By the late 1950s, American cinema had summited peak noir. As color would soon eclipse black-and-white as the dominant form of visual expression, and as prosperous suburban sprawl replaced hardscrabble city life, the genre of shadows, crime, sex and skewed morality would ease, gradually giving way to neo-noir in the decades to come.
But in ’50s France, the genre still found plenty of purchase, as Kino Lorber’s recently released three-film French Noir Collection ($31.98 Blu-ray) reveals. Resurrected from obscurity even in our infinite streaming-verse, Speaking of Murder, Back to the Wall and Witness in the City capture the atmosphere of their American analogues: trench coats and streetlights, voice-overs and adulterous women, sweat collecting on the brows of desperate men.
These are movies that feel weaned off the pioneering American noirs of the 1940s, and their universality trumps their regionalism. Paris, Marseille and Lyon could just as easily be New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. A dark alleyway in Toulouse is a dark alleyway in Detroit.
The earliest of the features, journeyman director Gilles Grangier’s Speaking of Murder (Le Rouge est Mis, 1957) stars Jean Gabin as Louis Bertain, an upstanding businessman by day — he runs a garage, loves his mother and gives charitably to the community —who moonlights as the ringleader of a crime syndicate. When his naïve younger brother Pierre (Marcel Bozzuffi), a ne’er-do-well trying to do right, eavesdrops on Louis’ latest criminal scheme, a tragic series of events is set in motion.
Speaking of Murder is the slowest and weakest of the three features. It’s also the most conventional in its presentation, with Grangier’s anonymous style adequately achieving the story’s needs. It endures mostly on the strength of another complex Gabin performance, one that can turn from genial to menacing in a moment’s notice. And to Grangier’s credit, the action sequences are lean, matter-of-fact and free of gaudy ornamentation.
If Speaking of Murder pales, it’s largely in comparison to the dynamism of its partners in this collection. In Édouard Molinaro’s Back to the Wall (Le Dos au Mur, 1958), Gérard Oury is a wealthy industrialist who, after returning unexpectedly early from a hunting excursion, spies his wife (Jeanne Moreau) loving on another man. Rather than addressing this infidelity in a healthy or constructive way — this is a film noir, not an HBO limited series — Oury’s sociopathic captain of industry initiates a string of psychological games with his elegant spouse and her actor paramour, all delivered with a hunter’s tactical precision.
The screenplay, co-adapted by Frédéric Dard from his own novel, is forward-thinking for its time; it even arguably passes the Bechdel Test, if only barely. But it’s Molinaro, who would go on to direct the 1978 adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, who is most responsible for the film’s hurtling pace and modern-art visual aesthetic. Back to the Wall is spackled with Wellesian flourishes such as deep-focus photography, a zoom-out that begins on the surface of a snare drum, and other carefully curated camera angles (from under a sink, from inside a car’s trunk). This modernist approach, coupled with its narrative of a wicked aristocrat’s comeuppance, prefigures the themes and style of French New Wave pioneer Claude Chabrol, whose debut feature Le Beau Serge was released the same year.
If you watch these films in chronological order, you’ll be saving the best, and grisliest, for last. Also directed by Molinaro, the crackerjack Witness in the City (Un Témoin dans la Ville, 1959) piggybacks on the premise of Back to the Wall: another straying wife, another vengeful husband. This time, it’s Lino Ventura in the latter role, as an almost robotic, doggedly two-dimensional creature with a single-minded goal.
For his character, Ancelin, his wife is killed by her secret lover in the very first seconds of Witness in the City, and we’re still in prologue territory when he swiftly does away with the man responsible for his wife’s death — but not before the victim has called a taxicab to his estate. This is where the film derives its title: Franco Fabrizi’s cabdriver, Lambert, shows up and spots Ancelin leaving the crime scene. For Lambert, the moment signifies little more than the frustration of a lost fare; Ancelin, however, will stop at nothing to silence this “witness” to his murderous actions.
Molinaro leans on the Welles influence even more so this time around, to say nothing of the Preminger and Lang noirs he’s absorbed into his wheelhouse. Aided by whip pans and compelling tracking shots, he revels in placing his antagonist in one certain-death set piece after another, the most memorable of which finds Ancelin in a zoo, birds of prey squawking around him in a montage of vicious close-ups, the constricting mesh of their cages reflecting ominously on his face. Increasingly frantic and hobbled, Ancelin — a man compared by his associates to a groggy boxer who won’t fall down even to save himself — is a figure as merciless and deathless as any 1980s horror villain.
The film’s piece de resistance is the score, provided by the great jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham and his quintet, which includes pianist Duke Jordan, saxophonist Barney Wilen and drummer Kenny Clarke. Their post-bop contributions lend the film its elevated and sonorous flavor, especially from Clarke, whose rolling-thunder solos behind the kit help establish an unbearable tension.
Films like these overlooked Molinaro gems are not considered part of the New Wave canon, but they are certainly a bridge to that vital movement — and another overlooked example of the long shadow that American noir, and indeed American music, cast on European cinema.