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The Films of Henri-George Clouzot

The French Hitchcock

by LOUIS PROYECT

After proposing an article on radical Swedish detective novels to Jeff St. Clair, he responded positively and also mentioned parenthetically: “Speaking of French noir, have you seen Quai des Orfevres?” I drew a blank on the flick, but would have been just as lost if he had named the director, one Henri-Georges Clouzot, a surname that evoked Peter Sellers in a pratfall rather than film noir.

After a minute or two of Googling, a flood of associations welled up as if triggered by Proust’s madeleine. I discovered that Clouzot was the man behind “Wages of Fear”, one of my favorite movies. He also directed “Les Diaboliques”, another 1950s classic that shows up from time to time on TCM.

Since my memory is not as sharp as it used to be, I could not remember if I had ever seen “Les Diaboliques”. But I do distinctly remember what Laura, my high-school beatnik pal, had to say upon returning from New York in 1960 to our unhip village. She had seen the film at one of New York’s plentiful art houses of the time and told me that it was the scariest movie ever. This was just before Hitchcock came out with “Psycho”, a film that it was compared to largely on the basis of Simone Signoret killing a semiconscious man in a bathtub with coldblooded efficiency. As it turns out, Clouzot beat Hitchcock to the rights of the novel it was based on by a nose.

A year later I was ensconced at Bard College surrounded by Galuois smoking undergraduates who considered “Wages of Fear” to be the closest thing in film to Albert Camus’s essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Like the four men in Clouzot’s saga who transport TNT over a rocky mountainous road to bomb a raging oil fire into submission, Sisyphus was a Greek god who was condemned to push a huge boulder to the top of a mountain but upon reaching the summit would always roll back down to the bottom underneath the crushing weight of the rock. Camus wrote:

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable.

Having evolved from the existentialism of my freshman year to Marxism in 1967, an absurd but necessary faith, I am now struck by Camus’s meditation on this myth of futility. One cannot help but feeling that being an unrepentant Marxist in 2013 is tantamount to a Sisyphean admission that  “The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing.”

I am not sure how much currency Clouzot has nowadays but urge CounterPunch readers to start with the two films cited above. Like “Psycho”, “Les Diaboliques” is head and shoulders over the cheap slasher movies Hollywood churns out as if destined for Walmart. In actuality, there is very little graphic violence in this murder mystery that relies on powerful suggestions rather than standard devices such as a “spooky” film score meant to create a sense of mystery missing from the story itself.

The film is set at a provincial boarding school for boys run by the sadistic husband of the wife who funded it, who is played by the director’s wife Vera Clouzot. He abuses her as well as his mistress who teaches there (Simone Signoret). Taking pity on the wife (as well as herself, the victim of a beating administered at the beginning of the film), the mistress proposes that they kill him. The plan is to lure him to her home away from the school, drug him, and then drown him in the bathtub. The plan goes off without a hitch but something strange happens later on. The corpse, which they have brought back to the school, disappears! One boy reports seeing the head master’s ghost, while a Colombo-like cop snoops around asking questions that unnerve the dead man’s wife.

Like the pond in “Psycho”, there’s a scum-covered swimming pool in “Les Diaboliques” that conceals secrets. If you liked “Psycho”, you’ll eat up “Les Diaboliques”.

Based on a novel by Georges Arnaud, “Wages of Fear” stars Yves Montand as Mario, a unemployed Frenchman living in some Latin American backwater town as desolate and as impoverished as the one where Humphrey Bogart languished in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. The tone is set at the beginning of the film where we see a young boy naked from the waist down torturing a scorpion, a scene that Sam Peckinpah paid homage to in “The Wild Bunch”.

Like Bogart’s character, Mario has reached the point of no return and is ready to take his life into his hands. Where gold in dangerous bandido country is the lure in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, it is oil in Clouzot’s film that serves as a magnet–or more accurately, the need to extinguish an oil fire. Two trucks staffed by two men each are hired by the greedy oil corporation to navigate nearly impassable roads toward their final destination, the blazing oil field. The survivor or survivors will get $4000 each, enough for a return to civilization.

