Clouzot: The Early Works (Kino Lorber, NR)

The French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is best known today for psychological thrillers like The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953; it won both the Palme d’Or and the Golden Bear) and Diabolique (Les Diaboliques, 1955; he beat out Alfred Hitchcock to get the rights to the underlying novel). Seriously, if you are a student or even a serious fan of film and don’t know those two, you really need to see them.

Of course Clouzot didn’t spring into the world a full-blown director, and in fact wrote numerous scripts and adaptations, worked as an assistant director, and generally paid his dues in the film industry for more than a decade. The seven films (all released between 1931 and 1933) included in Kino Lorber’s two-disc collection Clouzot: The Early Works. Clouzot directed only one of these films, serving as a writer/adapter and (in one case) assistant director instead, so it’s not surprising that most betray little to no trace of the director Clouzot would become. They do show the work of a man who was able to accommodate himself to the demands of his craft, and facilitate interesting comparisons with Hollywood movies of the period, particularly if, like me, you don’t actually know many French films from the early sound era.

The earliest film on this collection, “The Terror of Batignolles” (La terreur des Batignolles, 1931), is Clouzot’s directorial debut. It’s  a short (15 min.) comic thriller about an unlucky burglar, and gives Clouzot a chance to demonstrate some of the visual and narrative flair that would come to distinguish his best films. Clouzot wrote the screenplay for the feature filmDragnet Night (Un soir de rafle, 1931), which stars Albert Préjean as the sailor Georget and Annabella as Mariette, his singer girlfriend; other cast members include Lucien Baroux, Edith Méra, Jacques Lerner, and Constant Rémy.  Multiple songs are included in Dragnet Night and you also get glimpses of other acts featured at the club where Mariette performs and at a carnival attended by the two (contortionists, lady wrestlers, and the like). That carnival turns out to be fateful, however, setting up the main conflict of the story. Georget discovers he has a talent for boxing, which he turns into a career; his success brings him access to a much fancier class of people, against which Mariette cannot compete.

I’ll Be Alone After Midnight (Je serai seule après minuit, 1931), directed by Jacques de Baroncelli, features a screenplay by Clouzot and Pierre-Gilles Veber. A farcical musical 57 minutes in length, it opens with a series of dialogue-free vignettes of married couples doing each other in, which set up the main story of a woman (Mireille Perrey) married to a serial adulterer. Deciding that her only recourse is to out-do her husband in unfaithfulness, she write the message “I’ll be alone after midnight” on a number of calling cards and attaches them to balloons, which she releases; they are found by a variety of men, with predictable consequences. Victor Tourjansky directed the feature film The Unknown Singer (Le chanteur inconnu, 1931), while Clouzot and two others (five others at imdb.com) are credited with the screenplay. One of the  weaker films in the collection, it’s a melodrama about a bewhiskered Russian fisherman (French operatic tenor Lucien Muratore) who is to have a beautiful singing voice; he then embarks upon a musical career in which he is hailed as “the new Caruso”.

Cluozot adapted the story for My Cousin from Warsaw (Ma cousine de Varsovie, 1931), which was directed by Carmine Gallone. Another farce of adultery (with music!), the story involves a banker (Gustave Gallet) whose wife (Madeleine Lambert) is being romanced by his friend (André Roanne). In order to have more time to spend with her boyfriend, the wife arranges to have the cousin of the title (Elvire Popesco) seduce her husband. Tell Me Tonight (La chanson d’une nuit, 1932), directed by Anatole Litvak, also features a screenplay adapted by Clouzot. It’s a broad comedy about a singer (played by Polish tenor Jan Kiepura) who feels he is being overworked by his motor-mouthed manager (Clara Tambour), and ditches her in order to take a much-needed vacation. If you remember nothing else about this film, you will sure remember Tambour’s refrain: “Tempo, tempo, tempo tempo tempo!”

Dream Castle (Château de rêve, 1933), on which Clouzot served as assistant director and wrote dialogue, was directed by Geza von Bolváry. The story is a bit meta, concerning a film being shot at sea in which real sailors are recruited to play some of the roles. One of them (Jaque Catelain) gets carried away with pretending and tries to pass himself off as a prince to some villagers, while his co-star (Edith Méra) plays along. There’s lots of on-the-water action, white uniforms, and witty repartée as well as social satire about people who pretend to be what they are not. | Sarah Boslaugh

Clouzot: The Early Works is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. There are no extras on the disc, but it does include an illustrated booklet including an essay by film critic Peter Tonguette.

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