Thursday, June 28, 2012

La Tête d'un homme / [A Man's Head]

Il delitto della villa. FR 1933. D: Julien Duvivier. Based on the novel by Georges Simenon, in Finnish Maigret ja mies Seinen rannalta. SC: Pierre Calmann, Louis Delaprée, Julien Duvivier. DP: Armand Thirard - 1,2:1. ED: Marthe Poncin. S: Marcel Courmes. M: Jacques Dallin. Song “Complainte”, lyrics Julien Duvivier, sung by Missia. C: Harry Baur [Harry-Baur in the credits] (il commissario Maigret), Valéry Inkijinoff (Radek), Alexandre Rignault (Joseph Heurtin), Gaston Jacquet (Willy Ferrière), Louis Gauthier (il giudice), Henri Échourin (ispettore Ménard), Marcel Bourdel (ispettore Janvier), Gina Manes (Edna Reichberg), Frédéric Munié (l’avvocato), Armand Numès (direttore della polizia), Missia (la chanteuse des rues). PC: Les Films Marcel Vandal et Charles Delac. Premiere: 18 febbraio 1933. 35 mm. 98’. CNC – Archives Françaises du Film. Thursday 28 July 2012, Cinema Arlecchino (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato). E-subtitles in Italian / English.

Roberto Chiesi: “Georges Simenon was disappointed by the first films based on his novels, La Nuit du carrefour (1932) by Jean Renoir (now considered a masterpiece) and Le Chien jaune (1932) by Jean Tarride. As a result, he decided to write the adaptation for and even direct himself the film version of La Tête d’un homme (published in 1931). As actors, he chose Pierre Renoir (who had played Renoir’s Maigret) and Valéry Inkijinoff, a Russian actor recently emigrated to France. After a financial mishap, Simenon backed away from the project, and the producers proposed it to Julien Duvivier who tapped Inkijinoff for the role of Radek. For the role of the detective he insisted on Harry Baur, whom he had already directed in David Golder (1931), Les Cinq gentleman maudits (1931) and Poil de carotte (1932)."

"Chronicling a police investigation, the novel depicts a duel between two opposing characters: the diabolical Radek, a Czech immigrant student, mastermind of the ‘perfect murder’ for a third party, who has an incurable disease and wants to subvert the law, and Maigret. Radek’s misanthropy and cynicism provided the ideal raw material for Duvivier’s noir inspiration. He drastically modified the story’s structure to focus on its psychological elements and mood, intentionally emphasizing Dostoevskian references. “The starting point of this novel worried me. In Simenon’s book, a policeman allows a death row inmate to escape. […] Obviously in a novel the author can create implausible situations, but in film the director is bound by some norms and conventions. I thought it would be risky to base an entire drama on such a debatable basis. So I posed the scenario to the authorities, who demonstrated to me how such a plan would be, frankly, impossible to carry out. In order to work, it would require that the perpetrator corrupt around thirty officials who are, as is widely known, completely incorruptible”. (“Cinémonde”, n. 225, February 9, 1933). Duvivier chose to reveal to the public both the killer and the person who ordered the hit in the beginning, shifting the dramatic focus to the verbal jousting between Radek and Maigret and to their respective disenchantments that square off in an oppressive and corrupt environment. This climate is exacerbated by the claustrophobic and occasional expressionist camera takes, often close-ups of the faces and expressions of characters. The use of sound is particularly original, especially in the sequence when the falsely accused man is grilled during a car ride and the audience never sees the characters who are speaking, but only the scenery unfolding around them. The words of the song Complainte were written by Duvivier himself.” Roberto Chiesi

AA: The title of the novel and the movie, "A Man's Head" in direct translation, means that a man's head is at stake. The image in the credit sequence is that of a guillotine. "Usually there is no room for pity. Now there is". A dumb man has been framed for the perfect crime, but as soon as Maigret (Harry Baur) enters the crime scene he states that it's "too good to be true". Soon he tracks down Radek (Inkijinoff), the contract killer who has hired the subcontractor to be the culprit. And if you follow the money, tracking down who's benefiting from the murder of the rich old lady, it's easy to find Joseph Heurtin. His girlfriend Edna Reichberg (Gina Manes) is also aware of what's going on.

While La Tête d'un homme is not a very successful movie, it is full of exciting elements that would be more fully developed later in the French cinema of the 1930s. Harry Baur creates an impressive, charismatic, moody Maigret. I agree with Roberto Chiesi about the Dostoyevskian dimension of La Tête d'un homme. There are aspects of Porfiri and Raskolnikov in the meetings of Maigret with Radek. The theme song, lyrics written by Duvivier himself, is memorable ("tout est brune, tout est grise"), sung by a dark-voiced, fatalistic street singer, Missia, fulfilling the same function as Frehel in Pépé le Moko.

Georges Simenon's novels and movies based on them are pessimistic, and La Tête d'un homme is the grimmest and darkest Simenon movie I have seen. The Frenchmen had their own powerful trend of film noir in the 1930s. In La Tête d'un homme the dark and fatalistic mood is combined with an approach of street realism. There is no romanticism in the account of poverty and hopelessness. The nadir is the nest of vice where we finally meet the so far unseen street singer. After visiting it Radek tries to rape Edna.

The soundtrack is full of noise, which is why in this movie electronic subtitles are especially welcome. The noisiness of the soundtrack becomes even irritating occasionally.

There is a slow, deliberate rhythm in the movie. The pans and the tracking shots are assured. Visually, the keyword is crépuscule, twilight. There is sometimes a visual affinity with Dreyer's Vampyr.

The visual quality of the print is often good, but it may have been struck from challenging sources.

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