Lovers of hot-blooded French noir will love this 1958 B&W drama, which swaps violence for a dangerous sexual relationship between a cop and drug addict suspected of a murder. If this is a ‘lazy’ star vehicle for French superstar Jean Gabin, please bring us more — in his paunchy ‘fifties Monsieur Gabin takes on a beauty half his age, and convinces us that he can keep her.
Le désordre et la nuit
1958 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 93 min. / Street Date April 1 2017, 2017 /
available through Amazon.fr / EUR 14,99
Starring: Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Nadja Tiller, Paul Frankeur,
Hazel Scott, Robert Berri, François Chaumette, Louis Ducreux, Jacky Bamboo and his combo,
Harald Wolff, Roger Hanin.
Cinematography: Louis Page
Film Editor: Jacqueline Sadoul
Original Music: Jean Yatove
Written by Michel Audiard, Gilles Grangier, Jacques Robert from his novel
Produced by Lucien Viard
Directed by Gilles Grangier
Sometime in the 1990s Sherman Torgan of the New Beverly Cinema asked me if I was coming to see something called ‘Grisbi,’ and since then I’ve eagerly awaited every DVD release of a vintage French crime film that could be described as noir. Although a bunch of the best are now out of print, Criterion had a terrific run of DVDs by Melville and Becker, Malle and Dassin, Sautet. These dark French thrillers are more like hardboiled fiction than most of the American noirs we love, mainly because there was no puritan Production Code breathing down their necks. It’s not as if some wild world of cinematic sin has been released; there’s just a freedom from pat morals and judgmental formulas.
If I jump when I find a new ‘likely suspect film’ even if I’ve never heard of it before, it’s because I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of these pictures. Even in Rififi, directed by an American, everything is exotic — the people, the clothes, the cars, the streets, the signage, the language. Yet the films are part of our world. This picture seems 100% French until one realizes that an entertainer in a club is an expatriate American. A man takes a phone call in a booth that’s been decorated with an album cover for the soundtrack for Carousel. It’s like it’s all happening on the edge of our universe, in a slightly different culture that still thinks America is exotic.
So I got the Blu-ray of Le désordre et la nuit as soon as I saw it at Foreign Exchange in Culver City. The title translates roughly as ‘the disorder and the night,’ which for me doesn’t add up to much. The English title for the film’s tiny New Yorkarthouse release in 1961 was The Night Affair, which is closer. The show is basically a vehicle for the great French star Jean Gabin. It’s the last of thirteen movies Gabin did with director Gilles Grangier, a worthy new discovery for this filmgoer. The big star Danielle Darrieux gets higher billing, but the movie belongs to a genuine hot number and fine actress named Nadja Tiller, from Austria. Tiller looks like a cross between Donna Reed and Felicia Farr, but with a carnal shamelessness we didn’t see too often in American pictures. Not an ‘I’m sexy’ showoff act, but the real deal, as communicated by reckless sirens like Jeanne Moreau in Touchez pas au grisbi or Magali Noë in Rififi.
Le désordre et la nuit is not a film about gun-toting crooks, but it does involve a murder. The emphasis is on characterization and atmosphere. At L’Oeuf, a busy late-night Parisian jazz club, the owner Albert Simoni (Roger Hanin) is clearly trying to finalize a drug deal on the phone, while keeping his manager Marquis (Robert Berri) in line. Marquis and several other males are interested in Lucky Fridel (Nadja Tiller), who would seem to be Simoni’s girlfriend. A couple of hours later, Simoni is shot dead and the flics have put Inspector Georges Vallois (Jean Gabin) on the job. The dead man had a record but his brother is a noted industrialist, so Vallois’ superiors apply pressure to see the case solved without delay. Vallois instead takes his time, hanging out at L’Oeuf and trying to figure out Lucky Fridel. She claims that she’s not a prostitute yet almost immediately takes Vallois to a shady hotel; he’s fascinated by her and unhappy to discover that she’s a drug addict. Vallois goes with Fridel to the party given by Valentine Horse (noted performer Hazel Scott), which breaks up when two men get into a fight. And the mystery begins to unravel when the trail leads to the pharmacy of Thérèse Marken (Danielle Darrieux), who seems to have connections with all the leading players. The more pressure that falls on Georges Vallois, the more stubborn he becomes. When his boss commissioner Janin (François Chaumette) twists his arm with the knowledge that he’s slept with a suspect, Vallois refuses to be ruffled. But he swears that he’ll nail the murderer.
Aided by some really snappy dialogue — it even comes across in the subtitles — Le désordre et la nuit is absorbing in its details. The inspectors in the commissioner’s office argue about Georges Vallois’ work habits but not his record. He comes off as an older, French version of Robert Mitchum, choosing his own hours, ignoring official memos and in general showing his superiors that he doesn’t give a damn. Out on the prowl, Vallois doesn’t throw his weight around. He gives the denizens of the clubs an opportunity to show their colors, so he can learn something. He ignores the punks and isn’t offended when he sees the well-heeled creep Blasco (Robert Manuel, also from Rififi) apparently give Lucky an envelope of a contraband substance.
At a rather plump and puffy 54, Jean Gabin is pretty amazing. He plays a tough-guy romantic lead without looking silly. He’s also a full 25 years older than his love interest, yet it doesn’t seem unnatural when they fall into bed together. There are no ‘getting old’ jokes, as when Gabin’s thief in an early picture is shown brushing his teeth and going to bed early. Georges Vallois has no trouble disarming a younger man brandishing a broken bottle. But he’s not bulletproof — when he’s injured he spends several days in hospital.
