Gilles Grangier’s 1963 film from Georges Simenon’s novel features a pretty late-period Jean Gabin as Commissioner Maigret, on the trail of a few (fairly badly acting) Americans in France in the midst of a convoluted plot. I wonder if Truffaut liked Grangier when he wrote his “A Certain Trend of French Cinema.” This kind of feels like the Don Siegel of French filmmaking (though, for the record, Siegel is better): an unshowy, well-crafted thriller with a charismatic lead, shot in a more traditional way than its new wave peers.
While Grangier’s film is indeed overly complicated and leads to a pretty disappointing denouement it does have a great performance from Gabin, who feels worn, old, and plenty confident. Marcel Bozzuffi also gets an early appearance here; though he’s a side character his Torrence is calm and in charge, and Bozzuffi shows some of the screen presence that will come to the forefront later.
There’s a really amazing fight sequence where one of the Americans, Cicero (Michel Constantin, the only good one of the group), fights off a large group of French detectives.
It’s a really physical scene and Grangier uses Cicero’s imposing figure to his advantage. It’s well cut, fast, a little funny (the sand and the flip), but also feels real and violent.
Towards the end of the film there’s a sequence where Maigret sits with his detective Lognon (Guy Decomble) to his left, and opposite the American agent Harry McDonald (Paul Carpenter) and the flipped criminal Curtis (Harry-Max).
Grangier starts with a dolly to the wide, establishing where everyone sits:
He then cuts in to a simple shot-reverse between Maigret and McDonald:
We then jump to the other side of the line – sort of like a second master shot – and now Maigret’s eyeline also changes (he looks left, and not right, as above):
Grangier uses Curtis’ eyeline to move us from Maigret to McDonald, and then cuts to McDonald, who is also now looking right to accommodate the second master shot:
We now go back to the initial side of the line, and McDonald’s eyeline changes again – he looks frame-left. The new 2-shot, showing Maigret and Lognon in the same frame, again changes Maigret’s eyeline back to frame-right:
We get another new bit of coverage, and over-the-shoulder, where Maigret’s eyeline is tighter to the lens:
And we end the scene with a new shot-reverse, between Maigret and Lognon:
I like this sequence. It’s more difficult then it looks, I think. Grangier uses two sides of the line, and always follows with coverage that subsequently changes both main characters’ (Maigret and McDonald) eyelines accordingly, so they’re always “looking” at one-another.
He shifts the line at changes of power (the first shift: McDonald takes control; the third shift back: some semblance of normalcy is restored), uses two-shots to show allegiances, and differentiates between control and lack thereof using clean-frames vs. over-the-shoulders.
It’s just good, solid directing that isn’t flashy, but makes a sitting conversation between four stationary people much more interesting.
Not necessarily my favorite Claude Chabrol film, though Les Cousins, the great director’s second film, has beautiful moments.
There’s some really amazing, elegant blocking, and the country-vs-city narrative is compelling, but the film does get a bit boring. I wonder if Neil LaBute loves this film. It feels up his alley.
Some of that blocking makes the film though. Charles (Gérard Blain) studies in his room. Chabrol frames it as a stark overhead. He exits to his desk and we see only his hand hugging the corner of the frame. There’s a transition to day and then the camera moves to reveal him asleep in his chair:
It’s a nice visual approach to the scene, and it keeps us at a slight distance from Charles, who is himself a distant character.
In my last Chabrol post for Wedding in Blood I talked a lot about long-take blocking, and it’s evident even here in 1959. Chabrol begins this scene in a single on Florence (Juliette Mayniel), the object of Charles’ affection. He whip pans 180 degrees, finding people spilling out of the bar in front of her:
The camera pulls back as the group leaves, and then starts to pan back towards Florence. That’s her standing at the pole in the second image below. She then goes with Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) towards the car:
As they enter the car, the view obscured by the pole the camera moves slightly back and pans left, revealing Charles.
I think this is the strongest moment. It’s such a great comparison with our initial view of Florence. She’s alone and separate from everyone and then joins the group, whereas Charles is with the group and then becomes alone and separate from everyone.
Chabrol’s blocking is so confident for such a young director. He was 29 when the film came out! And it’s not just movement for movement’s sake. The lens captures the whirlwind of excitement for the bar just left and the night to come, and then the bookended loneliness of two characters who may or may not love one-another.