Jean Renoir: The Lower Depths (1936)

May 30, 2017


“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled”. The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

Les Films Albatros was founded in 1922 by Alexandre Kamenka, who moved to Montreuil shortly after the revolution – they had produced Le Brasier ardent (1923), which was one of the movies that inspired Renoir to get into filmmaking. Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau writes that a flood of Russian-themed films were produced in France after the success of the Popular Front, like Taras Bulba (1936) and Rasputin (1936/’37). Most of these were panned by L’Humanite, they headlined their Taras Bulba review “Some White Russians Make a French Film.” Working with Les Films Albatros was politically troublesome but professionally wise, they had the money to go swiftly into production, and Renoir, more than anything, wanted to work. So he accepted Kamenka’s offer to adapt Gorky’s play. The original script was written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of dystopian novel We, which would be banned in the Soviet Union. Zamyatin left the Communist Party in 1917, and was only permitted to leave the country after he directly petitioned Stalin: “For a writer such as myself, being deprived of the possibility of writing is equivalent to a death sentence.” He was allowed to leave for Paris in 1931, after the personal intervention of Maxim Gorky.

Zamyatin wrote the script with Jacques Companeez, which Renoir then thoroughly revised. Renoir recalled that their version was “very poetic, but absolutely impossible to film.” One of the major debates was where to locate the film – make it Russian, relocate to Paris, or keep the locale indeterminate. Renoir decided on the last option, but at the last minute there came pressure from the Communist Party to make the film Russian, because they “wouldn’t accept the work of the great Gorky presented as anything other.” So what we are left with is an unknown city and French actors, but with Russian names, the film having a very vague specificity. It was vague enough to receive widespread praise, receiving plaudits in L’Humanite, winning the inaugural Louis Delluc prize for best French film, and by the end of the year Renoir would receive the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur from the government. One of the only sour notes was hit by André Gide, a fellow traveler who became disenchanted with Communism after a trip to Russia – he called the film, “unworthy of Renoir.”

The film focuses on the relationship between the underworld thief Pepel (Gabin) and the inveterate gambler Baron (Jouvet). They meet fortuitously when Pepel breaks into the Baron’s home, who welcomes him with open arms for a night of drinking and card games. For the Baron had lost his fortune at cards earlier in the evening, and all his possessions would be repossessed soon enough anyway. Pepel lives at a flophouse run by slum landlord and fence Kostylev (Vladimir Sokoloff) and his wife Vassilissa (Suzy Prim). While carrying on a fitful affair with Vassilissa, Pepel’s true affections lie with Vassilissa’s sister Natascha (Junie Astor). After dispensing with his final assets The Baron joins the flophouse and becomes a dispenser of cynical wisdom, while Pepel tries to convince Natascha to run off with him. But Kostylev is trying to pawn off Natascha on an inspector to keep him off their case, and will resort to abusive ends to keep Pepel away from her.

Pepel is a similar figure to Boudu in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1931), one who espouses the life of  a drifter (they both love dozing in the grass), who gets wrapped up in the moneyed classes problems. What makes Boudu a greater film is its refusal to engage in middle-class melodrama – Boudu just cuts loose and sails down a river. The Lower Depths has plenty of tempo-braking speechifying and plot-lengthening manipulations. But the performances often lighten the lugubrious load. Jouvet has a face like Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch and uses each face wrinkle at max capacity, though usually for a bemused smirk. The Baron watches his world disappear around him as if lessening a load. Jean Gabin’s Pepel is still weighed down, despite all of his paeans to bummin’ it, he is getting sick of living so close to death and despair – one of the most moving sequences finds him speaking with a sickly lady, stating that “death is like a mother to us”, us being the poor. For The Baron poverty is a choice, but for Pepel it has become a curse he is trying to escape. Renoir and his DP Fédote Bourgasoff create a visual scheme of floating dolly shots for The Baron’s upper class escapades, and locked down shot-counter-shots for Pepel’s working-class wanderings. The Baron can move easily, while Pepel is nailed down. This visual schema is broken up by the end, shifting along with their fortunes. The final image would be influenced by a private screening Renoir received of Modern Times (1936) before it arrived in French theaters, ending on a backwards tracking shot of Pepel and Natascha strolling towards the camera, their fates realigned.

This is the sixth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:

 Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

A Day in the Country (1936)

Jean Renoir: A Day in the Country (1936)

May 23, 2017


One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.

Jean Renoir was eager to work again with Sylvia Bataille, who he had just directed in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). So he pitched her a number of ideas for their next collaboration. Bataille recalled, as quoted in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, “We’d thought about two or three screenplays before we hit upon the idea of A Day in the Country. The others were original ideas from Renoir. Then he reread Maupassant, had me read it, we talked about it, and we made the film. I liked it a lot more than the screenplays he’d offered me before.” A reluctant performer, Merigeau describes her as “extremely cultured and very exacting,” and was the driving creative force on the other side of the camera. She was separated from her husband Georges Bataille, though they remained friendly, and Bataille made a cameo in A Day in the Country as a priest alongside photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. She would later marry the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who is much abused in film theory classes to this day. It was, as usual for Renoir, a familial set, and was shot in Marlotte, the town Renoir had made his home for the previous fifteen years.


Renoir adapted the Maupassant tale himself, which concerns the arrival of a Parisian family to Marlotte for a weekend getaway. They are led by the blustering shop owner Monsieur Dufour (Andre Gabriello), huffing and puffing with necktie always askew. He brings his chirping wife Madame Dufour (Jane Marken), his lissome daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and his bumbling shop assistant Anatole (Paul Temps), who is being groomed to win Henriette’s hand in marriage. When they arrive at the local seafood restaurant, operated by the blustering Poulain (Renoir), they are spotted by a couple of bored lotharios, who accept both Madame Dufour and Henriette as fetching challenges. The aggressively mustachioed Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) targets Henriette, while the lower key Henri agrees to flirt with Madame. But the paths of lust get twisted, and one of the riverside trysts haunts its lovers for the remainder of their years.

