Noir From Around the World

San Francisco's International Film Noir Festival


This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of THE DARK PAGES film noir newsletter edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. For information on the bi-monthly publication, Click here.

For the past several years, veteran noir programmer Don Malcolm’s Mid-Century Productions (MCP) has mounted distinctive film noir festivals at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, deep in the city’s Mission District. Last fall, from November 3– 7, the Roxie hosted “The French Had a Name for It 3,” MCP’s third festival of French film noir, and now, from May 5 – 8, comes “A Rare Noir is Good to Find 2,” MCP’s second annual celebration of international film noir.

Among the 15 gems from France presented at last fall’s French noir fest was Pierre Chenal’s Le dernier tournant (The Last Turn), a much-anticipated, seldom-seen first film adaptation of James M. Cain’s searing crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain (Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity), a pioneer in that genre of spare, hardboiled fiction also known as roman noir, saw Postman, his first novel, published in 1934 to much notoriety. Bleak and tawdry, his steamy tale of a drifter and a young, dissatisfied wife who first cuckold and then murder her much older husband, created a scandal and sensation on publication. The book might’ve been adapted by Hollywood sooner had it been written only a year or two earlier. But the Hays Code, the strict set of rules governing Hollywood film production adopted in 1930, was ignored until 1934 when it began to be rigorously enforced. Not until 1946 would Hollywood bring Cain’s story to the screen.

In the years just before World War II, French cinema entered what is now considered a classic era, and directors like Marcel CarnĂ©, Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Jean Vigo, Pierre Chenal and Jacques Feyder were making films of an emerging cinematic style that came to be known as poetic realism. These films were marked by working class settings, moody themes, and storylines often focused on doomed love, and featured stylized – often cited as proto-noir – cinematography, optical effects and editing. While James M. Cain’s raw prose was anything but lyrical, Postman’s desolate tale of illicit love at a tumbledown seaside roadhouse lent itself to interpretation by a director whose roots were in France’s poetic realism movement. Pierre Chenal’s Le dernier tournant may lack the kind of Hollywood star power (sultry Lana Turner, resplendent in bright white and a smoldering John Garfield) and scrupulous construction that drives MGM’s Tay Garnett-directed version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but his film has style and polish, a script strikingly faithful to the book, and a solid trio of lead actors as well as stellar supporting players.

Fernand Gravey (La ronde, The Great Waltz) was cast against type as Frank, the aimless drifter who resorts to murder for the sake of love and lust. Disheveled and unshaven, Gravey reveals not a trace of the suave sophistication he was known for in most of his lead roles and is surprisingly credible and affecting as a seedy vagrant. Corinne Luchaire (Prison Without Bars) was only 18 when cast as young Cora, who married much older Nick strictly for security. Luchaire has none of Lana Turner’s glamor, but her youth and fierce energy give her a realism as Cain’s “hell cat” that Turner could never hope to achieve. Of course, it’s doubtful that Lana Turner, first and foremost a celluloid goddess, was ever meant to seem real. And there is Michel Simon (L’Atalante, Le quai des brumes) as Nick, the inconvenient husband. Blessed or cursed with elastic features that may occasionally bring to mind Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Simon plays Nick to the oblivious, ludicrous hilt, leaving none to wonder why this butt of cuckoldry is ripe for killing.

One of Le dernier tournant’s stronger assets is the cinematography of Christian Matras, best known for his later work on Max Ophuls’s final four masterworks, La ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953) and Lola Montes (1955). Matras had photographed La grande illusion for Jean Renoir in 1937, and his work from that period is noted for its documentary-like look and feel. On Le dernier tournant, Matras seems on the cusp of achieving a more fluid approach, and he would ultimately, with Ophuls, develop such skill with camera movement that it would be labeled “camera choreography.” His use of chiaroscuro lighting along with some expressionistic and at times flashy camera work on Le dernier tournant add the requisite darkness and depth to Chenal’s rendering.

MCP’s Don Malcolm makes a strong case for international noir when he declares, “As astonishing as it is to know that there are hundreds of French noirs awaiting rediscovery on American movie screens, it’s even more amazing to see just how prominent film noir was in just about every significant filmmaking nation in the years following World War II.” The upcoming “A Rare Noir is Good to Find 2” festival will showcase the films of several continents and include director Carol Reed’s iconic Brit noir, Odd Man Out (1947), starring James Mason, and the Italian classic, Bitter Rice (1949), directed by Giuseppe De Santis for Dino De Laurentiis, starring Silvana Mangano and Raf Vallone. But the rest of the program features rarities unknown to most noir fans in the U.S. At a press screening on April 3rd, the media was introduced to the work of Czechoslovakia’s Otakar Vavra and his film, Krakatit (1948), and Japan’s Hideo Gosha and his Cash Calls Hell/Gohiki No Shinshi (1966).

Krakatit, a sci-fi noir, is a post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki nightmare informed by the terrifying prospect of atomic war. Director Vavra based his screenplay on a novel of the same name by venerated Czech writer Karel Capek (1890 – 1938), author of many plays, novels and essays, who introduced the word “robot”to the world with his 1920 play, R.U.R. The “krakatit” of this film’s title is an explosive substance developed by the central character, Prokop (Karel Hoger), that is powerful enough to set off world-wide destruction and warfare. The film follows Prokop as he goes in and out of delirium following the accidental explosion of krakatit in his lab. Discovering that, while irrational, he revealed the formula to an associate, he tries to prevent the spread of krakatit’s production. His journey is both frenzied and surreal. Krakatit is one of a kind, a fevered fantasia driven by director Vavra’s vision, leading man Karel Hoger’s emotional performance, and the striking cinematography of Vaclav Hanus.

Hideo Gosha’s Cash Calls Hell depicts a nightmare of another sort. Though little known in the West, Gosha’s samurai (chanbara or chambara) films were significant enough that Alain Silver devoted some pages to the director in his book The Samurai Film (1977). But Cash Calls Hell is a film of a different period and style. Produced and set in the mid-1960s, it is the downbeat tale of a young man named Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai), about to be released from prison after serving a sentence for murder, though the death of the father and daughter he killed in a car crash was accidental. Facing a grim future and struggling with a permanent sense of guilt, he reluctantly accepts a job from another prisoner to kill three men for the promise of a big payoff. Oida is no assassin, though, and when he sees a chance to redeem himself he takes it. The title Cash Calls Hell is not a translation of the film’s Japanese title, Gohiki No Shinshi, which means “five gentlemen.” This film, with its elegant, sad-eyed anti-hero, gritty tone, and evocative dark-side-of town locales and characters, deserves a name that intelligibly reflects something of its narrative and atmosphere so that a Western audience can relate to it.

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