finally to directing. He has spent much longer fashioning his scripts and has directed just five features to date. All have been widely praised and each represents a form of commentary on the history of the thriller. The first two films both feature Jean-Louis Trintignant and Mathieu Kassovitz.

In Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall, 1994), the veteran Trintignant (himself a star of crime films, alongside other genres and auteur films of the 1960s and 1970s) is an ageing hitman who takes on a younger partner (Kassovitz) with learning difficulties. The film is more of a character study than a straight thriller. In Un héros très discret (Self-made Hero, 1997), one of the best French films of the 1990s, Trintignant and Kassovitz return as older and younger versions of the same man, a successful politician of the 1990s recounting his own bizarre story from the Occupation in the 1940s. This isn’t a thriller as such, but again it features a rather weak character who is taught how to behave and who discovers a talent for inventing himself as a new personality. Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) in 2001 certainly was a thriller. A working class criminal released from prison meets a thirty-something woman with a hearing impairment who is being cold-shouldered in her work as a secretary for a building company. She hires him as her assistant and gradually they are drawn together to form a an unusual partnership which benefits from her skills as a lip-reader. The relationship strengthens as they become enmeshed in a thriller narrative.

Audiard’s films all feature partnerships. Regarde les hommes tomber is perhaps most clearly related to the polartradition, with its surrogate father-son relationship. Un héros très discret offers several different relationships all involving the central character, but all in some way based on a deceit – fitting for a story set in the context of exposing the ‘myth’ of resistance in the 1940s. Sur mes lèvres is unusual in focusing primarily on the woman, but creating through the partnership a kind of amalgam figure related to the polar hero. De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté returns in a way to the (real) father/son relationship.

Putting aside the ‘special case’ of Un héros très discret, Audiard’s three polars all take place in a world that is recognisably the ‘real France’ of the 1990s/2000s, but which also makes reference to the generic locations/mise en scène of earlier polars. They are mostly set in Paris, but more in the suburbs than the centre and, in Sur mes lèvres, the kind of industrial/residential sprawl with its clubbing and high rises that features in many European cities. There are strong elements of realism in the depiction of Paris in a range of polars – marking the genre as aesthetically removed from the quirky fantasy world of Amélie or the earlier ‘heritage’ films set in the ‘glorious’ past.

The two most recent Audiard films are interesting in terms of their central characters. Vincent Cassel plays against type in Sur mes lèvres. Cassel has all the qualities that would make him a modern counterpart of the Belmondo/Delon characters from the 1960s/70s. He has the same physical beauty and presence and the skill to suggest the peculiar mixture of intelligence, brutality, coldness and tenderness that they display. But in Sur mes lèvres, he becomes the object of attraction for Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), who herself displays a similarly complex array of personal traits. Carla is the lonely and isolated figure, drawn into criminal activity through her repressed sexual desire. For some audiences, the move into the thriller territory is something of a disappointment after the slow build of the first half of the film which carries a strong sexual charge.

Perhaps the clearer generic narrative in De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté has enabled it to become a bigger commercial success. The film is a remake of Fingers, the 1978 American ‘independent’ film made by James Toback and starring Harvey Keitel. Bizarrely produced by Brut “the great smell for men”, the plot outline sees a young man who is caught between the demi-world of his criminal father and the more gentile world of his mother a concert pianist.

Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) in the remake really does seem to be the Belmondo/Delon hero. His dark good looks and stylish, if casual, clothes, his mix of brutality and delicacy are all suggestive of the earlier characters. Duris is some thing of a throwback in this performance with his longish hair, leather jacket and cuban heeled boots. He has entered his father’s business as an unscrupulous property developer who buys up apartment blocks after evicting squatters with violence and threats. He wearily beats people up for his ailing father, but refuses to endorse his parent’s new relationship (with Emannuelle Devos). His chance meeting with his dead mother’s agent/impresario prompts him to take up the piano again and to seek out a piano tutor, Chinese conservatoire student Miao-Lin.

Duris is fantastic and manages to be brutal and sexy, immoral and honourable. Audiard makes excellent use of the mix of classical piano with ‘techno’ and edits the film tightly so that it is a tense thriller even if the actual narrative incident is relatively slight. This is possibly the best polar of recent years – at least before Audiard’s next film which did so well at Cannes in 2009.

Discussion questions

1. Think about the ending of De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté. How does it compare with the traditional polar? What do we think of Thomas and his situation at the end of the film?

2. Is Thomas the ‘marginalised figure’ alluded to by Phil Powrie? If so, in what ways?

3. What kind of environment does the film inhabit? If you have been to Paris recently, is it a ‘realist’ environment? Does the film feel like it is dealing with a recognisable society in 2005?

4. Should we take anything from the fact that Audiard has ‘remade’ a (relatively obscure) American film? Does the film have anything to say about that unique French/American/crime connection?

The Bofors Gun (UK 1968)

This important British film was not easily available for many years until a UK Region 2 DVD appeared in 2012 from Odeon (It appears to be still available for rental from Cinema Paradiso in the UK). I believe the film was also screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014. Production began in 1967 with funding from the ill-fated ‘pot’ put together by Jay Kantner at Universal’s London office. Universal invested around $30 million over the next few years in a dozen British films, most of which turned out to be either expensive flops or critically-praised low budget films that failed to attract audiences. (See Alexander Walker’s Hollywood England, London: Harrap, 1974 p. 345). The Bofors Gun was in the latter category with an estimated production budget of $800,000. The production brought together writer (and director) John McGrath and director Jack Gold, both of whom were getting established in UK television drama and both of whom had strong progressive, Leftist politics. Based on McGrath’s stage play Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun (1966), the film has an outstanding cast. The narrative covers one night when a group of British soldiers are on guard duty at a military base in Northern Germany in 1954. In particular, they are guarding a Bofors gun.

David Warner as L/Bdr Evans

The Odeon DVD carries an interview with the prolific Jack Gold about his career (he died in August 2015 with 50+ film and TV directorial credits) plus a commentary on the film by Gold, ‘moderated’ by Steve Chibnall, one of the leading film scholars associated with British Cinema. I haven’t listened to the whole commentary, which is certainly interesting and useful, but Gold tells us that he missed National Service because of a medical condition. I don’t know if Steve Chibnall has any experience of the British Army, but this is a script clearly informed by McGrath’s National Service (1953-5?) and it does require some knowledge of Army procedures to fully comprehend all aspects of the narrative. I missed National Service by ten years or so (though my brother served) but at my school the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory and I spent several weeks at Army barracks in Brecon and in Scotland.

Ian Holm as Gunner Flynn

National Service in the UK meant the conscription of able-bodied men into military service after 1939. When the Second World War ended, Britain’s military commitments carried on and further legislation extended and formalised National Service for a period of up to two years (in practice, longer for some conscripts). What is now considered ‘National Service’ applied to all men born between 1928 and 1939 who were ‘called up’ between 1949 and 1960. The last conscript was able to go home in May 1963. In the last few years there has been a surge of interest in what National Service meant for the young men, for the armed forces and for UK society. I am using as a resource National Service: A Generation in Uniform, 1945-1963 by Richard Viner, Penguin 2014. My aim is to find as many filmic representations of National Service as possible. For those outside the UK, it is worth spelling out that although various forms of National Service/conscription have been common across many European and other countries for many years – and indeed some are still current – ‘conscription’, as Viner points out, has never been seen as part of the British tradition. The 1945-63 experience occurred at a particular time (the end of Empire) when the UK had military commitments across the world and National Servicemen fought alongside ‘regular soldiers’ in Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus and other places. This period was also one of great social change in the UK and this is also part of the National Service story.

Nicol Williamson as Gunner O’Rourke

Reviews of The Bofors Gun consistently refer to the gun itself as a ‘piece of obsolete kit’ – thus suggesting the absurdity of ‘guarding the gun’. I’m quite prepared to accept that the gun has a symbolic role in the narrative and that the script contains several references to jokes about the Russians and the Chinese and the nuclear threat which the gun is helpless to counteract. This is one of the main jibes against authority made by Gunner O’Rourke. On the other hand, the gun was not necessarily ‘obsolete’. A Swedish design from the 1930s, several thousand were built in the UK and Canada for anti-aircraft use in the Second World War. When it became apparent that the original design was useless against jet aircraft, the gun was redesigned and a new version used in various guises up until the 1990s. The Bofors Gun is, in many ways, a ‘realist’ representation of a night on guard duty in 1954.

Plot outline (no spoilers as such)

Lance-Bombardier (the Artillery version of Lance-Corporal) Terry Evans (David Warner) receives news that he is to attend a War Office Selection Board in London which he hopes will mean a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and an escape from the drudgery of life in the barracks room. He is due to travel to the UK the following day, but tonight he is the leader of the guard detail – six gunners (i.e. ‘privates’) who are expected to patrol in pairs on a freezing February night for two hours at a time throughout the night while the rest of the guard shelter in a hut. If anything should go wrong, Evans knows that he won’t get to the WOSB.

The four gunners in the guardroom talk about L/Bdr Evans as he takes a nap (from left Richard O’Callaghan, Donald Gee, Nicol Williamson, John Thaw).

Commentary

Certain facts are made clear in the dialogue. Others have to be gleaned more indirectly. Evans more or less tells us that he is a National Serviceman. He could only apply for a commission after six months, but if he is the ‘right material’ he could be commissioned and serve as a junior officer for around twelve months. Viner suggests that 3-4% of National Servicemen in the British Army were commissioned in this way. We know Evans is ‘different’ (the film begins with him as the only soldier in the audience for a classical music concert in the local town). We also learn that he is from Manchester and that his father “sells paraffin” in Wythenshawe. I think this makes him ‘petty-bourgeois’ or ‘lower middle-class’ (I’m assuming his father owns a shop). He could be working-class if his father is a shop-worker. But what is safe to assume, I think, is that Evans represents those later to benefit from the 1944 Butler Education Act and the establishment of grammar schools as part of the state education system. (He would be too old in 1954 to have got into one of the new grammar schools.) The emergence of grammar school boys amongst the conscripts for National Service caused the Army several headaches. Up until this point it had drawn its officers from the best ‘Public Schools’ – i.e. private schools such as Eton, Harrow etc. Public schoolboys had an expectation of receiving a commission during their National Service (after which they expected to go to university). The Army thought that the middle classes from industrial regions in the North were unsuitable as officers (too ‘insular’) and it was suspicious of the academically-gifted grammar school boys (not all of whom were keen on being officers). Viner spends a whole chapter on these issues and he points out that the Navy was more meritocratic and that the RAF commissioned the highest proportion of such young men. It seems clear to me that McGrath intended Evans to be a case study of the problems facing the grammar school boy in this context.

Initially, there is little indication which of the gunners are National Servicemen and which are ‘regular soldiers’ (i.e. professional soldiers who have ‘signed on’ for more than three years). All of the actors are too old to be raw National Service conscripts and, to confuse matters, John Thaw (Gunner Featherstone), the youngest of them (at 24 in 1966), was already well known to UK TV audiences as a military policeman in the series Redcap (ABC TV, 1964-66). The two actors most likely to be playing regular soldiers are Nicole Williamson as O’Rourke and Ian Holm as Flynn. These two are almost polar opposites – O’Rourke is a tall, wild Catholic Irishman from the south, Flynn is a short, reserved Protestant Ulsterman. The inevitable religious conflict bubbles below the surface (and in retrospect prompts us to reflect on what might have happened in the North of Ireland if National Service had continued and conscripts had patrolled the streets of Belfast and Derry in the 1970s). More relevant here is that O’Rourke is the main source of anger channeled through Evans, whereas Flynn tries, in vain, to talk sense into the young NCO and help him wherever possible.

Barry Jackson (Shone) and Richard O’Callaghan (Rowe) play the youngest characters who are presumably National Servicemen. It’s noticeable that they do most of the tasks and that they are most likely to be bullied by the other four. Donald Gee plays Crowley as the older, quieter regular who has seen everything before and knows how to keep his nose clean. John Thaw’s character is the mouthy Londoner (although Thaw, like Warner and Gee was from the Manchester region). Inevitably, perhaps, McGrath’s script draws on the repertoire of British narratives about barracks life in which soldiers are identified by region and social class. It’s important for the drama that the group mixes regulars and national servicemen. Each has a different perspective on military life and different experience of what life outside the army might mean.

