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Friday, 22 January 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (43) - Barrie Pattison on Duvivier in the 30s - Pt Two - Allo Berlin Ici Paris & La Tete d'un Homme

Allo Berlin Ici Paris / Here's Berlin, 1932
This German co-production  is a departure from the Baur films and features a playful attempt to deal with its bi-lingual audience, setting the action in an international telephone exchange where minimal dialogue and misunderstanding drive the plot.

Josette Day
German International Telephone operator Wolfgang Klein has been chatting Josette Day (Cocteau’s Belle), his opposite number in  France, and they have arranged for him to meet her on her home ground in Paris at the weekend. However his supervisor disapproves and gives him overtime, meaning that Karel Stepanek, the next in line telephonist, takes his place when she calls back, bringing Hans Henninger and dismissing Klein’s photo as “un ascenseur - er - assassin.”  She takes them to a hotel - ingenious tilts upwards to Sacré Coeur establishes height (we’ll see this gain in  Le Golem) - and the pair go off , with Henninger taking the address but unable to locate the place and a frowzy meat market street woman getting the hotel idea and dumping him in a sordid room, where the staff man thinks he’s being called “Vache’ when he wants “Wasser.”

We get cross cutting from the atmospheric Bier Keller with Klein and the Lapin Agile Montmartre cafe where they do the Duvivier-Rathaus song and “Auprés de ma blonde” before Stepanek fails to get Day to let him in, past the security grill. Klein follows on the overnight (toy) train and Day’s side kick, Germaine Aussey, who has made off with his message, collects him and takes him home, making up a couch but manoeuvring him onto the bed, where he hesitates, with her suggesting “angst” but shoving him in the closet, when the middle aged admirer, whose photos are on her wall, shows. Day fends off Stepanek with the needle she’s using to repair his missing button.

Back at work, no one has had a good time. Day doesn’t want to speak to Klein, though they both get fired for private calls, only to be hired as translators for an International Federation Conference at the Berlin Adlon hotel - set up atmospherically by close-ups of rain soaking feet, as President George Boulanger’s carriage rolls past. Much comic business with Gustav Püttjer’s blackface band in fake Arab costume, commissioned to play the Trans Oceanic Anthem, and the camera racing along the banquet table, where the room fills with the smoke of the magnesium flash cameras they montage.

The leads meet afterwards, at the cafe, where the numbered tables have ‘phones, and she recognizes Klein from his photo, with the whole story coming out and him punching out Stepaneck, starting a riot. The door man and cops are too kind hearted to arrest the young couple.

Much of the action is played in silent style visuals - white clock hands superimposed on feet walking through the wasteland, the glance at the  table  followed by a close-up of Day dialling its number or Henninger’s memory of being lost in Paris as quick cuts of industrial chimneys. The lecherous employer’s ‘phone call plays silent behind the glass of the phone booth where Day waits and the description of the fight can’t be heard over the crowd talking to the lacquer hat Berlin Polizei. There’s even some Pinter-esque minimalist speech, with the representative moving on her and Day dismissive ”Oh, Nous!” or Redie querying “Non?”

An admired score by Karol Rathhaus, then the most innovative of film composers, provides elements of the track normally given to effects or dialogue. Possibly the most virtuoso accompaniment of it’s day it goes through an extraordinary range of styles and instrumentations, including the whistles and puffs at the train station. There is all manner of use of sound - the kisses off screen after the floozy has passed out of frame in the Cosmos Companie office, waking the snoring Hennenman with whistling, the repeat of the cafe song followed by music on black.

This film is more atmospherically studio Germanic than Duvivier’s others of the time, with the Cafe Negre, moody corridors and stairwells, along with big sets that the camera gets to race through - the two ‘phone exchanges. Day passes a line of girls going “bonjour!” who will later join in a song or the “Rauchen verboten” opposite number.

Duvivier’s control of film making has advanced. Compare David Golder’s opening montage with this film’s switch board operator close-ups interspersed with the globe and vignettes spoken in the foreground while shadow action plays behind the speakers, leading to a succession of different language one liners. Less fortunately, the plot is thin and protracted and the German influence makes for a ponderousness which undermines the attempt at counterfeiting a René Clair trifle. The energy and inventive use of the medium don’t really compensate for the lack of  engaging characters or strong scripting, making this a curious antique.

La tête d'un homme 1933
The peak of the Baur-Duvivier collaboration is their Inspector Maigret movie. Despite an initially dragging pace, this asserts as one of the outstanding European films of its day, developing to an extraordinarily intense, complex drama as the mania of Valéry Inkijinof‘s doomed Slav assassin begins to assert, providing the best outing for that great actor. Inkjinof was then becoming a major French cinema character player, with subdued Maigret/Baur, in felt hat and mustache, his seeming foil. This is the only important film Inkijinof, star of Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, would do without his trade mark shaven head.

