French thriller ‘In the House’ opens intimate, mysterious doors

In the House/2012/Mandarin Cinéma, Cohen Media Group/ 105 min.

“In the House,” a new thriller by François Ozon, made me think of this quotation from Alfred Hitchcock: “I’m a writer and, therefore, automatically a suspicious character.”

In Ozon’s story-within-a-story film, there are two writers – a 16-year-old student named Claude (Ernst Umhauer), precocious and a bit of a pretty boy, and jaded, middle-aged Germain (Fabrice Luchini). With one poorly received novel under his belt, Germain now teaches in a French high school and struggles to endure his students’ mediocre essays.

But his passion for teaching is reignited when he reads some of Claude’s writing –personal, thoughtful and fresh – and certainly far more promising than the work his classmates produce. Germain shares his enthusiasm with his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) when he brings the assignments home at the end of the day and discusses them with her.

Claude has picked a provocative topic: a voyeuristic account of a classmate’s everyday home life, cozy and comfy, unlike Claude’s apparently more deprived situation. By tutoring Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), Claude gains up-close access to the family, observing their seeming contentment as well as sensing the underlying frustrations of Rapha’s sexy and mysterious mom (Emmanuelle Seigner) and his easygoing, jocular dad (Denis Ménochet).

Against his better judgment, Germain encourages and evaluates Claude’s literary efforts, even though he knows it is a risky experiment. Germain lectures him on the process of writing, the purpose of literature. As Claude’s creative muscle builds, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, and the stakes are gradually, dangerously raised for all the players in this riveting domestic drama.

I am always curious about the work of director-writer François Ozon, perhaps most famous for “Potiche,” “Swimming Pool,” and “8 Women.” He has an easy touch with bold subject matter, a knack for humor (whether deadpan, dark or absurd) and a talent for making well paced, well acted thrillers that reflect his inventive, sometime s cheeky, vision while paying subtle homage to old-school suspense masters like Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol.

Where Ozon falters slightly with “In the House” is in the movie’s visuals. Perhaps because it’s based on Juan Mayorga’s play, “The Boy in the Last Row,” Ozon’s version feels a bit too theatrical and stagebound. That said, telling the tales are terrific actors (Luchini, Scott Thomas and Seigner in particular). And, driving the suspense, Claude’s true motivation remains intriguingly elusive throughout.

“In the House” opened Friday in New York and LA at the Landmark.

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Retro window dressing …

In April Vogue: Tobey Maguire and Carolyn Murphy reprise “Rear Window.” Click here to see the whole series.

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The Noir File: A plan to swap murders in Alfred Hitchcock’s great thriller ‘Strangers on a Train’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Farley Granger and Robert Walker chat over lunch in “Strangers on a Train.”

Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock). Tuesday, April 2, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.).

Tuesday, March 26

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). With Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe and Marilyn Monroe.

12:45 p.m. (9:45 a.m.): “Crime Wave” (1954, Andre De Toth). One of De Toth’s best noirs. In this grim L.A.-shot cops-and-robbers thriller, Gene Nelson plays an ex-con trying to go straight, but stymied by a brutal cop (Sterling Hayden), who wants to nail him for a stick-up and murder committed not by Nelson but by his old prison mates. (The gang, a top-notch crock of crooks, includes Ted De Corsia, Charles Bronson and Timothy Carey). As for Hayden, this is one of his great “heavy” roles. As a cop who won’t give up, while confidently ruining the life of an innocent man, he’s maniacal, terrifying.

Thursday, March 28

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “Dead Ringer” (1964, Paul Henreid). Two twin sisters, one obscenely rich, and one financially strapped, have been off each other’s radar for years, ever since bitchy rich Margaret stole bitter not-rich Edith’s wealthy fiancé. Then they meet up at the hubby’s L. A. funeral. Since both sisters are played by Bette Davis, we can expect the same kind of elegant switcheroo (one twin playing another) she pulled in the superior “A Stolen Life” (1946, Curtis Bernhardt), which plays at 11:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m.). Expect to have some fun, despite the fact, or maybe because of it, that the whole story is so implausible, even William Castle might have ducked it.

