If you like thrillers, genre-bending capers, femmes fatales and shady figures wrapped up in criminal exploits where no one comes out on top, chances are you’re a film noir fan through and through. Maybe you’ve seen Chinatown ten times, and you think you’ve got the plot of The Maltese Falcon figured out. Maybe you have. But a jaded noir aficionado could do a lot worse than to check out some of the gritty gems in TIFF’s upcoming program Panique: French Crime Classics. It’s one dark amuse-bouche after another, a feast of chilling misanthropy and malice for the summer. “Cinematic A/C, Gallic style,” quips James Quandt, Senior Programmer, and he’s not wrong. These flicks get in your bones.
Spanning from the thirties to the eighties, French Crime Classics captures the bleak poetry with which the French imbue human nature. Beautiful cinematography shines in the program’s archival prints and digital remasters, and there are plenty of masters in the selection, including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffault, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol. The films are fantastic (with allowances for some breathtaking misogyny, enough to make Mad Men blush). Below are a few of the films included:
Elevator to the Gallows (1957) — Louis Malle’s debut is considered the launching point for the French New Wave, and it kicks off the program tonight. A man (Maurice Ronet) murders his boss so he can run away with the wife (Jeanne Moreau), his lover. Their carefully executed plan quickly goes off the rails, leaving them separated and unaware as events move forward without them. It’s moody, clever and stylish, punctuated by a Miles Davis score and Moreau’s steely determination.
Diabolique (1955) — Just about everybody calls Les Diaboliques “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made.” It’s an exquisitely dark thriller bordering on horror. Directed with relentless realism and precision by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the film centres around two women who set out to murder the callous headmaster of a boys’ private school. The first is his wife (Véra Clouzot, the director’s wife), sickly and long-suffering; the other is his feisty but equally abused mistress (the great Simone Signoret). Adding to the cloistered intrigue, both teach at the school, with the wife subjected to even greater indignity as the school’s actual owner. Tension builds as they carry out their plot, but the film really kicks into overdrive when the headmaster’s body, hidden in a swimming pool, mysteriously disappears. Hitchcock just missed getting the rights to the novel by hours, instead turning his attention to make Psycho. So it worked out well for all of us, except the love triangle beating in this film’s malignant heart. Highly recommended.
That Man From Rio (1964) — French star Jean-Paul Belmondo is the propulsive engine of this gonzo adventure, director Philippe de Broca’s attempt to out-Bond James Bond. “1,001 exploits Belmondesque!” shouted the movie poster, and it’s a valid claim, as the hunky heartthrob did all his own stunts. The film’s amusing, by far the lightest in this crowd, part thriller and part Benny Hill Bond spoof. Belmondo is an air force pilot on vacation. When his girlfriend is kidnapped in front of him, he gives pursuit, finding himself pulled from Paris to Brazil, from Rio to the jungle. If you like your popcorn flicks lighter than air, this’ll suit you fine.
Panique (1946) — Recently restored and long unseen, Panique is an unsettling exploration of persecution and the mob mentality. Michel Simon stars as a reclusive bachelor largely shunned by his neighbours. A murder in the neighbourhood sets tongues wagging, and the oddball soon finds himself at the centre of suspicion. His casual voyeurism brings him into the orbit of a newly arrived moll just released from prison. She’s eager to connect with her thief lover, who she covered for to protect. Soon all three are engaged in a dangerous game, while the villagers wind themselves up ever tighter as the murder investigation draws close to its quarry. Provocative and disturbing, Panique transcends its age to be almost directly applicable to our present day experience of internet outrage mobs and the dangers of false conclusions.
Diva (1981) — The most recent movie in the program, it’s hard to believe Diva is nearly forty years old. It’s the first French film I remember seeing, and its incredibly stylish. Jean-Jacque Beineix’s debut was a huge hit, about a Parisian courier whose opera obsession improbably embroils him in the machinations of a crime syndicate. Having just gotten a bootleg opera cassette of his favourite singer, the tape is mixed up with another one containing damning information about a drugs and prostitution ring. The courier is pursued by the police, the criminals and the bootleggers, who want their original tape back. Throw in a stoic philosopher, corrupt police, gleaming eighties fashion, and a deep love of film history, and you’ve got a heady caper that’s a perfect conduit from its time to some of its older cinematic companions.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960) — In this classic from François Truffault, a former concert pianist (Charles Aznavour) attempts to hide from the aftermath of his wife’s suicide in a Parisian bar, but discovers he can’t hide from his family’s criminal failings. Audacious and (for its time) experimental, Truffault’s movie dances from comedy to thriller, stealing genre stylings along the way. A huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, Shoot the Piano Player is both playful and evocative, winding up for a sobering punch at the end of its 81-minute economy.
The Wages of Fear (1955) — Another entry, and an absolute masterpiece, from Henri-Georges Clouzot. A few years back I reviewed William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), a hair-raising remake of The Wages of Fear. It’s gratifying to see how terrific the original is (and the remake’s no slouch either). Four men are hired by an oil company to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerin over treacherous jungle roads to the site of a burning oil well. There the nitro will be exploded to cap the noxious flames of the well. Yves Montand stars as Mario, and the journey he takes with his companions is some of the most nail-biting cinema ever filmed, as the trucks wind their torturous path along curving dirt roads, where one bump or vibration could blow them to kingdom come. The long set-up grounds us deeply in the poverty stricken desperation of men trapped in a foreign company-town, where escape is worth the tremendous risk. The Wages of Fear won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Vincent Canby rightly called it “one of the most breathtaking thrillers ever made.” It’s a perfect existentialist statement, with all that entails.
Panique: French Crime Classics opens tonight, Thursday, July 6th, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, with a big, busy program running into September. For more info and a look at all the films included, see here.