Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014 The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-1964

The Roxie had a 12 film series from November 14 to 17 called The French Had A Name For It.  For the second time in memory, I went to the Roxie and it was sold out.  I think the previous time was a Midnites For Maniacs screening.  Reportedly, the entire four days drew large crowds undoubtedly encouraged by an article written by San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle.

The series conflicted with the San Francisco Film Society's Hong Kong Cinema so I only saw the two films on November 17:  La Putain respectueuse (The Respectful Prostitute) and J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Graves).

The series was so successful that they re-screened 8 of the films from November 21 to November 26 under the series title The French Had A Name For It Redux.  I saw four films during the encore session:  Dédée d'Anvers (Dedee of Antwerp), Toi, le venin (Blonde in White Car), Une manche et la belle (A Kiss for a Killer) & En cas de malheur (Love Is My Profession).

The Respectful Prostitute starring Barbara Laage; directed Marcel Pagliero & Charles Brabant; French with subtitles; (1952)
I Spit on Your Graves starring Christian Marquand & Antonella Lualdi; directed by Michel Gast; French with subtitles; (1959)
Dédée d'Anvers starring Simone Signoret; directed by Yves Allégret; French with subtitles; (1948)
Blonde in White Car starring Robert Hossein, Marina Vlady & Odile Versois; directed by Robert Hossein; French with subtitles; (1958)
A Kiss for a Killer starring Henri Vidal, Mylène Demongeot & Isa Miranda; directed by Henri Verneuil; French with subtitles; (1957)
Love is My Profession starring Jean Gabin & Brigitte Bardot; directed by Claude Autant-Lara; French with subtitles; (1958)

I had previously seen two of the 12 films in the series at the PFA:  Manon Voici le temps des assassins (Deadlier Than the Male) directed be Henri-Georges Clouzot & Julien Duvivier, respectively.

That left four films in the series which I did not/have not seen:  La Vérité, Les MauditsUn témoin dans la ville (Witness in the City) and Chair de poule (Highway Pickup).   La Vérité with Brigitte Bardot was the film I wanted to see the most from the series.  I would also have liked to have seen Lino Ventura in Witness in the City.

The two films I saw on Monday, November 17 played to a packed house.  However, the Redux did not draw the same crowds.  I skipped the Redux screenings in the Little Roxie.  I would characterize the crowds in the four Big Roxie screenings as sparse.

The program for 2014 The French Had A Name For It: French Film Noir 1946-1964 was unusually nice.  It was printed on heavier cardstock and the equivalent of three 8.5x11 sheets of paper (front & back).  In addition to the synopses of the films, it had a French Film Noir timeline that was interesting.  They also sold merchandise.  I bought some notecards with movie poster images from the series.


According to the film notes, Barbara Laage (the star of The Respectful Prostitute) was Orson Welles first choice to play the lead in The Lady From Shanghai.  I find that very interesting considering that Rita Hayworth, Welles' wife at the time of production, landed the role.  How do you tell your own wife that she is the second choice for the part?  I also recalled Welles' controversial decision to ask his famously red-haired wife to dye her hair blonde for The Lady From Shanghai.  Laage looked to be a bottled blonde in The Respectful Prostitute.

The Respectful Prostitute was an interesting film.  Set in the United States, the film represents the French viewpoint of race relations in the US.  We all can recall US films set in foreign countries where the locals speak English in the film but would assuredly be speaking a foreign language in real life.  Typically, the actor speaks with a local accent to make it more palatable although I think it is ridiculous.  The Respectful Prostitute turns that around.  All the actors speak French (even the character of a US Senator).  I'm not sure if they spoke French with an American accent.

The film is noteworthy just for its incendiary dialog which actually seems over-the-top today.  The word "nigger" is used repeatedly in the subtitling.  The casual and overt racism are also jarring.  These impressions are not so surprising give the fact that the film is based on a Jean-Paul Sartre play and his intentions were likely more political than artistic.

Barbara Laage plays Lizzie MacKay, a "hostess" traveling on a train as the film begins.  She is being harassed by Yvan Desny as the drunken, racist, loutish son of a US Senator.  Seeking refuge, MacKay causes a stir by decamping in the segregated train car.  The drunk follows her and an argument ensues between the drunk & one of the black passengers that ends with the black man hitting his head and dying.

The senator dispatches his nephew Teddy Barnes (Walter Bryant) to clean up the mess.  Barnes' strategy is two pronged:  seduce MacKay and convince her to recant her witness statement and hunt down and lynch the black man who also witnessed the murder.

Although earnest, I couldn't help but guffaw at times.  The contradictions and literalness of some of the situations are amplified by the 60+ years since the film was made.  At one point, I believe MacKay says to Sidney "I have nothing against niggers."  I couldn't help but think of a Sarah Silverman joke which caused much controversy several years ago.  The punchline was "I like Chinks."  In addition, after having been toyed with by Barnes and being set up for a false prostitution arrest, the senator is able to convince MacKay to recant her statement by invoking patriotism and the memory of George Washington.

As a historical artifact to document French (or at least Sartre's) views on race relations in the US during the period, The Respectful Prostitute is worthwhile.  Compared to Hollywood's treatment of race relation from the same period, the film and play must have been provocative.  Her voice was grating at times and I thought acting-wise Laage was in over her head in some scenes but she had a definite sexuality that suited the role.  I can quite articulate the type of sexuality she has but as the series title conveys, I'm sure the French have a word for it.


