Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.
In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.
There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)
The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.
Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.
It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.
The Hong Kong Crime Season, currently underway at HOME Manchester and then on tour in the UK, is showing a range of HK films, including the classic Election (2005) by Johnnie To (on March 21st in Manchester). I’m reviewing some Johnnie To titles not in the season as my offering in support of a really worthwhile venture.
Johnnie To is one of the most prolific – and most successful – filmmakers in Hong Kong with a filmography dating back to 1978 in film and TV. He is primarily focused on making films for a local Hong Kong audience and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that his films began to feature on the awards lists of major international film festivals. Although he has made all kinds of films, it is his crime films from the early 2000s that have generated international interest and comparisons with crime film specialists such as Jean-Pierre Melville. To works through his own production outfit Milkyway Image Company and works with a small stock company of actors and creative personnel (writers, cinematographer etc.). His partner in Milkyway has been the writer/producer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai. The festival awards that some films have won has led to UK distribution for several of the recent Milkyway films.
PTU (Police Tactical Unit) is a good starting point for anyone new to To’s work – a short and ‘contained’ film set over one night on the streets of Central Hong Kong. The PTU puts two small groups of uniformed police on patrol in the nighttime streets. The night begins with news of a fellow officer killed on duty during a raid on an armoured car and then the PTUs come across a wounded plain-clothes officer from the Anti-Crime Unit. Sergeant Lo (Suet Lam) has been beaten up by four thugs from a local crime gang and in the process has lost his gun (a serious incident that should be reported). PTU Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) agrees to help Lo find the gun and not to report the incident until morning. In the meantime however a crime boss has been assassinated and Lo becomes involved in the battle between two gangs. The assassination also comes to the attention of a CID squad who don’t trust Lo. Ho also finds his authority challenged by Kat (Maggie Shiu), the other Sergeant leading the second PTU squad. She wants to ‘play by the book’.
The remainder of the narrative develops into a tense drama in which the two crime bosses both try to use the desperate Lo to set up an ambush while the PTU and CID attempt to follow events and to pursue slightly different agendas. In true crime genre style, all the main characters end up in a shoot-out and To ties up all the narrative strands very neatly. It’s clear from the outset that Johnnie To knows exactly what he is doing. The film succeeds because the script is tight (with some nice humorous touches), the performances by the leads are strong and the cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung is excellent throughout with a good balance between long shots and close-ups.
The Region 2 DVD carries interviews with both Johnnie To and Simon Yam. To explicitly addresses the behaviour of Ho as a police officer prepared to bend rules and coerce suspects. He seems to support this kind of action, arguing that it certainly happens. The moral question here – the end justifies the means – is complicated by the strong performance by Simon Yam, the most convincing ‘heroic’ police character. To’s position is further complicated by his decision to make both of the two female police characters ‘weak’. He attempts to justify this in his interview, arguing that the two weak characters are important and that they stand out because they are women – i.e. I think he is saying they are not weak because they are women! This is to say the least dubious, especially since there are no other significant female characters. All the interviews I’ve seen with To have been translated so perhaps I have misunderstood this?
To’s films are clearly first for Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) audiences. The HK audience will no doubt recognise many of the locations and the actors but even they may be a little taken aback at the shift from full-on crime genre to more ‘personal’/arthouse approaches to genre. PTU has action sequences at the start and the end of the film but also long periods of stalking through the streets and in particular up the staircase of a warehouse for several minutes with minimal dialogue. Often the PTU members seemed to be choreographed moving in formation and standing in tableaux (see the image at the head of this posting). IMDB reveals what happened when PTU was released in North America and the lack of action was noted – but also the music comprising guitar riffs and synths. I found this fine but it really upset IMDB’s ‘Users’. Clearly scoring of crime films in Hong Kong does not match US conventions as far as US fans are concerned.
