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.


July 1, 2014


The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.


Born in Lyon, France in 1941, Bertrand Tavernier was a movie-mad youth who soaked up projector rays in repertory houses, preferring the American Westerns and melodramas of William Wellman, Delmer Daves, and other unsung Hollywood directors. A writer for his student paper, he interviewed Jean-Pierre Melville, who was so impressed with Tavernier that he hired him to be his assistant director on Leon Morin, Priest (1961), which let him drop law school for cinema. Tavernier called Melville his “godfather in film.”:

He would give me an appointment, and he’d show up four hours late. Then he’d arrive in his big convertible Cadillac, with electric windows, and driving through Paris telling stories about the French underground, the resistance, showing you where famous gangsters had been killed. He’d take me to dinner, take me to films, and he’d keep me up all night, because Melville could not sleep.

Melville re-assigned Tavernier from assistant director to press agent, a job in which he went on to promote numerous members of the French New Wave on the films of Godard, Chabrol and Varda, among others. He spent years learning the business as a publicist and as a critic. Starting around 1960 he began contributing regularly to Positif and Cahiers du Cinema, a run I would dearly like to see translated into English, if this bibliography is any way accurate. He would go on to write comprehensive tomes on Hollywood, first with Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 50 ans de cinéma américain (never translated into English) and his massive book of director interviews Amis américains (ditto).


In an interview included on the Optimum DVD I purchased, Tavernier said he waited until 1974 to make his debut feature because he “needed to learn about life.” His first project would be an adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel The Watchmaker of Everton (1954). It tells the story of a habitually-minded watchmaker in a small town in New York State whose son is suddenly wanted for murder. In a 1974 interview Tavernier claimed that the novel had grabbed his attention with the father’s line, “I stand behind my son”, during a murder trial. Despite their estranged and non-communicative relationship, the strange familial bond forces the father to veer out of his etched path and express his emotions. At this time Tavernier was a loosely affiliated member of the OCI (Organisation Communiste Internationaliste), and reconfigures the plot to express contemporary political concerns. He would quit the organisation by 1976, fed up by the Stalinist factions “rigid and totally reactionary rules”. The Watchmaker of St. Paul  changes Simenon’s murder victim from an anonymous motorist to a thuggish factory manager who may have abused the son’s girlfriend. The son is then used as a political tool by both the publicity machines of the left and right, though the boy’s act ultimately seems to be one of less of politics than of passion. The story’s focus is on how the father Michel Descombes (Philippe Noiret) processes his son Bernard’s act, and how he comes to “stand by” him, despite the emotional gulf that separates them. The film also stands as a documentary of Lyon in 1974, the film being shot on the streets and inside the courtrooms of Tavernier’s home city. It is distinctly an insider’s view of town, focusing on the side streets and alleyways that one treasures of home, the places not shared by the wider city at large.


Tavernier is a committed progressive, but he often look into the past for aesthetic inspiration. He hired Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche to write the screenplay for The Watchmaker of St. Paul, two of the central figures in France’s 1940s-1950s “cinema of quality” that Truffaut eviscerated in his “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” broadside, in which he said Aurenche and Bost “have made the works they adapt insipid”. With the rise of the New Wave, the duo of Aurenche and Bost (Forbidden Games) had stopped receiving work in features. Tavernier claims he was making no point in hiring them, just that they were the best men for the job.  His decision was also based on his experience as a press agent, when he decided he would “avoid all the people who were fashionable”, since they were so busy they could devote little time to each project. The generation gap between Tavernier and the two screenwriters would match that of the father and son, and that tension would be appropriate for the material. It would also fit a line Billy Wilder had told him, that the “screenwriter should be the minister of opposition.” Each line should be a battle. Bost passed away soon after The Watchmaker, but Aurenche would go on to be Tavernier’s minister of opposition on three more films.


The Watchmaker of St. Paul is an intricate, multi-layered and tactile thing. It is anchored by Philippe Noiret, who made the film possible. His presence attracted funding, and he cut his salary in half to lower the budget. When Tavernier asked him later on why he chose to help, Noiret responded, “I gave you my word.” As the father in Watchmaker, Noiret is not that upright and just. Noiret plays Descombes as a watchful outsider, taking seats at ends of tables and joining conversations instead of starting them. He prefers to circulate than to be centered, and Noiret emphasizes the character’s ungainliness and uncertainty. He says very little, and usually regrets what he does say. His opposite number is the investigator Guilboud (Jean Rochefort), a dashing, drily witty intellectual who offers a self-satisfied smile when he correctly attributes a quote by Paul Claudel. Guilboud is nevertheless attracted to Descombes for the insights he may have into the opaque actions of the younger generation. Each older man is baffled by the rhetoric of revolt. Guilboud sees it as a fad, or a phase – burning cars as the fashionable new thing. Descombes comes to a deeper understanding, or at least a detente, with his preternaturally calm Bernard. He is sickened by Guilboud’s condescension, disheartened by the manipulations of the legal system, and suffused with love. Descombes stands by his son.