Saturday 12 September 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (17) - Chair de Poule - Max Berghouse reviews a James Hadley Chase adaptation

Chair de Poule Dir: Julien Duvivier, Script; Julien Duvivier, René Barjavel. With Robert Hossein/Daniel Boisset, Catherine Rouvel/Maria, Jean Sorel/Paul Genest, Georges Wilson/Thomas, Lucien Raimbourg/Roux, Nicole Berger/Simone. 107 minutes, France, 1963.
This film while generally highly regarded, is frequently compared, to its detriment to the prior and truly excellent film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, USA, 1946). This arises from the fact that the American film is so truly excellent. However this appears to be a superficial view because both films, while sharing a similar ultimate plot, deriving from the 1934 novel of the same name by James Hadley Chase, are really quite different. Garnett’s film is certainly noir but Duvivier’s, only marginally so, at best. The general underlying characteristics of noir: man out of his depth, and untrustworthy femme fatale in a closed in environment are lacking.

Now to a quick summary of the plot which will bring up some similarities to Postman. Daniel Boisset and Paul Genest work together as locksmiths in Paris, having commenced their apprenticeship together. Perhaps they have engaged together in burglary before, it is not clear, but they decide to burgle the elegant apartment of a wealthy customer whose home safe they have just repaired. The action commences in heavy rain with both protagonists seated inside a pathetically small Citroen 2 CV car. The attempted burglary is a complete debacle resulting in the death of the customer, Daniel  wounded by the building's concierge, arrest and sentence to 20 years. He takes the complete fall, including for Paul, who is principally responsible for the customer's death.

While on the train to prison, he manages to free himself from shackles (after all he is a locksmith), jumps from the train and walking on the roadway, meets Thomas. A friendship develops almost immediately, particularly from Thomas to Daniel, with the result that Daniel is invited to work and live at the isolated petrol station/wrecking yard/cheap diner in a self-contained area off the main roadway. Within is the deeply dissatisfied Maria who wants to pillage the home safe of Thomas and escape to a "better life". Everything goes wrong: firstly Thomas is killed by Maria, problems ensue in that Thomas' s deepest friendships appear to be male, his former war service buddies who enquire very forcefully when he does not turn up to a planned reunion. Maria dies. Paul turns up with the sole intention of getting whatever money he can from Daniel or Maria. Daniel is wounded, apparently fatally and Paul abandons him, only for Paul himself to be killed and the money burnt.

The film finishes with the wounded Daniel laughing at the loss – of everything.

Nearly every commentator on Julian Duvivier notes his misanthropy and pessimism. Of course this is surely evident in the film but it is leavened by it’s dark humour. The truth is that all the main characters are not merely stupid in action but dumb in character and the director views all of them with a quite objective, if not disdain, then ironic indifference. It is well nigh impossible to form any emotional attachment to any of the significant characters. Early in the film, after Daniel is arrested and sentenced, his workmates comment that it was inevitable he would have been caught because of the recent work he had done on the safe. His capacity to break-in, would very quickly have been brought back to him. This is the first signifier that Daniel's desire for a better life will be impeded by his own lack of capacity.

When he escapes, there is a gentle sense of humour and irony played out by the director on society at large: of course a locksmith is able to slip his handcuffs – that's what locksmiths do. Then Daniel meets Thomas, apparently a mechanic, but one quite unable to fix his own elderly truck. Daniel does this and this is his entree to work at the isolated garage in the mountains. I'm not quite sure where this is set, presumably in the south of France, I would have thought on the way to Marseilles. Perhaps I am wrong and it is an Alpine area, toward Switzerland. In any event, it is a very inhospitable area and it is quite clear that it is not only physically isolated. The dark bitumenised roadway contrasts sharply with the muddied area of the restaurant garage.

Thomas in fact earns most of his living from salvaging wrecks from the roadway and on selling them. What he has made by so doing is the cash desired by Maria. Maria's self-description changes several times in the film, but it is clear that she has been a prostitute. The fact that she is stuck out in the sticks, with an unhappy marriage, seems a further emphasis on the stupidity of people. She is clearly attractive enough to be a very successful tart.

The twists and turns of the plot are very engaging. It makes little difference to one's enjoyment to have them described here. I should however emphasise the production values which materially assist the dramatic narrative. Of all the classic French masters, it seems to me that Duvivier has the greatest comfort in exterior shots. The initial setup of pelting rain (always a sign of trouble in one of Duvivier's films) is significantly set outdoors, emphasising wide boulevards and elegance of the particular, obviously rich, area. When Daniel jumps from the train, the perspective of the disappearing train, moving forward, is clearly Daniel's perspective and shows very considerable control of the camera. There are numerous other instances.

There are some very subtle touches which I think are illustrative of the general theme of the film and the director' s work. Looking out from the restaurant, towards the fuel service bay, on one occasion, there is parked a Facel 500 car, almost certainly the most expensive French motorcar of the period. It immediately instils a sense that Daniel and his cohorts are permanently separated from the life of success that a car such as this connotes. In a subsequent scene, a quite stupid couple, man and woman, drop-in when the action between the main players is proving "complex", create difficulties and then disappear. That said they are driving in what I think is a coach built (Farina) Lancia convertible.

I don't see this as a film noir because it lacks many of the generally settled agreed to stylistic tropes. In particular the femme fatale is recognised as such by Daniel the principal protagonist. He never falls for her. He thinks he can control her, just as she thinks she can manipulate him. They are both wrong. So the film is a straight thriller, interleaved with the director' s usual pessimism. But there is a gentleness in his observation of his characters. He does not expect much of them and neither he nor we are the slightest bit surprised when everything runs amok.

Absolutely great fun.

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