The Old Gun
Robert Enrico’s literally searing terror tale from the French occupation is not for the faint of heart. Fearing reprisals, surgeon Philippe Noiret sends his wife Romy Schneider out of harm’s way of the retreating Germans — but things go horribly wrong. What follows is an ordeal of vengeance even more brutal than Straw Dogs, fought to the finish in a medieval castle.
The Old Gun
MGM Limited Edition Collection
1975 / Color / 1:78 enhanced widescreen / 102 87 min. / Le vieux fusil / Street Date September 8, 2015 / available through Screen Archives Entertainment / 19.95
Starring Philippe Noiret, Romy Schneider, Jean Bouise, Joachim Hansen, Robert Hoffmann, Karl Michael Vogler, Madeleine Ozeray, Caroline Bonhomme, Catherine Delaporte, Daniel Breton, Jean-Paul Cisife, Antoine Saint-John.
Cinematography Étienne Becker
Film Editor Ava Zora
Original Music François de Roubaix
Written by Robert Enrico, Pascal Jardin, Claude Veillot
Produced by Pierre Caro
Directed by Robert Enrico
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some of us can remember the way violent movies were condemned back in the 1960s, when pictures that seemed so important to us — Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch — were reviled by some as abominations to God and Man. I personally felt like Andy Hardy, working in a rural drugstore and being verbally eviscerated for venturing my approval of the ‘immoral’ The Graduate.
That’s all good and nostalgic, but what do I do when a movie’s violence makes me feel uncomfortable? I’ve tried some exploitation gore movies on for size, and have mostly been unimpressed. Sure, porn is porn. If people will pay to see an animal killed on screen, there will always be somebody willing to film it for them.
I guess the violent films I thought were worthwhile, either ‘had something to say,’ or made me assess my own attitudes. Sam Peckinpah set the bar for the 1970s with Straw Dogs, a realistic revenge tale with thematic pretensions. The movie wants to be ‘important’ but its core aim is for the viewer to share the bloody fury nerdish Dustin Hoffman, as he squares off against the thugs invading his house. The movie also encourages us to condemn the Hoffman character’s sluttish wife. And it works pretty well. I rally behind Hoffman’s vengeance, but I’m also suspicious of my reaction.
Robert Enrico’s 1975 The Old Gun (Le vieux fusil) is quality filmmaking. It’s acted and directed extremely well. The subject concerns a French civilian who tries to avoid contact with the worst of the German occupation, only for calamity to strike his family in the worst way imaginable. Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs presented an unpleasant husband and wife with a lousy relationship hardly worth saving. Enrico gives us an almost idealized marriage. The husband is virtuous, and the wife is so attractive and full of life that we feel much more personally involved. The show unspools with a feeling of sickness, of morbid apprehension. When the worst happens — and it’s more horrible than anything we’re prepared for — this viewer was caught off guard. We feel cast adrift, but the film continues with a well-done story of violent retribution, its killing more than justified. In form, it’s still like Peckinpah’s super-exploitation slaughter-fest. Most of us look forward to the revenge killings, even if the husband commits them as if in a trance.
It’s still far more honest than 90% of escapist combat action films, with their cheap heroes. Many legit war revenge movies have called forth the specter of German atrocities against civilians in the retreat of 1944. I think this is a very good movie, even if it makes me very uncomfortable.
In France of 1944, surgeon Julien Dandieu (Philippe Noiret) tries to keep his hospital functioning, even going so far as to buy black-market drugs for his patients. He and his associate François (Jean Bouise) try to conceal some wounded partisans, a dodge that has angered the local French Nazi collaborating police. With the Germans retreating, the surgeons wisely anticipate that the vengeful French Nazis may harm Julien’s family. So he sends his wife Clara (Romy Schneider) and daughter Florence (Catherine Delaporte) off to his country home, a private castle he’s been fixing up, in a small village a few hours away. Julien’s mother (Madeleine Ozeray) opts to stay in town. There’s no mail service, so a week later Julien drives home to check up. He discovers that the village locals have been rounded up into the church, and shot. He’s accustomed to seeing death and mutilation in many forms, yet must steel himself to cautiously continue. Julien approaches the castle carefully, and finds that his worst fear has come true. A retreating German patrol led by an SS officer (Joachim Hansen) has committed the atrocity in town, and then taken a break to look for liquor in the castle — and found Clara and Florence.
The respected The Old Gun is probably Robert Enrico’s best-received feature. When the writer-director is remembered in America, it’s for his 1962 short adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The beautiful B&W film has a spectral, dreamy weirdness reminiscent of Japanese horror films. Apparently lacking a script for a Twilight Show episode, Rod Serling licensed Enrico’s film and trimmed it by a couple of minutes to fit a half-hour time slot. It became one of the best remembered Twilight Zones ever.
The Old Gun is artfully scripted and filmed. Enrico’s flashback patterns are unusually effective. They don’t happen in chronological order, and are triggered by Julien’s psychic trauma. As the idea of the loss of his family sears into Julien’s brain, odd memories pop up. Some throw happy times into contrast, or other moments that now seem cruelly ironic: “I’ll soon be old, why do you never really look at me?” The sense of loss is staggering. Romy Schneider’s beaming face, full of love and joy, is almost as painful as the violence. The flashbacks tell us more about Clara just after we know she’s gone. Curiously, this aligns with human experience — when someone dies, our guilty minds immediately flash back, looking for the most important memories, thinking of the questions that can no longer be asked. We discover that Clara is vain and flighty, and that Julien worries about losing her to another man. We also learn that Florence is not her child. Just as we’re beginning to wonder what Julien is doing sneaking around without being caught by the SS patrole, the flashbacks tell us that he owns the ancient castle, and has spent years fixing it up. He’s in a perfect position to observe the Germans without being seen.