Georges Arnaud was like one of the characters in “Wages of Fear”, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or “Les Diaboliques” for that matter. When he was 24, he was accused of murdering his father, aunt, and a maid but was ultimately acquitted. In 1941, Arnaud relocated to Venezuela where he became a gold prospector, smuggler, and truck driver in succession. Arnaud’s novel is far more political than Clouzot’s screenplay with bitterly anti-imperialist commentary interlacing the narrative that takes place in Guatemala. Clouzot is far more interested in the existential aspects of the story although there is nothing in the way of long-winded philosophical discussions in the film. Despite this, “Wages of Fear” was the first film that I and many undergraduates ever saw in the early 1960s that made American corporations look like what most people regard them as today, murdering predators bent on maximizing profit.

The primary focus of the film, besides the Sisyphean struggle to deliver the TNT, is the rivalry between Jo, an implicitly gay man who shows up unexpectedly in town and who eventually becomes Mario’s partner in one truck’s cab, and Mario’s ex-roommate Luigi. For all practical purposes, the unemployed Mario is Luigi’s househusband even though there is no explicit sex. This is the 1950s, after all. The same dynamic existed in “Les Diaboliques” with the two principal women enjoying an implied lesbian relationship.

 

wagesoffear

From “Wages of Fear.”

Turning now to a couple of films by Henri-Georges Clouzot that I had not seen before, I can recommend them as top-drawer works even though they are not as well-known. Hopefully what I will say about them now will lead to a revival of interest in Clouzot’s work through the medium of Counterpunch’s very powerful bullhorn.

“Quai des Orfevres” was made in 1947. The title will be far more familiar to the French since it is the location of the Paris police department headquarters. Like “Les Diaboliques”, it features an elderly shambling detective reminiscent of Lieutenant Colombo who is always asking incriminating questions in the gentlest but most insistent fashion.

His prime suspect is Maurice Martineau, the piano-playing accompanist and husband to Jenny Lamour, a nightclub chanteuse who he gave up a career as a concert pianist to support. He dotes on her, so much so that the slightest attention from another man is enough to get his dander up. Since Martineau is a bald, pear-shaped fellow with a striking resemblance to Bob Newhart, there’s not much a rival should worry about.

A chance encounter with Brignon, an elderly and lecherous industrialist who will remind you of Homer Simpson’s boss, at a photography studio owned by Dora Monier, Jenny’s best friend (another implied lesbian relationship is afoot), leads to complications. Although it is doubtful that Brignon, who is practically in need of a walker, can pose a real threat to the couple’s marriage, he angers Maurice by first inviting his wife out to dinner and then to a tryst at his mansion.

After Brignon turns up dead from a blow to the head, Maurice is arrested. Leading the investigation is Inspector Antoine, who is played by Louis Jouvet, a stage and film immortal. He not only acted in 35 films, he also mounted productions of plays by Genet and Sartre in a long and illustrious career. His character Antoine has returned from some colonial outpost with an adopted African son who he adores. When we first meet him, he tells an associate who is informing him about Brignon’s murder that he does not like women. In all of Clouzot’s films, you will not find a happy marriage but plenty of repressed homosexual or lesbian desire.

As is the case with “Les Diaboliques”, not everything is as it appears. Instead of a missing corpse, we are dealing with a corpse that could have been murdered by others besides Maurice. It is Inspector Antoine’s job to find out who did it. But unlike a conventional whodunit after the fashion of Agatha Christie, Clouzot is far more interested in exploring the psychological tensions between the major characters. Jenny Lamour saw Brignon as a stepping-stone to a lucrative career in film while her husband saw him as a sexual rival to be removed by any means necessary. Trying to draw a distinction between male domination and love in such circumstances is not simple. Nothing in Clouzot’s films is very simple, including the infamous “Le Corbeau”, a film made in 1943 when he was the supervisor of screenwriting for Continental, the French film company that was a subsidiary of UFA, a German film company tied to Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda.

If your expectations of Continental’s role in France are conditioned by Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, you will be surprised to learn that the last thing on the studio’s mind was pumping out Nazi propaganda. Alfred Greven, a German who used to work for UFA, ran Continental strictly on the basis of producing quality films that would enjoy commercial success. Furthermore, as the company was German-owned, it would not be subject to the Vichy government’s ham-fisted censorship. It also ignored Goebbels’s strictures as it chose. As Christopher Lloyd pointed out in his biography of Clouzot, Greven produced Christian-Jaque’s “La Symphonie Fantastique” in defiance of Goebbels’s warning that it could stir up French nationalism.

