film noir, Georges Simenon, Harry Baur, Jean Delannoy, Jean Gabin, Jean Renoir, Jules Maigret, Julien Duvivier, Maigret Sets a Trap, Night at the Crossroads, Pierre Renoir, The French Had a Name for It, The Head of a Man
San Francisco may be gentrifying at a terrifying rate, but at least we’ll always have homicide. Of the movie variety. The City is lucky to be awash in noir festivals: Elliot Lavine’s I Wake Up Dreaming (Elliot’s moved up near Portland, but we hope he hasn’t totally abandoned us), Eddie Muller’s Noir City, and Don Malcom’s The French Had a Name for It, which is teeing up its latest menu of mystery, mayhem, and murder May 10-13 at the Roxie Theater.
Fourteen films will unreel, opening with Z director Costa-Gavras’ 1965 debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartiment tueurs), a jazz-inflected thriller starring Yves Montand as the detective investigating a case where a woman’s strangulation on a train is only the beginning of a gruesome spree. It is a fast-paced, involving drama and the perfect film to set the mood for the four-day series.
Malcolm has put together a strong slate. Pick any of the 14 and you won’t go wrong, but I want to make a special plea for three films in the festival: Night at the Crossroads (La nuit du carrefour) (1932) and the closing night double-bill of Maigret Sets a Trap (Maigret tend un piége) (1958) and The Head of a Man (La tête d’un homme) (1933). Georges Simenon’s great French detective, Commissaire Jules Maigret, the protagonist of 76 novels and 28 short stories published over four decades from 1931 to 1972, remains a popular figure in movies and TV to this day. The French Had a Name for It is screening three of the most memorable.
A long time friend of Simenon’s, since long before the writer even conceived the great detective, Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) introduced the cinematic Maigret to the world in 1932 with Night at the Crossroads. His older brother Pierre played the detective, called to a desolate town that consists of a gas station and a few houses, to solve the murder of a jewel thief. Made years before the term “noir” was even coined to describe the genre, of the three Maigret films, it is the most noir of them all. It is there in the atmosphere, so foggy and damp it’s almost tactile, creating an aura of doom. It is there in the rogues’ gallery of suspects that include gas station jockey Oscar (Dignimont, one name only, probably artist André Dignimont) and Germans Karl (Georges Koudria) and Else (Winna Winifried), whose claims of being brother and sister Maigret doesn’t believe. As portrayed by Pierre Renoir, Maigret is a frank investigator, willing to forego social niceties in his quest for the truth—as the unfortunate Else comes to discover. An almost documentary-like car chase adds to the suspense in a thriller that is short, nasty, and efficient.
Julien Duvivier’s (Pepe le Moko) The Head of a Man takes a more psychological approach as Maigret (here played by the great Harry Baur in a wonderful performance) refuses to give up on a case that is apparently solved. Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) had to have killed the old lady found stabbed in her bedroom. His bloody finger and shoeprints are all over the murder scene and he’s captured on the run. The slow-witted man admits that he was there to rob the woman but denies his guilt in her murder and won’t talk about any accomplices. Case closed, but Maigret thinks otherwise. Gaston Jacquet as Willy Ferrière, the woman’s nephew and heir, and Valéry Inkijinoff as Radek, an ailing immigrant with a serious chip on his shoulder, are part of the detective’s puzzle. The Head of a Man delights, not just in its central mystery, but also in the cop’s dogged determination to seek justice instead of an easy win and in his uncanny ability to get into the heads of his array of suspects.
The immortal Jean Gabin steps into the legendary detective’s shoes in Maigret Sets a Trap, directed by Jean Delannoy (Obsession, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and co-written by Michel Audiard, A Prophet writer-director Jacques Audiard’s father. Someone is killing women in Montmarte and Maigret and his officers are determined to find the culprit before he can murder again. All clues lead one way, but Maigret follows a different path. In this outing, Maigret could give Columbo a run for his money when it comes to needling suspects into either confessing or putting themselves in a position to be caught in the act. The most stylish of the three films—Midcentury furnishings fans will find a lot of eye candy in one suspect’s apartment—it is also the most buoyant. Maigret is at a low point at the film’s start, wondering if it is time to retire and let someone else solve the case. Watching him recover his mojo and joie de vivre is a joy. Gabin is terrific and so is a mystery rooted ultimately in twisted relationships. Together with The Head of a Man, it is the perfect double bill on which to end The French Had a Name for It, one that will leave you wanting more. –Pam Grady
The French Had a Name for It 5 1/2 , May 10-13, Roxie Theater, 3117 – 16th Street, San Francisco. http://www.midcenturyproductions.com/