I saw Montparnasse 19 as a child and never forgot it. Seeing it again now I understand why it is unforgettable: the framing, the lighting, the composition of Gérard Philipe as Modigliani, in medium close-ups, suffering for his art, which no one is interested in, as Lilli Palmer, Anouk Aimee, and other women who love him look on helplessly, is very powerful. I’d forgotten Lino Ventura is also in it. Jacques Becker is such a great director, leaving actors their space and privileging their faces, and in this case that of the greatest romantic actor of his generation. Every frame does indeed seem not so much a painting as a work of art in itself. The Arrow edition is beautiful. It includes an appreciation by Ginette Vincendeau, which I look forward to seeing.
I’ve written previously on a memory of the film vs an encounter with a portrait of Modigliani here.
Marie Octobre is now the name of Marie-Helène Dumoulin´s coutoure house. But it was once her code name in the French resistance. This evening she´s organised a get-together with all her former in colleagues the resistance group to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the death of their former leader, Castille,; killed when the Gestapo instigated a raid in the very room they are now reminiscing in. But was it a random raid or did someone turn them in?
The film feels like a theatrical adaptation of the last segment of an Agatha Christie mystery, where everyone gathers in the drawing room and each is questioned about their whereabouts, alibis, motivations etc. Like an Agatha Christie adaptation, it´s got an all star cast: Danielle Darrieux, Bernard Blier, Paul Meurisse, Serge Reggianni, Lino Ventura. Each star is given their moment to shine, and all are excellent, with Regianni standing out not only for his emoting but for his charm (and to do credit to the others, apart from Darrieux, Regianni has the best role).
To be fair, Marie-Octobre is thematically richer than the average Christie: What was collaboration with the Germans? Is it an absolute or were there degrees? How much choice did people have? Who behaved ethically and who didn´t? What is the intersection of individual and collective choice and action? Does any of this matter 15 years after the fact when even the statute of limitations has lapsed? It´s an address-the-nation exercise in historical remembering with practically all the sections of society represented (the maid, the butcher, the doctor, the priest, the tax inspector, the printer, the plumber, etc.)
Except for a few exterior shots at the beginning and end Marie-Octobre takes place all in one room. Duvivier shot chronologically, which certainly seems to have paid off with the actors, and keeps the whole thing moving well: it never feels static. Though it never looks particularly great either: Duvivier conscious of movement and rhyme but not really making the most of framing and composition in widescreen (1.66). One need only compare this to one of Hitchcock´s formal exercises to see how Duvivier here falls short. It´s a piece that works well — it´s never boring — but that one can imagine working even better on stage, rather damning for a film.
Sometimes I think the French New Wave ruined a whole history of French Cinema for subsequent generations with their condemnations of ‘quality cinema’, ´white telephone films´and ´cinema de papa´. Oops, to the critical dustbin go the marvellous Gremillons and Carnés and Duviviers and films by other great filmmakers of the 30s, 40s and 50s. And for several generations.
But then one sees a film like Marie-Octobre and one understands. It´s stagey, lacks poetry, lacks depth, compositions and lighting are proficient conveying a sense threat and of things being off-kilter….but at a price (see how inelegant the compositions are in practically all the image-capture that illustrates this piece) . I know that Duvivier fans esteem this one highly, probably for its theme and the clever way the screenplay keeps one guessing. But as film art, it doesn´t add up to very much. If this is what the new wave directors were watching, then their position is very understandable indeed. But is this all they were watching. Did they not see Panique, La Belle Equipe, Pepe le Moko, La Bandera et?
It is worth mentioning that Lino Ventura plays to his persona as a former wrestler, which he was before he took up acting. and worth noting also that Lucien Marinvale, the butcher played by Paul Frankeur, keeps being glued throughout the narrative to a wrestling match taking place on screen, a commentary on what´s taking place in the drawing room as well as a domment on a society that seeks forgetting in spectacle. Perhaps it´s no surprise that Wrestling was something Roland Barthes felt compelled to write on.
Marie-Octobre is one of the Collection Fondation Jerome Seydoux releases by Pathé, with English sub-titles, a lovely shiny print with rich blacks..
I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.
I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all. Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a joy, beginning with the stars: The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.
Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar‘, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.
The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:
a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.
b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)
c) The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest — create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen
d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories
e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others — is what’s being shown
f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual
g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.
Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil
– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image
Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard, Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They, the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.
In Les mystères Delon Bernard Violet writes of how the hijack scene on the plain is considered a great moment in film history/ un grand moment du cinéma; and how Delon himself is described as ‘secret, élegant, doué, consciencieux, mûrissant’/ secretive, elegant, talented, conscientious, maturing’/; grave, inquiet, inquiétant, volontaire, beau’/ serious, troubled, troubling, willing, handsome’; ‘félin, secret, inquiet, lucide, désenchanté’/ feline, secretive, troubled, lucid, disenchanted’; séduisant, élégant, mystérieux, audacieux, maître de soi/ seductive, elegant, mysterious, audacious, master of himself’ 1. Not bad.
All qyotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pp. 288-289
Why would anyone want to see an unpretentious genre film – not particularly stylish; by no means the best example of its kind – like Le gorille vous salue bien?
Well, for one, it’s interesting to see what the French conceived of as their ‘no. 1 secret agent’; makes an interesting change in comparison to James Bond – friendly and street-smart gorilla instead of charming know-it-all gentleman with sardonic sense of humour and sadistic tendencies ; it’s interesting to see the care that the film takes with its beginning and ending, the one responding to the other as in classic cinema; it’s interesting also to see how the film carefully structures its narrative, balancing it with spectacle, leavening it with humour: its constantly engaged with a popular audience and might be part of the reason the film remains engaging: it’s interesting to compare the fight scenes (see below) to the ones we see now, how they seem slow and inexpert, with blows clearly faked, yet often shot in a combination of long-shot and with lengthier takes than we get now — Le gorille lets us see actions completed.
It’s interesting to remember that this type of popular genre film (it was a considerable box office success) co-existed with New Wave Cinema and the previous kind, what François Truffaut would call the ‘cinéma de papa’, straddled both, would supersede them all and would make inroads into all Western European markets.
Fans of Hollywood gossip will be interested in seeing Bella Darvi, named by Darryl Zanuck in a burst of megamoguldom after himself and his wife (Darryl and Virgina, thus Darvi); its interesting to see how in their scenes together, the camera always favours her and leaves the gorilla in shadows. But to no avail; attractive as she is, she’s no star: Lino on the other hand…
The main reason to see the film today is that Le gorille vous salue bien is the film that would make a star of Lino Ventura. The year of its release, he’d already appeared in three films in supporting roles, high profile ones such as in Maigret tend un piège, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/ Lift to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958), Montparnasse 19/ Modigliani of Montparnasse (Jacques Becker, 1958) for top directors such as Delannoy, Malle, Becker. Here it’s only Borderie. But ‘Le gorille’ is star-making role. In the opening credits we’re teased by billing merely listing ‘Le gorille’; by the end of the movie, we know the gorilla is Lino Ventura and we want to see more of him. The success of this film would lead to many more Gorilla films but they’d have to settle for Roger Hanin in the title role: Ventura would go onto bigger and better things and would become one of the most popular and durable stars of French cinema.
For Gone With The Wind fans: There’s a lovely scene in L’armée des ombres/ Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) where two heads of the French resistance — Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) — are in London for a meeting and they end up at the pictures watching Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939). As they come out of the cinema and onto the street, in probably the most brightly lit moment in the film, with the GWTW billboard shown in what looks like a brilliant Technicolour palette, Jardie says, ‘For the French the war will be over when they can read Le Canard enchaîné and see this marvellous film’. Once again entertainment, bright light and brilliant colour signifying the utopian hopes of a grey, war-torn London in a film about shadows, armies and resistance to existing realities.
I love the Maigret films; they offer the double satisfaction of thrilling you with some of the worst humanity has to offer – though usefully shown tastefully – and then restoring order; moreover, that rebalancing is itself done in an orderly and systematic manner; one we’ve learned to know and enjoy playing along with.
In this one, Gabin’s first outing in the role, (he would inhabit it twice more, reunited with director Jean Delannoy in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre / Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959) and Maigret voit rouge/ Maigret Sees Red, (Gilles Grangier, 1963), the first images we see are a knife being thrown right into the heart of Paris, then we’re shown the shadow of a pipe in close-up (see below). It seems to me that those images, which start the film, embody the appeal of this type of detective film: violence at the heart of a community and threatening to rip it apart and then the cozy comfort of a pipe, with its suggestions of pensiveness, its indication that brains will win over brawn, that reason will transform chaos into order, that homeliness will be restored. These films do not disown the animal, the emotional and sexual impulses, but they’re always the source of the crime. Intelligence and thought are the way to remove such unruly impulses from social structures: the films are a paean to reason. If Maigret sets his traps correctly, the killer will be caught.
Maigret tend un piège starts at Place des Vosges, in the Marais district. It’s set in the film’s present but it already has a nostalgic tone. The Place des Vosges has a butcher shop, ladies knit and chat with their neighbours outside their flats, everyone seems to know each other. Then, we’re introduced to a young woman returning from work, a violinist, husband at the café, child asleep upstairs. Of course, she’s murdered. Typically, we’re not shown who’s done it. We see only a gesture of gloved hands re-arranging a belt: a gesture that will prove telling. Then, again, in typical fashion, Maigret is called for (anonymously), we’re introduced to the basics of the case (a serial killer on the loose in the Marais, one who’s already committed four crimes, and is after the same type of woman), and then we’re introduced to the main character (Maigret is longing to retire, we’re made to think he’s alone but then a wife is introduced; he’s got a whole corner display case on top of a cabinet to hold his many pipes, they’ve built a house in the country in the village his wife’s from – this is a film that assumes Parisians have strong links to rural areas); lastly the suspects are introduced one by one, as one by one suspicion is removed until the real killer is found.
