Enchanté: COLCOA film fest hits LA

coloca-logo5[1]The City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Film Festival, a fixture in Los Angeles for 18 years, shows new and classic French films at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles. The fest runs April 21-28.

This year’s fest offers another prime schedule of French motion pictures. “We Love You, You Bastard” (or Salaud, on t’aime, to be French about it), the latest film by Claude Lelouch, is the opening night film.

Lelouch, a New Wave writer-director (auteur), won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his 1966 “A Man and a Woman” (or Une Homme et un Femme). He conquered movie art-houses and has been active ever since. This new Lelouch movie stars two venerable French rock stars Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell in a story about sowing wild oats and dealing with the results.

What is showing to tempt noiristas? Well, 1960’s “Purple Noon,” one of the great film noirs, starring Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. This gripping thriller was directed by Rene Clement, based on a novel by the American expatriate crime writer Patricia Highsmith and dazzlingly shot by Henri Decae. It screens at 1:45 p.m., on Tuesday, April 22.

our-heroes[1]le-dernier-diamant[1]Then, there’s the highly popular Film Noir Series on Friday, April 25. Can’t wait! At 5:30 p.m. is the North American premiere of “Our Heroes Died Tonight” (Nos héros sont morts ce soir). Set in early-1960s Paris, this minimalist noir, written and directed by David Perrault, plunges into the seedy world of semi-professional wrestling where backroom dives smell of Gauloise and sweat, and the fights are all rigged.

At 7:30 p.m. Eric Barbier’s heist thriller “The Last Diamond,” makes its international premiere. Starring Bérénice Bejo and Yvan Attal, the film follows in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” The carrot for the crooks is mighty pretty: the fabled Florentine, a 137-carat yellow diamond last seen in 1918, which has resurfaced and is up for sale in an exclusive Antwerp auction house.

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venus-in-fur[1]The Larriere Brothers’ crime drama “Love is a Perfect Crime” plays at 10:30 p.m. Adapted from “Incidences by Philippe Dijan, whose other novels inspired the films “Betty Blue and “Unforgivable,” this chilly thriller revolves around a University of Lausanne student who goes missing. The top suspect? Her professor and lover, natch. “Love is a Perfect Crime” stars Mathieu Almaric, Karin Viard, Maiwenn and Sara Forrestier. This is the film’s West Coast premiere.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

There are two other enticing events on Friday. The massively influential but too mortal (and gone too soon) French auteur François Truffaut will be remembered at a 1:30 p.m. screening of his very personal 1977 tale of a femme-chaser “The Man Who Loved Women,” starring Charles Denner as the Man, and Brigitte Fossey, Nathalie Baye and the supremely piquant Leslie Caron as some of the Women. There will be a talk on Truffaut after the movie.

At 8:30 p.m., that brilliant and elusive Polish-American-French cineaste, Roman Polanski will be represented by his latest film “Venus in Fur,” based on the masochistic novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch and David Ives’ play from it. “Venus” stars Polanski’s muse-mate Emmanuelle Seigner as an extroverted actress who shows up after hours to read for a part.

la-belle-et-la-bete[1]the-murderer-lives[1]On Saturday, at 11 a.m., the one French film of this year’s glittering menu that you absolutely don’t want to miss: the 1946 fairytale treasure “Beauty and the Beast,” written and directed by Jean Cocteau. Josette Day stars as Belle and Jean Marais as Bete. The film was photographed (lustrously) by Henri Alekan, scored (hauntingly) by Georges Auric and technically advised by Rene Clement, who we suspect, had more to do with the film‘s impeccable, fantastic technique than just advice.

If fairytales aren’t your tray of gateaux, there’s a brutally real alternative: “Abuse of Weakness,” a fierce semi-autobiographical drama by auteur Catherine Breillat about her own fleecing by a famous conman. “Abuse” screens at 7:45 p.m.

“We Love You, You Bastard” rescreens at 1:15 p.m.

Sunday brings the closing session of the competition, but there are two more major French classics on Monday, April 28. At 2 p.m., you can see the great director Patrice Chereau’s 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ breathless historical novel “Queen Margot” (La Reine Margot). Chereau’s film stars Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil.

And at 3:30 p.m. there’s another film noir, a black-and-white ‘40s classic: “The Murderer Lives at No. 21” by Henri-Georges Clouzot. French stage and screen actor Louis Jouvet stars as the relentless detective Wens.

