Noir is a French Word: Two French Films at Noir City

On Saturday, the Noir City festival honored the nation that first recognized Film Noir as a genre, and gave that genre a name. Unfortunately, my wife and I were only able to attend the first two films.

A- Pépé Le Moko
You can’t talk about this 1937 thriller without talking about star power. This is not by a long shot the greatest film starring Jean Gabin (that would be Grand Illusion), but if there’s a better vehicle for Gabin’s talent, his looks, his sex appeal, and his ability to hold your attention, I haven’t seen it. Officially, this movie is about a brilliant criminal living in an impenetrable neighborhood where the cops can’t possibly find him. In reality, it’s about how wonderfully Gabin could spin his magic over an audience.

And that’s enough to make a wonderfully entertaining motion picture.

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That impenetrable neighborhood is Algiers’ Casbah, the "Arab section" of the city that was actually a melting pot of people from all over the world. With its steep staircases and winding streets, it’s a world onto its own, and one uncontrolled by the French colonial government. Director Julien Duvivier and designer Jacques Krauss use both real locations and (mostly) studio sets to create a filthy yet exotic setting that becomes the film’s second leading character.

Before the film began, festival founder (and self-proclaimed "Czar of Noir") Eddie Muller talked a bit about Gabin, his life, and his professional relationship Duvivier. It was a good talk.

The 35mm print from Rialto Pictures had seen better days. The scratches and white flecks didn’t ruin the film, but they detracted somewhat from the overall enjoyment. A greater concern: While much of the film had the wonderful sharpness of a good 35mm print, other scenes looked washed out, as if made from a copy several generations away from the original negative. I hope someone finds the money and footage necessary  to give this film a full restoration.

B Jenny Lamour (aka Quai des Orfèvres)
Murder, lust, a beautiful singer, a dirty old millionaire, a jealous husband, a tired cop, and a lesbian photographer turn this 1947 noir into a tight little entertainment. The film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to make the great Wages of Fear.

Although still dark, Jenny Lamour is considerably lighter than that masterpiece. This is noir as pure entertainment. The title character (Suzy Delair) is a rising singer, well-aware of the importance of her sex appeal in helping that rise. Things get so bad that her pianist husband (Bernard Blier) sets out to murder one of her admirers–a powerful and wealthy womanizer. But when he arrives at his would-be victim’s home, he finds that another murderer has beat him to it. And yet, the clues all point to him.

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The story captures the excitement and camaraderie of the theater world, brings in several fun (if not always realistic) characters, and provides quite a bit of suspense. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Muller gave a brief talk about this one, as well. He talked about Clouzot and his guilt as a collaborator during the occupation. He also noted that, while an American film of 1947 could only hint that a character is gay, a French film from that year could say in the open.

This time, Rialto provided the festival with a stunningly beautiful 35mm print.