Monday, January 27, 2020

Noir City XVIII #2: At This Point I'm What The French Call de trop

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Saturdays in Noir City have always been an endurance test for the faithful. Nowadays, there are two movies at the matinee, two in the evenings. It can be as exhiliarating as it is exhausting. And yet, I've been around these parts long enough to remember when there were five movies on Saturdays. I shall not complain about this rare bit of mercy bestowed from above by the powers that be; it's the only bit of mercy I'll be talking about today.

Last time, I said there was nothing new under the Sun. Nowhere is that more evident than here in Noir City, where themes that were presented 50, 60, or even 70 years ago feel as timely now as they did back then. This is especially true of films where a mob mentality provides the requisite levels of darkness we expect from this festival. We've seen it before in prior entries like Fury, The Well and the film that, coincidentally, ran on TCM's Noir Alley Saturday night, Try and Get Me. Several hours before that excellent film hit the tee-vee, the Castro Theatre projected Julien Duvivier's panic-filled Panique.

Duvivier, the much-respected writer-director of such classics as Pepe Le Moko, teams up with French acting legend Michel Simon to craft a heartbreaking tale of an oddball neighbor falsely accused of murder. For the source material of the first film he made after returning to France from Hollywood, Duvivier chose Mr. Hire's Engagement, a novel by prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Simon plays the titular character, a bearded, antisocial man who likes his butchered meat bloody and his social interactions salty. His small town neighbors dislike him intensely, and the feeling is mutual. But he pays his rent on time and appears to be more eccentric than dangerous.

Everyone's perspective on Mssr. Hire changes when a woman is murdered. Duvivier tips his hand vis-a-vis how he'll visually handle the subject of mob mentality in this early scene. Practically the entire town stops to gawk at the dead woman's body, crowding it so much that the police worry that evidence may be compromised. Unlike Mssr. Hire, the victim was considered harmless, perhaps even respectable. Gossip starts to spread, but for now, cooler heads prevail.

Meanwhile, the actual murderer is being reunited with his lover Alice (the awesomely named Vivienne Romance). Alice is truly ride or die, to use that old hip-hop standby phrase--she just did a four year bid for her man. Honestly, I thought this guy was a slimy heel who didn't even look hot enough to do time for, but I digress. If you want to know why she did it, go ask Alice.

Speaking of asking Alice, Mssr. Hire awkwardly propositions her for a date. He's been watching her from his window and she's seen him doing so. He gives her the creeps, but eventually she acquiesces when her man devises a plan to frame Hire for the murder. Alice will string him along like a lovesick puppy before planting evidence in his apartment linking him to the crime.

What's most interesting about the dynamics of the Hire-Alice "romance" is that Panique doesn't make Hire a completely innocent bystander; he uses a bit of almost-blackmail to worm his way into his object of affection's good graces. Hire reveals early on that he knows Alice's lover did the murder and he uses that as a leverage point. Hire could simply turn this evidence in to the police but he doesn't because he believes it's the only way to get such a beautiful femme fatale to fall for him. In that regard, Mssr. Hire is guilty, but the resulting punishment doesn't fit the crime.

Also intriguing is how, for a time, Mssr. Hire seems to be ahead of the bad guy. He has a sense of criminal behavior more akin to an Agatha Christie detective than a socially awkward misfit who, in his words, "sells hope" to people under the guise of a fortune teller. When he's accosted by Alice's man, Hire not only outsmarts him, he physically humiliates him. There's more under the surface than we're originally led to believe, and Simon and Duvivier have fun peeling back the layers for us.

There's also more under the surface of the movie itself. Like science fiction and horror, noir has often been used for allegorical purposes. Here, Duvivier was making a thinly-veiled statement about how Nazi-inspired fear and paranoia affected many of his compatriots during WWII. The veil was so thin that Panique caused an uproar when released in 1946, almost derailing Duvivier's career. 

When the townsfolk are finally whipped into a frenzy, partially by gossip but mostly by a self-righteous desire to oust Mssr. Hire by any means necessary, Panique becomes truly unsettling. By this time, we've learned a lot more about the doomed party, how he became so misanthropic and that his lovesickness is truly genuine, and we start to feel for him in much the same manner Alice does. But unlike Alice, we're not ride or die, so when the time comes for her to stand up for what's right, she stays quiet when we hope she'll speak up. The end result is one of the bigger kicks to the gut I've taken here in Noir City. It made me think of the current social media climate, especially on Twitter, where the oft-misinformed court of public opinion is always presided over by a hanging judge. Like I said, nothing new under the Sun.

I'll talk about some of the other French movies from Saturday's adventure next time, as well as the most bonkers movie I've seen at Noir City in a good long while. For now, I'll close out with one of the rare Noir City movies I outright didn't like. As part of the South Korean double feature, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller showed 1964's Lee Man-Hee mobcentric crime drama Black Hair. It's an important film from the first heyday of Korean cinema during the 1960's. Hyun Jin Cho of the Korean Culture Center UK brought the DCP we viewed on Sunday with her on her flight to San Francisco the night before, and she also brought to the pre-film introductions a lot of wonderful, entertaining and informative tidbits about the directors, stars and the political atmosphere during the time these films were made. My own personal opinion should take nothing away from the historical importance of a film like Black Hair

However, I found myself curiously uninvolved here. It's not the fault of the lead actress, Moon Jung-Suk, whose protagonist carries a dignity and a grace that is fascinating to watch, nor is it with the sex workers subplot which, to my relief and astonishment, was handled with surprising respect for a film made in 1964. My problem was with the main plot itself, which relegated Moon to the background of her own story in favor of having the man who loves her and the man who wronged her both fight for her honor rather than allowing her to have a major stake in the story. Whenever she's offscreen, the film sags underneath the weight of dull mob machinations. Though there's some tenderness between hero and villain late in the film that complicates matters in an unusual fashion, and a shocking bit of gore, Black Hair ultimately didn't work for me. Even so, I'll take a daring failure in Noir City over a minor cinematic success anywhere else in the universe.

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