The COLCOA screenings are at the Directors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046.

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The Noir File: Belafonte and Ryan in ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-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

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a top cast in “Odds Aganist Tomorrow.”

Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Robert Wise). Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.). Here is one of the great, underrated film noirs – a movie whose reputation and stature was recognized early on by French critics and has continued to grow over the past half century.

Directed by Robert Wise, and based on a novel by suspense specialist William McGivern (“The Big Heat“), “Odds Against Tomorrow” boasts a riveting and exciting story, unforgettable characters and a social/political allegory that’s pointed and powerful.

Three mismatched New Yorkers – genial, corrupt ex-cop Dave (Ed Begley), brutal ex-con Earl (Robert Ryan) and reckless Johnny (Harry Belafonte), a nightclub entertainer with huge gambling debts – join forces for an upstate bank robbery, a well-planned heist that will supposedly solve all their money problems. But the problems are just beginning. Earl is a racist who hates Johnny on sight and Johnny has a short fuse as well. Things begin to unravel, then explode.

Gloria Grahame plays an extra-friendly neighbor.

Ryan’s performance is a scorcher; he‘s a perfect villain, bad to the bone. Belafonte’s is compelling and non-clichéd. (He was also one of the producers.) Begley’s is jovial but poignant, a Willy Loman-like salesman peddling his own destruction. The women in the case, a pair of bad blondes – Shelley Winters as Earl’s whining wife and Gloria Grahame as his slutty neighbor – are top-notch.

French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville named “Odds Against Tomorrow” as one of his three all-time favorite movies; the other two were: “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Along with the 1949 boxing classic “The Set-Up” (which had Ryan in a sympathetic role, as the aging fighter) this is the best of Wise’s crime movies. The screenplay was mostly by the uncredited and blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (“Force of Evil“). The original jazz score is by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The atmospheric black and white cinematography is by Joseph C. Brun (“Edge of the City”).

Tuesday, Jan. 15

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Deadline at Dawn” (1946, Harold Clurman). With Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas.

Wednesday, Jan. 16

8 p.m. (5 p.m.) : “Cry Danger” (1951, Robert Parrish). Fast, breezy revenge yarn, with Dick Powell looking for payback, and Rhonda Fleming, William Conrad and William Erdman standing by.

12:45 a.m. (9:45 a.m.): “The Breaking Point” (1950, Michael Curtiz). With John Garfield and Patricia Neal.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey). With Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

Friday, Jan. 18

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Notorious” (1946, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Reins.

Saturday, Jan. 19

10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.): “The Big Knife” (1955, Robert Aldrich). Clifford Odets’ backstage Hollywood shocker of a play is like a faceful of acid, and director Aldrich pulls no punches. Jack Palance is the beleaguered movie star Charlie Castle; surrounding him in an infernally corrupt studio system are Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Everett Sloane.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick). With James Mason, Sue Lyon and Peter Sellers.

3 a.m. (12 a.m.): “I Died a Thousand Times” (1955, Stuart Heisler). Color and Cinemascope remake of the Raoul Walsh-Humphrey Bogart-Ida Lupino gangster saga “High Sierra,” with the original stars replaced by Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. Inferior, but not awful. With Lee Marvin in his snarl mode.

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‘Le Cercle Rouge’ is an icy thriller by an immaculate artist

“Le Cercle Rouge” plays Saturday, Nov. 6, at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Le Cercle Rouge/1970/EIA, et al/140 min./in French with English subtitles

By Michael Wilmington

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) was, in some ways, the Vermeer of the heist movie. A master of classic noir and neo noir, Melville was a cool, sure-fingered expert and an immaculate artist. Like Vermeer, his pictures were deceptively simple and utterly haunting, punctilious and mysterious. And, like Vermeer, he didn’t leave many behind him.

One of the greatest of all Melville’s films, with one of his most spectacular heists, is “Le Cercle Rouge,” a neo-noir which has, as its centerpiece, a spine-chilling depiction of a jewel robbery at the Place Vendome in Paris.

The job is pulled off with rare skill by three strangely honorable thieves, played by three international film stars: ex-convict Corey (played by Alain Delon), escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand).

