September 9, 2014
“Every detail, every second of each shot makes La Nuit du carrefour [Night of the Crossroads] the only great French thriller, or rather, the greatest French adventure film of all.” -Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema (December 1957)
Night of the Crossroads was the first film adaptation of Georges Simenon’s phenomenally popular Inspector Maigret novels, and was lent a thick, hallucinatory atmosphere by director Jean Renoir. Yet, sandwiched as it is between Renoir’s classics with Michel Simon, La Chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), it has escaped much serious critical attention. It does not even get an entry in Andre Bazin’s collected writings on Renoir. Anthology Film Archives arranged a very rare screening of the feature this past weekend, with Simenon’s son John in attendance to discuss the production beforehand. It’s a traditional whodunit, except all of the motivations are missing. Instead of attributing the crime to a single perpetrator, the whole town becomes culpable through their xenophobia and greed. As Renoir’s character Octave says in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”. To that Night of the Crossroads would add, “for murder.”
This narrative opacity was originally attributed to missing reels. Godard wrote that Jean Mitry “lost three reels after shooting was completed.” Renoir was asked to confirm the rumor, and said, “It’s possible, but even at the time, you know, it wasn’t very clear. I don’t think anyone of us understood anything. Least of all me.” As Renoir implies, the legend is not necessarily true. In Richard Brody’s article on the film for The New Yorker, he reports that the “fragmentary construction” was due to “his running out of money during production.” The project was all improvising – working around the financial limitations. Andre Brunelin wrote that the production was “a business of make do and mend. Decor had to be made out of anything at hand, it was all painting and knock-up.” This was no unauthorized fly-by-night operation, however. It had full support of Georges Simenon, who was friends with Renoir and collaborated on the screenplay.
The story concerns a murder in a small town outside Paris. A local insurance agent (Jean Gehret) discovers his car has been swapped with another. When the locals search the neighborhood, they find his vehicle with a corpse behind the wheel. It is stowed inside the garage of a Danish brother and sister who are already despised in the community for their eccentricity and foreignness. Inspector Maigret is brought in and stirs up all of the local resentments, putting more lives at stake.
It was shot from January – March of 1932, three weeks at a crossroads near Bouffemont, outside of Paris, and the remaining time at the Europa Films studio in Billancourt. The location was choked with fog and rain – perfect for the tale of secret identities and cloaked motivations. Before the screening, John Simenon confirmed that his father approved of the project, and especially of the casting of Pierre Renoir, Jean’s brother, as Maigret. He had the right height and bearing, if not the described muscularity of the book’s Inspector. With his prominent widow’s peak and hawk like face, Pierre Renoir strikes a strange figure, one of bookish, watchful intensity. His role is an observer that lets the villagers stumble into their confessions. His main move is to listen attentively, his interrogation method one of waiting out silences. The Danish man is Carl, a gangly Frankenstein’s monster type with an appropriately ghastly artificial eye, who happens to paint commercial art for a living. He keeps house for his sister Else (Winna Winifried), a hothouse flower quick with come-ons. One of the more perverse shots has a her flirting with her pet tortoise in an overhead shot. Their house is a dusty catacomb of ash, useless tchotchkes, and secret hiding places. One of them slides open when Else leans in to to kiss a nonplussed Maigret. Her shoulder pushes a painting across the wall, revealing a bottle of Veronal and a gun.
The street is hidden in fog, drugs are secreted behind paintings, and whole backstories are missing because of the budget shortage. But this expository lack fits the whole theme of the film – one which renders the last act revelations truly surprising, since we don’t know who half the characters are. Renoir uses this chaotic situation to experiment with a variety of techniques. There are deep focus shots with characters posed in background doorways in windows, winding tracking shots executed by mounting cameras onto cars, and a grand experiments in sound, in which audio acts as a kind of metronome. In his interrogations, Maigret knows the time is up when his empty glass is filled up by his dripping office faucet. To compress the time of the original investigation, Renoir cuts back and forth from Maigret running down leads to shots of commuters feet shuffling in front of a newspaper vendor. Their yelling out of “Morning edition!”, “Afternoon edition!” and “Evening news!” keeps the timing down. The abstracted shot of legs is then rhymed later with the hidden assailant, seen as a pair of feet stomping through mud puddles, and as an arm placing a poisoned beer onto a table. Some of these spy game machinations recall Feuillade, which Renoir was undoubtedly familiar with, though on a much simpler scale.
Renoir also had the advantage of more mobile cameras, and he used them to the fullest extent. There is a camera-mounted car chase sequence of unbelievable beauty. All is shrouded in darkness as two Model-Ts chase each other around the turns, the brightest illumination provided by the exploding muzzles of gunfire. It is thrilling to be plunged into darkness, and felt like I was riding Space Mountain at Disney World for the first time. Except this thrill is not a celebration of modernity, but a resigned condemnation of it. All of the town is implicated in the murder. The bourgeois insurance company family , the artistically inclined Danes and the group of working class mechanics all pursued their self-interest into criminality.Maigret offers some hope – telling Else, “in two years [of jail time] you will be truly free.” Though what she will do with that freedom is seriously in doubt. All Maigret can do is grin and bear it, and wait for the next case.