Distribution and reception

The film was distributed by Universal through its long relationship with Rank which meant it opened at the Odeon St. Martin’s Lane in London, but I’m not sure if it made it to too many Odeons around the country. The opening in London was in August, a time when distributors released those titles they had little faith in. (In those days in the UK the only cinemas that did good business in August were in seaside resorts.) That August The Bofors Gun and The Graduate bucked the trend for the critics and both were acclaimed. This is evident from the display ad shown above which is taken from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of September 28th 1968. The Essoldo cinema was part of a North East cinema chain. Note that the critics (in reality newspaper reviewers) quoted are all from the ‘popular press’, not the broadsheets. The film is also offered in a double bill with The Birds (1963) with the Hitchcock film offering more familiar genre pleasures. This looks like a smart move. The critics loved the film, the public often didn’t (and IMDb has an American poster announcing this and challenging cinemagoers to see a film that “has something to say”). I did see the film in a cinema but I can’t remember which one.

This “landmark in British cinema”, as one critic pronounced it, was edited by the great Anne V. Coates, had music by Carl Davis and was photographed by Alan Hume. Those are three of the best in the business and it is shocking that with its cast and writer-director combination, The Bofors Gun is available only in a rare DVD edition that is very hard to find and now very expensive. The DVD print is in the 1.37:1 ratio, possibly reduced from 1.66:1? The video quality is quite poor. Even so, the film needs to be seen for both its content and theme, its ensemble acting and the McGrath-Gold collaboration in its creation and presentation. If you want to catch Nicol Williamson at his height, this the film to see.

Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands off the Loot, France-Italy 1954)

The three poster names, Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin and Jeanne Moreau

Jean Gabin stars in this classic polar. It’s unusual because there are no police involved in what is purely a gangland tale. Gabin plays Max, a well-respected but ageing gangster who dresses elegantly and is well organised. He has performed what he hopes is his last job and has the haul stashed away. But someone has talked and the new guy on the block, played by Lino Ventura in his first role at the advanced age of 34 (he was a professional wrestler at the time) is alert to the possibilities. Jacque Becker’s film is still a cracking crime film today but it looks odd in the era of #MeToo since it features a club that is a front for a crime boss and which features dancers and a miniature version of the Folies Bergère with the women wearing ‘pasties’ but otherwise bare-breasted. The dancers include Jeanne Moreau (not bare-breasted!) in a relatively early role. She was a well-known stage actor at the time but her film roles were not that substantial. Her film breakthrough would come with Lift to the Scaffold (1958) when, ironically, Lino Ventura would have a secondary role.

Max and Riton with the dancers Lola (Dora Doll) and Josy (Jeanne Moreau). The restaurant owner Mme Bouche stands behind Max.

As well as the young female dancers, the gangsters are also accompanied/assisted at various points by older women, in particular by Madame Bouche (Denise Clair), whose restaurant is the regular haunt of Max and his friends. The film is adapted from a novel by Albert Simonin and the screenplay is by Becker and Simonin. Simonin went on to write several more films and the character of Max was used in two further narratives, both from Simonin novels but co-scripted by Michel Audiard. Jean Gabin appeared in the second film but not the third, which became two one hour TV episodes, I think. These two later appearances of Max seemed to have been more aligned to crime comedies. Comedy is touched on lightly in Grisbi which is primarily a violent gangster feature. However, one central sequence has become fondly remembered and may have been influential on later filmmakers such as François Truffaut.

An impromptu supper of paté and crispbreads . . .

. . . and natty pyjamas and toothbrushes

Max’s friend and the one person he appears to trust, at least in terms of loyalty, is ‘Riton’ whose real name is Henri Ducros (and played is by René Dary). Riton is loyal but not very bright. When Max wants to disappear for a night he takes Riton to a hideout apartment that he has secretly rented. Everything necessary for a comfortable night is already in the apartment and the two ageing gangsters sit down to a meal of paté and crispbreads washed down by by regional white wine sent by a friend. Max provides bedding and pressed pyjamas as well as a toothbrush for Riton. It could be a sit-com about two old men and when I re-watched the film it was the section of the film that I remembered most clearly – and thoroughly enjoyed.

