The Forgotten: Mean Streets


Concluding our short series celebrating the films of the Pathé-Natan company, 1926-1934. 

Above: Maurice Tourneur invents the film noir style while nobody's looking in Justin de Marseille. 

Bernard Natan, CEO of Pathé, was as conservative in his tastes as any studio boss, but he can be considered a brilliant talent scout on the basis of a few risks he took: casting Jean Gabin in his first feature (Chacun sa chance, 1931, an operetta-film), giving Jacques Tourneur his first directing job (Tout ça ne vaut pas l'amour, 1932, a comedy), and allowing Pierre and Jacques Prevert to make their first film (L'affaire est dans le Sac, 1932) on leftover sets, although admittedly he was so baffled by the resulting film he refused to release it.

But Natan often preferred to work with tried and true filmmakers with the added insurance of long track records. Leonce Perret, who made his directing debut in 1909, was still directing for Natan in 1933, and Maurice Tourneur, father of Jacques, made several big films at Pathé also, mostly in the crime genre at which he was something of a specialist (he made films in all genres, but his love of deep shadows and mysterious atmosphere made him a natural for thrillers).

Tourneur Snr directed one of the company's first talkies (the very first, Les trois masques, was shot in England where the construction of sound stages was slightly more advanced), Accusée, levez-vous! (1930), a musical backstage melodrama that dovetails into a courtroom thriller. It's as stiff as any Hollywood talkie of the very early sound era, all static long shots and dead air, but beautifully composed and lit. 

The following year Tourneur made L'obsession, a thirty minute short about a mentally ill man released too soon from psychiatric hospital at the behest of conniving relatives: only his last shreds of sanity prevent him from murdering his young child. Now, the camera moves, albeit haltingly, and the pauses are dramatically charged and alive with tension. Dialogue adds sophistication to plot and performances, but the visuals use movement, light and shade to amplify the emotions   Tourneur has mastered the new medium in one year.

His later Pathé-Natan films show him repeating or refining cinematic ideas from his silents. In Au nom de la loi (In the Name of the Law, 1932), a Chinese crime den is murkily lit by a lamp on the table to make the faces of the rogue's gallery glow like swamp gas: Tourneur had achieved the same effect with Lon Chaney in Victory (1919).

In Justin de Marseille (1935), released as the company finally slid into bankruptcy, cops chase a crook through a maze constructed of packing crates and luggage. A similar overhead angle had worked in Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915), and it worked again with audible gunshots.

Not that Tourneur relied only on old tricks. In Au nom de la loi, a scene where a body is fished from the Seine is filmed with sunlight reflecting on the water, which looks black as oil—the image only registers because the sunlit ripples are glimpsed through the silhouettes of onlookers. In another scene, a woman in a silvery dress is strip-searched beneath a hot light—the dress is incandescent, and when it is removed, her white skin is blinding.

These touches enliven a by-the-numbers procedural storyline (perhaps still innovative at the time), but Justin de Marseille is more interesting. A cheerfully amoral tale of gangsters in the notorious port city, it celebrates the wily hero who keeps the peace among warring gangs by always being one jump ahead. Pleasingly multiracial (OK, the black and Chinese characters are all criminals, but so is everybody, except the cops, who are idiots) and richly atmospheric, it plays mainly as a comedy with proto-noir trappings (you can't say it often enough: Tourneur pêre loved shadows), but the filmmakers' attraction to melancholia and "the poetry of nightfall" seeps into it.

Maurice Tourneur's name was somewhat tainted in France, because he had begun his Hollywood career at the outbreak of WWI, and was regarded as a coward or traitor. Unfortunately, perhaps thinking he had learned his lesson, he stuck around in WWII and found himself working for the Germans at Continental during the occupation, which didn't exactly enhance his reputation for patriotism. Whatever people thought of him personally, his talent was recognized and his films were successful, and at Pathé-Natan he turned out a string of movies displaying his sad, wry, understated sensibility.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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