Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"The French Had a Name For It" Brings Film Noir Gems Neglected for a Half-Century to Los Angeles

Rare Film Noir from France will unspool at the Aero Theatre June 19 - 22, 2015.

"The French had a Name for It: Rare French Film Noir 1948 - 1963" comes to the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica June 19 - 22, 2015 with eight rare films featuring well-known French actors such as Simone Signoret, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin and Brigitte Bardot among others. Although largely considered an American genre, it was French film critics who coined the term "film noir" to describe the dark stories of murder, betrayal and a doomed society, that began to crop up in the World War II era. Los Angelenos have developed a taste for international noir with the introduction over the past few years, of films from England, Argentina, Italy and other countries, at the popular, annual Film Noir Festival, co-presented in the Spring by the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation.at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre. 

Over the eight years that Don Malcolm edited Noir City for Muller’s Film Noir Foundation, he and a small army of writers worked to expand the notions of what film noir encompassed. And that effort produced essays pinpointing the existence of many notable and forgotten noir films from around the world.

In 2014, Malcolm went out on his own in order to take these exciting discoveries off the printed page and into movie theatres, where cinephiles could engage with them directly. The first result of this effort, a series of twelve French films noir that played at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre last November, entitled "The French Had a Name For It," created a sensation that yielded turn away business. Malcolm muses that "many of the directors of the films we’re rediscovering were raked over the coals during the ascendancy of the Nouvelle Vague. This caused their film work to be pretty much ‘hidden in plain sight’ for a half-century.” 
Un Temoin Dans La Ville
But no longer. Now a slightly revised version of that remarkable festival, one that made San Francisco Chronicle lead film critic Mick LaSalle swoon at their collectively risqué panache (“the experience is like finding gold where you thought was rock”), is coming to the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre for four nights beginning Friday, June 19, copresented by Midcentury Productions.

What’s most amazing—shocking, even—is that many of these films feature big, big names in French cinema history. Brigitte Bardot—Jean Gabin—Simone Signoret—Lino Ventura: each of these French film icons is represented in at least one (and sometimes two) films with a glittering darkness equal to already well known French noir classics such as Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and The Wages of Fear. “People know Lino Ventura from his work in the mid-sixties and seventies, but they’ve never seen Un Temoin Dans La Ville (1959), which is the template for his breakout as a singular leading man,” noted American Cinematheque programmer Gwen Deglise, who’s more than a Francophile—she is, in fact, from France and is one of only a select few who know just what remains to be discovered in the mostly-unexplored continent of French film noir. The festival opens with a pair of films that move Brigitte Bardot from sexual object to cultural lightning rod: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s probing La Verité (1960), which literally puts her image “on trial,” and lesser-known but equally hard-charging director Claude Autant-Lara’s masterful blend of noir and melodrama, En cas de malheur aka Love Is My Profession (1958), where Bardot and Gabin hook up in a star-crossed May-September liaison. Youthful passion and worldly-wise middle age collide here with astonishing results. 

La Verité

“These films are more explicit than American noirs could be, held back by the Production Code,” notes Malcolm. “Mick LaSalle called it a ‘special freedom’ to explore dark themes more completely. And they do.” 

En cas de malheur

Nowhere will this be more apparent than on Sunday night, when a pair of masterful noirs by often-overlooked director Julien Duvivier will screen. Voici les temps des assassins aka Deadlier Than The Male (1956) features Jean Gabin as the would-be victim of a desperate revenge plot by sweet-faced femme fatale Daniele Delorme (in a performance that builds to a hysterical ferocity beyond that of even American noir fatales such as Ann Savage and Peggy Cummins). 

Voici les temps des assassins

“But just when you think that you’ve seen the worst there can possibly be,” smiles Malcolm, “there’s Catherine Rouvel.” Duvivier’s last noir, Chair de poule aka Highway Pickup (1963), unleashes the incredibly sexy and lethal Rouvel on an escaped convict (played with astringent brilliance by Robert Hossein) who merely wants a place to hide from the law. Instead, he finds a slowly enveloping hell on earth. 
Chair de poule

“One could argue that Duvivier began film noir with Pepe le moko back in 1937,” notes Deglise, “and you could say that with Chair de poule he also brought it to an end. He’s someone who really deserves to be better known.” Monday night brings more sex and squalid societal values to the screen as the great Simone Signoret appears in Dédée D’Anvers (1948), the first of her iconic roles as women beset by smothering, deceitful men. 

Dédée D’Anvers
“Dédée is a bit of a look back at French poetic realism,” Malcolm explains, “but it introduces two key actors who would be beloved in France for decades—Simone Signoret, of course, but also the great rotund character actor Bernard Blier.” And Blier, long relegated to supporting parts, gets to shine in the closing film on Monday night, Le septieme juré (1962), where his accidental “sex murder” of a provincial floozy is blamed on someone else—and he soon finds himself on the jury for the murder trial! 
Le septieme juré

“There wasn’t a good enough copy of Le septieme juré available last November to screen,” Malcolm notes, “but we’re incredibly pleased that the situation has changed in the past several months. Blier is amazingly moving here; it’s a performance and a film not to be missed.” If what happened in San Francisco last November is any indication, Los Angeles cinephiles and film noir aficionados are advised to get their tickets early for what promises to be the star of many amazing French noir rediscoveries. They will discover that the reason "the French had a name for it" is that they understood what noir was, and made their own dark films as well (or better) than anyone. 

The French Had A Name For It starts Friday, June 19, 2015 at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90403. More information on the Cinematheque's website and tickets on Fandango.com.