French film noir, nobody personifies bad karma like Lino Ventura.
Unfortunately, his characters were not immune from the payback they dispensed.
That is true in spades for the vengeance-seeking Ancelin. On the streets of
Paris, what comes around goes around, especially after hours in Édouard
Molinaro’s Un Témoin dans la Ville (trailer here), which screens
during MoMA’s retrospective tribute to the storied French film production house
lothario Pierre Verdier had been carrying on an affair with Ancelin’s wife
until he tired of her and threw her to her death from a speeding train. He
managed to wriggle out of a formal prosecution, but he will not escape Ancelin’s
rough justice. The steely long haul trucker stages Verdier’s (involuntary)
suicide to the last detail, but he did not know the cad had called for a cab.
Unfortunately, that means Lambert the cabbie can place him at the scene.
Reluctantly, Ancelin starts stalking the witness, just as Lambert’s courtship
of Liliane, a company radio dispatcher starts to bear romantic fruit.
Témoin (or Witness in the Night) is based on a
novel by the collaborative partners Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, as were
Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Henri-Georges
Clouzot’s Diabolique. Frankly, it is
hard to figure why this film doesn’t rank alongside the latter, because it is a
wickedly lean and mean noir thriller. As Ancelin, Ventura is at the peak of his
hardnosed, taciturn powers. He was born to play this sort of role and Molinaro
brought out the best in him. However, Franco Fabrizi (later to be seen in
Fellini’s I Vitelloni and Ginger and Fred) and Sandra Milo (Fellini’s
8½ and Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques) are also completely engaging as the amorously
bantering Lambert and Liliane (no slouches in this cast). The unexpected charm
of their earthy chemistry really sneaks up on you and adds an additionally
tragic layer to the naturalistic, street-level thriller.
fact, Témoin offers a fascinating
time-capsule snapshot of nocturnal Parisian life, circa 1959. Unlike the rather
transient nature of the cab driving work today, Lambert and his colleagues
(most definitely including the white coat-wearing ladies working the radios)
seem to lead a strangely insular and tribal existence. They work together,
drink together, and the lucky ones pair-up together, like Liliane and Lambert.
Of course that means when one of their own is threatened, they instinctively
respond in kind.
by high film noir standards, the black-and-white cinematography of Henri Decaï
is a thing of beauty. It is also matched by the vintage “crime jazz”
soundtrack, featuring French tenor player Barney Wilen (somewhat familiar to
American fans through his work on the Miles Davis soundtrack for Elevator to the Gallows and the Jazz
Messengers’ soundtrack for Dangerous Liaisons),
along with visiting Americans Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Kenny Clarke and drums,
and Duke Jordan and piano. It sounds consciously inspired by the Davis session
from the previous year, with Dorham’s trumpet more prominently featured than
Wilen’s tenor. It is tasty and very effective underscoring the skullduggery on
screen (particularly some of Clarke’s percussion solos), but it is not quite a
classic on the level of Gallows.
How is this not a more famous movie? There is so
much talent in Témoin working at the
top of their games and collaborating together with perfect compatibility. This is
a terrific film every jazz and noir fan should see. Very highly recommended, Un Témoin dans la Ville screens again
this Tuesday (9/6) at MoMA, as part of the Gaumont:
Cinema pout tout le Monde series.
Labels: Barney Wilen, Film Noir, French Cinema, Gaumont at MoMA, Lino Ventura