Bette manages the double role with skill, style and sizzle – though her “Now Voyager” co-star/chum Paul Henreid directs the whole thing without much inspiration, or even inspired silliness. But then again, why ask for the moon, when you have the stars? [Read more...]

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‘Bates Motel’ prequel series starts next week on A&E

I’m looking forward to watching “Bates Motel,” A&E’s prequel series inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960). Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore star; the series starts March 18.

“I got into this wanting to defend who that woman was,” says Farmiga, as quoted in Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. “[In the show] she was just such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity to me … [it's] a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son, and that’s that’s how I perceive the character. There’s an Edvard Munch painting of the Madonna. It’s really warped and it kind of exudes the sacred and the profane and it’s just psychologically gripping, and that’s what I was so drawn to with Norma. She’s a playground for an actress.”

You can see a preview of the series here. And for now I’m putting roadtrips on the back burner.

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Kim Novak, natural-born star, honored with TCM tribute

One way to Kim Novak’s heart was through first editions.

Airing tonight: Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. Taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood, this one-hour interview special kicks off a tribute night to Novak. Here, Michael Wilmington shares his appreciation for this actress.

My favorite Kim Novak line comes in “Pal Joey,” Columbia’s dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great musical classic. Novak’s Linda English says to Frank Sinatra’s cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately non-provocative voice, “You’re right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I’m stacked.”

Kim Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958).

Stacked she certainly was: a willowy but sumptuous blonde bombshell with short-cropped platinum hair and a 37-inch bosom that never knew a brassiere (“That’s right!” her “Vertigo” director Alfred Hitchcock once said tartly to François Truffaut. “She’s particularly proud of that!”)

Novak, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker’s daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early twenties, with 1954’s film noir “Pushover” directed by her lover Richard Quine.

She then became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic,” directed by the explosive Joshua Logan, in which – as playwright William Inge’s small-town Kansas princess Madge – Novak danced her way into the hearts and loins of William Holden’s ex-football star/drifter Hal, and many more of the males of a susceptible nation.

Her movies of course capitalize on the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who’s a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity.

Like Marilyn Monroe, who often played it dumb, the real-life Novak was a reader. (Sinatra, one of her dates, wooed her with first editions, while Sammy Davis Jr. hit the jackpot in one of the more famous secret love affairs of the ’50s.)

Kim Novak became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic.” By 1964, she was considered past her prime.

By 1964, she was considered past her prime and, when she played Polly the Pistol, the girlish hooker (with the belly-button jewel and the requisite heart of gold) in Billy Wilder’s “Kiss Me, Stupid,” she shared in the movie’s lousy notices.

Today “Kiss Me” is rightly regarded as a flawed classic, and if original star Peter Sellers hadn’t had his heart attack and dropped out in mid shooting, we might see it as a masterpiece, as some of the French do (“Embrasse-moi, Idiote!”)

But maybe she was too much a creation of the ’50s, of the last fugitive years of the Golden Age, a kind of platinum blonde Jekyll and Hyde. Kim Novak could play it naïve and lower class, or tony and glamorous, and sometimes she played both in the same movie, as in her masterpiece, as Madeleine/Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

She perhaps wasn’t a natural actress. She gave some awkward performances. But she was a natural-born star. Kim was one of the movie dream girls of my youth, and I still get a pang looking at her. Confidentially, she’s stacked.

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The Noir File: Bogart and Bacall heat up the big screen in Hawks-Chandler noir classic ‘The Big Sleep’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). Sunday, March 10, 3:45 a.m. (12:45 a.m.) See review in previous post.

Wednesday, March 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. TCM host Bob Osborne chats with one of Hitchcock’s great blondes, Chicago’s own Kim Novak. Taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood, this one-hour interview special kicks off a tribute night to Novak. After the interview, four of her films will screen: “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958), “Picnic” (1955), “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) and “Of Human Bondage” (1964).

