Over the course of his long writing career, Belgium author Georges Simenon made a considerable contribution to noir. While this prolific writer who wrote nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas is best remembered for his Maigret books, Simenon also wrote novels called romans durs. A literal translation of this term is hard novels, and these are perfect material for film noir. A tremendous number of Simenon novels have been made into films.
The film The Paris Express (AKA The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By), from director Harold French is based on one of Simenon’s greatest romans durs. It’s an incredible novel and contains one of Simenon’s favorite themes—a bourgeois mild-mannered protagonist who through some fluke, some twist of fate, derails from his respectable life. Once cast adrift from respectability and the treadmill of duty, responsibility and employment, Simenon’s characters typically escape into an entirely new life, usually in the grimy underbelly of the crime world. For these characters, criminality becomes a liberating event as they shed old habits and routines.
The Paris Express opens with a significant scene. It’s the beginning of a workday in the Dutch town of Groningen, and a group of bicyclists wait at a train crossing. The train passes by, and the bicyclists peddle off, but one man is left gazing after the train in awe. The man is Kees Popinga (Claude Rains), a man whose very name inspires mediocrity and meekness. The middle-aged Popinga is head clerk at the highly respectable de Koster Company, and he’s spent his entire working life slaving over the accounting books for the firm. He’s a creature of habit, a man devoted to routines, and you can set your watch by Popinga’s daily schedule. A railway employee teasingly asks Popinga about his interest in trains, and Popinga eagerly admits that it’s not the trains that interest him as much as their destinations, and then Popinga voices a list of those destinations: Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, but when he speaks the word ‘Paris,’ there’s a special tone in his voice—a tone of reverence and wistfulness.
Popinga’s employer, the dapper Julius de Koster Jr. (Herbert Lom) treats Popinga rather like an office boy, and Popinga responds in turn by being obsequious, parroting back responses to his boss, and shelving emotion in favor of functionality and efficiency. De Koster isn’t strictly speaking the head of the company; his senile father remains the firm’s figurehead, but he’s too addle-patted to even remove his hat by himself.
The first scenes of the film demonstrate Popinga’s position in the company and his relationship with his employer. A former head clerk from another, now bankrupt company, humbly begs for work from Popinga, and when Popinga dares support the man’s suit, de Koster diminishes both men with one swift display of his power. According to de Koster, the employment-seeker cannot possibly be hired as he carries the taint of bankruptcy. Even though the owner of the now defunct company embezzled the business’s funds, de Koster holds the former head clerk responsible for the actions of his employer. The judgmental, self-righteous de Koster maintains that his company has a reputation to uphold “integrity” and “morality.” De Koster’s stuffy speech may fool Popinga—a man who’s been trained to tow the line and follow the rules, but the pompous de Koster certainly doesn’t fool the viewer. —Noiroftheweek.com
London-born Harold French made his name on the stage, both as an actor and director. He crossed over to films, making his acting debut in 1920. He became a director shortly before the beginning of World War II, debuting with The Cavalier of the Streets (1937), and made a well-received adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s thriller, Secret Mission (1942). He didn’t score again until 1948, with My Brother Jonathan (1948). Known more for his romantic dramas and comedies, French switched to a period action piece, Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). He directed his last film, The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955) in 1955 and went back to writing. Toward the end of his career he returned to directing in the theater. While he may not have been classified among the top-ranked British directors, he nevertheless turned out many well-made, entertaining films over his 20-year-plus career. —IMDb
A striking poster for a cold-war thriller and the tragically short career of its leading lady.