by Mark Steiner
Several years ago, an anonymous donor contacted Scarecrow and asked if we could use funding for specific rental items that might be too costly for Scarecrow’s budget. Out of that came the first iteration of our Wish List Collection, and accordingly, a bunch of upgraded titles previously only on DVD, as well as some higher priced, English-friendly blu-rays and DVDs imported from France. Then, this year, a different anonymous donor came forward and asked the same question, and again, we were able to bring in another generous helping of French imports to add to our collection. Over the next few weeks we’ll be introducing these to you via our blog and newsletter.
Faubourg Montmartre (Raymond Bernard, 1931) BLU-RAY & DVD
Not too long after the dawn of sound, Raymond Bernard, previously known mainly by the silent historical epics he made, took his camera crew into the streets, back alleys, and tenements of Montmartre to tell a story of two sisters struggling (Gaby Morlay, Line Noro) to survive and the difficult choices they must make to stay above the poverty line. In addition to in-your-face experiments with the sounds of the streets, the film deals with cocaine addiction and prostitution as options for getting by in a harsh world. It’s also incredibly entertaining, as the denizens of this Montmartre are filled with contemporary music hall chanteuses who sing and dance at will and there’s a special treat for fans of Antonin Artaud, who leads a spectacular “charivari” sequence to welcome one of the sisters who tries to escape to the country. Lastly, there’s one of those “did I just see that?!” scenes, completely benign to the plot, set inside a confectionery, involving an overstuffed Teutonic lothario being forced to purchase their new creation, a fur-lined cat-like sculpture with a bobbing, phallic tail standing straight up and filled with chocolate and praline.
L’équipage AKA Flight Into Darkness (Anatole Litvak , 1935) BLU-RAY & DVD
Shortly before jumping at a Hollywood offer to leave France for safer climes, Russian-born director Anatole Litvak made a beautiful, passionate, and patriotic romantic drama about WWI flyboys and the difficult choices they had to make in wartime. The title, L’equipage, translated as “the crew,” refers to the 2-man flight crew that would ascend into the clouds to fight the Germans. This crew, we are told early on, forms an intense bond that is integral to both the survival of the mission and the country at large. But when new recruit Jean-Pierre Aumont, who has fallen in love with a mystery woman just prior to getting drafted, volunteers to partner up with dangerous and brave Charles Vanel, whom, we have learned, happens to be married to Aumont’s mystery woman, the wheels are set in motion for primal battle between romance and patriotism. Breathtaking air battle sequences, dreamy cinematography, and a riveting performance by the always solid Vanel all show what Litvak was capable of early on in his career.
125 Rue Montmartre (Gilles Grangier, 1959) BLU-RAY & DVD
I love Lino Ventura. He’s the French De Niro. Great characterizations with minimal amount of expression. In his stocky, boxer-like frame (he was a prizefighter and wrestler before Jacques Becker cast him in Touchez Pas Au Grisbi) he’s like a coiled snake ready to spring, and we see his restraint in the way he moves, or subtly reacts to things with his eyes. That power makes him equally adept at playing a tough as nails gangster (i.e Classes Tout Risques) or a wise and unassailable detective (The Sicilian Clan.) In 125 Rue Montmartre, however, Lino is cast as a regular shmo, a guy who hawks newspapers to drivers on the boulevards of Paris and enjoys the simple, earthly pleasures of life. One afternoon, while enjoying an after-work smoke on the bank of the Seine, he saves a man attempting to drown himself and afterwards gets caught up in a Hitchcockian web of deceit and duplicity, which we then have to watch him squirm out of. The climax of the film is a lengthy sequence at the famed Cirque Medrano which was previously brought to life by Renoir, Degas, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec 60 years earlier. And although none of the bonus features are subtitled in English, the Blu-ray & DVD offer a nice, mostly-silent ten minute film that was shot when Buster Keaton visited the circus and performed slapstick bits with the clowns.
Les Felins aka Joy House (Rene Clement, 1964) BLU-RAY
Les Felins has a ton of things going for it. Largely filmed in and around the magnificent Villa Torre Clementina in the south of France and featuring beautiful, glamorous leads Alain Delon, Jane Fonda, and Lola Albright, an iconic score from Lalo Schifrin, stunning camerawork by famed French New Wave cinematographer Henri Decae, and a terrific source novel by pulp mystery author Day Keene adapted by fellow pulp mystery author Charles Williams, the feeling remains that something ineffable was lost, as is often the case with international co-productions. I don’t know if it was director Clement or Delon’s difficulty with the English language dialogue or the English-speaking actors having trouble communicating with Clement, but the rhythm of the film seems out of whack, almost like it’s too loose to be the stylish, cracking thriller that it might have been. That said, if you’ve ever been curious about the film, or simply want to bask in the glamour of it all while grooving on primo-era Lalo Schifrin, this Blu-ray is absolutely the perfect opportunity to do so.
Want to join us in growing the Scarecrow archive? Your tax-deductible contribution to The Wishlist Collection will directly fund those items just outside of our budget. Make a gift today and help us offer more titles no algorithm will ever serve.