Friday, March 8

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.): “Stage Fright” (1950, Alfred Hitchcock). After he left England to make “Rebecca” in 1940 for David Selznick, Hitchcock returned to make only two more features there: the excellent “Frenzy” in 1972, and “Stage Fright” in 1950. The latter is a backstage theater drama with Jane Wyman as a romantic-minded acting student, who tries to help a man on the run (Richard Todd). He’s accused of murdering the husband of a swooningly beautiful actress (Marlene Dietrich). “Stage Fright” is usually considered one of the lesser Hitchcocks, but second-tier Hitch is still better than most films. The pungent London theatrical settings and fine cast (including Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndyke and Michael Wilding) keep “Stage Fright” an entertaining slice of Htchcockian cake.

Audrey Totter’s Claire has the dreariest of of milquetoast husbands (Richard Basehart) in “Tension,” directed by Black List victim John Berry.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “Tension” (1950, John Berry). An obsessed and cuckolded milquetoast (Richard Basehart) bent on murder, becomes ensnared in a twisty shocker of a story. With Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan and Audrey Totter; directed by Black List victim John Berry.

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer). With Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “Split Second” (1953, Dick Powell). Atmospheric Cold War thriller about an escaped con (Stephen McNally), holding hostages in part of a Nevada A-bomb testing site area. With Alexis Smith and Jan Sterling.

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Man in the Attic” (1954, Hugo Fregonese). Jack Palance plays one of the screen’s more ferocious Jack the Rippers.

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.) “Second Chance” (1953, Rudolph Maté). A high-style, high-octane film noir couple – cool Robert Mitchum and hot Linda Darnell – are lovers on the run to Mexico, with the scariest of hit men, Jack Palance, on their trail.

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “Suddenly” (1954, Lewis Allen). With Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden.

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Happy 80th birthday, Kim Novak!

Lovely Kim Novak in a still from “Vertigo,” one of her most famous movies.

One of our all-time favorite film noir blondes, Kim Novak, turns 80 today. She was born Marilyn Pauline Novak in Chicago, where as a young woman she found work as a model. She moved to Los Angeles to continue modeling but instead became an actress.

Among her many screen credits, she is perhaps best known for her work in “Picnic” (1955), “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955), “Pal Joey” (1957), “Vertigo” (1958) and “Bell Book and Candle” (1958).

“For every answer,” Novak once said, “I like to bring up a question. Maybe I’m related to Alfred Hitchcock or maybe I got to know him too well, but I think life should be that way.”

TCM will honor Novak with a tribute night and screening of four films on March 6. The evening will open with the premiere of Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival, a one-hour interview special hosted by TCM’s Robert Osborne and taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood.

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The Space airs short films exploring Hitchcock’s early work

In conjunction with the recent U.K. release of the film “Hitchcock” (starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren), The Space, an on-demand digital arts service developed by Arts Council England and the BBC, is offering a special treat for Hitch fans. The Space will air five short films that provide context to the master of suspense and his early work.

“The Pleasure Garden” (1925) was the first full film Hitchcock directed.

The set of short films, commissioned by the British Film Institute, includes:

Alfred Hitchcock from the archive

Hitchcock gives his insight into the workings of Hollywood, talking candidly about stars’ salaries and the difficulty of working with well-known actors.

Hitchcock at the picture palace

Historians Henry K. Miller and Matthew Sweet whisk viewers back to 1920s Britain – the era of the picture palace that saw the young Hitchcock learn his craft, refine his art and establish himself as an innovative, ambitious filmmaker.

Seeds of genius: “The Pleasure Garden”

Film historian Charles Barr and the BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon explore Hitchcock’s distinctive style of visual storytelling, focusing on Hitchcock’s first full-length, finished film “The Pleasure Garden” (1925).

Restoring “The Pleasure Garden”

The unique story of how the BFI restored “The Pleasure Garden,” almost a century after it was made.

Scoring “The Pleasure Garden”

This short film follows composer Daniel Patrick Cohen’s journey to create a new score for this seminal Hitchcock work.

You can watch the films here.

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The Noir File: ‘Notorious’ affair is decades ahead of its time

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Notorious” (1946, Alfred Hitchcock). Tuesday, Feb. 12, 10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.)

