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Monday, 4 April 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (50) - The Man in the Raincoat/L'homme a l'impermeable

L'homme a l'impermeable/ The Man in the Raincoat. Director: Julien Duvivier, Script: Duvivier and Rene Barjavel from the novel "Tiger by the Tail" by James Hadley Chase. Photo: Roger Hubert, Music: George Van Parys, Editor: Marthe Poncin, France/Italy, 1957. Black and white, 108 minutes.
Cast: Fernandel (Albert Constantin), Bernard Blier (M. Raphael), Jacques Duby (Maurice Langlois), Jean Rigaux (Emile Blondeau), Claude Sylvain (Florence), Judith Magre (Eva), John McGiver (O'Brien), Julien Bertheau (theatre director).

Fernandel as Don Camillo
In 1952, the popular comedian Fernandel and Julien Duvivier combined to make Le Petit Monde de Don Camillo/Don Camillo (It.)/ The Little World of Don Camillo. In France alone, where they have always kept honest statistics, a total of !2.79 million people saw the film. It was the biggest hit in both Fernandel's and Duvivier's career and the number one film in France in 1952. Fernandel made five more Don Camillo movies over the next 28 years or so. The second of them, also directed by Duvivier, Le Retour de Don Camillo/Il ritorno di Don Camillo (It.)/The Return of Don Camillo  was made in 1953, finished second on the annual box office table, with 7.42 million tickets sold, behind Cecil B De Mille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Fernandel's only previous work with Duvivier was as one of the stream of lovers in Un Carnet de Bal (France, 1937). Other directors were wheeled in for the remaining Don Camillo movies. Why this intro only because you have to assume that director and star established some rapport, a level of comfort that allowed them to hopefully happily get together again for another film exploiting Fernandel's popularity and Duvivier's technical skills in getting the story told efficiently. So it was that L’homme a l’impermeable/The Man in the Raincoat got onto the books.

Fernandel was France’s most popular comedian and over the decade of the 50s, when his popularity was at his peak, he appeared in at least forty films. Some were dramas, some were outright comedies and others were a mix. He appears to have had a prodigious work ethic but very little discrimination. Of all the directors with whom he worked, Duvivier may in fact have been his most frequent director but you don’t get an impression that, unlike say, Jean Gabin, he sought out his collaborators and kept them tight. His work was done with some of the best and many quite undistinguished talents.

Lobby card for The Man in The Raincoat
Without access to a detailed biography of either Fernandel or Duvivier, it’s difficult to discern the attraction of L’homme a l’impermeable/The Man in the Raincoat which the pair filmed in 1956 for a release in February 1957.For Duvivier it came directly after he had made his best film of the 50s and quite possibly his best post-WW2 film, Voici le temps des assassins, a Simenon-like tale of male obsession and female deviousness, reuniting the director with Gabin, bringing in the luminous young star Daniele Delorme and giving a major part to the young Gerard Blain a short time before he became an emblem of the French New Wave via his work in early films by Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol and went on to Hatari! USA, 1962) for Howard Hawks.  

L’homme a l’impermeable/The Man in the Raincoat  seems a backward step for anyone other than a jobbing director. Its place in Duvivier's career would now in hindsight be seen as part of a downward trajectory. Part of the reason is undoubtedly the low rent literary material on which the film is based. James Hadley Chase specialised in pulp fiction. There is a list of 20 movies based on his work and among his best known books were the notorious “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, which has been filmed twice, “Eve” filmed as Eva by Joseph Losey and “The Night of the Generals”, filmed by Anatole Litvak in 1967. Hadley Chase’s novels specialised in what was, in its day, rather perverse material. Losey was especially dismissive of what he had to work with in a project that went way off the rails.

Lobby card of Fernandel and Blier in The Man in the Raincoat
In L’homme a l’impermeable/The Man in the RaincoatFernandel plays Albert Constantin, a clarinettist in the orchestra of the Paris Opera. His wife is away and a friend suggests that a girl in the chorus will be happy to entertain him, for a fee, in the wife’s absence. After a succession of minor mishaps, which leave him apparently frustrated, in his empty apartment, Albert succumbs. He drives to a run down part of Paris. A rather good studio recreation, this scene of Albert tentatively parking and checking out the neighborhood is beautifully photographed with much noirish dark shadow. While attempting to enter the concierge-less building Albert is accosted by a manic and nosy neighbour, M. Raphael, played by Bernard Blier in a beard and dressing gown and carrying a small dog. What M. Raphael sees and doesn’t see of those entering the young woman’s apartment causes much complication and that’s basically the film.

Fernandel/Albert has to make his way through a tangle of police investigations, women on the make and an art dealer named O’Brien played by, but not voiced by, the American actor John McGiver. One of O’Brien’s accomplices stands around in the background juggling whatever small objects are to hand. This enables, much much later, a believable gag involving his juggling skills. It’s that sort of movie.  Notwithstanding all that the film had over 2.7million admissions in France, nothing special for a Fernandel movie but respectable. MGM acquired the rights and produced what is regarded by those who have seen it as an exceptionally good dubbed version. The film played in Australia and reports have been received of sightings as part of drive-in double bills. The spicy subject matter would have helped its bookings in those locations. 

Notwithstanding all this 'success' I’m not sure I can give Duvivier the pass mark I gave to Fernandel.

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