I had always assumed that it was intended as a feature, but survived as this fragmentary piece. But Merigeau writes it was always intended to be short of feature length. “The contract assigning the rights to the story, signed on May 15, 1936, with Editions Albin Michel on behalf of Simone de Maupassant, specified ‘a prefeature opener film no longer than 800 meters [about 29 minutes].’” They were to pay an additional fee if they went over 1,000 meters (32 minutes). Merigeau estimates that Renoir’s final script would have run 56 minutes if it had been completed – the version that exists runs a svelte 41 minutes.


The film begins with an unusual text introduction, indicating the fragmentary nature of the finished product:

Due to circumstances beyond his control, Jean Renoir was unable to finish this film. As he is currently in America, we chose to present it without modification, to respect his work and style. Two title cards were added to aid comprehension.

Shooting was slated to begin on June 27, but rains kept delaying them and racking up expenses. They ended production on July 18th, with Braunberger out of money and needing to time to find more. He secured short-term financing by August 6th, but the next day Renoir left for Paris to start casting on The Lower Depths. He left instructions for his crew (which included costume designer/prop master Luchino Visconti), but Merigeau estimates 23 shots were made without Renoir present (they were likely directed by his assistant Jacques Becker). Bataille was furious at Renoir abandoning the film, reportedly yelling at him, “You’re really despicable, a coward!” Renoir responded, “Fine, then, you won’t be appearing in The Lower Depths.” And he kept his word.


It is remarkable that in spite of this off-screen upheaval, A Day in the Country is a such a lucid, beautifully performed movie. Renoir has great fun with the Dufour family’s foibles – the bickering antics between the lumbering Monsieur and the whippet sized Anatole are comparable to Laurel and Hardy (as noted by my mother, who watched it with me last night). Rodolphe is another charming comic creation, who is introduced taking off his handlebar moustache holder (a hair net for his ‘stache), and leering exaggeratedly at Henriette out the window. Later he does a prancing faun dance around Madame Dufour, for him love is a show that he’ll perform for any audience. Henri is the reluctant player in the game, the glum romantic who Rodolphe chides for his serial monogamy. Henriette is attracted to his silence, as compared to Rodolphe’s theatrical fakery. Henriette is introduced as the poetic one in her family, talking dreamily about our connection to nature, the humanity of the bugs in the ground. In Henri’s silence she hears a kindred soul.

Their meeting is brief but fateful, and Renoir handles their encounter in shorthand, punctuated by one of the great close-ups in cinema. It closes in on Henriette and is an image of overwhelming exhaustion. Henri is not who she thought he was. Henriette is not who he thought she was. And so they are left together with a memory they will keep close to their hearts and never tell another soul.

This is the fifth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:

 Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

The Tramp: Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

May 16, 2017


“From Boudu I have learned that one of the attitudes to take toward society is to loathe it.” – Michel Simon

In Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) Michel Simon plays a bearded bum who has lost interest in humanity. Boudu would prefer to stroll in the park with his dog or drown at the bottom of the Seine than re-enter the world of neckties and table manners and responsibility. But he is dragged into it by a bourgeois bookseller who hopes to “save” him from his “plight.” But instead of praise Boudu brings chaos, destabilizing the household from within. Simon closely collaborated with director Jean Renoir on the production, and it is a tour de force performance, with Simon a loose-limbed satyr, extending his gangly frame in all the wrong directions so as to most annoy his hosts. It is something of a thematic sequel to La Chienne (1931), which Renoir and Simon completed the previous year and which I wrote about last week. They both center Simon as a sympathetic monster, one who commits despicable acts but only because they are being true to themselves. It is Boudu’s nature to drift, so if he is not allowed to drown in the undercurrent, he will coast above it, roiling all the lives he touches along the way.

Boudu Saved From Drowning was the first production for Les Productions Michel Simon, which the actor created in January of 1932, having hopes of many collaborations with Renoir. At the time the director said, as quoted in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography: “We have a superb understanding of each other; he hates the outrageous complications of the world of film as much as I do…and we really want to remain independent. We have the capital, the screenplays, and we know what we want. You know what a wonderful comic actor Simon is; so we’re going to make a comedy every year.” It turned out that Boudu was the first and last film for the company.

The film was based on a play by René Fauchois that debuted in 1919, though Simon had performed as Boudu in the 1925 revival. Renoir deviated wildly from the original, retaining only the first two acts, and, as Merigeau reports, adding a prologue and epilogue. Fauchois was so enraged by Renoir’s changes that he rushed a new stage version of the play, with an added fourth act, that premiered while the film was still in theaters. The biggest difference in the productions is the fate of Boudu. Fauchois’s original has him successfully saved by the bookseller, married to his maid and a new member of the middle class. Renoir’s Boudu rejects this life, opting for a radical, disruptive freedom.


As with La ChienneBoudu opens with theatrical artifice – that of a satyr and nymph playacting in front of a drop cloth. He pursues and she resists, until he pulls her in for a kiss, the camera pulls back, and there is a dissolve to the spiral staircase of the Lestringuez residence. There is a pan left to the window, where round bookshop owner Edouard (Charles Granval) is trilling sweet nothings and pawing at his mistress (and maid) Chloë (Sévérine Lerczinska) before his wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia) sarcastically enters. The household is now associated with stagecraft and fakery, while Boudu is introduced in nature, lazing under a tree while his dog plays in a pond (water imagery surrounds Boudu throughout). When his dog wanders off, Boudu disconsolately goes out on a search. But no one is willing to help a bum, as cops and civilians run away at the sight of him. He wanders the background of shots as a rich lady gets the attention of the whole park with a story of her missing pekingese. Experimenting with deep focus, Renoir and his DP Georges Asselin often isolate Boudu in the distance, a tiny figure hiding behind trees or propping himself up in a door frame. The closer to the front of the frame he is, the more trouble he causes. It is technically brilliant but registers casually, offhand. André Bazin wrote that, “One of the most paradoxically appealing aspects of Jean Renoir’s work is that everything in it is so casual. He is the only film maker in the world who can afford to treat the cinema with such apparent offhandedness. … If one had to describe the art of Renoir in a word, one could define it as an aesthetic of discrepancy.”

Still hurting from the loss of a dog, or for other reasons never stated, Boudu wanders to a bridge and jumps off. Across the street Edouard is watching ladies with his telescope and witnesses the suicide attempt. Shocked into action, he rushes to the scene and dives to rescue Boudu from the water. Edouard becomes something of a local hero, Boudu’s rescue representative of the right mindedness of the bourgeoisie. But Boudu had no interest in being rescued – he’d either die or float downriver, and either outcome would be OK with him. Instead he’s stuck at the Lestringuez home as a charity case, a way for the family to feel good about themselves, and justify the morality of the middle class. He is a totem of their sensitivity.


In return Boudu proves his unsuitability for civilized life, spreading shoe polish over the bed linens, flooding the kitchen, and in the ultimate outrage, spitting in a volume of Balzac. Boudu is a monster and a man of principle. He doesn’t grow or change or learn a thing over the course of the film’s running time, but remains irrepressibly himself, destroying property and blithely telling uncomfortable truths. He also seduces Chl0ë AND Emma, but the artistically minded Edouard doesn’t mind that intrusion too much, he seems to take it as a compliment. And sex, which has become business to Chloë and infrequent for Emma, becomes a source of pleasure again for both of them.  In fact the Lestringuez family is not wrecked by Boudu’s depredations, but awakened by them. Boudu trashing their place makes them drop their artificial posing and look at each other truthfully, at least for a little while.

Boudu returns to nature, first flinging off his fitted suit and putting on the tattered clothes of a scarecrow, and then flinging his fedora into the Marne River. Then the camera detaches itself from Boudu’s POV, a privileged moment of documentary. The last we see him, Boudu lies back in the grass and looks at the sky. But the camera pans and follows the trajectory of his hat, floating down the river. We see the activity of the waterway, rowers practicing, the current flowing and the particular haze surrounding a blade of grass. Bazin puts it better than I can:

“What moves us is not the fact that this countryside is once again Boudu’s domain, but that the banks of the Marne, in all the richness of their detail, are intrinsically beautiful. At the end of the pan, the camera picks up a bit of grass where, in close-up, one can see distinctly the white dust that the heat and the wind have lifted from the path. One can almost feel it between one’s fingers. Boudu is going to stir it up with his foot. If I were deprived of the pleasure of seeing Boudu again for the rest of my days, I would never forget that grass, that dust, and their relationship to the liberty of a tramp.”

This is the fourth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on Whirlpool of Fate (1925) is here. The second entry on Nana (1926) is here. The third entry on La Chienne (1931) is here.

Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

May 9, 2017

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here.

According to Renoir, he was only allowed to make La Chienne, his second sound film, after he could prove that he could work quickly and under budget. So he was assigned to adapt the Georges Feydeau comedy On purge bébé (1931), which he wrote, directed and edited in three weeks. His producers Pierre Braunberger and Roger Richebé formed the production company Les Etablissements Braunberger-Roger Richebé in 1930. Braunberger was a longtime friend who had worked with Renoir since Whirlpool of Fate in 1925. It was reportedly Richebé who asked Renoir to use On purge bébé as a test for La Chienne, though Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau could not find anything to support Renoir and Branuberger’s claims to that effect. In any case On purge bébé was made very quickly, but though Renoir dismisses it as a commercial job, it is really quite funny, especially if you are interested in Michel Simon reaction shots after he accidentally swallows some laxatives. And it is here he begins his collaboration with sound engineer Joseph de Bretagne, which continued through The Golden Coach in 1952. Renoir was insistent in recording sound live instead of in post, and On purge bébé was infamous for its toilet flushing sound. Renoir wrote: “In my concern for realism, I used the flush of a real toilet in the studio. The result produced the sound of a cataract that thrilled the production representatives and elevated me to the level of a great man.”

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

Les Etablissements Braunberger-Roger Richebé announced that they acquired the rights to Georges de La Fouchardiere’s La Chienne on April 11, 1931. Renoir adapted the script himself and directed the film. There is some question as to whether the film was reedited by the producers, but Renoir claimed he got the cut he wanted, and Merigeau concluded that it “was probably edited by Renoir and Marguerite [Renoir], then by Denis Batcheff under the direction of Paul Fejos.” The film concerns Maurice Legrand (Simon), a passive weak-chinned cashier at a women’s hosiery factory who paints as a hobby. A masterfully fastidious performance by Simon, his Maurice is little more than a recessive nasal murmur, a man who speaks not to be heard but to get quicker into silences. He is married to Adèle (Madeleine Berubet), a demanding shrew who is endlessly comparing Maurice to her first husband, who died in WWI. Coming home from an office party, Maurice stumbles into a spat between Lulu (Marèse) and her pimp Dédé (Flamant). (In a tragic footnote, soon after filming Marèse would die in a crash, in a car that Flamant was driving.) Thinking that he is being gallant, he knocks Dédé over and escorts Lulu home. To seem more interesting, Maurice tells Lulu that he is a painter. Dédé encourages Lulu to cultivate that relationship and leech him of money, thinking he is a famous artist in America. Needing some quick cash, Dédé steals a couple of unsigned canvases and invents an artist to assign it to: “Clara Wood.” Clara Wood becomes an in-demand artist, and Lulu takes on the role. Maurice is flattered that his art is getting attention, and pleased it’s generating income for Lulu. Temporarily, all parties get their ego stroked. But then Maurice miraculously is freed of his marital bonds, and sheepishly asks Lulu to marry him. She can playact no longer, and laughs in his face. It is the end of their “selfless” performances, and the reveal of their truest selves.

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

The Guignol puppet at the beginning of the film declares, “The play we shall perform is neither drama nor comedy. It contains no moral message, and has nothing to prove. The characters are neither heroes nor villains. They’re plain folk like you or me,” implicating the viewer in the tonal shifts to come, for the film is focalized through Maurice, a typically sympathetic lead character. But as the film progresses he reveals depths of insecurity beyond even Dédé, a man who slaps Lulu around out of boredom. But the wonder of the film is that it never sits in judgment; even the most heinous actions occur due to the convergence of personality and circumstance, and Renoir’s camera keeps its distance, peeking through curtains or café windows. This framing is remote, almost aloof. As Bazin wrote, “There is a deliberate attempt here to use a frame within the frame to underline the importance of all that lies beyond the screen.” As this petty drama unfolds, there are others behind and at all sides of the camera, just out of view.

The last few sequences evade language, and invite cliché. They take place years later, with Maurice reduced to vagrancy and homelessness, and yet still capable of his pinched smile. He wishes for his own death and yet opines that “life is beautiful” as one of his old “Clara Wood” canvases is sold to a wealthy buyer. The ending is brutally ironic and entirely sincere. Maurice has erased himself from society while his work is sold under an imaginary name. But he gets a tip for opening a car door, enough to buy a hot meal, and that, at least temporarily, is a beautiful thing.

Party Girl: Nana (1926)

May 2, 2017

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

NANA (1926)

According to Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, the production company Films Renoir was incorporated on September 1, 1925. The previous month Nana had been announced. Renoir was still negotiating with the Emile Zola estate, but eventually paid them 75,000 francs for the rights to the story. In order to secure German funding, they needed to cast German actors. Through the help of producer Pierre Braunberger, the role of Count Muffat, Nana’s main suitor, went to Werner Krauss, known today as Doctor Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). They also cast the German actress Valeska Gert (The Joyless Street, 1925) as Nana’s maid, Zoe. This helped convince Delog Film Kommanditgesellschaft, Jacobi & Co. to pay for the costs of the German shoot, since there would be a built-in local audience. It didn’t pan out that way, but it allowed for the film to continue.

Gert would later describe Hessling as “an authentic Parisian, chic, capricious [who] used a outrageous amount of makeup, which, at the time, only Gloria Swanson was doing.” Hessling was an untaught talent, and had no intention of taking lessons, unless the Americans called. She told her friend Alice Fighiera that if they called, “it will mean I’ve got talent. If they don’t, none of it’s worth the trouble.” She is introduced rising above the stage on a winch, in one of the first dolly shots of the film. Renoir and his DPs Jean Bachelet and Edmund Corwin use the technique as a slow reveal, a setup and punchline. Catherine is raised but cannot descend all the way to the stage, a knot keeps her dangling frustratingly above solid ground. Her flailing struggles make her look like a puppet. After the show a few suitors are shown waiting at her dressing room. The camera slowly dollies backward to reveal that the whole floor and staircase is clogged with potential paramours.

NANA (1926)

Only one manages to shoulder his way inside her room, the wealthy Count Muffat, who has enough cash to underwrite Nana’s career at the struggling theater. A blooming fetishist, Muffat becomes aroused by the hair stuck in her comb, and is at her beck and call the rest of the feature – by the end she has him on all fours barking like a dog. Like Charles Foster Kane, he funds her dramatic work, only for her to be laughed off the stage. Nana is completely without self-criticism, she truly believed her flouncy over-affected caricature could fly as a portrait of an upper class lady. When her life as an artist flops, she begins her second, more lucrative, life as a courtesan, with a group of lapdogs on her string. The other most notable victim is Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo), the last remaining scion of a distinguished family. He sullies his name in a poorly thought out racetrack swindle; to win Nana’s heart is through her pocketbook, or so he believes.

But there is no way to Nana’s heart, for even she doesn’t know the directions. Hessling plays her with an armor of artifice, always playacting to the room. One never knows what is authentic emotion or simply a flirtatious technique. Emblematic of her capriciousness is a shot where Nana wields a pool cue, lines it up against a fine piece of china as if setting up a shot, and then smashes it. Renoir would write in My Life and My Films that “In Nana she carried it [stylization] to the uttermost extreme. She was not a woman at all, but a marionette. The word, as I use it, is a complement.”  This doll crushes every man like that fine china, not that they don’t deserve it. Muffat is a dour married man who blows up his marriage out of boredom and a hair fetish. Vandeuvres is another of the idle death-wish rich, using Nana as an excuse for self-incineration. The only cad worthy of pity is a callow youth named Georges (Raymond Guérin Catelain), whose love seems innocent and true, and his delicate constitution can’t handle seeing Nana play pseudo S&M games with the masochistic Muffat.

Nana is surprised by her own emotions at the loss of two of her suitors, both of whom take their own lives. During an extraordinary sequence at a Parisian ball, Nana tries to recapture her previous decadence, losing herself in a feverish can-can, an attempt to sweat out her emotions. But she cannot stop them. Renoir ends the film with some of his most complicated and basic techniques. There are double exposures revealing ghosts of lovers past, haunting her with their modes of demise. Her body, unused to such feeling, shuts down. And without depicting a dramatic collapse, or giving her one last command performance, Renoir simply turns out the lights.

