Crime thrillers seem to require two things: an air of realism, and an expressive power. The balance can vary wildly. Marcel Carné's interesting, uneven Les assassins de l'ordre (1971) has a very good balance half the time, but the other half of the time it's neither realistic nor expressive.
Jacques Brel plays a crusading judge investigating a case of police brutality resulting in a death in custody, and... Wait. Jacques Brel, singer-songwriter and one of the ten famous Belgians? Is this possible? And if so, can somebody please immediately make a movie where Randy Newman plays a cop on the edge?
Still. Brel is ugly enough to be plausible as a judge, and his case is interesting. The dumb insolence of the cops he's investigating is also convincing and dramatic. Amusingly, one of them also plays a cop in Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty, which leads one to expect zany jokes that never come.
Realism: the movie begins with a suspect roused from slumber in his appalling 70s apartment (magic eye wallpaper, tasteful nude pencil sketch). His wife is wearing all her makeup in bed, which unless she's Baby Jane Hudson doesn't seem too credible. Both the hero's girlfriend's apartment and the police station are bright blue, which smacks of a production designer's creativity run slightly wild.
Expressivity: really strong music by Michel Colombier and Pierre Henri. It sounds like a seriously defective elevator, getting nearer and nearer, whining and grinding and protesting, until it cuts off at a climactic point, and Michael Lonsdale comes in. Lonsdale, with his massive head and impossibly elongated fingers, pursed lips and dead fish stare, is the guilty inspector, and his every moment is both realistic and expressive.
The dull stuff: social commentary dialogues between Brel and his teenage son, and all the stuff which plants a social attitude into a suit of clothes and calls that a character. The good bits are good enough to make me want the rest to be better.
Not sure if I buy the decline of Marcel Carné: his first flop, Les Portes de la Nuit, is simply superb, every bit as good as Quai des Brumes or Le Jour se Lève. Just after his break-up with Jacques Prévert, he made Juliette ou la clé des songes (1951), which is a marvelous combination of romantic fatalism and surrealistic absurdism, Cocteau meets Lewis Carroll. And right after this one, La merveilleuse visite (1974) allowed him to express his love of fantasy again: it's campy, colorful, poetic, sometimes embarrassing, never dull, and ultimately quite moving.
So he didn't stop making good films. There's just a certain loss of direction: a serious problem for a director, to be sure, especially one who had been at the heart of his film-making culture and suddenly seemed marginal. Even when his films made money, they did not seem important anymore to those who talked about such things. (A naive young lawyer in this film is named Rivette. Accident or deliberate reference?) My question for you: does Carné cease to matter after World War Two?
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.