Gallic Gangsters

To paraphrase an infamous exclamation from Orson Welles, “Ah, the French… criminal!” Every country has put their own cultural stamp on charming bad guys and their dirty deeds, but it seems the post-WWII wave of French crime dramas have had the most exceptional influence on dozens of other films in multiple genres, not to mention on the general culture (and even actual crooks!), decades after their release. Thus, every Wednesday afternoon this April, the New Beverly eagerly presents four of the greatest entries from this period, each of them containing handsome leading men, sizzling women, posh accommodations, brazen behavior, and even an impenetrable French word you can impress your friends with.

Our Gallic Gangsters series opens on April 3rd with a bang… and a hush… from Jules Dassin’s 1955 Rififi. The director of American film noir classics Brute Force, The Naked City, and Night and the City, had decamped to France after losing work opportunities to the Red Scare, and after several projects fell apart, was recruited to adapt a local best-seller, Du Rififi chez les hommes by Auguste Le Breton. In much the same way Orson Welles took Sherwood King’s passable If I Die Before I Wake, and radically reworked it into his influential The Lady from Shanghai, Dassin dispensed with many of the book’s elements and put his own style into telling its tale of the perfect heist brought down by imperfect men. And just as Shanghai has the iconic “hall-of-mirrors” climax, Dassin made this movie immortal with a still-stunning depiction of a break-in and safe robbery done in near-silence, where any random squeak spurs terror in its characters and the audience. Dassin would later tweak this sequence for his lighter-toned 1964 caper film Topkapi, and its influence is on display in films as divergent as Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street, Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, and last year’s surprise hit A Quiet Place. And in another parallel to Welles and Shanghai, after a previously-cast actor failed to materialize for the shoot, Dassin cast himself in the role of safecracker César, disguising his credit under the alias “Perlo Vita,” which when said aloud, would suggest a life lost or stolen. And speaking of foreign terms, to answer the question of what “Rififi” means, Wikipedia states that while it really doesn’t translate to English, it is a wartime-generated slang term for “combat” or “rumble,” though, for this author, it can also serve as a fancy variation on “riff-raff.”

The other memorable takeaway from Rififi is the presence of chanteuse Magali Noel, playing Viviane, the nightclub singer paramour of César, who performs the title song. Noel had a decades-long career, acting in many Federico Fellini movies, including La Dolce Vita and Amarcord, as well as Costa-Gavras’ Z and Chantal Akerman’s The Meetings of Anna. Her final performance was in Jonathan Demme’s 2002 remake of Charade, The Truth About Charlie, which also featured cameos by Anna Karina, Charles Aznavour, and Agnes Varda. As a recording artist, Noel most famously sang Fais moi mal, Johnny,” written and produced by French author and provocateur Boris Vian in 1956, a rock song about an S&M encounter gone wrong, which became a cult standard despite being banned from radio play.

 

 

April 10th brings a 1954 warning from director Jacques Becker: Touchez pas au grisbi! Or, in English terms, hands off the loot! It’s a stern message to the audience, but then, the story’s weathered gentleman bandit Max (Jean Gabin) has been in the game long enough that you have to trust him. After all, he’s smart enough to have a second secret apartment, stocked with liquor, pate, hard rolls, and two sets of pajamas and toiletries. Max has pulled off the robbery that will set him and his friend Riton (René Dary) up for comfortable retirement. However, Riton’s misplaced trust in his avaricious girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) means Max will both have to indeed touch the loot, and to put off that retirement for an indefinite time. There is taut action to be found, but what’s made this film revered is its depiction of friendship, loyalty, and accumulated hard wisdom, such as how patiently Max tries to put his friend at ease before dropping some very bad news in his lap.

It’s understandable to see connections between Max and the man who played him, Jean Gabin. Previously having worldwide acclaim for his roles in Pépé le Moko and The Grand Illusion, and for WWII service with the Free French that earned him military honors, Gabin had been in a post-war acting slump, leading many to wonder if he would leave the profession as Max contemplates leaving his. But thankfully, while this movie has a bleak ending, Gabin left this project revitalized, going on to another 20 years of work, including two films by director Henri Verneuil co-starring Alain Delon which the Bev screened in June 2016 – Any Number Can Win and The Sicilian Clan, the latter film also featuring Grisbi co-star Lino Ventura, and based on a novel by Rififi author Le Breton.

For the record, the commonly accepted wisdom behind the origin of the word “grisbi” is that it’s a portmanteau of the French words “gris” for grey, the color of French money, or “grisette,” a coin, and “bis” as in biscuit or bread. Appropriately, in modern parlance, “grisbi” is now both the name of a downloadable financial management program, and a brand of delicious cream-filled cookies.

