A master of suspense admired even by Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot is famous for acid-tinged thrillers about cold-blooded murder and ugly politics, whether in a French town or a Latin American oil field. But his early writing career was quite different: he provided the scenarios and dialogue for ten years’ worth of clever farces and affecting melodramas, often with musical numbers.
Clouzot The Early Works
My Cousin from Warsaw, Dragnet Night, The Unknown Singer, I’ll Be Alone After Midnight, The Terror of Batignolles, Tell Me Tonight, Dream Castle
Kino Lorber Kino Classics
1931- 1933 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 511 min.
Street Date November 20, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 59.95
Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot
If one digs into older movies away from the usual standard titles, the history of filmmaking opens up like a grand epic. All those acknowledged French masterpieces of the 1930s weren’t necessarily the popular norm. Just as in America, the mass cinema built entertainments around songs and musical stars. With all the name opera and operetta singers drifting about, French and German films often starred music talent from Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
That’s not at all the subject of Kino Classics / Lobster Films new 2-disc set Clouzot the Early Works, but it’s definitely part of what I took away from the experience. The earliest Henri-Georges Clouzot picture most of us has seen is 1942’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21, a film made during the occupation for a collaborationist company. This set skips back ten years before that, to Clouzot’s first films as writer (usually a co-writer) of scenarios and dialogue. Semi-musicals, romantic comedies and sentimental melodramas, they haven’t much in common with the director’s later more celebrated work, the politically poisonous Le corbeau and The Wages of Fear, and the ruthless Les diaboliques. The stories may be softer, but the dialogues are crisp and the ironies are sharp enough to suggest some of H.G.’s darker impulses.
The six pictures include Clouzot’s first four features as writer for producer Adolphe Osso, plus his first outing as solo director, a comedy short subject.
Dragnet Night (Un soir de rafle, 1931) is a romantic boxing story told with great finesse. It’s the old tale: young sailor Georget (Albert Préjean) gets into the boxing racket by accident, to impress a girl. An older fighter trains him and he wins a championship, but his singer girlfriend Mariette (Annabella) is convinced that success will ruin him. Led astray by a ‘user’ socialite Yvonne (Edith Méra), Georget rejects his friends and falls apart. About as sensitive as a boxing story can be, the tale also shows Georget expressing himself in song, crooning a winning tune on his boat. He also plays a mean accordion, and his love song brings a bustling café to hushed attention. The story is simple but involving, with especially sympathetic characters.
Star Préjean was also in the Josephine Baker picture Princesse Tam-Tam, and earlier, René Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris. Annabella is particularly impressive; she was in Abel Gance’s silent Napoleon and Duvivier’s La Bandera. She starred opposite James Cagney in 13 Rue Madeleine and in real life married Tyrone Power. Director Carmine Gallone returned to Fascist Italy to direct one of Mussolini’s favorite projects, Scipione l’africano (1937).
Some of the dialogue in the farce I’ll Be Alone After Midnight (Je serai seule après minuit, 1931) is sung instead of spoken, which is ironic because thirty years later its star Mireille Perrey played (sang?) a role in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The witty concept has an angry, vengeful wife study a book on how to commit adultery. She sends out dozens of balloons with an invitation for any interested man to visit her for sex! A funny cross-section of Parisians shows up, along with an amorous friend; when this friend wins the bedroom raffle, the wife enlists a sophisticated burglar to keep him at bay.
A goofball tone is maintained throughout, and the charm factor stays high as songs carry much of the story. It definitely reminds us of what Ernst Lubitsch was up to in his racy Paramount comedies of the day, except that in Hollywood Lubitsch couldn’t treat the subject of marriage so blithely. Director Jacques de Baroncelli had already earned a reputation for racy movies with a 1929 version of La femme et le pantin starring Conchita Montenegro. The very elaborate scenes with the burglar perhaps point to Clouzot’s contribution, as his first job of directing, a short subject, is a fanciful comedy about a burglar as well.
The Unknown Singer (Le chanteur inconnu, 1931) is a musical melodrama built around a star opera singer-actor, Lucien Muratore. A traveling music impresario discovers an amnesia case (Muratore) in a remote Russian town. He turns out to be Claude Ferval, a famed singer thought lost years ago in an arctic shipwreck. Because his wife has remarried, Ferval insists that he return to Paris incognito, as ‘The Unknown Singer.’ His ex- wife Hélène (Simone Cerdan) hears his voice on the radio, and is driven mad with fear and guilt. The revelations come fast and thick when we discover that Hélène’s new husband purposely sent Claude to his death. Of course, the key revelations in this high-toned soap opera all occur at a big concert, where Claude will remove his mask.
Director Viktor Tourjansky gets good performances from everyone, even his singing star. The big surprise is the presence of the great French actress Simone Simon as a green reporter who turns heads as she tries to uncover the Unknown Singer’s identity. Just a few years later Ms. Simone would begin bouncing back and forth between Paris and Hollywood, making classics like The Devil and Daniel Webster and Cat People. But she couldn’t firmly establish herself as an American star.
My Cousin from Warsaw (Ma cousine de Varsovie, 1931) appears to be H.G. Clouzot’s first writing credit. He adapted a play by Louis Verneuil, starring the playwright’s lover Elvire Popesco, a light comedienne from Romania. Carmine Gallone again shows a sure hand directing marital hanky-panky. A comic banker takes a rest cure at his country estate and discovers that his wife has invited an artist to live-in with her. At first not realizing that he’s being cuckolded, the banker can’t react because of the visit of a wild relative, the flighty Pole Sonia (first-billed Popesco). To get her husband out of the way, the wife persuades Sonia to seduce him, while the husband asks Sonia to seduce the artist. The foolishness persists through various complications, including snippets of the opera that the husband is writing as part of his rest cure. Everything suggests music to him, from horse bells to the shouts of the angry villagers that come to demand payment for their services. The use of music is a tiny bit like Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, minus the ultra-sophisticated directing techniques.
Did Preston Sturges see My Cousin from Warsaw? The Sonia character is reminiscent of Mary Astor’s flighty heiress in Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story. Sonia breezes in dropping dizzy talk about being engaged to a Spanish prince who’s in prison for treason, poor fellow. She then dismisses her lapdog companion, telling him to go back and wait for her in a hotel. The sexy Sonia proves to be the most mature kissing partner in the whole group, however.
Tell Me Tonight (La chanson d’une nuit, 1932) is another musical comedy built around a classy singer, only this time the director is the Russian-born Anatole Litvak, who would soon earn an impressive Hollywood career. This German production stars the handsome opera and operetta notable Jan Kiepura, who would have to flee Austria when the Nazis moved in. The French star Pierre Brasseur (Eyes without a Face) provides comic support. The gorgeous leading lady is the German actress Magda Schneider, the mother of ’60s star Romy Schneider. Magda played with her daughter in a series of 1950s costume dramas.
The story seems like something that Louis B. Mayer might have wanted for a Technicolor MGM musical with Mario Lanza. To take a break from a too-fast performing schedule, opera star Enrico Ferrara (Kiepura) runs away to an Italian mountain resort and changes identities with another not-famous singer, Koretzky (Brasseur). While pretending to be his own secretary, Ferrara romances a local luminary (Schneider). Time is spent on adventures racing down twisty roads and various romantic mixups ensue before true identities are revealed. The tightly written script often jumps between scenes using dialogue-driven transitions, that Clouzot seems to have learned from Fritz Lang. With all three leads putting in superior performances — Brasseur and Schneider are particularly arresting — this may be the most professional-looking picture in the set.
Dream Castle (Château de rêve, 1933) is a less imaginative tale of romantic reversals, that perhaps brings in a few elements too many. A movie company ‘borrows’ sailors from a naval dreadnought to serve as extras; it’s as easy as pulling a boat alongside the battleship and asking with a bullhorn. From that point forward all is confusion — the officer who accompanies the sailors earns a leading role and romances the film company’s sweet leading lady. She is played by Edith Méra, earlier the femme fatale of Dragnet Night.
A big part of the comedy touches lightly on inter-class snobbery and discrimination, as the film people run afoul of both commoners and ritzy locals in the coastal town where the movie is being shot. An armed squad from the ship ends up having to rescue the foolish filmmakers. As it turns out, the ‘lowly’ naval officer is really a Baron, but has hidden that fact from his new actress girlfriend. It’s less original or clever than the other Clouzot-written farces, but the pretty scenery does compensate. Of interest to film fans will be the third-billed actress Danielle Darrieux, who later became one of France’s biggest stars, culminating in Max Ophuls’ Earrings of Madame de…
The films are not presented in order of release, but are arranged to best fit them on two discs. At the end of disc one is H.G. Clouzot’s first directing credit, the short subject The Terror of Batignolles (La terreur des Batignolles, 1931). Although a comedy, the film has suspense touches that immediately set it apart from the lighter fare Clouzot was writing. It opens amid dark rooftops and sinister silhouettes, as a master crook slips into a swank apartment and begins to fill his bag with loot. But the owners come home early and a confrontation takes place. Although called ‘The Terror of Batignolles,’ our burglar is such a big sissy that he’s repeatedly frightened by kittens. When the homeowners turn the tables on him, Clouzot finishes with a worthy twist, one that reminds us of Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs. Although basically silly, the show is just clever enough to be an above-average directing debut.
The Kino Lorber Kino Classics/Lobster Films Blu-ray of Clouzot the Early Works presents its six films and one short subject on two discs. The movies are not remastered and a couple look like archival rescues; although encoded in HD the appearance varies, and in general is about the same as the un-restored DVD transfers seen on Criterion’s (discontinued?) Eclipse series.
The early Osso pictures are a little hazy, but have good sound and little image damage. The best-preserved transfer by far is the German-produced Tell Me Tonight, which might be a real HD transfer. At the other end of the quality spectrum is Dream Castle, which appears to be taken from a 16mm reduction print. Because of the way the print was made, big 16mm perforations intrude on the top and bottom right-hand corners.
The Clouzot-directed The Terror of Batignolles is also of ‘rescue’ quality, with an even hazier image. There are no other video extras; the English subtitles are removable. An illustrated insert booklet gives us a nice essay by Peter Tonguette. The takeaway lesson from the box set is to remind us that flourishing continental film industries produced a wealth of entertainment perhaps never seen in the United States. Many ‘big name’ directors and stars remained unknown here; are they now obscure in France as well?
All of the pictures are interesting and at least three are truly special, either because of their style or because they simply work well as engaging stories. And it’s fun trying to perceive what qualities Henri-Georges Clouzot might have imparted to them: the clever audio-visual transitions? Specific hard-edged dialogue?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Clouzot the Early Works
Movies: Very Good
Video: Good + / –
Sound: Good + / –
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: 2 Blu-ray discs in Keep case
Reviewed: November 23, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson