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The Forgotten: That Glaring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

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Subject for further study: Jean Delannoy.

Object of current enquiry: Cornell Woolrich.

I love Woolrich's crime fiction, which is paranoid in almost a Philip K. Dick kind of way, and angst-ridden like Poe. Woolrich seems to have really lived the nightmare, roiling in misery his whole life, embittered, alcoholic and multi-dysfunctional. A natural for the movies.

Outside of the numerous film and TV adaptations in America, Woolrich found his fiction adapted in South America, Germany, Turkey, and especially France, where Truffaut adapted The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Waltz into Darkness (as La sirène du Mississipi, 1969).

Jean Delannoy, if he's remembered at all, is probably best known for the scathing review Truffaut wrote for his Chiens perdus sans collier (1955), a major salvo in the Cahiers du cinéma assault on the old guard of French filmmaking. Ironically, or at least coincidentally, the previous year Delannoy made Obsession, which was the last French adaptation of a Woolrich story (in this case, Silent as the Grave) until Truffaut's own. The fact that Delannoy was attracted to similar material to Truffaut (Chiens perdus is a juvenile delinquent tale with similaries to Truffaut's own first feature, The 400 Blows) probably added to the young critic's spleneticism.

The filmmakers Truffaut attacked, as Cahiers' top hatchet man, have two things in common: they all embody the craftsmanlike approach of French cinema professionals before the nouvelle vague set fire to the rulebook; also, they're all very good. Truffaut didn't waste his ire on mediocrities. Delannoy is fond of Hitchcockian moments of intense subjective emotion, including stylish POV shots, and has an addiction to surging in with his camera at key moments, rather like a modern mainstream action filmmaker (Christopher Nolan, say). He gets plenty of opportunity to indulge both tendencies in Obsession.

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Raf Vallone is Aldo, an Italian acrobat in France with a beautiful lover and trapeze partner, Helene, played by Michele Morgan (a screen legend since her beginnings as a teenager opposite Gabin in Le quai des brumes, 1938). But Vallone nurses a dark secret, which he confesses to Morgan: he once killed a man in a fight in Rouen.

When Vallone injures his wrist, a new performer has to fill his part in the act, and by bad fortune the fellow chosen is an old acquaintance, Jean Gaven, who may know or suspect Vallone's secret. Fear of exposure drives Vallone to become a paranoid, sodden wreck (a typical Woolrich protagonist, in other words), and when Gaven is shot dead, Morgan suspects her man to be responsible. What follows is a slow-motion inferno as their already tortured relationship combusts in mutual suspicion and dread, exacerbated when a third party is arrested for the murder. Morgan was willing to lie for Vallone, but is she willing to see an innocent party executed for his crime?

It's all very compelling in the usual Woolrich way: moments of anxiety are hyped up and distended to infinity, the plot is a series of carefully balanced improbabilities, with disbelief suspended only by the vertiginous fear of upsetting the whole thing and crashing into a stupefying abyss of insanity. You can't question anything in Woolrich, any more than you can in a dream: everything is in sweaty, pop-eyed closeup, bearing down on you as if the book was a ton-weight of marble hanging over your head on cobwebs. Don't go prodding at it!

Delannoy's direction is pretty nimble, aided by a swooning Paul Misraki score, a romantic swirl of leitmotifs that feel like riding an autumn leaf on a spiral down into inky water. Misraki is an underrated fellow: Alphaville, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, scores for Melville and Clouzot...His finest moment is the courtroom where the wrong man is on trial. Called as a character witness, a confused Vallone attests that murderers are not a special class of person: anybody can become one. This of course is of no help to the accused man, but Vallone is really pleading for himself...He testifies with the confused stare of a man trapped in an absurd dream. As the judiciary files out, Delannoy cuts to a clock with spinning hands, a hackneyed device no doubt, but this clock is surreally accompanied by steam locomotive noises. The court recognizes Luis Buñuel!

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Then the court returns, and as they prepare to give their verdict, Misraki comes in with circus music, as if a parade of clowns were entering the ring, and Delannoy dims the lights, with just spotlights picking out the anxiety-ridden Michele Morgan and the chief justice. One of those thrusting track-in shots climaxing with a big head of Morgan. A drum roll! "Guilty!" Cymbal clash! The lights fade back to normal.  It's a stunning set-piece. Only after it's over can we make any sense out of that chuffing train—the circus is coming to town! If human justice is a circus, of course it must arrive by train.

Free from the suspicion of the authorities, Morgan and Vallone embark upon a suicidal act whereby each balances on the opposite end of a ladder teetering on a high-wire: a dream-like metaphor for their relationship's unstable, co-dependent and perilous nature. But as the hour of the condemned man's execution nears, Morgan feels driven to betrayal...

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Delannoy is well-served by his leads, who have the advantage of not only looking beautiful, but also very convincing as aerialists (no effects shots are detectable, and the performers seem to be doing at least some of their own stunts), and creates some powerful, Langian compositions. There's a detective with a gnarly face like a tree knot who seems unable to speak unless he's looming over a lampshade to be lit scarily from below like a kid with a flashlight telling a Halloween story, and Gaven's introduction is amusing: as soon as he meets Morgan, he starts undressing, not for sex but for exercise on the trapeze, which gives the whole scene, an innocuous exchange of pleasantries, an interesting off-kilter dynamic.

Delannoy perhaps needs to be even more shameless and bold, more of the time, to reach the heights demanded of Woolrich's desperate delirium, but he actually has a better handle on twisted angst than the soft-hearted Truffaut. More investigation is needed to see if this is a major filmmaker unjustly buried by history, or just a dedicated artisan and entertainer. Even if he's merely the latter, the films deserve to be available.

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

I don’t have much of a sense of Delannoy as an auteur, but I have seen his “Notre Dame de Paris” (dubbed, on Los Angeles television in the ‘60s) and "L’Eternel Retour" (in the theater). If anything, I would think of JD for his work with scriptwriter Cocteau — which included a version of “Princesse de Cleves” with Jean Marais and Marina Vlady (I discover upon checking IMDb).

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