According to a title card at the end of Laissez-Passer, Bertrand Tavernier's fact-based drama of the French film industry in wartime, Maurice Tourneur hated the scripts of the few movies he made post-WWII. So there's that.
But his last film, Impasse des Deux Anges (1948), fascinates. If the script has a flaw, it's that it takes a very simple, predictable story (actress runs away from groom the night before her marriage, with an old lover who's also a jewel thief—pursued through the night by gangsters, they conclude their relationship so she can move on) and attempts to reinvigorate it at regular intervals with dizzying tonal shifts, implausible new characters and sub-plots, and ghostly, somnambular flashbacks. But the flaw is also a strength, since it makes the film jazzy, offbeat and strange.
As the "two angels" (though the title really refers to a dead-end street where they made love in his hotel) we get Paul Meurisse (frog-eyed bath-corpse of Les diaboliques) and Simone Signoret, at the height of her gorgeousness, cigarette hanging from her lip, star-power keeping it lit should she, like her audience, forget to breath. Meurisse, dead-panning like crazy, makes an unlikely lead, but he's following in the dead man's walk of Louis Jouvet in Hôtel du Nord and all those poetic realist dream-dramas.
If Tourneur, once a great innovator (possible inventor of the over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot formula) seems to be recycling Carné and Duvivier's doomed romances, he's also fully engrossed in the noir style, which he practically originated. Tourneur, like his son, the great noir practitioner Jacques Tourneur, loved his shadows, and shots of the two bad guys' silhouettes as their guns blaze are almost absurdly iconic. That lethal double act, echoing both the titular assassins of Siodmak's The Killers, and the bantering villains of Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, is named Minus and Monsieur Bebe (Mr. Baby), the latter played by Reggie Nalder, cinema's most type-cast creep (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Salem's Lot). Reggie is always welcome.
Among the many distractions the despised script (by Jean-Paul le Chanois, a regular Tourneur collaborator) throws at us is a series of flashbacks detailing the lovers' past, which are presented as weird ghost-plays, the characters drifting double-exposed and transparent through the scenes of their past. It slows the film, jaunty at first, to a crawl, and interweaves that sense of the numinous and otherworldly that haunts the work of Tourneur pere et fils.
Impasse was a dead end for Tourneur Sr., who lost a leg in a car accident and spent his last years as an invalid, writing barely coherent letters to the trade press. But who is the one-legged man limping through the last shot of Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express, as the title The End appears?
Thanks to Phoebe Green for the movie and translation.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.