Faced with the knowledge that he will shortly die of an incurable disease, Inkijinof‘s Carl Radek plots an extraordinary challenge for his last days - a perfect murder which will make him rich and bring him the object of his fantasy desires - sultry Gina Manés (Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle, Litvak’sMayerling & Josephine in the Gance Napoléon).

Gaston Jacquet, her desperate for money lover, hires an unseen assassin to kill a rich aunt in Versailles, making her fortune accessible to him. Manés lifts from Jaquet's pocket the note of agreement that the waiter has found on the Montmartre Eden bar floor and we get the scene that we will see again in Dieterle’s 1950 Dark City, with Manés looking round the room at the unfamiliar faces, one of whom she knows is the killer he has hired. Inkijinof, then hardly known, can be glimpsed at a table.

Leaving simpleton Alexander Rignault ’s bloody foot & hand prints in the apartment of the dead woman, Inkijinof throws the guilt onto that man in the most substantial of his Duvivier roles


Baur and his colleagues figure this out but can’t prove it and it looks like the insignificant Rignault will be guillotined without anyone being too concerned. Nice touches like Baur's profile intruding into Rignault's ratty third degree examination - compare this with André Luguet in the Litvak 1931 Coeur de lilas. Baur’s superior, Armand Numès, dismisses the affair as "une crime crapule" where the real guilty party is about to die anyway.  Maigret puts his job on the line. "Nous jouons la tete d'un homme, M. le directeur."

Baur/Maigret plans to prove Rignault's innocence by letting him escape on the way back from a re-enactment in Versailles. Sure enough the fugitive leads them to Inkijinof in the cafe where they witnesses "cette comedie" of  Valéry ordering three caviar sandwiches, vodka and cigars, and refusing to pay, with the cops marching him to the slammer (away from potentially implicating Rignault at the window) only to prove to have a wallet full of notes and settle the bill.

Valéry takes bar girl Line Noro home, not wanting to be alone and makes breakfast as Baur visits and they hear the neighbor singer on whom the killer has become fixated. "J'ai encore une visage pour ce voix." Now the film pulls away from the productions done around it as Baur manipulates the fantasy of associating the voice with the face of  object of amour fou Manés, to whom Valéry has now explained he owns her, ("C’est vous la fetiche, le gri gri, la porte bonheur") the  weak husband having offed himself.

Manés is terrific. She does an evil smile when Inkijinof gets his-soon-to-be-fatal tubercular cough and throws her champagne in his face, before he drags her into the room where the wiped out-party goers sit on the floor, listening to the raddled singer (cf. Pepe le Moko).

Baur has however trapped the guilty pair and they realize it in a vivid, violent finale. The pacing is slow, decelerated by the complicated camera movements and deliberate speaking but these and the sound are more polished than David Golder and Thirard’s visuals are frequently striking - Rignault next to the giant cart wheel, diagonal wiped to the bloody hand print, the police leg work, putting the foreground cop in dialogue with the succession of shoe sellers dissolving on wobbly back projection, the car-view scenics with conversation over them to cover the return from Versailles, Rignault stealing the tartine from the child, in the field of leafless trees with the sun in the sky, seen upper right, through the cloud, after the low angle "vos papiers" montage; Manés inverted reflection advancing on the glass table and the image with Inkijinof’s hand under the car wheel after his dash through the streets (with more weak process.)

Most distinctive is the bustle of the lived-in environments - the Eden Bar with its dice game and floozies, the busy squad room where a cleaner slops down the station floor as the cops talk. A delivery man brings Injinkinof ‘s morning milk. The Jazz Band plays under the Eden's "Don't shoot the pianist" mural. The track is imaginative, using only source music (no sound on the giveaway letter insert), street noise, bar crowd chat and particularly the street sounds below with screams, the distant singing and the final hammering on the steel shutter of the Pharmacie.

Sometimes described (wrongly) as the first film noir. As good as any European film of its day, La Tête d’un homme is the only film where Baur was accompanied by players whose skill matched his own. Not all modern copies do the film justice* The Paris Cinematheque held a pillar box format 35mm. four tinted print which was an event in itself.

Filmed again in 1950 by Burgess Meredith & (uncredited) Irving Allen, with Charles Laughton as Maigret  asThe Man on the Eiffel Tower. It derived as much from the Duvivier movie as Simenon’s book. Also filmed as Les enquêtes du commissaire Maigret : La tête d'un homme directed by René Lucot on 1967

The Baur films were not widely shown outside France or remarked by foreign critics. He would work with Duvivier in another three films but these would not include one of his dominating central performances. Duvivier's own career would draw more attention during another sustained collaboration - with Jean Gabin - including Pepe le Moko and continuing into the sixties.


·         La Tete d’un Homme has just been released by Criterion on its Eclipse label as part of a four film package Julien Duvivier in the Thirties

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