The way that Julien witnesses horrible death is very carefully handled. Enrico flips the order of events, I think for a specific purpose. Julien first sees the result of the carnage, and is devastated. That is followed by a flashback to a scene he hasn’t witnessed, but instead represents the horror of his mind’s re-creation of what must have just happened. The time-sequence trickery isn’t confusing — we’re forced to the same conclusion as poor Julien, and at the same time. We see the horrible evidence, which triggers the terrible realization. Like Hannibal Lecter said, our minds cannot help but create ‘scenarios’ for the things we desire — or fear.
Sadistic gore has come a long way since 1975. The horrors of The Old Gun will not gag connoisseurs of Italian cannibal films, with their parade of atrocious mutilations. And I realize that a mainstream movie or two around 1975 were almost as violent as this, and morally reprehensible to boot, like Michael Winner’s vigilante-porn saga Death Wish. Yet one must be pretty jaded to be unfazed by the violence in this picture. I don’t think The Old Gun was given a Los Angeles release. Seeing it long ago on the “Z” Channel, I at first thought the means of killing was too extreme, too sadistic to be real: what’s to be gained by doing such a horrible thing? Then, a while later, PBS screened the concentration camp compilation film Memories of the Camps, the one supervised by Alfred HItchcock and then set aside after only a few screenings. Images captured by the first liberators of a camp included some shots of charred corpses lying next to a fence. One is frozen in a horrible pose, still clutching the barbed wire. Before the SS guards left, perhaps less than a day before, they had burned some prisoners with flame throwers, apparently out of pure malice, just for sport.
We’re only forty minutes into The Old Gun when Julien comes across this scene. What is one supposed to do with the kind of feelings this creates? Revenge movies always show a terrible crime and then expect us to heartily endorse whatever vengeance the filmmaker has in mind – a cheap setup that I totally reject. Director Enrico spends the next fifty-two minutes working out the surgeon’s revenge. The Germans are still in his castle, which has secret passageways they don’t know about, including a one-way mirror (why?) in the main hall. Julien can hear the SS officers assuring one other that they’ll never have to answer for their wanton slaughter. Julien moves as if in a trance. He retrieves a shotgun from an attic. He has plenty of tricks to play with the castle’s defenses. It even has a moat bridge. The SS detail think they have him trapped, but it’s really the other way around. Some Free French partisans pass by, but Julien doesn’t even tell them that the Germans are in the castle, as he’d rather take care of them on his own. Let the killing begin.
As a revenge narrative, the show is more than satisfying. But the horror of Clara’s death is such a shock that the rest of the movie plays in a fog. Only now, seeing the show again thirty years later, can I appreciate how well it is made, how well Enrico tells the story. By the end of the show, Julien may be losing a grip on his mind. Perhaps he held together just long enough to take his revenge.
So the mourning for Clara brings forth unwelcome thoughts. Violent stories like this offer fantasy solutions for male insecurities. As with survivalist stories, the thought, “What would I do?” leads to us using our own imaginations for gruesome killings. Julien seems to discover new opportunities as they arise: that enemy soldier could be made to fall… those two could be easily drowned. In the end, I think The Old Gun shows us the problematic contradictions that arise when one tries to make a thoughtful and sensitive movie about war atrocities.
Again, Philippe Noiret is great; he makes Dustin Hoffman’s Straw Dogs performance seem like a bag of actor’s mannerisms. Noiret is always an impressive presence — he plays Pablo Neruda in Il Postino, and the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso. As a rule, wealthy landholders in French castles aren’t the most likeable characters in movies. Noiret himself played the boorish owner of a manor estate, a real creep, in Georges Franju’s moody Thérèse Desqueyroux. But the surgeon Julien is a good guy all the way. Romy Schneider is as luminous as ever. She’s so full of life that it’s all but obscene to see her submitted to a fate worse than something in a Herschel Gordon Lewis movie. As Ms. Schneider’s later life became less happy, she seemed to choose more tragic film stories. She’s heartbreaking in Bertrand Tavernier’s science fiction film Death Watch, as a woman who defies a TV magnate’s effort to turn her terminal illness into a media event.
Favorite actor Antoine Saint-John (Duck You Sucker, The Wind and The Lion) has a good bit as a German soldier, while Karl Michael Vogler (The Blue Max, Patton) at this age looks very much like American actor Jeff Morrow. Joachim Hansen (World on a Wire) is scary indeed: his SS officer (right) is the picture of professional pride and simultaneously a monstrous degenerate. Actress Madeleine Ozeray, Julienne’s sweet and slightly dotty mother, gives the film a warm connection to an earlier cinema classic: she plays Julie in Fritz Lang’s one French film, the 1934 romantic fantasy Liliom.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of The Old Gun is an excellent encoding of a film most of us have seen only in faded, edited versions. MGM’s transfer is excellent, making the film look brand-new and spotless, with excellent color. The special optical effects are particularly effective… horrifying.
The audio is the original French and the English subtitles are burned in, not removable. We’re grateful that MGM hasn’t given us a dubbed version.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Old Gun rates:
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (not removable)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 16, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson