Thursday 21 January 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (42) - Barrie Pattison on Duvivier in the 30s - Pt One - David Golder, Les Cinq Gentlemen Maudits & Poil de Carrotte

Julien Duvivier
Film makers, who were unfortunate enough to peak around the 1930 mark, missed out their place in movie histories, with work which looked crude next to that made either side of it, where the level of competence had climbed, to show up camera movements which the focus pullers couldn't master, direct sound in noisy locations, dissolves in the still shaky process backgrounds. In Hollywood, Wesley Ruggles, Robert Z. Leonard and even Henry King fell victim to this phenomenon but the greatest casualty was Frenchman Julien Duvivier who could reasonably claim to be the most accomplished European film maker of the day.

Harry Baur
Duvivier, who had been a supplier of European up-market Boulevard cinema in the late twenties abruptly became one of (if not the) leading film maker on the planet when two elements were added to his work - sound and the star presence of Harry Baur. La Comedie Française had forbidden it’s company to participate in the new sound movies, either to curb competition or to prevent damage to their brand by this upstart medium. This decision changed the nature of French and possibly word cinema by clearing the path for one time Folies Bergères comedian Harry Baur and song and dance man Jean Gabin.  The careers of both careers would be thrust ahead by their association with Julien Duvivier.

Duvivier’s sustained collaboration with the great Harry Baur must be regarded as the most substantial element of both men's careers and only Scorsese and De Niro would put together a body of work that could be compared. Baur, re-entering the cinema at the age of  fifty one, demonstrates an authority which we remain unused to seeing and a technique unparalleled in his day. He would jam Maigret, Herod, Emperor Rudolph and Jean Valjean into the years that remained to him before his death in 1943, under suspicious circumstances, after surviving a stint in a WW2 French Occupation prison.

Many of the later Duvivier films were mediocre production line efforts, often sketch
films. This contributed to the attribution of his place in French film to Jean Renoir who better fitted the high culture model. Even among the later Duvivier though, there's no problem in finding entertaining work - notable a nicely cynical line in fifties films like Gabin in Voici les Temps d'Assassins (1954), the Fernandel starrer L’Homme a l’Imperméable (1957) and Le Diable et les Dix Commandements (1963).

As casual readers are unlikely to get to see these, (they appear to not exist in official translated copies) I’ve included give away plot details on the early sound films.

David Golder 1931
Not as complex as the later Baur-Duvivier films but still pushing the limits of early sound technique - particularly early European sound technique -  leaving us in no doubt abut its quality with an opening  trains, planes and stock exchange montage under the titles. Then Jewish business Czar Baur/Golder arrives at his office where the old associate who cheated him a year back, sits facing ruin. Flashing light reflected off his cigarette case in the man’s face, Baur tells him he's out of luck but later that night as he dines with the friend who tells him "Vous croyez qu'un juif a besoin de toute ca pour vivre." The ruined man shoots himself (undercranked foggy street inset) and Harry has shortage of breath, rushing to the window, cf. the Edward Arnold plot in You Can’t Take It With You (Frank Capra, USA, 1938).

Opting for ten days break at his Villa in Biarritz (travel shots with noisy Tobis effects
tracks) with his wife Paule Andral (Tarakanova) and daughter Jackie Monier ("Tu ne vivre que pour elle" the wife objects) he gets back to find dinner (CUs at table in progress and a fat man towelling off in his room, with provision made for Harry in the linen area. The daughter has a New Rolls (“tired of the Hispano”) but wants another car and he has to go off to the baccarat table where he loses a million and wins two, while she dozes. Dismissal of his health problems ("They bury every one") but he has a heart attack and on his sick bed the wife empties his wallet and shakes him, demanding what provision he's made for her - while she's bedecked with millions worth of jewelry. She tells him the daughter isn't his. The girl flashes in with her lap dog before taking a holiday by running streams with her current boyfriend.

On recovering, his shuffling steps play over the close up of the cocktail shaker in the wife's lover's hands. Telling close two shots of the two menacing faces without speech. Harry arranges to flog the villa, outraging the wife, allows his stocks to crash and (OK tracking shot with dialogue by the Seine) he plans a new life. In his empty apt. he meets his seventy year old associate in the Russian oil deal and tells him "A mon age on n'a besoin de grand chose - sauve vivre" not having to worry about his family anymore. The daughter however shows up having been dumped ("Love, money - in life one chooses"), and tells him he's ruined her life making her non eligible, ignoring the parentage details. "I was quiet. I had begun to forget" Baur explains that she's going to be richer than her mum even if he dies.

So he sets off again, for studio Russia (wooden oil wells outside the window) marching out of negotiations to be brought back with the Lenin character demanding a ninety year limit which he, philosophical, allows. On the way back in the (model) ship in the fog he collapses, accompanied by a track of fog horns, pistons and Leon Nigazli's choir, and is helped by a Yiddish speaking young man from Poland who he entrusts to take the papers back to Paris, on his way to New York. 

Baur is terrific, giving an authoritative reading and constantly creating bits of business that add to the effect. The film’s last image is a sustained close shot of his dying face opening and then closing his eyes - a formidable effect. No one else makes any impression.
Interesting depiction of Jewish business and the illegitimate daughter place the film's period. The use of sound, trackings, adventurous angles and uncluttered settings is state of the art. The sound mix is sometimes disturbing - the scraping feet of the dancers in tune with music and dialogue, camera movements which defeat the operators.

Les cinq gentlemen maudits/ The Five Accursed Gentlemen/  Moon Over Morocco 1931
The director was also a North Africa specialist - this film, Maman Colibri,  La Bandera, Pepe Le Moko, The Impostor etc.

This remake of a 1920 colonial pot boiler, with André Luget, is full of surprises. Baur is virtually a bit player, even doing his freaky bits of business - arguing with the fat
housekeeper, diving onto the couch, singing, reading the book on magic in Morocco - "cet fiction des bonnes femmes".

The European friends arrive in North Africa by steamer, playing deck tennis with the
winning Rosine Deréan. They offend a sorcerer by one laying a hand on his white veiled escort and he curses them to die in order before the full moon. One tumbles drunk from the night club into the lagoon, where his body can't be found the next day. They get news of the aviator's death in a Berlin air show - freeze the actors and playback plane crash and scream noise. Plausible hero Le Robert Vignan gets a note summoning him alone to a meeting at the ruins (delivered by the mysterious, slippered figure that creeps into his room at night) and when he goes and starts frolicking with Mlle Deréan, he finds the third associate with un poignard Berber in his back. Peering through the key hole Le Vignan is able to stop his fellow survivor from shooting himself and offers him money but spotting the sorcerer in the streets he follows him to find the man being kicked and sent on his way by the survivor who, with the other cursed gents has plotted the venture. Le Vigan gets the cheque back from the veiled Mlle Berry, as she tries to scarper with it and chases the villain through the streets with a riding crop to the delight of Baur & Deréan.

There's plenty of style - the intruder in Le Vignan's room introduced by the close up of the ceramic monkey, distant shots of white robe riders on the cross roads, scene montages, the aviator's death, which doesn't really work any more than the scene of Lefebvre leering at naked bathing girls. The casting is surprisingly effective and the suspense effective but it is playing this material in the great Tangiers locations, some of the best filmed ever, that makes this one work - the black turbaned rhythmic workers with the veiled woman in white, feeding ostriches, whirling dervishes and galloping men firing off single shot rifles, a belly dancer with python, tethered horses threshing, the ruins of Voluhiles, where the body is found with the dagger in its back, the Arab funeral and the chase after the sorcier through the shadowed cross branch roofed alleys, all coloured by the reference to "fanaticism religieuse," with the turbaned sniper riding off across the distant road and Baur's house guarded by a (sleeping) armed sentry. Great pacing. Effective score.

There’s a parallel German version Die Fünf verfluchten Gentlemen directed & written by Duvivier with Anton Walbrook, Camilla Horn & Jack Trevor 

Poil de Carotte/The Red Head 1932

Of the films Baur & Duvivier made together, Poil de Carotte is best known outside France still occasionally surfacing in traditional film history screenings, revealingly as a result of the accident of a sub titled negative continuing accessible to make sixteen millimetre prints down the years. Renard's 1894 plot covers the indignities piled upon young boy Robert Lynen from Niévre (the novels original setting replacing Haute Savoie in the earlier version) which make him face suicide until his dour father is driven to intervene.

The characterisation is stronger than we are used to seeing, the neighbours describing how the boy "came too late - he wasn't wanted, if you understand" to the new maid replacement Lydia Zaréna, her predecessor having held the record of two months under the harridan mother, who defends and caresses the kid when another mother calls him a voyou and slaps him when they are out of view, making him say he prefers her to dad Bauer sawing within ear shot in the nearby shed.

Robert Lynen in Poil de Carrotte
One of the most interesting aspects is that,  when events awaken Baur to the problem, the intrigue continues. Maid Zaréna tells him about the wife forbidding Lynen to accompany him hunting and looking at the mantle where there are pictures of the thieving, Meccano building, older son and his conniving sister demands "Oú est Poil de Carotte" or the uncle tells him "You should not make kids when one cannot love them" and he sends the older son off to get the flour his wife demands instead reconciling with the boy.

However Baur winning the mayoral election, complete with a wedding waiting for him, directs his attention away from Lynen who remains an outsider in his ill-fitting short trousers. The voices that drove the kid to experiment with drowning himself in the bucket are replaced with bursts of already used music from the track (big step forward from the David Golder opening montage)  as he has the noose round his neck and he fights vigorously with Baur's attempts to remove it.

The scene when they sit drinking wine and considering whether the mother's life is also  miserable, "Her only pleasure is slapping you", does end the film with a plausible rosy glow, a suggestion of a better life to come.

The countryside is sun through trees lyrical but it is also a place where the kid imagines the circle of gauze shrouded phantoms when sent into the night to take care of the chooks. This bit of Victorian imagery is matched by the scrubbed up little girl who prattles about marrying him after he has told her he's going to kill himself.

Poil de Carotte is an advance on the earlier films, where Duvivier had pushed the skills of his technicians to and beyond their limits, Here they were catching up with him - effective imagery like the head ringed by the reflection of the sun on the water, the elaborate multiple exposures, two see-through Lynens talking to each other with
impeccable timing and eye line, superimposed on the bed where he is sleeping and, better, the double exposed alter ego running with Lynen impeccably keeping time with the boy rushing through the woods. Photography, editing, settings are as polished as we'll see in the thirties. Full of effective staging like the ticket collector coming into mid shot just before the locomotive steams past behind him.

The frantic buggy ride scene with the cart carrying the boy and the maid past groupings of family happiness - child on dad's shoulders, picnic etc., backed by the striking Alexander Tansman score, is a formidable set piece.

For a film which trades so heavily in sentiment - the dog is the one that welcomes Lynen back from school after the train shots -  this is remarkably hard edged. It can be seen as an answer to the mother love scenes of Visages d’Enfants.

Here Baur has comparatively little screen time for his central role - much less than the boy - but still registers as a dominant, shaded character.

Poil de Carotte would be officially re-made twice more with a 1952 Raymond Souplex version apparently lost and an intriguing 1972 Philipe Noiret movie, shot by Nestor Almendros. Not only did the collaboration with Baur continue but young Robert Lynen appeared in Duvivier's other films - Un Carnet de bal and La belle equipe.

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