The fact that the narrative is completed within 24 hours is a distinct bonus, I think and I was reminded of Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (HK 2014) which Cornerhouse/HOME screened as part of the Asia Triennial Festival in December 2014. ‘One Night In . . .’ is a concept in several important films such as La haine (France 1995) (also with a lost police gun) and The Warriors (US 1979) and it works just as well in PTU. I’m impressed with Johnnie To – more to follow.
Pleasure Island is an interesting example of a film from an almost invisible sector of British filmmaking, producing films that don’t often get a theatrical profile. IMDB suggests that Pleasure Island had a budget of around £800,000 – which is in line with the bulk of British films that now often cost less to produce than high-end TV drama (defined as costing over £1 million per hour). Many UK films are actually micro-budget productions below £500,000. It’s only the Hollywood co-productions and those films backed by BBC/BFI/Channel 4 that manage a higher budget and a significant UK cinema release. Pleasure Island, independently produced by Achilles Entertainment (the company set up by the lead actor and his producer-partner), achieved a screening slot at the East End Film Festival in London in July 2015. It had already been picked up for distribution by Metrodome, one of the leading independent UK distributors, and it showed for a couple of weeks on a single cinema screen in August. The first week included a ‘local premiere’ at the Parkway Cinema in the seaside town of Cleethorpes where the story is set and the film was shot. Out on DVD and VOD at more or less the same time, the film did generate reviews in the UK press and online. Whether this will have helped the video sales is a moot point, but it shows that the current distribution model can just about accommodate films of this kind.
The film’s title refers to a local amusement park in Cleethorpes on the Lincolnshire coast. Dean (Ian Sharp) returns to his home town after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the details of his service are kept sketchy). He gets a less than enthusiastic reception from his singleton father (mother isn’t mentioned) and an initial brush-off from the young woman he seeks out – Jess (Gina Bramhill). Later we realise that Dean’s best mate Adam has been killed in Afghanistan and that Dean needs to tell Jess and her small son what happened to him. Dean’s only support appears to be another old mate, Nathan, who runs an amusement arcade. Both Dean’s father and Jess seem to be involved in some way with a local crime operation involving drugs and the sex trade. It seems inevitable that Dean is going to have to attempt to extricate them in some way.
The mainstream critics such as Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and Hannah McGill in Sight & Sound were negative in their responses but the online reviewers were more positive – which perhaps says more about the tastes and interests of the two sets of reviewers than it does about the film itself. I found the film quite difficult to place. It starts as an almost social realist drama, strives at times for an expressive use of landscape and eventually morphs into a more generic crime fiction story. I don’t mean to suggest that it is incoherent. In fact it’s well put together, technically accomplished and the performances are strong. It could be tightened up in the editing and the female roles are limited – which is especially sad since Gina Bramhill obviously has the potential to offer much more.
The strength of the film is the setting and this comes across in the DVD extras which are unusually useful in explaining the background. Many of the creative team and the lead actors are from the region. They found shooting in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, towns not often used in UK film and TV, very straightforward and there is a genuine sense of this being a ‘local film’ despite director Mike Doxford having come up from London. The last film I remember that shot in Grimsby was Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2006) with its debutant young star Thomas Turgoose as Grimsby’s new celebrity. The Shane Meadows connection prompts two observations. This Is England‘s story was set in the outskirts of Nottingham but scenes were shot in Grimsby to qualify for funding from Screen Yorkshire. I wonder why Achilles Entertainment didn’t seek regional public funding? Perhaps they did but didn’t get it for some reason? Pleasure Island also has some similarities with another Meadows film, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) with Paddy Considine as an ex-serviceman returning and dispensing ‘justice’. I think the seaside setting makes enough ‘difference’ in relation to the generic tropes of returning soldier etc. and it’s remarkable how similar some of the elements of Pleasure Island are to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (UK 2000). Cleethorpes and ‘Pleasure Island’ instead of Margate and ‘Dreamland’, young mother and son, involvement with the sex trade, the amusement arcade as a focus etc. The two films are actually very different but Doxford does capture something of the sadness of seaside towns in modern Britain. The director is himself a cinematographer and one of the production decisions was to use a number of helicopter shots to show the coastline. This reminded me of Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995) with its aerial views of Blackpool. On relatively low-budget films these occasional aerial shots can literally ‘lift’ the visual style and bring vitality to the narrative.