Jean Renoir: Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

April 25, 2017


In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy.

The scenario for Whirlpool of Fate was written by Renoir’s friend Pierre Lestringuez, and was shot in and around Paul Cézanne’s property, La Nicotiere, in the town of Marlotte. Cézanne was a family friend, and Jean spent many afternoons there as a youth, counting his Sundays there “among my happiest memories” (as recalled in My Life and My Films). So he was intimately familiar with the grounds, and he gets a fairy tale beauty out of the streams running through the area. The film opens with a houseboat cruising down a waterway on a sun dappled morning, shot by cinematographers Jean Bachelet (who would later shoot The Rules of the Game) and Alphonse Gibory.

On board are Gudule (called Virginie in some versions, played by Heuschling), her father and her roustabout uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez). The father dies in a freak accident, and Jeff squanders the family inheritance on booze, and often shows up drunk and physically abusive towards Gudule. So she runs away from home, and takes up with a small time crook nicknamed “The Weasel.” They travel the countryside together, nicking food from nearby farms when they can get away with that. Just when Gudule is acclimating herself to a new life, she falls down a steep quarry wall and loses her memory. The Weasel disappears, and instead she is cared for by Georges (Harold Levingston), the son of a bourgeois family who brings her food and drink to stay alive. Suffering from terrible fevers, Gudule begins experiencing severe hallucinations – or incredible lucid dreams, in which Renoir experiments with double (and triple) exposures, associative editing and random shots of lizards. Once she comes to, Gudule regains her memory, only to run into Jeff again. She can’t fully re-emerge into adulthood until Jeff agrees to let her go.


The film is a charming travelogue of La Nicotiere, with a barely-there episodic narrative guiding Gudule through the wooded paths. Heuschling/Hessling was a great admirer of Gloria Swanson, and she applies her lipstick into a pert bowtie shape that mimics that of Swanson’s in Zaza (1923). She admirably underplays her melodramatic role, and her calm carries the film through it’s many twists and turns. Already Renoir was operating a film set like a family get together, emphasizing fun above all. Mérigeau writes that “A team was being put together, and with it one of the essential prerequisites of a Renoir film: Jean Renoir at the head of the gang, whose members constituted a kind of family, producing a self-organizing system.” It was shot at the familial locale of La Nicotiere and filled with friends and family, including painter André Derain, who plays a distressed innkeeper with a toothache.

What reputation the film has today rests on its dream sequence, which Renoir directed “in a studio where he had had a cylinder built and painted completely black so that a camera placed on a dolly permitted a 360-degree panoramic view and could follow a horse at a gallop. On the same roll of film, he next shot superimposed clouds.” This sequence has the charm of a Melies short in its analog magic. In its most abstractly beautiful section, Gudule is floating against a black sky, her translucent gown fluttering in the wind. Then she flutters back down to earth, emerging from a columnar set from which a lizard just poked out its head. It conveys weightlessness above all, appropriate for Gudule, whose body has brought her nothing but pain and sorrow thus far. An enterprising theatrical producer named Jean Tedesco would book programs of excerpts from feature films, essentially mixtapes of his favorite sequences. In 1925 he included the dream sequence from Whirpool in one of his programs. At first Renoir was annoyed at the bootlegging, but the scene was wildly applauded at the screening, which grew even louder when they saw the duo in the theater. This for a film that had received minimal bookings in Paris, to muted response. It was the same abroad. Tedesco continued to play the dream sequence in Paris to much acclaim.

Renoir considered Nana (1925) to be his first true feature, and I will write about that one next week, but Whirlpool of Fate is not worthy of disavowal, what with its inventive cinematography (both the natural light of the “realist” outdoor sequences and the madly expressionist studio dream sequence) and the laid-back brio of the performers. Renoir already seemed to have a knack for eliciting relaxed performances, and it was a pleasure to spend time with the Renoir family on this intimate affair.

Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

April 18, 2017


To view The Big Knife click here.

In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the “The Lives of Actors“ theme.

While in New York City filming episodes of Four Star Playhouse in the early 1950s, Robert Aldrich approached Clifford Odets with the idea of adapting The Big Knife, which premiered on Broadway in 1949 with John Garfield in the lead. It had been Odets’ first Broadway production in six years, after a stay in Hollywood. According to Alain Silver’s Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, Aldrich and producer Bernard Tabakin offered to option the play for $500 for a film version with a budget “not to exceed $100,000.” A modest offer to be sure, but Odets was eager to see his work on-screen again – and he was thrilled with the result, writing in The New York Times in 1955 that it was the “best of all” the film adaptations of his plays.


Charlie Castle is introduced working out in his backyard with his personal trainer, keeping his leading man figure in tune. His wife Marion is readying to leave him again unless he refuses to resign with Hoff, a craven businessman who keeps Castle under his thumb due to a portfolio of incriminating acts he could use against Castle at any time.  After minimal prodding, Castle signs the deal. Though seemingly carved out of granite, Castle is a bundle of insecurities and preternaturally eager to please – he is able to shift from arguing with his wife to smooth-talking a gossip columnist with disconcerting ease. Hoff has turned Castle into an actor 24/7, and the man that Marion describes, one of artistic spirit and intellectual curiosity, seems to have departed from the earth.

It is Marion who hung up the Rouault painting of a clown up on the wall, which Castle is eager to over-analyze and prove his worth. He is in a permanent state of self-justification, but eventually runs out of excuses. He makes garbage movies for good money to keep Hoff’s film factory rolling. To ensure his loyalty, Hoff reminds Castle of his crimes – he was involved in a hit-and-run years ago, and the studio pinned the act on his former associates. It was a monstrous act, and now Castle is kept by monsters like Hoff and his assistant Coy, who show up as specters of his lost freedom.


Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe keep the action restricted almost entirely to Castle’s house, putting enormous pressure on Palance to inject dynamism into a small set. It was shot in two weeks on a budget of $400,000, with nine days of “intense” rehearsal beforehand, per The New York Times. Aldrich claimed it made $1.25 million but that all the profit went to the distributor. It’s difficult to retain dynamism in a single set over the course of a feature, and it puts enormous pressure on the actors to deliver something new in every shot. It creates a cramped hothouse atmosphere, made even more so by the small set. According to the AFI Catalog, “In order to fit the main set, that of Charlie’s living room, on the small stage at the Sutherland Studios, art director William Glasgow came up with a ‘combination of wild walls.’ The article reported that ‘as a result, the camera can be placed anywhere in a complete circle around the set, permitting shooting from any angle.’” Even with that technical shortcut, there is not a lot of different set-ups that can be made over the course of a one-location movie, by the end you know every nook and cranny.


The Big Knife has what you might call “unlikable” characters – it’s lead is a murderer, and his bosses blithely discuss committing some of their own. It can become an issue, though, if you don’t buy Castle’s central dilemma – whether he should take lots of money, or not take lots of money. Robert Aldrich recalled his dad reacting to the premise: “Am I to understand that [Castle’s] choice was to take or not take $5,000 a week? Well then, you’ll never have a successful picture. Because there is no choice.” This criticism followed around the play and the film, but it received plaudits elsewhere, including the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Looking at it today, it’s a film of swirling male hysteria, with Palance and Steiger taking turns chewing the minimal scenery. In The Big Knife Hollywood has turned these men into ogres, fighting to the death over a few scraps of dignity.

The Bank Job: Perfect Friday (1970)

April 11, 2017

PERFECT FRIDAY, Ursula Andress (front), 1970

There is a blessed simplicity to a heist film, with its basic elements of planning and execution. Last week I looked at an elaborate cat-and-mouse variation of this trope, The Silent Partner (1978), while today I’ll discuss a streamlined version, the lighthearted British heist film Perfect Friday (1970). They are two of the six films FilmStruck is streaming in its “How to Rob a Bank” theme (alongside The League of Gentlemen[1960], Max and the Junkmen [1971], Revanche [2008], and The Robber [2010]). Perfect Friday is shorn of any backstory or subplot, focused entirely on the robbery at hand. Stanley Baker stars as a mild mannered bank clerk looking to retire on one big score. He recruits a money hungry Lord (David Warner) and his wife (Ursula Andress) to pull off the job. But every word they speak is a lie, from promises of an equal split to the husband telling his wife he loves her. The scene is set for multiple betrayals, it is only a matter of who is holding the money-stuffed suitcase last.

Perfect Friday was one of the projects financed by London Screenplays Ltd., brainchild of producer Dimitri de Grunwald. After the collapse of the studio system, new financing systems were emerging. Grunwald built his company on pre-selling distribution rights and getting financing off of those commitments. He described it this way to the New York Times in 1970: “In the past, other producers, especially in Europe, have lined up distributors in various countries to provide minimum guarantees in advance for a particular film that can be used to obtain production funds. What we’ve done is to set this up on a permanent basis through our International Film Consortium.” They had a deal where 59 countries agreed to distribute eight London Screenplays productions via the International Film Consortium a year. In order to satisfy the distributors, he tried to cast international stars in these productions, so in this one he included the Swiss Ursula Andress as the foil to Brits Stanley Baker and David Warner.

Stanley Baker plays Mr. Graham, a prim and proper assistant bank manager whose life is perfect arranged, from his plucked mustache to his ascetic glass box office. But he’s single and without romantic prospects, and the middle-class life doesn’t hold as much promise as it once did. He sees an opportunity in the cash inspections performed by the local authorities. This exercise, to keep a check on the banks’ books, is undertaken by random government officials throughout the year. Since the faces keep changing, Graham is convinced he can recruit some schlub to impersonate one and easily rob the bank of cash. Mr. Graham settles on the unlikely couple of Lord Nicholas Dorset (David Warner) and his wife Lady Britt Dorset (Ursula Andress). The Lord is a down-at-heel ponce who would do anything to replenish his coffers, at least enough to match the prestige of his title. The Lady, played with diabolical panache by Andress, can flirt her way through any difficulties, and often does. She is introduced trying to sweet talk Graham into a loan, as well as an extension on repayment.


Baker said that, “What I like about Perfect Friday is that everybody lies to each other and everybody believes each other’s lies. I don’t know if the audience realises it, but every time the characters speak to each other, they’re lying.” Director Peter Hall, who made his name in the theater (directing the UK premiere of Waiting for Godot), keeps the plot moving swiftly so there isn’t time to ponder the veracity of all the players’ claims. The editing shifts timelines from recruitment to execution, keeping the viewer slightly off balance, withholding some details of the robbery until the event unfolds. Graham seems unflappable, Nick a scoundrel, and Britt a gold digger. These impressions shift and realign as the movie pipes along. The whole film is a well carpentered thing thanks to production designer Terence Marsh (The Shawshank Redemption [1994]), and the bank office is a glass-walled marvel, a glum panopticon in which the office drones are fully visible throughout the day. This extreme visibility is another key to Graham’s plan. He has to see when his colleague moves to a phone in order to orchestrate phone calls from his fake administrator.