Alain Delon

The movie is about how these three come together, how they execute the robbery, and how they’re finally driven apart – largely through the quiet skill and determination of their relentless police antagonist. Deceptively lumpish, bourgeois-looking Inspector Mattei is played by comedy star André Bourvil.

Mattei is keeping watch over his prisoner, Vogel, on a train journey. But Vogel slips out of his handcuffs and escapes from the sleeper car of the speeding train. Mattei is humiliated, then obsessed with finding Vogel. The broken handcuffs become a psychological link.

Mattei has an invaluable source in Santi (François Périer), a double-dealer and underworld mole, who looks like a ferret in a suit. Santi owns a nightclub that seems to specialize in crooked assignations and ersatz ’50s American movie musical numbers, set to a cool jazzy score by Éric Demarsan. (The chorus girls in those numbers are almost the only women we see in the movie, except for one faithless lover and one cigarette girl.)

The title “Le Cercle Rouge” refers to a story of Buddha, who supposedly draws a red chalk circle and explains to his students that those who are destined to cross paths will do so within the circle, no matter what.

Melville made and released Le Cercle Rouge in 1970, one year after making his World War Two French Resistance masterpiece, “Army of Shadows” (1969) and two years before making his last film (with his last heist), the flawed “Un Flic” (Dirty Money), starring Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Richard Crenna. “Le Cercle Rouge” was his last masterpiece.

Back to Vermeer for a moment. There is one vital quality of Vermeer’s that Melville misses completely, probably never tries for: warmth. Melville’s films noirs are cold, especially when cinematographer Henri Decaë (of Melville’s “Le Samourai”) shoots them. His crooks are cool. They speak little, wear raincoats and fedoras, and smoke cigarettes, like Bogie. His cops are icy. His world is dark: noir to the brim.

Why was Melville so obsessed with criminals, with heists and with heist movies? Maybe because this underworld reminded him of the world that was the French Resistance, in which he had fought during the war.

And maybe it’s because of the one that got away. In the ’50s, Melville was hired to direct the movie that became one of the greatest of all heist movies (François Truffaut’s choice as the greatest of all film noirs), 1955’s “Rififi.” Melville was later fired and replaced by Jules Dassin, who chivalrously refused to take the job without Melville’s consent (which Melville gave). [Read more...]

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Totally exciting, wildly preposterous: French police thriller ‘Point Blank’ knocks us out, then keeps right on going

Point Blank/2010/Magnolia Pictures/90 min.

French police thrillers, especially the classics by Clouzot, Chabrol and Melville, used to be a bit more plausible and psychologically acute than their American counterparts – explosive action shoot-’em-ups that have mostly tried to knock us on our asses. Not so these days. The French cops-and-robbers hit movie “Point Blank” out-Yanks the Yanks by knocking us on our derrieres in the first few minutes – and then keeps it up, racing like hell on wheels for the next 80.

That’s the good news: It’s an exciting movie. The bad news is that, like many of its U.S. counterparts, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. The other good news is that writer/director Fred Cavayé’s movie is so well-gunned and goes by so damned fast, you barely notice the holes as you bounce over them.

Gilles Lellouche as Samuel is caught between the crooks and the cops.

The plot, jam-packed into the movie’s screamingly fast running time, has to do with a hit man named Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem, the somberly magnetic actor of “Days of Glory”) who’s been betrayed and nearly killed. He winds up in the hospital in the custody of the police and the care of a low-key male nurse, Samuel Pierret (the amiable and wonderfully nervous Gilles Lellouche).

Samuel saves Hugo from more would-be assassins and then, to his horror, finds himself trapped between the crooks and the cops – and the crooks who are cops (quite a lot of them, as it turns out). Under the evil command of the Teutonic-looking Commandant Patrick Werner (Gerard Lanvin), who’s actually conducting the investigation of his own crimes, those rogue police start chasing Hugo and Samuel all around Paris.

And, for insurance, they kidnap Samuel‘s beautiful wife Nadia (Elena Anaya), who’s eight months pregnant – threatening her death unless Samuel helps them. Soon Samuel and Hugo have become friends, of a sort, and a large section of Paris has become a bloody battleground.

I told you it didn’t make much sense. And, as I said, it doesn’t really matter. Cavayé, an ex-fashion photographer with a good eye and a blistering sense of pace, also made the big French neo-noir hit “Pour Elle,” which was translated and Americanized into the savagely improbable Russell Crowe thriller “The Next Three Days.” (Hollywood copied it so fast that Cavayé’s French original wasn’t imported and may still pop up here.)

