A taxi idles at the curb as Ancelin (Lino Ventura) steps away from the crime scene that he has just created, the car summoned only moments before the murder by the man he’s just killed. The murderer panics and runs away, only realizing later that his behavior called attention to itself. The cabbie will remember him, surely, a witness who must be dispatched before he can talk to the police. That is the set up of Édouard Molinaro’s tense Witness to the City (Un témoin dans la ville), one of the rare Gallic noirs playing Nov.14-17 as part of The French Had a Name for It at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater.
The streets of Paris become a hunting ground once Ancelin is able to identify amiable Lambert (Franco Fabrizi) as the driver who can finger him. What the desperate man fails to realize is the power of these new “radio” taxis that can be marshaled at the first hint of trouble. Lilliane (Sandra Milo), Lambert’s girlfriend is a dispatcher. The cabbies are a loyal bunch and protective of their own. Ancelin soon learns how fine the line is between the pursuer and pursued.
Ventura, who made his screen debut playing a gangster in Jacques Becker’s classic 1952 thriller Touchez pas au Grisbi, excelled in tough guy roles, but in Witness to the City, he proves himself equally adept at playing a sad, strange man motivated by fear. As the movie becomes a chase, the streets of Paris become a trap to be escaped, new danger lurking around every corner. Molinaro’s use of location is striking; this is not picture-postcard Paris, but the gritty, street-level view that becomes all too familiar to Ancelin. Henri Decaë’s moody cinematography and Barney Wilen’s evocative jazz score add to the pervasive sense of doom in this bleak, striking noir.—Pam Grady