Playing on the double bill with The Respectful Prostitute was I Spit on Your Graves (not to be confused with the 1970s grindhouse classic I Spit on Your Grave).  Another movie set in a US where everyone speaks French, I Spit on Your Graves boasts a backstory that cannot be beat.  The film was based on a novel by the same name by French author Boris Vian but published under the nom de plume Vernon Sullivan.  Vian claimed to be the translator for Sullivan's works.  A fictitious biography made Sullivan a light-skinned African American passing as white whose works were too controversial to be published in his native land.  Eventually, the hoax was revealed and the resulting controversy made I Spit on Your Graves was one of Vian's most popular works.  The ironies are too delicious to pass without comment.  Vian (a white man) pretended to be a black man who pretended to be a white man who wrote a novel about a black man pretending to be a white man.

That's not the end of the story though.  Vian was not excited by the prospect of his novel being turned into a film.  He had fought with the filmmakers over their adaptation of his novel.  At the premiere of the film, Vian rose during the screening and yelled "These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!"  He then had a heart attack and died.  He was 39 years old at the time of his death.

As a postscript, the recent film Mood Indigo was based on Vian's novel L'Écume des jours.

The term "passing" is one I was not familiar with until the last year or so.  I read about Oscar Micheaux, a novelist and silent film director.  Many of his works concerned the practice of passing which is when a light skinned Negro would pass him/herself off to be a white person.  I'm not sure if passing still occurs.  It would seem that the incentives to do so are largely diminished.  It would also be considered impolite to ask or offer such information.  Recently, I read that San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is black.  I was surprised to read that.  I knew he was adopted and I thought his birth parents were Hispanic.  It turns out his mother was white & father was black.  In today's multi-ethnic society, I wonder if there are still people passing at least based on their ethnicity.

I Spit on Your Graves is the story of  Joe Grant (Christian Marquand), a light-skinned African American who relocates from Memphis to Trenton after his brother is lynched for attempting to marry a white woman.  I assumed Trenton was Trenton, New Jersey but an audience member told me that it was set in Trenton, Ohio.  I think he was under that impression because the the finale involves a dash to the Canadian border and New Jersey & Canada do not share a border whereas Ohio & Canada are adjacent

Regardless of which Trenton the film is set, I Spit on Your Graves has this fevered quality of a US not previously seen in film or reality.  The film seems to have been influenced equally by The Wild Ones and French New Wave.

Joe Grant sets himself up via a modern day Underground Railroad.  An acquaintance in Memphis helps blacks pass as white with the help of a bookstore owner in Trenton.  Joe Grant situates himself no small part because he is so damn sexy that the white women in town can't help themselves.  Despite seeing his brother lynched for being with a white woman, Joe can't help himself with the wealthy Shannon sisters (Antonella Lualdi & Renate Ewert)...presumably because black men can't resist white women.  

Whereas The Respectful Prostitute played it straight, at times I thought I Spit on Your Graves was veering into satire.  The only black people in Trenton are servants at the Shannon household and they are dressed like 18th century valets.  The elder Shannon sister is engaged to the town crime boss who has a motorcycle gang as his enforcers.


Dédée d'Anvers stars Simone Signoret as a Antwerp prostitute with an abusive pimp.  She meets a smuggler (Marcel Pagliero who would go on to direct The Respectful Prostitute) and falls in love.  Only in the movies does it seem like an upgrade for a woman to go from a pimp to a smuggler.  The pimp (Marcel Dalio in a nice performance) isn't going down easy and that's bad news for Dédée and the smuggler.  There are some interesting exterior shots of post-WWII Antwerp & Signoret lights up the screen with her beauty but otherwise Dédée d'Anvers wasn't particularly noteworthy.


Blonde in White Car & A Kiss for a Killer were screened as a double bill and was my favorite night of the festival & redux.

Robert Hossein is walking down the street one night in Blonde in White Car.   A car pulls up one night and the female driver offers him a ride.  He can't see her face because it so dark.  He can only make out her blonde hair.  They drive to a secluded place, have sex and then she kicks him out of the car and tries to run him over.  Still, he never see her face but catches the license plate number.  He tracks down the owner, shows up her mansion and is escorted in.  To his surprise there are two beautiful blonde sisters and either one could be the driver from the previous night.  What delightfully perverse situation.  Did I mention one of the sisters is in a wheelchair?

Henri Vidal is a scheming bank clerk in A Kiss for a Killer.  He strikes it rich by marrying wealthy widow Isa Miranda but he can't take his eyes of the secretary (Mylène Demongeot).  This film was more a true noir as Vidal & Demongeot conspire to murder but there are a couple of nice plot twists in this film which elevate it above the average film noir.  The three leads were excellent and although Demongeot had sex appeal to spare, I was most impressed in Miranda's performance as the spurned wife.


Love is My Profession features Brigitte Bardot as a déclassé prostitute whose poor judgment gets her involved in armed robbery & assault.  Jean Gabin is the famed lawyer who takes on her case for personal reasons.  He gets her acquitted of the charges by staying just on the legal side of suborning perjury.  After the trial Gabin (despite his wife's knowledge, tacit approval & pleas for caution) takes Bardot as his mistress.  However, her continued ill-considered action dog the couple.  I should note there is a hot-headed young student who also fancies Bardot.

Actually, there is more going on in the relationship between Gabin & Bardot's characters - less than sexual, more than platonic.  Love is My Profession is worth a second look if I get a chance.  I saw it at 9:15 PM on the day before Thanksgiving and between work & films, I don't think I gave the film the viewer attention it deserves.


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