Julien Duvivier’s film, LA TETE D’UN HOMME (1933) , based on a George Simenon novel, and never released in this country, is a major discovery, and reason enough to make one want to catch every film in Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective of the work of this vitally important French director, once so unfairly excoriated by Francois Truffaut and other prominent figures of the French New Wave, immaturely bent as they then were on denigrating the work of certain earlier directors to further deify others, whose directorial “personality” was far more evident in all of their work and, therefore preferable to someone like Duvivier who, like William Wyler, was merely content to serve the material as brilliantly as possible.
Julien Duvivier (1896-1967)
LA TETE D’UN HOMME begins with the graphically bloody discovery of a rich old woman’s corpse, and follows the efforts of Detective Jules Maigret (Harry Bauer) to discover her murderer, efforts which lead him into an assortment of low dives, Posh Deco flats and rural farmhouses. He encounters the enigmatically tortured Radek (Valery Inkijinoff), a doomed man who may or may not have committed the murder at the behst of the woman’s playboy nephew Willy Ferriere (Gaston Jacquet), who has a venal mistress to support.
In this film one can see the roots of so many policiers and film noirs, French and American, to follow: the preponderance of nocturnal scenes, fascination with grotesque characters, like a bumbling giant who finds himself haplessly entangled in the murder, raffish nightspots and the women who inhabit them, with their easy virtue and complex agendas, and that reliable gambit of the obsessed detective who makes mistakes and is frustratingly “taken off” the case. The script is pungent and richly character-driven, including much off-hand humor, as when a pair of street whores complain about slow business, blaming it on “respectable women who just give it away to their husbands – the dirty sluts!” The film is rife with cinematic felicities, like a striking sequence in which a policeman hot on the investigative trail talks to various informants who were filmed separately and appear as rear projections while the interrogator remains fixed and “present” in the foreground. Or, when the trail takes the detectives to a farmhouse in Versailles, the country scenery flashes by outside their car windows, in striking contrast to the teeming urban landscape that is Paris, and one of the cops offhandedly refers to “King Louis’ little country getaway” as they pass the gates of the royal palace. And then there are all the scenes taking place in the roiling, smoke-filled boites so beloved by Duvivier – at one point one can read the graffiti “Tirez sur le pianiste” scrawled on the wall above the bandstand which, ironically, was also the title of the Duvivier-hating Truffaut’s reputation-making film. Indeed, Duvivier’s striking exploration of the medium and fluid experimentation with photography, rhythmic cutting and sound in the early ’30s only prove that, to a large extant, those self-congratulatory cinematic mavericks of La Nouvelle Vague, were merely inventing the wheel.
Throughout, the film is blissfully adult, never more so than in an encounter between Radek and a prostitute he picks up and takes home. As she matter-of-factly starts to remove her clothes, he stops her, professing his wish for simple companionship for an hour or so. (Sex, however, does occur, anyway.)
Baur makes a memorably bear-ish Maigret, doggedly determined as well as empathically human, but Inkijinoff is even more fascinating to watch. With a strange, Asiatic handsomeness, he comes across alternatively as a diabolical Jack the Ripper (there are echoes of LULU in his scene with the whore), and then the most pitiable lost soul, possessed as he is of a terminal illness, which makes his every action that much more desperate.
Georges Simenon (center), Suzy Prim and Georges Colin leave their handprints at a cabaret in Paris in 1952.
Georges Simenon was said to have hated this film, particularly for the focus Duvivier gave beloved, iconic French singer Damia, which momentarily stops the film short as she sings a smoky, throbbing ballad of elusive love. Damia (1889-1978) predated Edith Piaf as an interpreter of the “chanson realiste”, and many feel she was by far the greater singer. She supposedly was the first vocalist (during WWI) to have a single spotlight focusing on her face and hands, had an affair with Queen Marie of Rumania, and died after a fall down a flight of stairs in the Metro. Her song “Tu ne sais pas aimer” became a French AIDS anthem.
Duvivier’s camera picks up this mournful woman with the mournful voice, warbling away in the middle of a raffish hotel party and, however much it may interrupt the policier thread, one is nevertheless grateful for this indelible recording of a legendary star. (She also appears in Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON). Her song lends the film a further devastating layer of romantic fatality, haunting as it is to the tragic, friendless Radek.
The film will be shown again, today, May 6 at 4:30. Last Saturday, when I saw it, I also caught two other worthy Duvivier films.
HALLO BERLIN? ICI PARIS! is a charming romance between two telephone operators, one French and one German, who have a transcontinental flirtation over their switchboards. Two more cynical friends of each bully their ways into this fragile relationship, very nearly ruining things forever. The film has faint echoes of Lubitsch’s THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and is very nearly as disarming, reveling as it does in the streamlined up-to-the-minute technology and sophistication of 1932, which still cannot erase the yearning of two hopelessly romantic souls. Duvivier touches abound in this full celebration of the new glory of sound in cinema, from the sprightly multi-lingual opening to a lovely moment in which all the female telephone operators, inspired by the heroine’s unseen romancer, suddenly break into deliriously sentimental song, startling their switchboard clients and incurring the wrath of their prison matron-like supervisor.
A cherubic young Josette Day, unrecognizable from the Beauty she would portray for Jean Cocteau in his LA BELLE ET LA BETE, plays the girl with a wistful, pure gamine allure and Wolfgang Klein is even prettier as her appealingly innocent, ardent beloved, sporting plucked eyebrows to rival any modern metrosexual. The film includes a hilarious whirlwind tour of Paris which prefigures that whizz-bang romp through the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS, and a fascinating glimpse of a black jazz club. Unlike contemporaneous American films, miscegenation was not a problem here: the heroine’s rapacious girlfriend reveals a wall in her apartment plastered with photos of her boyfriends, which include a prominently displayed black boxer, as well as an Asian.
PANIQUE (1947) comes from another Simenon novel and was Duvivier’s notable, post-WWII flop, being too unrelentingly grim for audiences of the time. Michel Simon gives the most powerful moving performance of a misogynist in screen history. His M. Hire is insufferably aloof and superior, yet you can’t help but feel a grudging admiration toward this lonesome total individualist, while completely understanding how his ways could alienate an entire neighborhood into detesting and eventually attacking him. Vivian Romance is somewhat lacking in the irresistible appeal that would convince you of Hire’s implacable fascination with her, but the tension of the film mounts inexorably, rivetingly, and culminates in a truly shattering, bleak finale.
Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin
The retrospective is filled with rarities, which I am determined to catch, as well as Duvivier’s famous PEPE LE MOKO, possibly the greatest French romantic tragedy of the 1930s (and that’s a field crowded with worthy competitors), and Hollywood work like THE GREAT WALTZ, with its unforgettably kitsch scene of Johan Strauss composing “Tales of the Vienna Woods” while carriage-riding through – where else? – the Vienna Woods (although the recent biography of Victor Fleming by Michael Srawgow avers that this was realy the work of that movie’s doctor, Fleming, and not Duvivier.) Duvivier’s lavish yet strangely unsatisfying Alexander Korda-produced version of ANNA KARENINA, with Vivien Leigh, perfectly cast but somehow lacking, is also on the roster.
Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina
On May 14, Stephen Sondheim will introduce Duvivier’s great international success UN CARNET DE BAL (1937), which he once considered making a musical of. I do wish MOMA was screening LYDIA, the 1941 remake of this film which Duvivier again directed. Produced by its star, Merle Oberon, it features that actress’ strongest, rangiest performance, and is a visual (costumes by no less than Marcel Vertes, Walter Plunkett and Rene Hubert) and aural treat, with its piercingly lyrical Miklos Rozsa score.
Merle Oberon as Lydia
THE GREAT WALTZ, with Fernand Gravet as Johann Strauss, and Miliza Korjus, she of the tea kettle coloratura, who inspired James McCourt’s cult opera novel MAWRDEW CZGOWCHWZ
Here’s the link to MOMA schedule of Duvivier films:
Hildegarde Neff in HOLIDAY FOR HENRIETTA, 1952