Dimitri Kirsanoff's 1926 classic Ménilmontant, which is either a short feature or a very long short, is one of the great things. If you haven't already seen it, you have just been handed an urgent mission.
Related to the impressionist school of Epstein, Dulac, amd Delluc, but not actually part of that gang or, seemingly, associated with any school, movement or company, Kirsanoff, an Estonian emigré, fashioned a silent film without intertitles that plays like an unholy mash-up of Chaplin and David Lynch.
But little of Kirsanoff's other work is seen or discussed. A few lovely shorts are available on YouTube, but what became of him when he was absorbed into the film industry and had to become a professional?
Le crâneur (The Hotshot) is the answer. It's a fifties crime movie inhabiting a world familiar to cinephiles from the movies of Jean-Pierre Melville, only the gangsters don't wear white editor's gloves and the nightclubs do not resound with incessant xylophone jazz (Melville's near-autistic obsession with that instrument has never been adequately explained, in my book).
There are hotshot filmmakers who never grow up, those who mature into quieter artists, and those who "learn" not to do the very things that made them interesting in the first place. Kirsanoff flitters between all three camps, I think. The psychotronic lap dissolves of his first films are gone, replaced by a relatively stable, sane découpage, applied to a conventional noir story world. The elements of the plot are mostly traditional too: gangsters, smuggling, a night club, a man torn between a good woman and a bad woman. The plot structure is much more interesting, however, but we'll come to that...
Having a clearly limited budget does force Kirsanoff back into appealing old habits: rather than using process shots for car scenes, he crams his camera into real autos to careen down real Paris streets: except when he needs to show the drivers, at which point he resorts to a rotating cyclorama backdrop, a hilarious bit of ealy-1900s artifice, so that we're jolted between new wave realism and older-than-old wave fakery. Flashbacks are signaled by the camera gliding towards character's foreheads, with a circular wipe irising out so that the incoming scene seems to burst from their frontal lobes.
Otherwise, the coverage is dynamic but conventional: we wouldn't know it was an old man's film, because it's consistently lively, but it has to be an old Kirsanoff's film, because it refrains from excesses of eccentricity.
The screenplay is credited to Jacques Companéez, a prolific scribe with a taste for genre, who had worked for Renoir (The Lower Depths), L'Herbier, Chenal, Clement, and Siodmak. Embedded within a framing structure are three flashbacks from three different characters, which gradually piece together a murder mystery. The Rashomon effect shows how the exotic and artistic can be appropriated by genre and the industry: just like Kirsanoff himself.
Our so-called hotshot (Raymond Pellegrin, failing to live up to his billing) is a stunt driver for the movies: his Eastern European director, clutching a disgruntled cat and yelling "Merde!" is probably Kirsanoff himself. Seduced into a life of crime by stripper Betty Bell (Dora Doll: one assumes the part was written for her), he then falls in love with a young singer and plans to steal a delivery of morphine in order to finance a new life with her. All this unfolds via the flashbacks, occurring after Betty has been found shot with the hero's Browning in a phone booth of the nightclub where they all work.
Dora Doll makes a strong and sympathetic bad girl (though could anybody really earn a living in a nightclub merely by shifting their weight from one foot to the other and flashing their gusset? I guess they probably could) but the film's star attraction/ingénue/chief special effect is Marina Vlady, a mere seventeen and already a veteran. Familiar to film lovers from Two or Three Things I Know About Her, or else Chimes at Midnight, her Russian lineage gives her wide-spaced, slanting eyes and cheekbones that aspire to wedge her in each doorframe. Her youth gives her a strangulated pipsqueak voice which would only later modulate into something you could call sultry or even pleasing. But it's touching.
An intriguing subplot has Vlady's character pretending she's gay, and that her sister is her lover, in order to repel nightclub lechers.
Kirsanoff knows she's lightning in a bottle and wraps his compositions around that heart-shaped face and squeezes her into a Morticia Addams/Juliette Greco black dress that's so far off the shoulder it's almost around the ankles.
The gloomy conventions of French poetic realism/noir mean that the ending is up for grabs: I disliked Pellegrin's bill-dodging, drug-smuggling, two-timing anti-hero enough to welcome his eventual incineration, but the movie gives us something more nuanced, more unsettling than either traditional tragedy or happy ending: an image out of Buñuel, in fact...