In some ways, it was natural for Clouzot to work for Continental since he had already worked for UFA in Berlin from 1932 to 1934 until he was fired for being too close to a Jewish producer.

Nothing symbolizes the ambivalent ties between Continental and Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda than “Le Corbeau”, the word for raven or crow that is the signature of a poison-pen letter writer who has declared war on the denizens of a provincial village. The letters, which are posted publicly, accuse one or another villager of crimes and sins ranging from theft to adultery. As the volume of letters and the damage to reputations increases, the local authorities organize a witch-hunt to find the guilty party. One of the prime suspects is a doctor who unabashedly performs abortions, including one in the opening scene. Since the narrow-minded religious population has this against him to begin with, additional charges are easy to support even when evidence is lacking.

It was not hard to make the connection between this plot and everyday life in Vichy France where snitching was practically universal, especially in provincial towns far from working-class and radical populations.

It would be a bit of a stretch to conclude that the film was as openly defiant of fascist rule as Bogart’s “Casablanca” but it was just as wrong to judge it as collaborationist propaganda. As is the case with all of Clouzot’s films, shades of gray are the operating principle rather than black-and-white.

With the liberation of France, the punishment of collaborators began. Clouzot was banned from making films from 1944 to 1946. (Jean Cocteau, René Clair, Marcel Carné and Jean-Paul Sartre opposed the ruling.) The French Communist Party was obviously committed to this retribution but so was the Catholic Church that viewed “Le Courbeau” as sacrilegious, not just for its permissive attitude toward abortion but the slatternly behavior of its principal characters. In other words, Clouzot’s real sin was Clouzotism, not Nazism.

While “Inglourious Basterds” has very many shrewd insights into the French film industry under occupation, the best narrative chronicle of the period is Bernard Tavernier’s 2002 “Safe Conduct” that is focused on real and fictional characters in and around Continental. Although Clouzot is not in the cast, he is referred to continuously, particularly by Jean Aurenche, a real-life screenwriter who would years later develop the script “The Clockmaker of St. Paul” for Tavernier.

Aurenche is shown doing everything in his power to avoid coming under contract to Continental, making one excuse after another to Alfred Greven who is depicted as an ardent filmmaker, not an ardent Nazi. For example, he uses a large bust of Adolph Hitler in his office as a coat-rack.

Tavernier depicts artists at Continental struggling to cleanse scripts of any anti-Semitic elements. For example, screenwriter Charles Spaak is seen changing the ethnicity of a villain from Jewish to French.

Greven hired Jean-Paul Le Chanois, who was both Jewish and a Communist. During one of his frequent sessions with Jean Aurenche, Greven asks if he can recommend any good Jewish writers. Aurenche replies, “If I knew any do you really think I would tell you?” Toward the end of the film, Le Chanois is directed by CP’ers to resign from Continental since the new line coming out from the leadership in 1944 is all-out resistance. Le Chanois adamantly refuses.

An interview with Tavernier is included in the Criterion Collection DVD for “Le Courbeau”. He is judicious in his treatment of Clouzot. Without excusing his collaboration, he tries to put it into context. In a 2002 interview with the NY Times, Tavernier put it this way: “The film [Safe Conduct] tries not to judge, to pin labels. And when I didn’t know, I left the question open. It is undeniably on the side of resistance. Romain Rolland said a hero is someone who does what he can; the others do not. I tried to make a film on those who can.”

As a kind of rite of passage, French filmmakers deal with the Nazi occupation, a deeply traumatic event. Made 12 years before “Safe Conduct”, Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro” is also about the constraints that directors and actors operated under, in this case a small but prestigious theater company headed by a Jew living secretly in the basement of his theater. There are no collaborators in the film, except perhaps for Jean-Loup Cottins, the acting head of the company who is trying to stay on the good side of Daxiat, a powerful critic who also serves as censor for the Vichy government.