The movie soon focuses on Vallois’ involvement with Nadja Tiller’s Lucky Fridel. He recognizes immediately that she’s not drunk, but flying on something else; she has a wild eye that draws men like flies. Instead of pressing Lucky for the truth, he lets her play her evasive games. The movie really becomes interesting when Georges sleeps with Lucky. We’re altogether too accustomed to the Production Code norm, in which a righteous guy won’t go to bed with a woman under any pretext but love, and usually not without a marriage ceremony. Even in 1958, womanizing cops in American movie are portrayed as bad apples and will more likely than not be shot dead by the fade out. Just when we expect Vallois to slap Lucky’s face, he instead embraces her. She’s a self-destructive bundle of trouble, but he’s already fallen for her. Georges spends the rest of the movie trying to find out how badly Lucky is involved in the murder. It definitely feels dangerous, yet Vallois is not by any measure a generic ‘rogue cop.’
Le désordre et la nuit shares with other ’50s French noirs the sheer pleasure of its locations. We realize that many Parisian street scenes are staged on a studio lot — there appears to be a large backdrop at the end of one foreshortened street — but we can barely tell them apart from the real streets packed with shiny cars. Louis Page appears to have been Gabin’s favorite cameraman of the time, and his work shines in Georges and Lucky’s first nighttime walk. It’s only half-romantic; the somewhat buzzed Lucky thinks it’s funny that the cop so readily agrees to step out with her. Nadja Tiller is given many admiring glamour shots and close-ups, but the best is an image of her leaning into the drizzle, and letting the water bead up on her face.
The show probably didn’t make the lists of big French noir pictures because it’s about this relationship, not a complicated web of criminal activity. The only hint of politics comes when the cops say that the dead Simoni had been a collaborator during the war. That isn’t automatically shorthand for ‘bad guy’ in these often-amoral ’50s thrillers. In Grisbi the hero’s good pal also worked to root out the resistance — that’s how he ended up with a cache of weapons in his cellar. Vallois is strong enough to maintain his equilibrium despite Lucky’s evasions. Lucky is a functioning addict pretty much at the brink of disaster, and Vallois’ mixed reactions prove to be based in an honest concern. A great deal of what passes between them isn’t covered in direct dialogue. The mystery takes its time while we wonder what will happen next between this pair.
As soon as we see the big star Danielle Darrieux we realize that her character will have to play a larger part in the solution of the mystery. The famed actress gets two big scenes with Gabin, where we finally see why he’s the best detective on the force. The New York Times review had little to say about Nadja Tiller, but called Darrieux ‘devastating.’
Nadja Tiller certainly didn’t earn big name recognition over here but she’s been a noted European star ever since the middle ’50s (both she and Danielle Darrieux are still with us). Her big hit in Germany is as the perfidious man-killer in Das Mädchen Rosemarie, a climber who uses men in the West German postwar boom in business & business corruption. With her huge eyes, slightly wicked smile and beautiful legs, she exudes sex appeal. Her Lucky Fridel is quite a woman — she lies but not maliciously. She’s more ashamed of being a poor singer (her official aspiration) than everyone knowing she sleeps around.
That same NYT review complained about ‘meaningless’ scenes with Hazel Scott, who sings, dances and plays the piano in some fine jazz numbers, but is also the host of a great party scene mid-film. I can’t help but feel that the reviewer felt obliged to downplay Scott because she was effectively blacklisted at the time — her contribution to the movie is not ‘wasted time.’ The review identifies Scott as American and that’s it. Recorded in the books as the first ‘woman of color’ to have her own American TV show, the classically trained, incredibly talented Ms. Scott made only made a few movies, partly from the fact that she could afford to turn down demeaning roles and refused to perform live in concerts where attendance was segregated. She was fired from her TV show after testifying before the HUAC and eventually relocated to Paris.
This may be the most interesting filmic record of Hazel Scott. We not only see her performing in Josephine Baker mode, her Valentine Horse character is given equal respect as part of Lucky Fridel’s nightclub world. Valentine earns the rent for her luxury apartment and is a charming host even when her guests misbehave. It’s interesting to see these French films noir as a reflection of the American style, which itself originated partly from the French 1930’s movement called Poetic Realism. When the French cinema wasn’t showing up American political hypocrisy by welcoming blacklisted directors, they were honoring unjustly blacklisted American talent like Hazel Scott.
Pathé’s All-Region Blu-ray of Le désordre et la nuit is a terrific 2K scan and restoration of this Jean Gabin starring vehicle that now has equal interest as a romantic noir. The slightly widescreen image is flawless, allowing us to appreciate the rich B&W cinematography. The jazz music sounds great on the beefy soundtrack, and I also heard nice sound effect detail in the light-rain walk scene.
The show comes as a DVD, a Blu-ray or a combo pack. My Blu-ray- only package says ‘Region B’ but it is actually All Region. It plays on my domestic player. English subs are easily chosen.
None of the extras are subtitled, unfortunately for monolingual U.S. film fans. The ‘restoration trailer’ looks to me like an original theatrical trailer. Taped at its re-premiere, a video of filmmaker-author Bertrand Tavernier introducing the film convinces me that Gilles Grangier is locally a well known name director. A much longer official interview documentary gathers critics (including Tavernier) and associates of director Grangier to talk about his career and Le désordre et la nuit. Grangier himself talks in a clip from an older interview; he passed away in 1996.
The title Le désordre et la nuit seems inappropriate for a thriller and refuses to stick in my mind. Clearly ‘désordre’ must have more romantic connotations in French. To me it sounds too much like ‘disorder of the pancreas,’ or ‘disorder of the plumbing.’
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Le désordre et la nuit All-Region Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent (French)
Supplements: Screening introduction by Bertrand Tavernier, 24-min interview
docu on the film and director Gilles Grangier, restored trailer (no subtitles).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
(but feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson