Pleins feux sur l'assassin, (loosely, "Open Fire at the Killer") is the 1961 film directed by Georges Franju and written by the team of Boileau & Narcejac (Vertigo, Les diaboliques) after Eyes without a Face. As is the way with Franju's oddly disjointed career, the film is as unknown as the previous collaboration is celebrated/infamous (after a screening of Eyes at Edinburgh Film Festival caused several patrons to pass out, Franju tartly remarked "Now I understand why Scotsmen wear skirts,") but it's touched by both its writers' cunning plot mechanics and its director's dark poetry.
Any discussion of Franju ought to begin by admitting that he's one filmmaker whose shorts are better than his features, which is not to disrespect Eyes or La tête contre les murs or Judex, but simply to attest that his short films are among the greatest ever made. A DVD collection is urgently required, but for now we can see Le grand Méliès in the monumental Flicker Alley collection of Méliès's works, and Le sang des bêtesas supporting feature on Criterion's release of Eyes. Releases of the haunting La première nuit (once seen, never forgotten) and the other films Franju made between 1934 and 1958 are urgently required.
Having accepted that Franju's macabre poetry found it's most perfect expression in the short form, we also allow that several of his feature films harness it in beautifully effective ways. Pleins feux sur l'assassin doesn't quite achieve this, so the touches of surreal atmosphere act merely as spices to enliven the twisty narrative. They include—
1) Birds. Feathered friends and fiends were a Franju obsession, with Edith Scob's doves in Eyes without a Face, and the resurrected dove in Judex skirting the edges of symbolism without quite arriving at any prosaic meaning, thank God. John Woo and the Scott brothers are far away. In Pleins feux, we get slain blackbirds found in corridors and stairs of the film's fairytale castle, slung onto a dining table, and worn as decorations on a drunkard's shirt. There's also a nasty owl in a tower, perhaps a refugee from Gormenghast, whose Hitchcockian depradations at one point almost stave off the suicide of a major character.
2) Dream landscapes. In Eyes without a Face those white branches scratching overhead against a black sky like cracks in ice will haunt me to my mausoleum. The surrounding countryside of Pleins feux is an endless plain studded with irregular monoliths, like the underpinnings of some vast raised city, now vanished heavenwards or swept away by impossible winds. At the beginning and end characters traverse this ruin, with sportily-dressed hero Jean-Louis Trintignant at one point vanishing behind a rough-hewn obelisk and emerging moments later clad in full mourning attire.
3) Narrative snakiness. The film begins with a mystery, that of the vanishing corpse, to which only we, Franju's chums in the audience, have the solution. Cameo player Pierre Brasseur (the mad scientist in Eyes), a dying aristocrat, wearing the robs of the order of Malta (see also Nuits rouges for evidence of Franju's Knights Templar obsession) secretes himself in a hidden closet behind one-way glass, where his corpse can observe the unfolding action from the other side of the mirror.
Thus vanished, Brasseur cannot be declared legally dead for five years, so his heirs, a misbegotten collection of shifty cousins including the aforementioned Trintignant, must maintain the castle they stand to inherit without having access to the necessary funds. So a son et lumiere show is devised, using sound effects piped from discrete loudspeakers, and vast arc lights, to tell the story of the castle's fatal legend. But the show proves fatal for several of the cousins, killed in a series of convenient "accidents" that soon have Trintignant smelling foul play (but nobody else does: this murder mystery gets by without the presence of a single policeman).
Of course, the narrative of the missing cadaver and the tale of the unknown assassin are destined to intersect and to some extent resolve one another. The trouble is, Boileau & Narcejac's notorious lack of interest in anything beyond their Chinese box plotting results in an unappetising line-up of red herrings (it was famously hard to get what Jimmy Stewart called "real people" into the script of Vertigo) with whom we must spend our time in between sub-gialli slayings and Franju's occasional fabulist or surrealist gestures.
Still, Franju's plan is more than his plot: for one thing, the son et lumiere show, which tells a story via sound effects and moving lights, parallels the film's mise-en-scène in fascinating ways, as when a tracking shot following Trintignant into the castle for the first time is repeated exactly, only at night and with a spotlight in place of the intense leading man. (I spent a lot of the film hoping Trintignant would be the killer, so he could do his Il conformista cold grin. I was disappointed in this, but I got to enjoy him laughing at a funeral instead.)
The fact is, despite the glaring weakness of its characterisation, which alone probably explains the film's obscurity, the movie lingers in the mind longer than it has any business doing. It's the Franju Effect: it explains and is explained by his interest in Méliès: beneath or behind the surprise effects and trickery is something mysterious and dark; Orson Welles spoke of the magic show having "a certain cheap poetry": it's as elusive as it is affecting: just when you think you have it illuminated, it's vanished elsewhere, elsewhen.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.