"Mauvaise Graine": Billy Wilder's Swift and Satisfying Directorial Debut

Billy Wilder and his team were “doing nouvelle vague a quarter of a century before they invented a fancy name for it.”
Jeremy Carr

MUBI is exclusively showing Billy Wilder and Alexander Esway's Mauvaise Graine a.k.a. Bad Seed (1934) in the United States and most countries around the world from August 18 - September 16, 2016.

In light of his illustrious Hollywood career to follow, Billy Wilder’s obscure directorial debut, Mauvaise Graine (1934), may seem like a mere curiosity. Making the film as he was passing through France by way of Germany en route to America, Wilder regarded the work with little adoration. For him, the experience was one rife with difficulty; it wasn’t fun, there was tremendous pressure, and he simply wasn’t accustomed to have such sweeping control over a production. But the writing was on the wall by 1933, and Wilder, like so many others, was keen to get out of Berlin while the getting was good. Arriving first in Paris, he met other film professionals seeking refuge from the burgeoning Nazi party, among them Franz Waxman, who would compose the score for Mauvaise Graine, and two of the film’s three writers, H.G. Lustig and Max Kolpé. Though the movie was based on an idea Wilder had while still in Germany, and he had written some 20 features to this point, recognized clout was nevertheless needed for what was to be his first effort behind the camera. Enter the Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Esway, who had six directorial credits to his name and would share directing here (though by most accounts, it was Wilder generally at the helm).

Behind the opening credits of Mauvaise Graine (or, “Bad Seed”) is a circular spinning graphic of vehicles and people, and when the film proper begins, it rushes forth Henri Pasquier (Pierre Mingand) and his pals as they race down the road in search of a new car horn. Launched by this speedy introduction, there is a prominent verbal-visual stress on automobiles and the relatively new car culture that remains front and center throughout the course of the film. Reflecting the developing perception evident in most major cities circa the early 1930s, Henri and the others in Mauvaise Graine have bought into the increasingly fast-paced contemporary notion that personal transportation signifies innovative independence and a get-up-and-go social momentum. With this newfound mobility, however, as with any new technology, comes new professions and new opportunities for crime, and as seen in Mauvaise Graine, new avenues where the two intersect.

“Happy people have no history. Or so we thought.” So says a title card at the start of Mauvaise Graine. And from what we initially see, Henri is one of these happy people. His father is a wealthy doctor, and with the hand-me-down income comes a playboy life of leisure. Putting the brakes on this hasty life of gaiety, his father soon sells the poor young man’s prized Buick, in essence depriving him of the vehicle (literally) for his youthful vigor. Another title card follows this and now notes that there are “500,000 cars in Paris. One out of 8 Parisians owns a car. Henri Pasquier is now one of the seven without one.” Reduced to a deficient number, the hang-dog Henri mopes along the street while images of headlights and rotating tires are superimposed over his downtrodden face, teasing signals of his auto-longing. He has been keen to avoid working for an honest living, and his upper crust snobbery leads him to scoff at the suggestion of taking the bus: “What will I tell my friends?” he pleads to his father, an ironic concern given the crew he is about to join. When he pinches his old car, he is mistaken for a potentially rival thief by a band of actual seasoned criminals. They take him to their hideout, which is essentially a garage hidden behind the facade of a reputable business (also a garage). There they arrange for the stolen vehicles to be repainted, re-plated, and resold. Like a pre-war Gone in 60 Seconds, the men and their machines are embraced in a meticulously adoring emphasis, with Wilder honing in on the details of the work and the mechanical design of the transportation.  

