The Second World War, and especially the role of ordinary French civilians in resisting Nazi occupation, would repeatedly inspire René Clément, a journeyman director whose travels often took him onto the front lines of anti-fascist action. World War II or its immediate aftermath would inform his best early works (Battle of the Rails, Forbidden Games, The Walls of Malapaga) as well as two signature projects from the 1960s newly available in sterling new Blu-ray releases from Kino Lorber.
The Day and the Hour ($17.99), released in 1963, is the leanest and finest of these companion pictures, a Hitchcockian lovers-on-the-run story in which two people are symbolically barnacled through politics and circumstance. Stuart Whitman plays Capt. Allan Morley, an American fighter pilot shot down in 1944 France, who, while navigating an underground resistance network, winds up in the care of Simone Signoret’s Therese Dutheil, lonely wife of a captured POW and textiles magnate.
Therese has everything to lose by taking in the American fugitive — a citywide manhunt for Morley and three of his fellow-combatants has paralyzed Paris — and Signoret makes for an initially reluctant hero. “I’m not interested in war,” she says when confronted by the Gestapo prior to harboring the captain. Stone-faced and unflappable, she’ll maintain this neutrality in the face of the city’s oppressors even as it becomes more of a pose than a belief. The Day and the Hour is about nothing if not doing the right thing, and establishing moral and ethical rectitude in the face of an existential threat.
Clément, a director who was never a particular favorite of the French New Wave critics-turned-filmmakers, can seem stodgy when compared to the avant-garde renegades blossoming around him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was akin to his country’s Stanley Kramer, a craftsman of earnest, impeccably made and morally righteous dramas with clearly delineated heroes and villains.
But in The Day and the Hour, Clément’s artistry proves more compelling than his moralism. The movie has an appealingly unvarnished quality, owing to its stark on-location shooting. It abounds in creatively staged sequences, from Signoret and Whitman gazing at each other through a loom in the former’s basement manse during a bombing raid, to the nocturnal headlamps of a bicycle tracking the couple like a pair of eyes during one of their many escapes from the German surveillance state. The film contains two bravura, slow-motion chase sequences on trains (another Hitchcock motif) that are presented as claustrophobic ballets of faces. These, coupled with Clément’s liberal use of subtly distorted wide-angle lenses, suggest a world closing in.
Completed three years later, Is Paris Burning? ($19.99), set during the same pivotal year of 1944, is less intimate than its successor, and less interesting cinematically, though not for a lack of budget, intention and sheer star power. Clocking in at 173 minutes, it’s a hulking account of the liberation of Paris, from Adolf Hitler’s appointment of a military governor (Gert Fröbe) to oversee the occupation and, if necessary, the complete demolition, of Paris, to the French freedom fighters’ recapturing of Notre Dame a couple of months later.
Glamorous faces parade across the screen in both cameos and major roles, from Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Michel Piccoli as central figures in the resistance to Kirk Douglas as a typically curt Gen. Patton, Robert Stack as Gen. Edwin Sibert, Orson Welles as a Swedish consul, and Anthony Perkins as an everyman member of the American infantry, who muses on mortality while agog at his deployment to the City of Light.
The film could have used more such moments of introspection. The screenplay, co-written by two major figures in literature and cinema — Gore Vidal and a largely unknown Francis Ford Coppola — is a surprisingly anonymous affair. It’s all business: Information, exposition and forward motion, with little time, despite the bulging running time, for much in the way of character psychology or identification, while the road-show spectacle of it all, complete with ponderous overture and intermission, provides the lacquer of prestige.
Is Paris Burning? is immaculately made and will continue to resonate with World War II buffs, but as a piece of cinema, it’s parched of flavor. It’s the very definition of what critic Manny Farber used to call White Elephant Art (as opposed to his preferred Termite Art, which subversively ate away at big-budget pretentions). There are far worse projects than that of an idealistic director doing his duty for the homeland and for the historical record, but at least most of them don’t consume three hours of your attention.