Tuesday 8 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (16) - Max Berghouse reviews the Simenon adaptation A Man's Head

La  tête d'un homme/A Man's Head. Dir: Julien Duvivier, Script;: Pierre Calmann, Louis Delaprée, Julien Duvivier, based on a novel by Georges Simenon, With Harry-Baur/Commissaire Jules Maigret, Valéry Inkjinoff/Radek (billed as Inkjinoff), Alexandre Rignault/Jospeph Heurtin, Gaston Jacquet/willy Ferrière, Louis Gauthier/Le Juge, 90 minutes, France. 1933
Given my affection for this director's work, it will thus be highly unlikely that I will give this film other than a very favourable review. The film is no doubt relatively minor although by the time of it's production Duvivier was already in his prime as a director. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Simenon who originally intended to "create" the film himself – I'm not sure whether as director and producer, or what, due to his dissatisfaction with productions of his work to that date. Nothing came of this and the project passed to the Duvivier. It is the same plotline as the generally underrated The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Burgess Meredith,1949) in which Charles Laughton played Maigret and Franchot Tone played the villain.

 The plot concerns the extraordinarily elegantly groomed Willy, an hard up boulevardier dependent for his future upon his expectation as beneficiary of his elderly aunt. At his regular pub haunt, Willy ruminates that he would pay Fr.100,000 for his aunt's death. This is picked up by Radek a tubercular former medical student, with a "superman" complex who wants to see if he can commit the perfect crime before his inevitable death. An arrangement is secured by exchange of notes although whether this is a genuine conspiracy loses interest because we are swept up into what is a very early "policier" in which the everyday slog work of the police force, including by Maigret, is emphasised.

Both this film and the Franchot Tone/Charles Laughton 1949 film take some liberties with the novel but nonetheless both remain functionally true to the novel's character – despite the disapproval of Simenon. It is trite to say that a visual work cannot exactly match a written work because of the constraints and differences of the media. Radek, although the actor "Inkijinoff" (as he was billed in the film) was in fact Russian born, looked remarkably Asiatic and I imagine that that easily gave rise to a prejudice against him as villain, whereas in the latter film, the superman complex is much more formally worked out because the very polished Tone would not immediately capture one's attention as a villain.

It is only from seeing this film that I have begun to understand the disdain with which the Cahiers movement viewed Duvivier. The film unfolds in a completely linear fashion – just like a novel of the period, taking no advantage of the stylistic tropes of the visual media which can allow for distortions of time and space and emphasise from moment to moment character, as it suits the director's s desire for emphasis or plot development. The emphasis in Duvivier here is to sequentially follow the novel and as such it is much easier to denigrate his work as "derivative". In my view on the other hand it is an advantage, especially in this sort of work where a policier emphasises procedural matters.

The second is a somewhat tangential aspect of the increasing pessimism of the director's s work. Many critics have associated this with his loss of religious faith. Whatever the causes may be in this film there is an almost ironic detachment from the action so that we see events without any emotional attachment, as does the director. Maigret is just another police officer doing his job and even when crossed by a supervisor (the investigating magistrate) puts on absolutely no histrionics. That Willy could conspire to kill off his aunt, is a matter of no surprise. Nor is Radek's megalomania. It's all: this is what life is. At the climax of the film when Maigret and his cohorts moved to arrest Radek, a young bumptious, rather overweight junior policeman who has consistently shown great enthusiasm for his job, is knifed by Radek and dies with Maigret observing the death. Again there is no sympathy from Maigret at the loss, just rueful acknowledgement.

I have tried to discipline myself over the last number of days, to study as many of Duvivier's films as I can, to the exclusion of practically everything else. The tone of pessimism in his work is now so obvious to me that it takes some effort to acknowledge it and this is partly because my own character is similarly downbeat. Yet, when I make a simple comparison of this film with for example a host of Warner Brothers gangster movies in roughly the same period, with their Production Code requirements of reconciliation, just punishment and reward for goodness, I am astonished at the comparison and the power of presentation of Duvivier's film and the trace memory it leaves with me.

A number of the stylistic features mentioned by the eminent David Hare are in evidence here and seem to reflect the best use Duvivier could make shooting substantially in studio sets. As I have noted previously he moved on to very well integrated use of outdoor sets. The film is also beautifully staged. The acting, as befits a troupe of actors also well known in theatre, is great ensemble work.

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