Like Luc Besson and his disciples, Cavayé can do certain high-tech American tricks better than a lot of Americans. How does he get any suspension of disbelief, besides pure speed and kinetic rush? The leads, Zem, Lellouche and Anaya, are all excellent actors (Zem has a great glare) and they bring emotional conviction to a story you can barely believe for a minute.

The title “Point Blank,” by the way, has nothing to do with Cavayé’s original title “A Bout Portant” and nothing to do with the 1967 Lee Marvin-John Boorman noir classic “Point Blank,” which in turn was adapted from the 1962 Richard Stark-Donald Westlake novel “The Hunter,” which has nothing to do with the 1980 Steve McQueen crime thriller of the same name.

But whether you call it “Point Blank” or “A Bout Portant” or “The French Reconnection” or “Paris Goes Kaboom,” this is still one totally exciting if often wildly preposterous movie.

– Michael Wilmington

“Point Blank” opens July 29. (In French with English subtitles.)

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‘Diabolique’ is all surprise, all mystery, one twist after another

‘Diabolique’/1955/Cinédis/114 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

The worst kind of fictional horror, the kind that seeps into your psyche and stings into life your worst fears, sometimes springs from the seemingly mundane routines of life, when the placid world we know suddenly becomes a backdrop for darkness and evil.

In French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of suspense, “Diabolique,” a school near Paris turns into the site for a cold-blooded murder and a den of everyday nightmares. “Diabolique,” called “Les Diaboliques,“ (“The Devils”) in France, is a movie about the mystery and terror of appearances, and the ways that they can ensnare us, drive us mad or destroy us.

If there was ever a movie review that needed a “Spoiler Alert” it’s “Diabolique,” a film that doesn’t have one surprise up its sleeve, but many. It’s all surprise, all mystery, one twist after the other, going off like firecrackers until the end of the film.

Vera Clouzot

Simone Signoret

“Diabolique” takes place in a boarding school, an ugly, sprawling ex-chateau run by a ferret-faced brute of a headmaster, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) and his weak, ill and persecuted wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). Delassalle viciously exploits and abuses his wife, and is openly unfaithful to her, with the school’s science and math teacher, a sultry, smart blonde named Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, in one of her most famous roles).

Headmaster Delassalle is an awful man and the school is an awful but believable place, with bleak dormitory rooms, rotten food, dark hallways, and a dirty swimming pool in which something terrible, we feel, will happen. Or maybe not.

In the first of the movie’s string of shocks, we discover that Christina and Nicole, wife and mistress, have formed an unholy alliance. Both seemingly disgusted by the swinish Michel, they are plotting to kill him and disguise it as an accident.

And Michel is such a cad and sadist – a brilliant performance by Meurisse, who was later just as fine for both Jean Renoir (“Picnic on the Grass”) and Jean-Pierre Melville (“Le Cercle Rouge”) – that we don’t condemn the women. Another brilliant actor of astounding longevity, Charles Vanel, plays superlatively well the retired detective Fichet, who starts sniffing around when he runs into Christina at the morgue.

The man who made this astonishing and frightening movie, writer-director Clouzot, seemed to be many things himself: a cynic and a sometime sadist to his actors (especially his own wife, Vera), a friend/collaborator of artistic greats like Pablo Picasso, a WW2 opportunist who worked for a company run by the occupying Germans, and, above all, a genius at making movies that tightened the vise of anxiety like a noose around the audiences’ throats.

Clouzot was, in fact, the only specialist in suspense who was ever plausibly bracketed with Alfred Hitchcock – and Hitchcock was one of “Diabolique” ’s biggest admirers. The wry British master of movie fear wanted to buy the novel, “Celle qui n’etait plus,” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, on which “Diabolique” was based.

When “Diabolique” became an international hit, Hitchcock bought another Boileau-Narcejac novel, and turned it into his masterpiece “Vertigo.” Hitch then acquired a Robert Bloch novel called “Psycho” and essentially made it his own “Diabolique,” shooting in black and white, playing up similar scenes and themes (including the idea of murder in a bathroom), borrowing liberally from the earlier movie’s style and execution, even reworking some of its advertising gimmicks. [Read more...]

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Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd are smokin’ in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more...]

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