A somewhat disorganized look at Razzia sur la Chnouf, the Siren's favorite among the movies she watched and re-watched last month during a long week stuck (mostly) at home. The Siren has recently been accused more than once of overpraising movies; well, as Pauline Kael used to say, tough, 'cause this one's a pip.
(Also, if you want to hear the Siren (over)praising Three Strangers and apologizing to the shade of the marvelous Geraldine Fitzgerald, hie yourself over to the Cinephiliacs and listen to her podcast with Peter Labuza.)
1. The title. Usually translated as Raid on the Drug Ring, which is as dully misleading as my high school teacher's solemn rendering of a certain French suggestion as "kiss me." "Razzia" migrated from Arabic to French and, surprisingly, turns up in American dictionaries. Most Web translators don't recognize "chnouf." The Siren's in-house translation service says it literally means "powder." Sort of like "blow," only more of a generic term for drugs, like "dope." Except of course, the word dope doesn't sound delightfully like a sneeze when you say it. In any event, in this movie, the chnouf is powdered heroin.
2. The score. Not the dope score, the music score--a restless blare of jazz composed by Marc Lanjean and arranged by Michel Legrand. As it plays over the credit sequence of Jean Gabin's arrival at Orly airport, the music promises that the film will have the same propulsive drive.
3. Jean Gabin. One year past Touchez pas au Grisbi, and in a similar role, as "Henri from Nantes," the ruthless manager of a nightclub that fronts for a drug ring. Gabin was not handsome; he had thickset, irregular features that grew positively lumpy as time wore on. By 1955 it was a face that made you wonder how many punches had landed on it. It's hard to come up with a precise visual explanation for Gabin's scorching charisma; there's the penetrating focus of his eyes, yes, but the Siren also thinks it's his stillness. Never ever do you catch Gabin making a superfluous movement. He lets the action come to him. And when he does put the moves on someone, as he does to Magali Noël, luring her upstairs and gliding up behind the girl to strip her down to her bra--oh daddy. Noël's character Lisette is 22, or maybe 23, the Siren had other things to concentrate on, and Gabin was 51 and looked every day of it. Why, then, should the Siren not look at this coupling with the same uneasiness with which she regards Gary Cooper (56) and Audrey Hepburn (28) in the otherwise delightful Love in the Afternoon? There is no explanation, other than...it's Jean. Bloody. GABIN. It isn't so much that I believe Lisette would immediately want to seduce and be seduced by the man, it's that there's no way I'd believe she wouldn't. (Noël had a big hit with a fabulous little number about outré sexual tastes; it was released the year after Razzia, and who's to say whether Gabin was any part of her thoughts when she recorded it? Maybe we could ask one day, since Ms Noël is still gloriously with us.)
4. The ruthlessness. You want someone to match Gabin in toughness, if not in seen-it-all sex appeal, there are very few names to call; but one is Lino Ventura. He plays a viciously sadistic thug whom we see dispatch one luckless sad-sack of a smuggler with a pickax to the head. Also lending some male menace are Albert Rémy, who's mostly following Ventura's lead (hell, you would too) but is a scary dude nonetheless, and Marcel Dalio. Dalio, as you may expect, is more on the business end, but he's fantastically heartless all the same, like an investment banker who responds to a downtick by imposing the death penalty.
5. The sleaze. This is not a film that glamorizes drug addiction. It's brutally frank about the degradation of addiction without the least intention of preaching. There's a pulpy atmosphere to the whole thing, but the sleaze reaches its apex when Lila Kedrova comes on the scene as a heroin addict, Léa. It was Lila Kedrova's first film role, recreating the part she'd played onstage and won a French award for. Her wide-set eyes seem to contain both all the knowledge you'd get from hard living, as well as a faint hope that every once in a while her low expectations will be wrong. In one of the most astonishing scenes in a movie that frequently rocked the Siren back in her seat, Kedrova drags Gabin to a low-down nightspot. On the dance floor is a black man, moving sinuously to the music, and Kedrova, who's just had her fix, gets up and with heavy lids and back-tilted head, begins to move in time with him. He closes in on her, their dance becomes an unmistakable prelude to copulation and then they sink to the floor, and all we can see now are the backs of the club's patrons, as they close in to watch the rest of the show. The racial aspects of the scene are extremely disturbing, but as pure filmmaking and acting by Kedrova, it's extraordinary.
6. The cultural signposts. Such as Ventura, coming off a hard night beating the hell out of people, sliding into a booth and demanding that Gabin pass the paté. Which makes two movies (the other being Grisbi) where criminals plot their misdeeds over paté and a nice crusty baguette. Also: how everyone refers repeatedly to "Henri from Nantes" as though this is similar to saying "Henri from Dodge City," when all the Siren could think of was good King Henri and the Edict of Nantes--is that what she's supposed to get? Is it a nerdy joke, or Nantes a tough town? And one more: Gabin and Kedrova at a downmarket nightspot drinking what appears to be champagne--out of snifters. This is the sort of thing that obsesses the Siren. Is that a mark of French cool, snifters for the champers? If she were French, would that tell the Siren something about the club or the characters? (It didn't say anything to the Siren's Parisian husband other than, "That's weird.")
7. The twist. (Obviously you should skip this item if you don't want to know.)
Gabin's character turns out to be a cop. Now this is a twist the Siren might expect with, say, George Raft, who listened to Billy Wilder pitch the lead in Double Indemnity and asked about the "lapel bit." What lapel bit? asked a dazed Wilder. You know, responded Raft, "where the guy flashes his lapel, you see his badge, and you know he's a detective." Told there was no lapel bit, Raft refused the part. There's no lapel bit in Razzia but all the same, the Siren didn't twig to Gabin's cop-ness until just before the movie revealed it. And it's interesting, in that Henri is deep, deep undercover doing some very bad things. He sics the clearly psychopathic Ventura on that smuggler I mentioned, knowing the little guy is going to die, and die horribly. It makes Henri a truly complex character, one who never seems like a good guy even after the "lapel bit." (It was, according to David Shipman, the first time the perpetual rebel Gabin played a cop.)
8. The director. The Siren hasn't seen other films from Henri Decoin, although she certainly will now, but X. Trapnel, Yojimboen, Shamus and others would never forgive her if she neglected to mention that he was the first husband of none other than the divine Danielle Darrieux.
Which means he would have been a cool person even if his job involved sorting pencils at the Circumlocution Office. This year, the Siren discovered Jean Grémillon; and now she definitely hopes 2013 brings more Decoin into her life, including Battement de Coeur.