One of the wonderful things about the Simenon films, and true also of this adaptation is how tightly plotted they are. So here for example, the first suspect is Barbereau (Alfred Adam). He’s married to Louise (Jean Boitel) who had an affair with the previous owner of the butcher shop and is thus resented by his widow Adèle (Lucienne Bogaert), and the son Marcel (Jean Desailly). Marcel is married to Yvonne (Annie Girardot), just the type the serial killer’s been murdered. Marcel will be a suspect; Yvonne will be both a suspect and a potential victim. But who has access to Barbereau’s butcher shop? Everything is neatly tied together.
The film offers many pleasures: the depiction of milieu, the tight plotting, the way the narrative is constantly interspersed by comic bits (I particularly love Guy Decomble, whom you might remember as the exasperated schoolteacher in Les quatre cent coups/ The Four Hundred Blows (François Truffaut, 1959), ‘performing’ a phony suspect for the waiting press) , Lino Ventura as Maigret’s sidekick, Annie Girardot. But above all there’s Jean Gabin. I don’t know if it’s due to his training in the music hall but he makes everything interesting. He’s on, never overdoes it, but every little gesture, every response, even the act of listening is rendered worth watching. There’s a lovely moment, where he’s at home, tired and wiggles his pudgy middle-aged toes that I think his symptomatic. He conveys the character’s feeling but also gives the audience a flourish; he knows we’re watching and wants to give us something extra. It’s expressive and endearing.
Maigret tend un piège is a well-paced film. Delannoy keeps the camera in constant motion in a way that is unobstrusive yet creates a flow. On the other hand, everything seems to be shot with the camera at eye-level, which I can’t quite figure out as I suspect some of the scenes might have been more dramatic with more variation in angles.
Advances in representation?
…or casual sexism?
What bothers me most about the film is that what initially seems the casual sexism of the period turns into something more vicious by the end. There’s a scene when one of the suspects, a cabaret entertainer, is at home drinking tea and his girlfriend appears from the shower to show her breasts to the audience and one thinks ‘oh French cinema was so advanced!’ But later we learn how the killer is coded as being homosexual (he’s never had sex with his wife in all the years they’ve been married. It’s what drove her into the arms of the dancer and later to murder; moreover, it’s all the fault of his mother. If she hadn’t driven him to paint and play sonatas, he might have ended up a normal boy, who didn’t kill women because he couldn’t get it up for them. These films, striving, as they do to reassert social order are also quick at removing any kind of otherness. They’re inherently conservative. I don’t generally mind. But I did here.
An efficient cop film, with touches of the spy thriller; not a masterpiece but a good and representative example of the genre in France, worth seeing today for the considerable pleasures it offers; and of historical interest because: it confirmed the stardom Lino Ventura had achieved the year previously in Le Gorille vous salue bien (Bernard Borderie, 1958); the screenplay is adapted and with dialogue by Frédéric Dard, one of the most famous and prolific crime writers of the last half of the twentieth century; the screenplay is also co-written by Claude Sautet who was also First Assistant Director on the film, and it is this meeting between Sautet and Ventura in Le fauve est lâché that would lead to Classe tous risques (1960) and L’arme à gauche (1966); and, on a more minor and perhaps personal note, it deploys Boris Vian’s great ‘Fais-moi mal Johnny’ in a scene where it evokes the associations you’d wish it to: rebellious youth in a slightly dangerous bohemian setting.
Le fauve est lâché begins excitingly with an assassination. Important papers touching on national security are stolen, and the French Secret Services (DTS) arrive on the scene. As this is happening, Paul Lamiani (Lino Ventura), a former forger turned resistance hero and secret agent, now retired, is shown busily running his own bistro and blissfully ensconced in family life. Secret Services try to reel him back into his old life, ‘For France’. But it involves betraying an old comrade and Lamiani will have none of it; with a touch of Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, he replies, ‘You keep your mind on France, I’ll take care of my bistro and nothing else’.
loving father at beginning
Exchanging national security for his son at the end.
The DTS, Direction de la surveillance du territoire, the French National Police operating as a domestic intelligence agency, won’t take no for an answer. They play dirty, plant some fake money in his mattress, and threaten to revoke his license and his family’s livelihood until he co-operates. Thus the film sets up a tension between male friendship, the family and national security. It’s a tension that is missing from many contemporary cop flicks or action movies and whose value is worth underlining: the action is always underpinned, motivated, given emotional resonance by weightier and more complex consideration. What’s important in life? What is the value of friendship? What is one willing to sacrifice for family and children? What is it to be a man in France in 1959?