This isn’t the only instance of fetishistic fascination in Mauvaise Graine. Henri’s fast friend in the criminal enterprise is Jean-la-Cravate (Raymond Galle), a pleasant enough kleptomaniac with, as his name suggests, an affinity for neckties (a prolific affinity at that, peaking in one of the film’s funniest sequences as he makes his sticky-fingered rounds during a visit to the beach). He tells Henri there are 10 ½ members in the gang, the half being the lone woman, his sister Jeannette (Danielle Darrieux). Her introduction comes as she strolls nonchalantly along the road, much to the delight of an admiring man who follows behind in a car. Forming a sort of diagetic vehicular wipe, by the time a horse-drawn truck passes in front of the camera, she is now planted in the stranger’s car. The visual joke of the casual—though methodical—pick-up is proceeded by the narrative joke soon played on the stranger: Jeannette is the one taking him for a ride, as she has done and will continue to do as part of the car-thieving scheme, and he will soon be joining Henri as one of those lacking seven.

As it happens, Henri is something of a natural in the larceny trade, and the stolen car venture is a perfect fit…for a time. His spoiled insolence gets the better of him, though, and when he stands up to the boss (Michel Duran) and demands more money (to his credit, he demands it for all), his welcome with the head honcho is quickly worn thin. Anxious to dispose of the rabble-rouser, a damaged car is set up to be part of Henri’s plotted demise—first life and now death inexorably revolve around automobiles. With tension hinging on the inevitable car crash, Wilder crafts a thrilling high-speed pursuit shot with surprising dash, clarity, and a rapid pace aided by Therese Sautereau’s editing and Franz Waxman’s score (Waxman, who would soon make his own way to America, composing the music for The Bride of Frankenstein the next year).

Mauvaise Graine shares many similarities with concurrent French films of the era, particularly those by René Clair, but it also strongly foreshadows the free-spirited features of the French New Wave. When Henri flirtatiously impersonates Maurice Chevalier early on, a running theme of play-acting to various ends is established. Like a precursor to the crime films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the bad guys here assume their respective criminal roles with an affected enthusiasm, as if they had seen too many movies and are joyfully emulating their favorite screen gangsters. Later, playing a part and putting on a show also proves to be a valuable method for distraction if the ruse calls for it. There is subsequently a light playfulness concerning all involved, and a tone of frivolity that, even when danger emerges, seldom suggests the potential for dire urgency. If there is, Wilder will often ease in—sometimes within the same shot—a subtle moment of comedic reprieve. Still, by film’s end there are loose strands to tie and a tragic, semi-moral conclusion lies ahead.

Though largely the result of budgetary restraints (as with those New Wave films), Wilder’s use of authentic exterior locations also extols a naturalistic, on-the-fly method of street corner filmmaking. Working alongside a trio of credited cinematographers—Paul Cotteret, Maurice Delattre, and Fred Mandl—Wilder commented that he and his team were “doing nouvelle vague a quarter of a century before they invented a fancy name for it.” Wilder even composes shots to be slightly raised from the back seat of a convertible, showing his characters cruising along Parisian thoroughfares like distant relatives to Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Further, Henri and Jeannette ultimately resemble New Wave protagonists when, stranded along a country road, a slow romantic contrast to the frenetic life of crime leads to introspective contemplation and the delineation of insatiable restlessness.

Writing Mauvaise Graine with Kolpé (who would later contribute dialogue for Roberto Rossellini’s powerful Germany Year Zero [1948]) and Lustig (who would later write for fellow German expatriate Fritz Lang) was Claude-André Puget, providing dialogue on this, his first film, and Wilder himself. It was, of course, Wilder’s writing that would propel him through the next-phase of his stateside career. Though it would be nearly eight years before he would direct again (The Major and the Minor [1942]), Wilder became a prominent fixture in Hollywood thanks to his extraordinary screenplays, in particular the Oscar-nominated script for Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which was the start of an unparalleled string of achievements in America. It is tempting to look back at Mauvaise Graine and identify tell-tale signs of Wilder’s cinema to come, and perhaps one does see an early commentary on 9-to-5 workaday drudgery à la The Apartment (1960), for example, but aside from a few sight gags and some sly suggestiveness, there is little to distinguish the film as an obvious entry in Wilder’s filmography. What there is instead, and what makes Mauvaise Graine an under-seen gem worthy of reevaluation, is a remarkably progressive narrative and an energetic formal approach to its modern, motorhead scenario.

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