The French gave us the term “film noir” and it turns out that they were no slouches at the genre themselves. The three films in Kino Lorber’s “French Noir Collection,” Speaking of Murder (Le rouge est mis, 1957), Back to the Wall (Le dos au mur, 1958), and Witness in the City (Un témoin dans la ville) each have something special to offer the viewer, and as unabashedly popular works offer an interesting counterpart to the work of the French New Wave directors who are better known (in no small part because they get taught in film classes).
Speaking of Murder, directed by Gilles Grangier from a screenplay by Michel Audiard based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton, stars Jean Gabin as Louis Bertain, a Parisian garage owner who is also the head of a criminal gang whose members include Pepito (Lino Ventura) and Fredo (Paul Frankeur). Louis’ respectable occupation provides cover for their activities, and things are going well, but there’s always got to be a fly in ointment—in this case Pierre (Marcel Bozzufi), Louis’ ne’er-do-well brother, who gets picked up by the police, causing the others to suspect that he is an informant. Pierre has a beautiful girlfriend, Hélène (Annie Girardot, at the time best known as a stage actress) but Louis is determined to break the two of them up.
The plot of Speaking of Murder is twisty enough to be surprising at times, and it offers a lot of location shooting in Paris (beautifully shot by Louis Page). That includes the opening scene, a portrayal of a violent robbery so detailed that it might as well be a how-to tutorial (French directors were of course blissfully untroubled by the strictures of the Hays Code). The score by Denis Kieffer is also outstanding, and very much of the time—if you love the sound of a mournful trumpet, this is definitely the film for you. Special bonus—there’s an obviously gay character who shares a cell with Pierre, and if he’s overly stereotypical, at least he’s included.
Back to the Wall, directed by Édouard Molinaro from an adaptation of a Frédéric Dar novel by François Chavane and Jean Redon, opens with a lengthy, nearly dialogue-free sequence that shows a man collecting the body of another man, packing up some belongings so it looks like he left on vacation, and then burying the corpse under freshly-laid concrete in a deserted factory. The man, we will learn, is wealthy industrialist Jacques Decrey (Gérard Oury), the corpse is his wife’s lover, Yves Normand (Philippe Nicaud), but the circumstances are not at all what you might think. We then go into flashback mode, where we will remain for most of the film, with extended voiceover narrations by Jacques.
If Jacques is the storyteller in Back to the Wall, his wife Gloria (Jeanne Moreau) is the star—where he’s all cold calculation, she’s all feeling and vulnerability. Plus, you know, she’s Jeanne Moreau and he’s not. It seems her thing with Yves dates back to their student days and knowing that it’s still on drives Jacques nuts—so nuts, in fact, that he starts anonymously blackmailing his own wife so he can enjoy watching her growing desperation as she tries to raise the sums demanded. Claire Maurier has some nice moments as the careworn Ghislaine, a former lover of Yves who seems much wiser in the ways of the world than anyone else in this film, the cinematography by Robert Lefebvre is outstanding, and the score by Richard Cornu is more traditional than Kieffer’s for Speaking of Murder, but still very effective.
Witness in the City, also directed by Édouard Molinaro, wastes no time getting down to business—in the very first scene, we see a man pushing a screaming woman off a train. The man, a rich industrialist named Verdier (Jacques Berthier), is brought to trial, but gets off—so the woman’s husband, Ancelin (Lino Ventura again), decides to take matters into his own hands. He kills Verdier and sets the crime scene up to look like a suicide, but is seen leaving by a cabbie, Lambert (Franco Fabrizi). Thus begins the real plot of this movie—as if one murder were not enough, Ancelin now dedicates himself to hunting down and killing Lambert to prevent him from testifying in court.
Stories don’t come much blacker than that told in Witness in the City, whose screenplay is adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (their works also formed the basis for the films Les Diaboliques and Vertigo, among others). Fittingly, the film’s action largely takes place in night-time Paris (masterfully shot by Henri Decaë), among the cab drivers and café owners and streetwalkers who are out working while most people are safe at home in their beds. Ancelin is demonically relentless in pursuit of his quarry (who to be fair hasn’t don’t anything wrong, and seems a pleasant enough fellow), and the film ends in a spectacular chase scene that seems to involve most of the cab drivers in Paris as well as the police force. | Sarah Boslaugh
The French Noir Collection is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The only extras on the disc are the trailers for Speaking of Murder and Back to the Wall, which is a shame since each of these movies really deserves a commentary track. Maybe if sales are really good an enhanced edition will be in the works …