Max and his occasional ‘squeeze’, Hughette (Delia Scala)

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. All I’ll note is that at the end of the film, the narrative returns to Madame Bouche’s restaurant and the final exchanges are in some ways poignant rather than triumphant or defiant. In fact they are almost comic. The narrative treads a fine line between these moments and the violence of treachery and double-crossing. I’ve noted the sexism in terms of the relative lack of agency that the women in the film have. It is striking though that there are several very beautiful young women in the film, all presented in quite provocative costumes. They include the American Marilyn Buferd, the German Dora Doll and the Italian Delia Scala, all active in French cinema around this time. It’s worth mentioning that the presence of young women like these three was a feature of French cinema which helped the films get a release in the UK and US where domestic films were hampered by censorship. It’s odd now to watch the film and see Gabin ogling these young women but resisting the charms of Jeanne Moreau.

The polar combines elements of the Série Noir and the American film noir as suggested by the lighting in this shot.

In his magisterial ‘Journey Through French Cinema’, the late Bertrand Tavernier argues that Grisbi was twenty years ahead of its time with its depiction of Gabin as Max, an ‘anti-hero’. I think he’s right. He also suggests that Jean Becker had ‘assimilated’ American cinema in his approach but didn’t simply reproduce an American style. I’ve been musing on the American stars who could dominate genre films such as the gangster or more general crime film in the same way as Gabin. Who could be elegant, brutal, strong but capable of lightness etc.? Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart are possibles perhaps? The star most often mentioned is James Cagney and I can understand why, but I still find Gabin to be in a class of his own. The comparison with American cinema is important because the polar has been seen as a vehicle for developing a dialogue with American culture, with ‘modernity’ and big American cars. The trophy young women for the gangsters are also to some extent imported. In terms of French cinema, Becker’s film would become an inspiration for both Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob, le flambeur, 1956) and François Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). Tavernier pointed out another aspect of Grisbi, that showed Becker was ‘ahead’ of Hollywood – the use of a harmonica theme for Max. (Tavernier thought French productions made more interesting choices of music.)

Jacques Becker was in a sense the link between the early crime melodramas of Jean Renoir some of which he worked on in the 1930s in various capacities and the harsher post-war crime films. His last film, Le trou (1960), a prison-based drama, appeared around the same time as the early New Wave films. Because of his Renoir connections and the quality of his 1950s films, when Becker died comparatively young in 1960, aged 53, his reputation didn’t suffer the dismissal by the younger directors that was meted out to some of his contemporaries. He directed a range of films, not just crime films and I aim to eventually cover the others that are still available.

Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021)

The French director Bertrand Tavernier died last week at the age of 79. He was, by all accounts, not only a great filmmaker but also a decent human being, a wonderful colleague and an extremely knowledgeable historian of the cinema. This is a rare combination for any artist. He should be celebrated on this blog for all those reasons and I’m only sorry that we haven’t featured his work as much as we should have done. The three films I have written about do, however, give an indication of the range of his interests and achievements. ‘Round Midnight (France-US 1986) is one of Tavernier’s best-known films internationally. It’s a fiction film made largely in English but set in Paris where an African-American jazz saxophonist down on his luck has a period playing in a club in the 1950s. Tavernier worked with Warner Bros. but defied the studio by casting well-known contemporary jazz players to support Gordon who had himself played in Paris in the 1960s. Tavernier had a close affinity with aspects of American culture – he also made a documentary about Mississippi Blues (1980) with Robert Parrish. But he also was one of the few French directors of his generation to recognise British cinema and in particular to champion Michael Powell and The Red Shoes (1948), which is name-checked in ‘Round Midnight. Powell’s other international champion Martin Scorsese also has a small role in ‘Round Midnight. Tavernier’s British connection also included Deathwatch (France-West Germany 1980), a well-regarded speculative fiction film with an international cast and made in Glasgow and Argyll.