Moving towards an action
As a ‘polar’, a cop flick, Le fauve est lâché has plenty of fight scenes, well-filmed and interesting to us because of the divide between what was considered exciting in 1959 and now. Could a simple punch up between two men with little cutting be exciting? Well, yes. Moreover, Labro lets us see a completed action: thus, when the squat if not quite podgy Ventura jumps down a cliff, you see him do it, and understand what it’s cost the character physically. To say that action is imbued with feeling in the film is not to deny the pleasure of the set-pieces, particularly the spectacular one shot outside the cliffs of Etretat and also the one within the cliffs, where Lamiani is imprisoned by barriers, surrounded by enemies, and with the high tide threatening to drown him. It looks extraordinary (see below) and generates suspense.
In Lino Ventura (Editions First: Paris, 2014), Phillipe Durant claims that Ventura had no confidence in Labro’s handling of the action sequences and that Claude Sautet, 1st Assistant Director as well as screenwriter on the film, took over the filming of the ‘falaises d’Etreta’ sequences: ‘With the star’s support, the assistant becomes director…With him the scenes achieve an intensity that Labro would no doubt have been unable to achieve….Thanks to Sautet, Le fauve est lâché, acquires a new dimension. Not that of a great work but at least that of an honest action film’.
Ventura’s contract for the film had stipulated, amongst other things, not only a salary of 3 million francs, twice what he’d earned for Le Gorille vous salue bien, his first big hit in a starring role, but billing above the title: so he went into the film as it’s star. However, the success of the film confirmed that stardom. Le fauve est lâché was a box office hit. Budgeted at a modest 82 million francs, it did almost as well as Le Gorille vous salue bien with 2.1 million tickets sold and better than Le Valse du Gorille, the sequel to Le Gorille vous salue bien, which Ventura had turned down amidst fears of typecasting and in which he’d been replaced by Roger Hanin.
The trailer for Le fauve est lâché (see above)is most instructive on what Lino Ventura’s star persona represented in 1959. Trailers are so interesting for highlighting, revealing, explaining a star’s persona at any given point. The trailer offers a promise of certain characteristics on view or to be displayed by the star; a promise to the audience to explain the particular embodiment of a type with the associated pleasures audiences may expect from it. The voiceover tells us, ‘You know only him but look at him well. See how this time he’s calm, tranquil, a quiet father retired from business, at least a certain kind of business. He’s all placid behind his counter. But don’t believe it! It’s sleeping waters. Dynamite which covers…and here is the wildcat released, unchained…This man is dynamite, a sort of force of nature against which we’re helpless…This is the hero of Le fauve est lâché. There he is, more violent, more captivating than ever. This man is Lino Ventura’.
The film delivered on the promise of the trailer. Ventura has presence and he embodies the type well. But what the audience was allowed to discover for itself was just how good an actor Ventura had become. See the scene above: Gangsters have kidnapped his son in exchange for the secret papers and he’s calling Secret Services to inform them that this is where their dirty tricks have led to and that his son means more to him then his country. It’s all done in one shot which begins with him bouncing down the stairs, pushing his employees out of the way, dialing, getting his gun out of the drawer and into his pocket, and as the camera slowly moves into a close-up, unleashing his wildcat onto the authorities. See how his fists clench, how his voice rises to almost a scream, but how his eyes remain focussed, still. It’s this emotional unleashing from a place of relative emotional placidness that gives it the power that it has. And it’s also an example of how the film gains by building its action sequences on family melodrama.
The film was released on the 21st of January 1959; as we’ve seen, a considerable hit; and well-reviewed: Jean de Baroncelli in Le Monde wrote: Yesterday ‘gorilla’; today, wildcat; Ventura has in a few months become the no. 1 heavy-weight champ of French Cinema’. Watching Le fauve est lâché one understands why.
In A Personal Journey Through French Cinema, Bertrand Tavernier argues that this film was also the making of Claude Sautet, for reasons he explains below:
Soutenu par l’acteur principal, l’assitant deviant réalisateur…Avec lui, les scenes atteignent une intensité que Labro n’aurait sans doute jamais pu susciter…Grâce a Sautet, Le fauve est lâché acquiert une nouvelle dimension. Pas celle d’une grande oeuvre mais au mons celle d’un honnête film d’action (loc 1783 on Kindle, translation my own)
 ‘Hier “gorille”, “fauve” aujourd’hui, Ventura est devenu en quelques mois le “pos lourd” no 1 du cinema francais. Translation my own, Phillip Durant’s Lino Ventura, loc 1783, Kindle.