There has been an interest in crime narratives and seaside settings in British films since at least Brighton Rock (1949) and they were revived considerably by scenes from Mona Lisa (1986). Seaside settings also turn up in several horror and mystery films. I think that perhaps the problem with Pleasure Island is that the settings aren’t used enough and that the narrative possibilities offered by the coastal community and its characters are similarly not exploited enough. For instance Grimsby Docks features at one point, offering a location with great potential and while the East European connections to the sex trade are mentioned, again the potential for intrigue is not followed up. The final action sequence could really have taken place anywhere. The distribution company emphasises the violence in the film (see the trailer below) but the narrative is much more than that. It’s a difficult task to create a British independent genre feature. Everyone involved in Pleasure Island has put the effort in to make this feature but in the end I think the story needed another element. (The rather eccentric mode of smuggling drugs into the country is apparently based on a real incident – it is a nice touch but overall the film still falls just short.)
HOME in Manchester is on a roll. With the last weekend of its excellent Jim Allen-scripted film season still to come, we now have the announcement of an extensive Hong Kong Crime Fiction season running during February, March and April. CRIME: Hong Kong Style is also a touring programme showing at various venues around the UK. It’s supported by the BFI and Lottery Funding as well as the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. The programme is produced by Rachel Hayward and Jessie Gibbs and curated by Andy Willis. If it is as good as their recent programmes for ¡Viva! this should be a must see. As well as the films there are several events, including film introductions, illustrated talks and Q&As presented by Andy Willis, HOME Visual Art Director Sarah Perks, HOME’s local Chinese cinema scholar Felicia Chan and Wong Kar-Wai scholar Gary Bettinson.
The films are organised into different groups, sometimes by director, sometimes focusing on stars or writers, sometimes by production period or around more specific themes such as Hong Kong’s influence on Hollywood directors. The earliest film is The Swallow Thief from 1961 and the programme includes the UK Premiere of Ringo Lam’s Wild City (2015). The stars include Jackie Chan, Sandra Ng, both Tony Leungs, Andy Lau and many more. Each film appears to be showing only once (but I need to check that) at HOME. Check with your nearest venue for the films in the touring programme (see the HOME website for a list of venues).
The first Manchester screening (on 35mm, celluloid fans) is Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) with Introduction by Gary Bettinson at 18.15 on Thurs February 4th. Wong Kar-Wai’s début film is a gangster flick with a romance element. Still in the early parts of their careers, Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung are the cool guy and his beautiful cousin, while Jacky Cheung plays the hot-headed junior partner who keeps needing to be kept out of trouble. IMDB suggests Maggie Cheung had 11 (!) films released in 1988, including Police Story 2 with Jackie Chan. The original Police Story (1985) screens on February 25th at HOME. These films need to be seen on a big screen.
I hope to catch some of the screenings and events at HOME and to write about them here.
This was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.
The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.
The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.
As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.
Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.
I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).
Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:
Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.
I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.
Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)
Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):
Here is the French ‘big budget’ response to the Hollywood ‘French Connection’ films about the drugs trade in Marseilles in the 1970s and the city’s important role as the ‘processing’ centre for heroin on its way from Turkey to New York. A less high-profile French take on the story which sounds intriguing was released as Le Juge (The Judge) in France in 1984. The budget for La French is quoted by Variety as $26 million. This is modest by US standards but substantial for a European production (i.e. in a European language). French films tend to be the most expensive in Europe. La French is a mainstream crime thriller/action picture directed by Cédric Jimenez, born in Marseilles in 1976.