Bertrand Tavernier with Tommy Lee Jones on the set of In the Electric Mist

Like many French cinéastes of his generation Tavernier had a strong interest in American crime fiction, the kind of literature which was often adapted for Hollywood film noir as well as French noir or polars. This interest would also have been strengthened by his early work in the film industry which included time as a publicist for both Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. For Melville he worked on promoting Le doulos (France 1963), a polar with Jean-Paul Belmondo. When he began to make his own films his filmography included Coup de Torchon (France 1981), an adaptation of pop.128, a crime novel by the hardest of hard-boiled writers, Jim Thompson – but relocated from the American South to French West Africa in the 1930s. On this blog I have written about a later film based on a crime novel by James Lee Bourke, In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009), again made in English, this time in the US and returning to the same region as Mississippi Blues. Once again, Tavernier struggled with American producers but I was pleased with the adaptation of a book I knew.

Bertrand Tavernier on set with Mélanie Thierry for La princesse de Montpensier

The third Tavernier film discussed on this blog is La princesse de Montpensier (France-Germany 2010), an example of the French historical drama, in this case a 16th century swashbuckler/thriller/melodrama. Tavernier proved himself capable of making very different kinds of films as well as having the ability to work in at least two languages and across different international production contexts. This was a film I enjoyed as a festival screening but which didn’t get much of a release in the UK, much like the majority of foreign language releases over the last ten years or so.

The last Tavernier film I watched was the last film the director completed, his magisterial documentary on French cinema, A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). This is an autobiographical journey through the director’s own love affair with cinema – it also became a French TV series. It is very personal but because Tavernier is so closely engaged with cinema it is also a guide, a revelation and an inspirational text. My DVD of the film runs over 190 mins and it is crammed full of Tavernier’s memories of the films he watched, the film people he engaged with and the films he made. He re-visits locations and he observes how the industry changed and why. It isn’t a dry history of French cinema with equal time devoted to each decade and to each ‘important film’. Instead it focuses on what he himself discovered and what inspired him. The result is that much of the film focuses on the period from the late 1940s through to the 1970s or between the films the director saw while he was growing up to the films he came to know during their production when he was an assistant. Of course, in discussing these films he refers to many more but his selections provide an entry into what I have always found to be a mysterious void since my own film (self) education was via the polemics of Truffaut and Godard. Truffaut in particular decried ‘le cinéma de papa‘ and the screenwriters of the ‘quality cinema’ of this period. Tavernier’s choices of detailed case studies include Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet as directors and Jean Gabin as star. I was pleased to recognise some of the films that Tavernier discusses and thrilled to be exposed to others I didn’t know. One of the first films I sought out and enjoyed after watching the documentary was Becker’s Edward and Caroline (France 1951). Since then I’ve collected more films from the period and blogged on several with more to come. Much as I loved Truffaut in the 1960s and 1970s, he was wrong to take his polemic so far. I can’t recommend the documentary too highly and it does, of course, present its great variety of clips in the correct ratio.

This last few days has seen many tributes to Tavernier. It was good to see tweets from people who knew Tavernier and who spoke of his kindness and encouragement. In yesterday’s Guardian Ryan Gilbey’s obituary included a couple of stories that I hadn’t seen before but which tie in to what I have written above:

To help him adapt [his first fiction feature] the movie [L’Horloger de Saint-Paul, France 1974] from Georges Simenon’s novel The Watchmaker of Everton, Tavernier hired two screenwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who had been eviscerated by François Truffaut 20 years earlier in the infamous broadside against ‘le cinéma de papa‘ that had paved the way for the French New Wave.

And this acute observation about one of the filmmakers he worked with:

Only the demands of Stanley Kubrick proved too much. In a cable notifying that director of his resignation from press duties on A Clockwork Orange (1971), he wrote: “As a film-maker you are a genius, but as an employer you are an imbecile.

Only last week I showed a short clip during a Zoom event. It was from Éric Rohmer’s early short film La boulangère de Monceau (France 1963). The clip had a narrator introducing the actions of the characters and it was only when I began to write this post that I discovered that the narration was delivered by Bertrand Tavernier. I certainly won’t forget his contribution to cinema and I look forward to watching more of his films and to looking again at his final documentary when I have caught up with the films he discusses.

The Midwife (Sage femme, France-Belgium 2017)

Claire at work, trapped in this composition? (photos © Michaâl Crotto)

The Midwife is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer in the UK and it might be seen as an interesting ‘entertainment’ during lockdown. It is a good example of a well-made conventional comedy-drama enlivened by the performances of three of the best Francophone actor-stars around. Given the title and the two female leads I was slightly surprised to find it was written and directed by a man, Martin Provost. It was only later that I remembered that Provost had already made two celebrated female-centred films, Séraphine (2008) and Violette (2013), both historical dramas based on the struggles of real characters against the sexism of their times. Violette starred the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos. Provost’s 2020 film, La bonne épouse (How to be a Good Wife) stars Juliette Binoche and in Sage femme we get Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot. This demonstrates Provost’s standing as a writer-director with actors.

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot together

The midwife of the title is Claire (Catherine Frot), a woman approaching 50 who is proud of her work and of her son who she brought up as a single parent and who is now studying medicine. Claire works in a local maternity clinic with a team of women she knows and trusts. Her main leisure pursuit is her allotment on the banks of the Seine outside Paris city centre. Her life is settled and possibly a little dull. Three narrative ‘disruptions’ will soon sort that out. First she has learned that the clinic is to be ‘taken over’ by a modern hospital group. Second, a phone call out of the blue announces the ‘return’ of her father’s mistress from many years ago. This is Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) with a story to tell. Finally, looking for peace on her allotment, Claire discovers that the old man on the neighbouring plot is ill and his son, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) has taken it over. Paul is an international long-haul lorry driver (and unattached). There is at least one other surprise for her coming up but I won’t spoil that. Even with just this brief description of the characters, most of us could write a script of sorts, though not with the skill of Provost who is also a novelist. Fortunately with Deneuve, Frot and Gourmet we can instead simply sit back and enjoy the fun.

Claire putting on lipstick in a classic melodrama mirror shot

The principal ‘driver’ of the narrative is Béatrice. Why has she turned up now? The answer comes quickly. She has a probably terminal cancer in the form of a brain tumour. She has never been ill before and she is determined to see out her days having fun if possible. She also has other issues to resolve with Claire. This isn’t a medical drama so Béatrice’s decline and her response is mainly used as a basis to ‘throw’ Claire. The two women are seemingly polar opposites. Claire has given up meat and claims not to use alcohol or cigarettes. She wears her long hair tied back (essential for her job) and doesn’t use make-up. She rides her bike to work. As one reviewer put it she seems to be almost an affront to French culture – she even eats brown rice! Of course Béatrice is the opposite in every way.

Claire with Paul (Olivier Gourmet) by the allotment

In the Press Notes, Provost tells us about his own birth and how he was saved by a skilled midwife. That was his inspiration but what he has produced is also like a fable, specifically Jean de la Fontaine’s re-telling of the Aesop fable, ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’. Béatrice, partly through the demands that she makes of Claire, breaks through the latter’s reserve and ‘opens up her up’ to the possibilities of life, ‘saving’ her in a different way. It occurs to me that this could be an interesting case study in how to structure a narrative, but don’t let that suggestion put you off. This is solid entertainment. Provost chose his three leads carefully and all were keen to take part. Deneuve and Frot are very different kinds of actors but they work extremely well together. There are six ‘live’ deliveries of babies in the film and Catherine Frot had to learn the job sufficiently well to perform convincingly in the delivery room. This reminds me of La tourneuse de pages (2006) in which she had to be a convincing pianist for chamber music recitals. Filming new born babies is not allowed under French law so all these scenes had to be shot in Liège (closer to home for Olivier Gourmet).

The careful casting also extends to Claire’s son Simon played by Quentin Dolmaire, the young lead in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (2015) and Béatrice’s ‘adventures’ also feature a very brief cameo from an actor with an even longer career, Mylène Demongeot, an international star of the 1950s and 1960s. Sage femme was a hit in France with 700,000 admissions. I’m surprised it didn’t attract larger audiences. In the UK it reached less than 17,000 in cinemas. I wonder how many people have now seen it on TV? It’s on iPlayer for another three weeks. Do give it a go.

