Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Duvivier Dossier (29) - Like mother like daughter - Allan Fish reviews Voici le temps des assasins

Voici le temps des assassins/Deadlier Than the Male
p  Georges Agiman  d  Julien Duvivier  w  Julien Duvivier, Charles Dorat, Maurice Bessy, Pierre-Aristide Bréal  ph  Armand Thirard  ed  Martha Poncin  m  Jean Wiener  art  Robert Gys
Jean Gabin (André Chatelin), Danièle Delorme (Catherine), Robert Arnoux (Bouvier), Liliane Bert (Antoinette), Lucienne Bogaert (Gabrielle), Gérard Blain (Gérard Delacroix), Gabrielle Fontan (Madame Jules), Germaine Kerjean (Madame Chatelin), Robert Manuel (Mario Bonnacrosi), Jean-Paul Roussilon (Amédée), Olga Valéry (la Duchesse). France, 1956, 113m. Available on DVD Region 2, France only, No Eng subtitled version available. 

There was a time when Julien Duvivier was respected, admired by the likes of Jean Renoir at home and other masters abroad; the Duvivier who gave us Poil de Carotte, La Belle Équipe, Pépé le Moko, Un Carnet de Bal and La Fin du Jour.  Somewhere, though, it all went wrong.  An abortive trip to Hollywood didn’t help, but he came back and made the excellent Panique after the war and kept working for another fifteen years or so.  The culprits of the neglect were the auteurs of the nouvelle vague who decried the old-fashioned film-making of the likes of Becker, Autant-Lara, Bernard, Clair and Duvivier.  It’s true Duvivier wasn’t one of the innovators like a Gance or a Godard, a visionary like a Bresson or a Rivette, or a capturer of the mood of a given period – both of setting and making – like a Carné or Renoir.  He was old-fashioned, yes, but if so, fashion be damned.  He was the sort of film-maker we can afford to get nostalgic about.
Deadlier Than the Male isn’t listed in any major film reference book in English.  Indeed even in France it was neglected by everyone; not even a place for it in Sadoul’s Dictionary of Film.  It’s one of those cases where one can hardly blame the often culpable René Château for not putting English subtitles on the DVD, because hardly anyone in the English speaking world will have heard of the film, let alone want to buy it.  It’s an offence really, so let’s put the record straight.
Jean Gabin and Daniele Delorme
The setting is the Rue Berger just off the Halles market in Paris.  A young woman of 20 called Catherine is coming to the restaurant of celebrated chef André Chatelin to tell him that her mother, his ex-wife, has died.  He takes a shine to her and lets her stay as she has nowhere to go, but she quickly becomes the object of attention of his adopted son, medical student Gérard.  André’s mother is not alone in her suspicions of young Catherine, but André brushes fears aside and goes ahead with plans to marry her.  That, it turns out, is her plan, one cooked up with her drug addict mother Gabrielle, who’s not really dead, to marry André and then kill him off to gain his wealth. 

It’s the age-old adage “no fool like an old fool” dressed literally to kill.  Gabin is splendidly in his element, as comfortable under Duvivier’s careful direction as he had been in the classics of the thirties.  He fits the role of the restaurateur like the proverbial oven glove.  There are some priceless supports offered by a gallery of grotesque women, from harridan slattern to end them all Bogaert, whose legs have opened for more men than Messalina, hard-faced mother Kerjean and, especially, Fontan in the sort of role Sylvie became famous for, the sharp-tongued and -eyed diminutive sparrow who haunts the restaurant with her pearls of wisdom.  And then there’s Delorme, a forgotten figure outside of France, who made her name in the Colette adaptations of Jacqueline Audry playing winsome little things, but here so convincing as the scheming, cold-hearted bitch you could throttle her.  Among numerous sequences of ice-cold evil, she has one truly unforgettable moment as an admirer throws himself under a truck in front of her and she casually walks by barely pausing to glance at his body.  Needless to say, she gets hers in the end, and it’s immensely satisfying, but there’s no happy ending here, just characters in varying degrees of despair.  

Very French, and though there is admittedly nothing new about the piece, it’s made with such skill – a special mention to the equally underrated Thirard’s brooding cinematography – that criticism seems churlish in the extreme.

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