The robbery itself is a precisely timed mechanism. Graham thinks it foolproof, but it requires a number of costume changes, prank phone calls, dummy suitcases and counterfeit cash. It’s quite a convoluted plan for an inside job, but whatever works. It is thrilling to see it all come off, however absurd, especially the David Warner quick changes from schlubby bank patron to stuffy government employee with starched shirt and plummy accent. He’s almost doing an impression of Baker’s Graham. Baker, usually overflowing with rowdy machismo, is here a fastidious “t” crosser and “i” dotter, his most aggressive move is roughly cleaning his glasses. But he’s wonderful playing against type, and that hint of menace and physicality that Baker can’t help but bring through his sheer presence, gives Graham a sneering malevolence that would otherwise come off as merely snotty.


It’s a show for the actors – and Andress gets plenty of time to shine. Not just a beach Bond girl, here she lets those tumbling blond locks work for her as a conniving con woman. She was the highlight of the film for Pauline Kael, who said she, “comes across as a witty deadpan comedienne. With her face and figure, the addition of technique makes her dazzling — she’s seductive and funny, like the larcenous Dietrich of Desire…” Though I can’t quite go that far, Andress is deliciously funny throughout, especially in a last act twist I won’t give away. There is no comeuppance, and no lessons are learned. These perpetually scheming backstabbers are simply content of dreaming of the perfect robbery. If they don’t come up with the cash, so be it. There’s always next year.

Robbing Them Blind: The Silent Partner (1978)

April 4, 2017


In The Silent Partner, the devil is in the details. Elliott Gould’s mild-mannered bank teller Miles is transformed into a criminal strategist because he notices a scrawl of handwriting on a deposit slip. This causes his analytical mind to pivot its attentions from customer accounts to an elaborately unfolding heist. The script by Curtis Hanson is relentlessly logical as it pits the chess-playing, game theory wielding Gould against the brute force of a sociopathic thief named Harry, played with dark charisma by Christopher Plummer. Their pas de deux takes place all over Toronto (this was one of the early Canadian Tax Shelter films – 100% of costs were tax deductible), and what began as a teasing game becomes something elemental.  The Silent Partner won six Canadian Film Awards, including Best Picture, but had trouble finding screens in the United States – but now The Silent Partner is  streaming on FilmStruck as part of its six-film “How to Rob a Bank” collection.

Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna’s fledgling Carolco Pictures bought the rights to the Danish crime novel Think of a Number, and Curtis Hanson was hired to write the adaptation, and also had the intention of directing it. But Hanson was invited to adapt Romain Gary’s White Dog for Paramount (eventually directed by Sam Fuller), and while he was working on that job Carolco pushed Think of a Number into production as The Silent Partner and hired Canadian director Daryl Duke – mainly to qualify for the tax break. In order to receive it, among other things, the production had to have two-thirds of its crew be Canadian (John Candy appears in an engagingly dopey supporting role), and Duke fit the bill. He was a longtime director for the CBC, and had also made a feature, the hell raising Rip Torn country music movie Payday (1973). Duke was removed from the job late in the production process after refusing to shoot a sequence of exploitative violence. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s tonally out of whack with the low key tension the rest of the film is building. Curtis Hanson recalled that “I wound up going up to Toronto while they were filming and getting very involved in it…and after it was wrapped, they brought me back for a week of pickups and to completely re-edit it. I did all the post-production on it as well.”


The Silent Partner is set during the Christmas season, opening in the Eaton Center mall as Miles’ bank is slammed with deposits. As he idly, awkwardly flirts with his office crush Julie (Susannah York), he doodles on a carbon deposit slip. As he is about to throw it in the garbage, he notices a message on the discarded slip: “The Thing In My Pocket is a Gun. Give Me All the Cash.” In addition, he recognizes the unique way the “G” is written on a slant – it is the same “G” he saw on a sign held by the store Santa. His observant eye, which made him an efficient if dull teller, now leads him to a path of crime.


His suspicion becomes a certainty, that Santa tried and abandoned an attempt to rob the bank and will try again soon, if not tomorrow. Miles is a meek bachelor whose sole passion is tropical fish, anxiously lonely, Julie says he is “less than the sum of his parts.” But something shifts in his psyche at the sight of the slip, and he sees an opportunity to reinvent himself. He plans to skim from the Santa’s robbery, keeping the majority of the day’s take in a lunchbox under the desk – so when he is held up, Miles takes home the majority of the cash, and Santa is the only one wanted for armed robbery. The only issue is that the Santa, Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) is a bit of a psychopath who beats up underage girls for kicks. Reikle won’t let Miles get away with the ruse and begins to stalk and harass him for the rest of the cash, believing his violence will cow him as it does everyone else. Plummer plays Reikle as a sinuous smooth-talker with a stone face, his torrent of silken words not matching the emptiness in his face. Not to mention his long sharp fingernails that seem like they could cut glass. It is a uniquely unsettling performance.


Miles, reading The Principles of Chess by James Mason,  is not terribly concerned with his physical well being, more so with staying multiple moves ahead of Reikle. Miles discovers untapped wells of duplicity, from lying to the cops to grand theft auto to improvised corpse disposal. Miles is not a killer but an adapter to circumstances, and his moral slipperiness, while preferable to Reikle’s abject depravity, is impossible to pin down. The nervous smiles that Gould cracks in the beginning of the film seem like normal anxious guy tics, but by the end they are a finely tuned mask so his opponents underestimate him. The “Miles” from the opening scene is a distant memory, this new one is a blank space, one that Reikle is prone to praising by the final reel. SPOILER ALERT: In the faux-happy ending Miles gets the girl and the money, but it is unclear if Miles wants anything anymore. He has emptied himself out for the dream of escape.