In one of the odder moments of this powerful film, Daxiat pontificates on the failings of the company, whose Jewish leadership supposedly failed to stage truly revolutionary works that could expose the shortcomings of the capitalist system. One surmises that fascist pseudo-revolutionary thought was as pervasive in France as it was in Germany.

As I continued to research Clouzot’s place in French film history, I was somewhat surprised to discover that Francois Truffaut had a decidedly mixed opinion. While he wrote a glowing review of a Clouzot documentary on Picasso, he tended to group him with France’s “old guard”, the earlier generation that he was seeking to overthrow as part of the “New Wave”.

In a seminal essay titled “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”  written in 1954 for Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut took aim at the “Tradition of Quality” and psychological realism that was exemplified by Jean Aurenche and his writing partner Pierre Bost. The article was mostly a call for a more director-based (auteur) cinema than one that relied on adaptations of novels such as the kind that Clouzot relied on. In a subsequent unsigned article in the March 19, 1954 edition of Arts, Truffaut explicitly linked Clouzot to the “old school” way of making films:

For Clouzot the poetry of decor or of a situation was of less interest than the evolution of the characters’ feelings and it is through the reality of their psychology, expressed in images, that he wanted to tell the story. He considered his films little novels.

The Cahiers article had a couple of political barbs that require some elucidation. Truffaut accuses Aurenche and Bost of political bad faith:

The dominant feature of psychological realism is its determination to be anti-bourgeois. But who are Aurenche and Bost, Sigurd, Jeanson, Autant-Lara and Allegret if not bourgeois? And who are the 50,000 new readers created by a film adaptation of a novel if not bourgeois? What, then, is the worth of an anti-bourgeois cinema made by bourgeois for the bourgeois?

He also views them as two-faced when it comes to the church:

Aurenche and Bost would seem ideally cut out to be authors of out-and-out anti-clerical films, but since movies portraying men in cassocks are in fashion, they agreed to go along with the trend. But as it is incumbent upon them, or so they believe, not to betray their convictions, themes such as profanation and blasphemy and dialogue full of double entendres pop up from time to time so they can prove to their chums that they know how ‘to pull the wool over the producer’s eyes’ while at the same time satisfying him, and how to do the same to an equally satisfied general public.

John Hess (not the former Timesman but a film studies professor) wrote two long articles (part one: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC01folder/auturism1.html; part two: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC02folder/auteur2.html) for Jump Cut on “La politique des auteurs: World view as aesthetics”.

Hess puts forward the argument that the founders of the New Wave were committed to the philosophy of Personalism, an mixture of Existentialism and Christianity founded by Emmanuel Mounier in the 1930’s that called for a spiritual rebirth and that disdained interest in social relations.

For Hess, Truffaut is less of a critic of Aurenche and Bost’s duplicity than he is of their perceived animosity to “traditional values” of the sort that lent themselves to Personalism:

What most galled and obsessed Truffaut about the films of Aurenche and Bost was their anti-establishment tone. He found them anti-bourgeois, anti-militarist, anticlerical, opposed to all sorts of linguistic and sexual taboos, and full of profaned hosts and confessionals.

There is also an element of a generational shift away from the 1930s left that Aurenche and Bost typified:

Finally by objecting to the “profanity” and “blasphemy” in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.

As we know bourgeois society has a way of applying unseen pressures to even the most independent artist (or revolutionary, for that matter.) In mounting a revolutionary coup against the older generation of directors and writers, from Clouzot to Aurenche, Truffaut was himself likely reflecting the Cold War’s grip on cultural life.

But ironically, within just twenty years, Truffaut would be making films like “The Last Metro” that exemplified the earlier tradition of psychological realism, even if it was based on an original script. Anybody who sees it side-by-side with “The 400 Blows” will see the clashing styles.

And for an essayist who complained about the French plagiarism of American films in 1954, could Truffaut have possibly imagined himself acting in a Steven Spielberg movie in 1977? He played the French scientist Claude Lecombe in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, a role that was oddly in sync with the Personalism of the New Wave founders. Is there anything more spiritual than a flying saucer that communicates through music and that transports earthlings to the heavens?

I should say that the gyrations of French cinema hold no surprise for me as a 45-year veteran of the American left. As Heraclitus once said, the only thing that is permanent is change.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.