Juste un regarde (Just One Look, France 2017)

Virginie Ledoyen as Eva with Max (Jean-Baptiste Blanc) and Salome (Joséphine Hélin)

Just One Look is a French TV serial from TF1 featuring Virginie Ledoyen, an actor with a long history of parts in film and TV since appearing as a child back in 1986. I saw her earlier this year in a revival of Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997). Just One Look is available to stream as a ‘Walter Presents’ offering on All 4. I decided to start watching unaware of the original property that was adapted for this production. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about the big-budget and very successful French thriller, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France 2006). The narratives seemed similar.

In the earlier film a man who whose wife was murdered several years earlier suddenly finds himself a suspect because two more bodies have been found close to the murder site. The accused man goes on the run and then receives a message that suggests his wife is still alive. In this more recent narrative, Eva’s husband Bastien goes missing from a hotel where he has taken their two small children after a pop concert. Eva then discovers a photograph of a group of younger people in a bar several years earlier. One of them is Bastien and one is a woman with her face scratched out. As a younger woman, before she met Bastien, Eva had a frightening experience at a rock concert – which is why she didn’t accompany her husband and children this time. She has tried to forget the concert which ended with her in hospital but the photograph and her husband’s disappearance makes Eva worried about the safety of her children.

Bastien (Thierry Neuvic) has escaped from his kidnappers

As well as some similarities between the two narratives, there is also something about the new narrative, with its fast action and overall pacing, which reminds me of the close links between French and American crime fiction. I’m sure you are ahead of me here – I finally confirmed that the two narratives were both adapted from stories by the American crime thriller and mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben was also involved earlier with a similar French TV serial Une chance de trop (No Second Chance, 2015) as writer and executive producer. No Second Chance is also on All 4. He has also written three other British and French-based long-form narratives. He seems to be operating on Just One Look as a ‘showrunner’ with a team of French writers.

Jimmy Jean-Louis as Eric Toussaint

Just One Look is a complex narrative with an array of characters but one of the interesting lead roles is a contract killer played by Jimmy Jean-Louis who is supposed to have grown up in Haiti and who carries the name Eric Toussaint. He’s the only Black character of note in the serial – which distinguishes it from the police procedurals and banlieue dramas set in Paris. (The co-writer/producer Sydney Gallonde is Black and the character is changed from the novel – a conscious attempt to diversify casting?) I think we are meant to be in the next ‘outer ring’ of more affluent areas outside Paris, though the story takes us into Montmartre a couple of times. The carousel in a square close to Sacré-Couer is a favourite place for Eva’s small son Max who is on the autistic spectrum. This is useful in plot terms because Max is both quite difficult to keep safe but also a dab hand at remembering car number plates. His slightly older sister, Salome, is very bright as well.

So, what to make of this? Coben appears to have taken his familiar narrative model and switched gender roles – the man goes missing, the woman has to become investigator. The police in charge of the investigation are women. It seems to tick all the right boxes – except that the police in this case seem to be completely inept. As several viewers have pointed out, Salome seems capable of finding useful leads on Google well ahead of the police and the team from Engrenages (Spiral) headed by Laure and Gilou could have solved this case by Episode 3 (Just One Look has 6 x 50 minute episodes). My guess is that Coben is the problem here. I found that the plot became repetitive and although it had some interesting twists, it lacked sufficient credibility to make the final resolution as satisfying as the writers presumably hoped it would be. Those French films that have taken American influences and re-worked them to create the polar in French cinema have often created a relationship between a police investigator and a lead criminal that holds the whole narrative together. Coben’s narratives work in a different way. I haven’t read the the original, but from extracts available online, I can guess some of the problems they faced. I think that the narrative would work better if the hit man Eric and the wife/mother Eva were more directly in a prolonged confrontation. The story needs stripping back and re-working more in the French tradition. Virginie Ledoyen and Jimmy Jean-Louis are strong performers in roles with potential that is not realised from my perspective.

I realise that I have fallen into the trap of focusing only on the writers/producers of a TV long-form narrative. The serial was directed by Ludovic Colbeau-Justin as just his third directorial project. (He was previously a cinematographer but directed the previous Coben adaptation No Second Chance.)