The Killer is Loose: He Walked By Night (1948)

March 14, 2017


He Walked By Night (1948) strips the police procedural to the bone. There are no backstories or love interests, just the case at hand, rigorously filmed by director of photography John Alton and directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann (FilmStruck is streaming five Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir collaborations: T-Men [1948], Raw Deal [1948], He Walked By NightBorder Incident [1949] and Devil’s Doorway [1950]). Inspired by the 1946 crime spree of former Army Lieutenant Erwin Walker, the movie is obsessed with process, of both the cops and the killer. The police methodically trudge through witness interviews and crowdsource a sketch of the suspect, while the equally conscientious criminal attempts to wipe his identity from public record. Made in the semi-documentary style popularized by The Naked City (1948), though on a lower budget, it can be no-frills to the point of abstraction, as both sides of the law disappear into the shadows of Los Angeles’ sewer system. In late 1945, after his discharge from the army, Erwin Walker began stealing electronic equipment. He pulled off over a dozen such jobs, but he didn’t get into the news until he shot two LAPD detectives when they tried to arrest him for selling stolen goods. He then became one of the most wanted men in Los Angeles, and during the manhunt killed a Highway Patrol officer. From the court transcripts it was revealed the reasons for Walker’s burglaries: “Defendant told his friend of an idea he had of inventing an electronic radar gun, which by shooting a beam would disintegrate metal into powder, and by which they could seize control of the government and enforce legislation which would increase the cost of war to a point where it could not profitably be waged, effecting this primarily by raising to a high level the salaries paid to soldiers.” He was convicted of murder in 1947 and let out on parole in 1974.


The script by John C. Higgins, with original story by Crane Wilbur, uses the broad outlines of Walker’s case history, though changes around some details. The Erwin Walker character is named Roy (Richard Basehart), who is introduced trying to jimmy open the lock of a jewelry store, before a black and white cop car cruises by and Roy becomes a cop killer as well as a thief. The investigation of the crime is led by Police Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) and his team of surly hulking detectives. The movie goes to great lengths to emphasize the hard work put in by the police force, which is depicted as a finely tuned watch cycling through witnesses with precision, as the voice-of-god narration nails home over and over. But as Raymond Chandler notes in one of his published letters, the police’s activities in the movie seem to skim the boundaries of legality, as they seemingly arrest everybody in the city with a passing resemblance to Roy’s description, regardless of evidence. Chandler wrote, “to me the really shocking thing about the picture was the assumption that the gestapo methods of the police are natural and proper. By what authority do they mark off an area and bring everyone inside it for questioning? This is nothing but arrest without warrant…”

This aggressive dragnet dredged up plenty of shady characters, but no one connected to Roy’s crimes. So next they create a composite sketch of Roy from all the burglary and hold-up witnesses who glimpsed his face, using slides of different facial features to jog their memories. This is orchestrated by the forensics guy Lee, played with “just the facts” bluntness by Jack Webb, who would later produce and star in Dragnet (which lifts “only the names are changed – to protect the innocent” from the opening crawl). Webb’s work on He Walked By Night led directly to the TV show, as Webb got to talking with technical advisor Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn.  Those conversations turned into Dragnet, which took He Walked By Nights minimalist approach to television.


The cops’ big break comes on a random interview with a milkman, who had seen a man of Roy’s appearance on one of his routes. So it is a combination of new technology (the sketch slides) and old fashioned shoe leather that finally encircle Roy. Richard Basehart has very little dialogue in the film – he’s mostly reacting to noises and other stimuli that might give away his identity. It is a performance of watchful intensity, seen in gruesome detail when he has to remove a bullet from his gut. John Alton trains his camera on Basehart’s face, beads of sweat coalescing on his brow, his lips set in a line of grim determination. What makes this one of the great bullet removal scenes is the fact that it plays against silence. There is no score blaring in the background manipulating the tone, the filmmakers force it all into Basehart’s face, and it is terrifying, no more so than the little flicker of a grin that flashes across his faces after he finishes.

There has always been a question as to the film’s authorship. The directing credit is given to Alfred Werker (Repeat Performance [1947]), though there have been numerous reports that Werner was removed (or had to step down) early in production, and that Mann directed the majority of the feature. Mann collaborated with John Alton throughout this period (twice before in 1948), and the brutal physicality of the bullet removal scene, unflinching as it stares into Roy’s face, is a hallmark of Mann’s unflinching kind of cinema. But it could also be at the suggestion of John Alton, one of those cinematographers whose signature is obvious a few frames into a movie, and He Walked By Night is filled with serrated shadows thrown by blinds in cheap offices. Max Alvarez, in The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, goes farthest in trying to assign credit for the feature. He interviewed dialogue director Stewart Stern, who said, “I don’t remember the reason Tony took over. I think Werker got sick. I think I got a call telling me that I would have to replace Werker the next day. Then Tony appeared and I’ve never been more relieved in my life! I don’t think Werker worked a day on that, but I’m not sure.” So while the timeline is unclear, and Werker may have had some influence for an early part of the shoot, it seems clear that Mann directed the majority of the film, and it is generally considered part of his filmography, part of his incredible 1948 that also includes Raw Deal and T-Men, two other crime docudramas that push the illusion of reality.


For most of its running time He Walked By Night is relentlessly focused on process, on the next clue or the next interview. The remarkable closing sequence in the sewers, which precedes a similar scene in The Third Man by a year, finds Roy using the underground tunnels as his getaway, though the cops have been sealing off the exits. Alton streams in shafts of light offscreen that reflect off the pooled water but keep Roy in shadows. Roy keeps searching for a manhole cover to emerge out of but they are stopped up by the cops. This elusive cipher, who always had an alternate escape route, is now trapped and mortal. His death is framed not as a triumph but as the natural result of an effective police force. It is a clinical and menacing end to this brutally efficient noir.