It's heart-warming to see, in Bertrand Tavernier's majestic documentary series Voyage à Travers le Cinéma Français, how he pays special attention to the neglected Edmond T. Gréville. I mainly know this cinephile-cineaste from his British pictures, the beautiful, almost Sternbergian espionage melodrama Secret Lives of 1937, the fast-talking crime flick Noose of 1948, and the gloriously ludicrous Beat Girl of 1960, which has to be seen not to be believed. From this disparate, flaky assortment, it was clear something interesting was going on with M. Gréville.
Tavernier points us especially towards Menaces... (1940) an ensemble drama in which international residents in a Paris hotel (one of those cramped, vertical affairs: think Hotel du Nord) face the coming of WWII with various forms of bravery, larceny and despair. French glamor icons Mireille Balin (Pépé le moko) and Ginette LeClerc (Le corbeau) are supported by Gréville's English wife Wanda, playing an unconvincing American, and British star John Loder (How Green Was My Valley).
Best of all, though, is Erich Von Stroheim as a disfigured Austrian war veteran, his stilted French actually enhancing his characterization. Stroheim arrived with the proposal that his character should be crippled, legless, which seemed to Gréville to pose too many practical problems. His counter-proposal was adopted: Stroheim would have a black mask over the left side of his face, giving him a Janus-like appearance. Full-face, the schizoid effect is startling. From the left, Stroheim is a mere shadow, featureless. The right profile allows him to act, but even here the fringing of the mask makes him look matted-in, like he's been crudely cut out and pasted into the frame, enhancing his outsider status.
"You're expecting the catastrophe too," says Balin.
"It has come. To life... to the world. You see that peaceful sky? It's the face of a man sentenced to death. [...] Tomorrow... it will be a sky torn by planes, by bombings, by exploding shrapnels, a sky filled with steel and fire, of deadly gas."
"I want to live !"
"To live, do you think it's necessary to love ? But you can't any more. Here's hate. Yes... Look at me carefully. I carry on my shoulders the double face of war and peace. The face of an ancient god. How ironic ! Well... It's the true face of every man. My war face... I will uncover tonight... It's every man's secret face."
The various threads of narrative are loosely woven together, and seem affected by the uncertainty hanging over the characters and film and country in the first year of the war. Only Stroheim's intensity and uncanny appearance make all his scenes show-stoppers. Ironic then, that when France fell, Gréville was compelled to cut the Jewish-American actor from the movie and replace him with a Frenchman, in order to save the film from burning. But the original was preserved, buried, and exhumed at the liberation. Gréville apparently felt that as he'd made the last film before the Occupation, he'd like to make the first one after it, so he not only restored Stroheim to the film, he shot a post-war coda. But by this time, all his stars had either fled like Stroheim, or were imprisoned or banned from movies for collaboration. He filmed a distant shot of LeClerc's stand-in waving from a window, and got on with his career.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.