“Notorious” ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films and Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman is one of the most contemporary of all ’40s noir heroines. In this splendid 1946 suspense thriller, Bergman’s Alicia is a U.S. secret agent assigned to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have resurfaced in South America after WW2. Alicia risks her life to root out the Nazis’ source of uranium, an ingredient in atomic bombs. She also likes to throw parties, expose her midriff (love the sequin zebra-print top) and pursue her man, fellow secret agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Dev’s easy on the eyes, but he’s suspicious, uptight and seemingly unfeeling.

Their “strange love affair” as she calls it, tinged with cynicism and mistrust, is decades ahead of its time. And their record-breakingly long kisses, which look tame now, were considered extremely racy in 1946. Read the full review here.

Wednesday, Feb. 13

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Stranger” (1946, Orson Welles). With Welles and Loretta Young.

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.) “The Window” (1949, Ted Tetzlaff). With Bobby Driscoll and Arthur Kennedy.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer). With Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.

Thursday, Feb. 14

Joan Fontaine and Sir Laurence Olivier star in “Rebecca.”

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Rebecca” (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). Daphne du Maurier’s supreme gothic romantic thriller about a shy, nameless young woman (Joan Fontaine), picked by a rich, brooding widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), as his new bride, to replace his late, intimidatingly beautiful, acid-tongued and unforgettable spouse, Rebecca.

To the new bride’s fear and dismay, Rebecca still casts an eerie spell over the De Winter mansion Manderley – as do the house’s spooky, terrifying housekeeper (Judith Anderson) and Rebecca’s rascally seducer cad of a cousin (George Sanders). This elegant and faithful David O. Selznick production is directed, thanks to Selznick’s famous interference, in somewhat fettered, but ingenious style by Hitchcock. One can’t imagine it being done better. “Rebecca” was the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1940: a very good year for Hitchcock, Selznick, Fontaine, Du Maurier – and us.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Spellbound” (1945, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

Saturday, Feb. 16

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, John Sturges). With Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin.

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‘Purple Noon’ marked milestone for Clément and Delon

“Purple Noon,” recently released by Criterion, is the prize for FNB’s January-February reader giveaway. Michael Wilmington reviews.                                                                          

Purple Noon/1960/Robert and Raymond Hakim/118 min.

“Plein Soleil,” or “Purple Noon” is a classic thriller and an exceptionally riveting and beautiful movie about desire and cruelty, murder and malice. It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game of make-believe played by a psychopathic killer, a villain from a classic of 20th Century crime fiction – 1955’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by the brilliant American novelist Patricia Highsmith.

Alain Delon (right) plays Tom Ripley, a conman who fools a reckless playboy named Philippe (Maurice Ronet) and his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt). The movie was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel.

Shot in Italy, we first meet Ripley in the Bay of Naples, on a sailboat, surrounded by blazing sunlight (“plein soleil”). Two good-looking young men are laughing and smiling. The joke is that one of them, a handsome, penniless hanger-on named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), will kill the other one, a rich, reckless playboy named Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), assume his identity, take his money, and maybe seduce his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt).

They are both laughing (but Philippe’s eyes are wary, Tom’s predatory), smiling with the special joie de vivre and cruel merriment of the young and careless – the high giddy spirits of, say, Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony planning his criss-cross murder with Farley Granger as Guy Haines in Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” But then Tom really kills Philippe. A knife thrust. A scream. “Marge!” cries the victim, the knife stuck in his chest. When the murder comes, it’s so swift, so effortless, so unexpected, yet so oddly inevitable, that it’s hard to believe we’ve seen what we’ve seen.

Ripley (Alain Delon) is a man trying to live a life that isn’t his.

Released in 1960, the same year as “Psycho” and “La Dolce Vita,” “Purple Noon” was an off-type movie for French filmmaker René Clément, a gifted and highly regarded director, who, by 1960, had won two major Cannes Film Festival awards, two Oscars (for 1949’s “The Walls of Malapaga” and 1952’s “Forbidden Games”) and two Golden Lions at Venice. In 1946, Clement had served as Jean Cocteau’s “technical adviser” (his co-director, some think) on the romantic fantasy masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast.”

Clement was a technical genius who chose challenging subjects. But he had been famously attacked in an influential article by the young François Truffaut. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut accused Clement and other filmmakers of being pretentious, over-praised mediocrities. Truffaut was a great filmmaker and a great film critic, but he sometimes said nasty and unfair things (as he admitted in later years) to draw attention to himself and kick up controversy. His dismissal of Clement was one of his bigger critical injustices.

Did Clement take it to heart? Most tellingly, “Purple Noon” is obviously influenced by Hitchcock, whom all the young Cahiers du Cinema critic/directors loved (they called themselves the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”). “Purple Noon” is a film that most of them would probably have liked to have directed, but didn’t. Couldn’t?

Delon plays a love scene with his reflection in a mirror.

There is, however, a notable deviation from the Hitchcock thematic pattern. “Purple Noon” is not a movie about a wrong man falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” or Robert Donat in “The 39 Steps.”

In “Purple Noon,” Ripley is guilty. He’s a man trying to live a life that isn’t his, a life that belonged to the man he killed. “Purple Noon” is about the idle rich, and Ripley is a conman who wants to be idle and rich. Both Highsmith and Clement are unusually successful in getting us immersed in a story where most of the people are rich and selfish, where the leading man is irredeemably evil and the only really likeable character is Philippe’s abused girlfriend Marge, a writer with bad taste in men.

Ripley is in Italy at the behest of Philippe’s parents to talk Philippe into coming home. Instead, the guys become carousing hell-raising buddies. After the murder, Ripley takes Philippe’s bank records, fakes a passport, forges Philippe’s signature, imitates his voice on the phone, and lays a paper trail of hotel receipts to pretend that the dead man is still alive, still joy-riding somewhere around Italy.

Ripley is the real killer, constantly being mistaken for his own victim. It’s a brilliant Highsmith idea, and one that generates near-constant suspense, especially in the great scene when Ripley, disguised as Philippe, is confronted by Philippe’s suspicious friend Freddy Miles (Bill Kearns). That Tom-and-Freddy chase was also the only great scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 American movie version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with Matt Damon miscast as Ripley. And the only reason that scene was great was because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s marvelously snide performance as Freddy.

There’s a great performance in “Purple Noon” too: the tigerishly seductive Alain Delon, in his first important part. Delon is one of those impossibly good-looking actors who get careers they seemingly don’t really deserve (and that Delon said he initially didn’t want), but whose looks the movies feed on, and whom, it is said, the camera loves.

Delon, a working-class Adonis, is one of the few actors who could play, as he does here, a believable love scene with his own reflection in the mirror. We may not want Ripley to escape, but he generates unusual simpatico for a cold-blooded swindler and killer. And Maurice Ronet, with his haunted eyes and bedazzled smile, is just right as the irresponsible Philippe.

Delon, of course, was wrong for the part of Ripley in one major respect. It is impossible to believe that he (or Ronet) is an American. But in other respects, he’s an apt choice, and once you see him in the part, it’s hard to discard his image. (Damon, by contrast, though he’s played some movie villains, seems inherently too nice a guy for Ripley.)

Clement made the kind of thriller Truffaut would have loved to have made, but never did. And for the rest of Clement’s career, he was often typed as a thriller specialist, because of “Purple Noon,” which became one of the most influential of all French crime/suspense movies.

It deserves to be. “Purple Noon” still plays beautifully, especially in the scenes where Ripley battles the elements after the murder. Two years later, in 1962, a talented young Polish film director, Roman Polanski, made a thriller, set on a sailboat, that reminds you greatly of the bay scenes in “Purple Noon.” (“Knife in the Water” became an international hit and eventually brought Polanski to Hollywood where he made superb mass-audience thrillers like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”)

I wish Clement had had a few more opportunities like Polanski did. Maybe Truffaut wished it as well. Maybe the maker of “The Four Hundred Blows” wished he hadn’t been so quick to thrust in the knife.

Extras: Interviews with Patricia Highsmith, Alain Delon and Clement scholar Denitza Bantcheva; Trailer; Booklet with a fine essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1981 interview with René Clément.

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