Saturday, November 6, 2021

FRENCH NOIRVEMBER RETURNS: The French Had a Name for It 2021

On October 24, a rare and potent combination of “atmospheric river” and “bomb cyclone” generated a ferocious storm that pounded Northern California, dumping more than a foot of rain in some areas. As high winds blew and heavy rains fell, streets and roads flooded, power lines and trees came down and wildfire areas were slammed with mudslides. Many events and gatherings in the region were scrapped due to the weather, but the show would go on at San Francisco’s venerable Roxie Theater. It was here, beginning early in the afternoon, that a four-film French noir program honoring two gods of the French cinema, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Gabin, went ahead as scheduled. Reflecting on the impact of the storm, Don Malcolm, whose Midcentury Productions produced the show, said, “We got hit about as bad as you can get hit without having to evacuate and have the event cancelled.” He reported that 60 “incredibly hardy and loyal fans showed up and were thrilled by all the films.” Don noted that the Jean Gabin sleeper People of No Importance/Des gens sans importance (1956) particularly pleased the crowd. Given the severity of the weather, it seems several attendees were especially hardy and loyal – it was their first time in a theater since the pandemic began. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them, forced instead to hunker down at home in one of the most storm-battered towns north of the city.

The Belmondo/Gabin tribute was a prelude to the main event, the November return of what until last year was an annual French noir festival, The French Had a Name for It. “Phase two” of this year's series will run over the weekend of November 12 - 14, rain or shine, at the Roxie. Set to screen are eleven films reclaimed from the rich but still relatively obscure world of French film noir. New discoveries as well as great favorites from festivals past will be shown during the three day program.

Opening night honors one of France’s great unsung noir masters, actor/writer/director Robert Hossein, who passed away last New Years’ Eve at age 93. A triple bill will feature two rescreenings from earlier festivals, Blonde in a White Car/Toi le venin (1958) and Death of a Killer/La mort d’un tueur (1964). Blonde is also known as Nude in a White Car, a nod to the film's steamy opening scenes involving Hossein and a mysterious blonde in a white Cadillac...with a gun. When they meet again he will discover she has an equally enigmatic blonde sister. In Death of a Killer, Hossein is an ex-con out for vengeance. New Wave muse Marie-France Pisier portrays his sister, a woman just as capable of vendetta. The closer for the evening is Hossein’s first and only neo-noir, 1970’s Falling Point/Point de chute, recently unearthed by Malcolm and company. The teenage daughter of a wealthy family is kidnapped for ransom by Hossein and his gang, but one of the gang members (French rock star Johnny Hallyday) falls in love with the captive.

Saturday afternoon reaches back to the dawn of film noir with two rarities from the early ‘30s. In The Lovers of Midnight/Les amours de minuit (1931), a "darkly comic blueprint for French film noir to come," a cabaret chanteuse puts herself between an escaped killer and a not quite innocent bank clerk; In the Name of the Law/Au nom de la loi (1932), the first French policier and directed by Maurice Tourneur (esteemed father of Jacques Out of the Past Tourneur), revolves around a femme fatale involved in a dangerous drug trafficking ring. Saturday evening fast-forwards to the last days of French noir, the mid-‘60s, with a back-by-popular-demand screening of The Sleeping Car Murders/Compartiment tueurs (1965), a Costa-Gavras film. One of the great favorites of an earlier festival, the film features Yves Montand as a beleaguered detective investigating Simone Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Jean-Louis Trintignant and others in a nerve-jangling tale that begins with a murder on a railway sleeping car, but does not end with just one killing. Second on the double bill is another late noir, the long-lost mindbender Trap for Cinderella/Piege pour Cendrillon (1965), starring Dany Carrel as the "Cinderella" of the title, a woman recovering from injuries suffered in a fire and unsure of her identity; Carrel's performance in three roles is revelatory.

The Sunday afternoon slate focuses on “vampiric heroes” and opens with the rare first film from legendary director Jean-Pierre Melville (Le samourai, Le cercle rouge). The Silence of the Sea/Le silence de la mer (1949) tells of a Nazi officer in occupied France who is billeted in the home of an elderly Frenchman and his niece. The two refuse to speak to him, but he speaks to them and what he has to say is not what they expect. A popular reprise from an earlier festival follows, Robert Hossein’s The Secret Killer/Le vampire de Dusseldorf (1965), in which Hossein portrays an otherworldly serial killer in a chilling reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M. Sunday evening kicks off with Gallic superstar Jean Gabin taking center stage in another festival favorite, Deadlier Than the Male/Voici le temps des assassins (1956), a most dark noir from one of France’s premier filmmakers, Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko, Panique). Gabin appears in an uncharacteristic role, that of a prominent chef, who is - as is more common with Gabin’s characters - being vamped by a deceptively sweet young thing (Daniele Delorme). The festival closes with Christian-Jaque’s dazzling Journey without Hope/Voyage sans Espoir (1943) a polished, updated rendition of 1931's The Lovers of Midnight/Les amours de minuit. Lovely Simone Renant is the nightclub singer caught between her old love, deadly Paul Bernard, and her naive, cash-rich new love, Jean Marais (Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus). Robert Lefebre's cinematography and Robert Gys's production design are superb. Don Malcolm deems this “the best French noir of the Occupation era.”

Simone Renant in Journey without Hope/Voyage sans espoir
The French Had a Name for It is back and, to once again quote Don Malcolm, "we're all ready to resume our journeys on the lost continent of classic French film noir." The festival pass covering all three days/eleven films is a bargain at $60, a 20% savings. Click here for full program details and tickets.

Daniele Delorme and Jean Gabin in Deadlier Than the Male/Voici le temps des assassins


 Note: Health and Safety Precautions are in place for all screenings at the Roxie.


  1. I wish I could be at the Roxie for this.

    1. I wish you could, too, Paula. Hmmm...maybe Cinema Detroit is ready for a French noir fest.