 

 

On April 17th, the theme of the day will be misdirection. First off, while you’ll be sitting in 7165 Beverly Blvd., we’ll be sending you to 1947 and the headquarters of the “police judiciaire,” Quai des Orfèvres, which, besides being a street address, also translates as “harbor of the goldsmiths,” keenly appropriate as money and influence are always a destination and impetus for murder.  And even then, while the precinct gets the title credit, all the real action will be taking place in music halls, bedrooms, and other places where “proper” things don’t happen. Then, there’ll be the obfuscation put forward by rising club singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), her insecure husband Maurice (Bernard Blier), and their photographer friend Dora (Simone Renant), as they each stonewall laconic Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) over which one of them killed a wealthy admirer of Jenny’s. Thus, it may very well be that the real question to be answered in this story is not “Who done it?” but “Why do we do it?” And in this film where you don’t even get to see the actual exterior of the titular building, that will be the best that can be learned. Consider that it was French author Alain-René Lesage, and not John Adams, who first wrote down the trenchant phrase, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Writer/director Henri-Georges Clouzot had been unable to make films since his 1943 release Le Corbeau; after France’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945, he was accused of collaboration and was initially banned for life from even operating a camera, but after pressure from other artists, he was allowed to work again after two years. For his return, he chose to option the novel Légitime défense by Stanislas-André Steeman, an author whose books he’d twice previously adapted for the screen. However, the book was out of print at the time, and as he waited for the author to send him a copy, he and his partner Jean Ferry relied on his memory of reading it years before during his forced unemployment to write their screenplay. By the time the book arrived, they had already made substantial changes to the material which stayed in the final film, such as the addition of new characters, most notably Jenny’s “admirer” Dora. With his reputation restored, Clouzot worked steadily into the ‘60s, a period which yielded his two bonafide classics, The Wages of Fear and Diabolique.

Suzy Delair, who celebrated her 101st birthday this past New Year’s Eve, was the then-paramour to Clouzot during the making of Quai, and the songs she performed became popular standards afterwards. It is said that in 1950, when composer Henri Betti was soliciting her to perform his song “C’est si bon” during a Monte Carlo engagement, Louis Armstrong was present to hear the rehearsals, and took the initiative to have the song translated to English and to record it himself, making it a worldwide hit. After playing the character Jenny Lamour in 1947, four years later she would again play an aspiring singer with the same last name – Cherie Lamour – in the last film collaboration of Laurel & Hardy, 1951’s Atoll K, released in America as Utopia. Here, in French television footage from the ‘90s, she performs one of the songs from Quai, “Avec son tra-la-la.”

 

 

And to close out the series on April 24th is perhaps the boss of all les beaux bandits, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur from 1956. Made in the wake of all of the films preceding it in our month-long program, it serves as a bridge between the established tradition of crime stories coming beforehand, such as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (a favorite of Melville’s), and the subsequent changes in French filmmaking and criminal behavior itself, changes that would upend standards taken for granted and often leave previous men of respect behind. Roger Duchesne as Bob is of the old school to which Jean Gabin as Max from Grisbi belongs: generous to friends, polite and nearly chaste with comely women, and clever in keeping the police at bay. But he also sees the younger crooks dispensing with politesse, manhandling women, informing on colleagues or violently pushing them aside to save their own skin, and as such has wisely tried staying above the fray, finding distraction through gambling away his fortune. While flambeur is slang for a gambler or big spender, it derives from the verb flamber, to burn, blaze, flame out. So when opportunity comes for one of the biggest heists of his time, of an entire casino, he can’t resist making the biggest wager on his skill set of a lifetime, and effectively going out in a blaze of glory.

Convergently, while Melville began under the supervision of the established Jean Cocteau (who provided an uncredited rewrite to the script written with the ever-present Auguste Le Breton), he would be one of the few pre-New Wave directors championed by rising upstarts Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, who otherwise rebuked their predecessors, and it can be said he held his ground by putting his own personal stamp on these tales of the underworld, here and in later classics in the genre created by him, including Le Doulos, Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge, and Un Flic. Also, Melville worked with a budget so low that frequently, he would literally steal locations without permit, his crew fleeing before being discovered by police, and often shoot as soon as he received production money, calling in whatever cast was available that day. When Melville made the observation, “What is friendship? It’s telephoning a friend at night to say, ‘Be a pal, get your gun and come over quickly’– and hearing the reply, ‘O.K., be right there,’” he may well have been musing on the experience of corralling actors to film Bob on the fly.

 

 

In America, Bob le flambeur did not quite set the box office on fire; it was first released in 1959 by exploitation mogul William Mishkin, known mostly for initially handling Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas and the early works of misanthropic auteur Andy Milligan, under the misleadingly salacious title Fever Heat. But just enough of the right people must have caught that release. It is inconclusive whether or not anyone involved with the original 1960 Ocean’s 11 were aware of the film – on the one hand, it seems unlikely since 11 was first announced in April 1956, and Bob didn’t arrive in America until three years later, but on the other hand, it’s certainly possible any of the jet-setters in the production caught a screening in Europe and took some inspiration therein to craft their rival Las Vegas heist. And beyond that comparison, Stanley Kubrick cited Bob and Grisbi as his motivation to abandon crime films after making The Killing. Bob received a larger U.S. reissue and home video release from Columbia Pictures’ then-arthouse label Triumph in 1981, the likely manner in which Jim Jarmusch, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many other directors of the ‘80s onward saw and embraced the film. (This author wore out a laserdisc copy throughout the ‘90s.)

So this April, spend your Wednesday afternoons in the company of Frenchmen who are hardly “rude,” but are downright cool and dangerous! The New Beverly may not offer croque monsieur sandwiches at the concession stand, but we promise you several “crooks messieurs” on our screen!

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