La French might not have made it into international distribution without the high profile of its two stars. Gilles Lelouche and Jean Dujardin are both major stars in France but Dujardin has recently begun to appear in Hollywood films following his success in The Artist (France 2011) with all its Oscar wins. Both actors, as well as Benoît Magimel (third in the credits for La French), also appeared in Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (France 2010) – a film I didn’t like very much, but which was technically well-made with a very starry cast. In a sense, La French is the same. It is well-made and the money spent ends up on screen with period motors and costumes. It also has a long running time (135 mins), lots of songs on the soundtrack and action sequences breaking up more dialogue heavy scenes. Because it is a polar – a crime thriller – there is more discipline in the narrative and it seems less indulgent than Little White Lies. I was engaged for the whole running time and I enjoyed watching the film and thinking about it as a polar, but afterwards I realised that it didn’t really offer anything particularly memorable. Certainly it didn’t have the intensity of Gene Hackman’s performances or the chase sequences in either of the French Connection films.
La French approaches the drugs racket in Marseilles from a different angle. Dujardin plays the ‘investigating magistrate’ Pierre Michel who takes on the task of cleaning up organised crime in Marseilles and in particular the heroin processing controlled by Gaëtan (‘Tany’) Zampa – the Lelouche part. This ‘head-to-head’ struggle is emphasised with a direct meeting between the two in a scene reminiscent of Pacino and De Niro in Heat. But the personal battle (usually between the police inspector and the gang boss) is also a strong conventional feature of the polar going back to the Jean-Pierre Melville classics of the 1960s. By personalising the struggle in this way it also opens up the possibility of roles for the wives and families of the two men. The two wives – and the wife/girlfriend of a third character, a potential ‘grass’ – at least have speaking roles in the film. However they don’t have any ‘agency’ as such and several French reviewers have bemoaned the lack of scope in the role of the magistrate’s wife Jacqueline played by the accomplished Céline Sallette. Every time I saw Jacqueline with her two small girls I thought of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (US 1953) in which Glenn Ford’s policeman’s family is attacked by gangsters. I won’t spoil La French by telling you what does happen to Jacqueline. It is important, however, that aspects of the family melodrama come into play in the film – alongside a focus on the film policier, the ‘procedural’. This latter includes the drama of the magistrate’s lonely position – something familiar to the viewers of Engrenages, but exaggerated here with the magistrate becoming much more active in initiating police activity.
Both the family melodrama and the police procedural ‘slow down’ the action film. Elements of the procedural pop up in the French Connection films but the characters in those films have relatively little family background as such. It is the concept of ‘family’ which eventually leads La French into the discourse of police corruption that is present but less visible in the French Connection films. Zampa appears to be a Neapolitan migrant in France who deals with the Sicilian Mafia in New York. But his position in Marseilles is always threatened by the Corsicans – the ‘Union Corse’ – who otherwise control every aspect of organised crime in Marseilles. The story and the characters in the film are based on ‘real people and real events’. It is the Union Corse that in the film infiltrates the Marseilles police. I confess that I didn’t completely follow Zampa’s connection to the Corsicans. What I do know, however, is that organised crime in the polar often involves Corsican characters.
Why doesn’t the film make more impact? I think it may be that it attempts to do too much overall so that what might be interesting sequences tend to be somewhat perfunctory as the narrative has to rush through them to get to the next. There are many characters but we don’t really get ‘into’ them. Instead, we are asked to ‘stitch together’ separate small scenes in order to understand the central characters. I’m prepared to admit that lack of language fluency and cultural knowledge means that I might have missed the significance of some scenes – and possibly the use of popular music. I recognised songs but not the singers and was then taken aback to hear Townes Van Zandt over the closing credits.
Slightly disappointing in terms of what might have been, La French is nonetheless entertaining and worth the price of a ticket. Certainly it is more entertaining than most of the mainstream fare at the multiplex these days.
French polars were often made as co-productions with Italy. As a kind of tribute here’s an Italian-dubbed trailer for La French.
The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.
The Movie Brats
I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.
There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.
But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.
France and America – partners in organised crime
The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.
Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style: