Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Five great vintage French films, including the greatest thriller of all time, "The Wages of Fear"

When you've heard a film being praised to the skies for most of your life, it's apt to be a bit of a disappointment when you finally get round to seeing it, but the 1953 French-Italian thriller film The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand...

...and based on a 1950 novel by Georges Arnaud, is, quite simply, the best thriller I've ever seen. Brilliantly shot, directed, scripted and acted (Montand is outstanding), it's about as tense as it's possible to be without inducing heart-attacks. despite that, there's proper character development, a lot of subtext, and a slowish build-up (it's a full hour before the four down-on-their-luck adventurers stuck in a Godforsaken South American town controlled by an American oil company actually climb into two trucks laden with nitroglycerine meant to extinguish an oil-well blaze). A great achievement.  

Up-and-coming director Jean-Pierre Melville was commissioned by Jean Cocteau to adapt the latter's novel, Les Enfants Terribles (1950), for the screen. The result isn't quite a classic, but it certainly sticks in the mind. The enfants are a Parisian brother and sister locked in a bizarre, pervy, stifling and ultimately mutually destructive relationship. The brother is sickly and his over-protective sister is just plain weird. When their mother dies, the sister marries a rich businessman, who dies in a car crash a few days later, leaving her his wealth and a vast mansion, where the siblings' tragedy reaches its fatal climax. The atmosphere is febrile, everything that happens comes as a surprise, and it's rivetting.

1950 also saw the release of Max Ophüls' La Ronde, an adaptation of an 1897 play. Set in Vienna in 1900, it consists of ten episodes, each dealing with a love affair involving one of the characters from the previous episode. The one character who appears throughout the film is a ringmaster/master of ceremonies who links each short story, and makes a series of sly appearances in them, played by Anton Walbrook in top sardonic form (he even sings). The film moves across the social spectrum, starting with a prostitute (Simone Signoret) having a knee-trembler with a soldier under a bridge, and ends with a count (Gérard Philipe) in bed with the prostitute. It all sounds frightfully sordid, but it's actually an immensely stylish delight.

Two years later, Simone Signoret was back in turn-the-century low company in Jacques Becker's Casque d'Or, loosely based on a 1902 love triangle involving a prostitute and two apache gang leaders. In this version, she is the girlfriend of a boorish criminal gang member when she falls in love an ex-con carpenter who's been going straight for six years. This annoys the gang leader, who wants her for himself. After Signoret's new lover kills her old lover in a knife-fight, the couple flee to the country - but their idyllic new existence is soon destroyed when the jealous gang leader stitches up loverboy by shopping him to the cops. Classy, zippy, and smelling strongly of Gauloises and red wine, its 94 minutes pass in an eyeblink. Pretty much a must-see - especially if you enjoy seeing people having their faces slapped:

Three years after La Ronde, Max Ophüls produced another Bell Epoque-set film with a circular plot and featuring a count. In Madame de..., the centrifugal device is a pair of earrings, a wedding present from the count, Charles Boyer, to his wife, Danielle Darrieux. Severely in debt due to her extravagance, the countess eventually sells the earrings back to the jeweller from whom Boyer originally bought them, then pretends to have lost them. The jeweller approaches the count and sells them back to him. He gives them to his mistress, of whom he has tired, as a parting gift just before she sails for Constantinople. The countess starts an affair with an Italian baron, Vittorio de Sica, who is infatuated with her. When she decamps to Italy to escape both the baron and her husband, the baron bombards her with gifts - including the earrings, which he bought in Constantinople. The countess returns to her husband and pretends to find the earrings hidden in an old pair of gloves. Despite the chilliness of their marriage - no kids, separate beds - the count is infuriated that his wife is still carrying on with the baron, and challenges the Italian to a duel...

While I wouldn't agree with the American cineaste Andrew Sarris that Madame de... is "the most perfect film ever made," it's certainly an immensely watchable slice of sophisticated entertainment, which manages to involve us despite the fact that the count and his wife are a deeply unadmirable pair - the only vaguely sympathetic character is the Italian baron. Watching it is a bit like being mesmerised by the superbly-constructed workings of a beautiful, ornate clock.

They certainly knew how to make great movies, the French.


  1. Agree with you about "Wages of Fear". Gripping stuff. As was the British riposte three years later "Hell Drivers" [1957] which seemed to feature the whole British acting establishment of the time, including Alfie Bass no less.

    Their lethal cargo was...gravel. It featured Sean Connery and the bushy eye-brows he would bring to "Darby O'Gill and de Little People" [1959] - worthy of inclusion in your promised post on 1950s musicals? Also, Patrick McGoohan who went on to fame in the series featuring those massive, white balls. And Stanley Baker of "Zulu" fame whose career was curtailed by premature baldness and droning on about being a Welshman.

    Must try and see the others - especially the two featuring Simone Signoret who was the classic French beauty in her pomp [she could only be French - like Brigitte Bardot and little Laure in the TV series "Spiral"].

    1. Does anyone know when we are due to get the next series of Spiral?

  2. Helen. It is all a bit vague, but apparently they are shooting "Spiral" Series 7 at the moment and it is scheduled to appear on French TV in April and then on BBC4 in August.

    1. Thanks so much, SDG. Something to look forward to in the arid months of summer TV.

  3. I saw 'Wages of Fear' in a college film class. It was an eye-opener for sure.