Thursday, December 06, 2012

Razzia sur la Chnouf (1955)

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.

30 comments:

john_burke100 said...

Great post about a movie I haven't seen since Pauline Kael's days as a programmer in Berkeley. Gotta see it again. Thanks for the reminder--I had forgotten a lot about the story and scenes.
Can anybody help me find another Gabin flick, in which he's the working-class father of a girl involved with an upper-class guy? Gabin's character goes to the guy's apartment where the B Minor Mass is on the phonograph; at one point he says something dismissive about "ta messe" and sweeps the tone arm off the LP. Anyone? IMDb hasn't helped me--did I imagine this?

Enid said...

john_burke: "Des gens sans importance", maybe? Saw this recently: Gabin plays a married trucker with a teenage daughter and a mistress who's a waitress at a truck stop. Pretty harrowing, but I liked it a lot.

Vanwall said...

Lino and Jean, how can you miss? A 'chnouf' film, too. Throw in Dalio as dessert, and this is a minor masterpiece. 'Popeye' Doyle, anyone? Nah, Henri woulda et him alive, to say nothing of Ventura's Roger. Nice article!

mas82730 said...

Nice, nice, nice. Was introduced to 'Don't Touch the Loot' (my French stinks) on TCM last week and thought "Where the hell has this movie been all my life?"

X. Trapnel said...

Re Decoin. DD really was his pain et beurre. The films I've seen, Battement de coeur and Premier Rendez-vous are both pretty good but really come to life from Darrieux's insufficiently appreciated skill at comedy, subtle and broad (has anyone ever thought to compare her to Carole Lombard, the only other actress I can think of who combines such ravishing beauty and knockabout humor to the same inspired degree). According to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. DD once arrived on the Rage of Paris set with a black eye delivered by Decoin who thought she was being too friendly with her colleagues. One shudders.

X. Trapnel said...

Quel bonheur, cette banniere! La Verite sur Bebe Donge, non?

The Siren said...

John_Burke, that is so cool that you saw it when Kael was programming. I put the Kael joke in totally without knowing that, but this movie strikes me as her kinda thing. Enid, I have that one on my DVR but haven't watched yet; if it's in there I'll come back to confirm.

Vanwall, minor masterpiece is as good a phrase as any. It's just a hugely enjoyable movie.

The Siren said...

Mas, I had the same thought on Grisbi and this would make a great double bill, if only for the pate.

XT, appalled by the very idea of hitting Danielle for any reason. Of course we can comfort ourselves that she left him for Rubirosa and hopefully Decoin could never look at a pepper grinder again after that. And yes, got it in one. Have not seen Bebe Donge but the pictures I found were grand. I was torn between that one and Darrieux consuming a Hediard cookie, but went with the one above because it was better of Gabin.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

Rubirosa was no bargain for sure and apparently Darrieux would never even speak his name after their divorce. Her third marriage appears to have been happy.

A 6x9 glossy of DD biting into that Hediard cookie and looking into the eyes of a nonplussed Gabin sits above my desk beside a lobby card of The Rage of Paris autographed by the Divinity Herself.

Vanwall said...

I like the way crime and punishment are so brutally delineated, even from the cop's standpoint - no quarter asked or given.

Henri dit Le Nantais...Roger le Catalan...and from 'Rififi', Tony le Stéphanois, (he's from Saint-Étienne)... a rather medieval way the demi-monde in many French films labeled each other for identification, but I've no doubt it was light-years ahead of prints and Bertillonage.

gmoke said...

There may have been paté in both films but is there toothpaste and brushing before bed in "Chnouf"? If nothing else, "Grisbi" teaches us that French criminals have good dental hygiene (don't tell the Brits).

Ah, "Rage of Paris." DD is incandescent in this trifle. How dare anyone hurt her.

X. Trapnel said...

Battement de coeur and Premier Rendex-vous are pretty much on the level of Rage of Paris, amusing if slightly ordinary comedies made sublime by DD's eclat, comic brio, and near-unbelievable beauty. From what I've read it seems that Retour a l'aube and Abus de confiance(the latter of which moved the infant John Simon to tears), both Decoin, may be more substantial.

Simon wrote the best appreciation of Darrieux I've ever read; well worth seeking out.

Gareth said...

I watched the brace of Decoin films featuring Louis Jouvet earlier in the year.

The first, Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde is, to my mind at least, much the better of the two, perhaps due to the script by Henri Jeanson. The opening is particularly good -- another example of something you honed in when writing on Grémillon's Le Ciel est à vous, a love story that begins mid-marriage. There's a terrific soliloquy, by Jouvet, on some of the pleasures of going to the movies, and another sequence dramatizes the once-common experience of coming into a movie halfway through and staying until the same point in the next screening. One of the characters even exclaims something along the lines of "This is where we came in!" I found the story rather unsatisfying in the end, if very much of a piece with the post-war bleakness of many French films.

The second Decoin-Jouvet collaboration, Entre Onze Heures et Minuit is much weaker, although the prologue is amusing. By contrast, the echoes of Quai des Orfèvres only serve to emphasize that this is much thinner gruel, notwithstanding two or three atmospheric sequences set in a tunnel. Jeanson was apparently involved incognito for a script polish, which may account for the occasional sparkle in the dialogue.

I must get my hands on Razzia sur la chnouf!

DavidEhrenstein said...

I remember when Razzia (as they called it)opened in New York. The ads tried to give the impression it was somehow related to Rififi -- which was inaccurate but smart marketing. In New York it played the "World" -- an art house noted for playing up sexy (ior at least sex-related) items like Berggman's The Naked Night (as Sawdust and Tinsel was called), Mizoguchi's Street of Shame and The Sweet Skin as Poitrenaud's Nico-starred Striptease was known

mas82730 said...

X, you mean the Simon (assassin of so many actresses) valentine to her performance in the play 'Coco' forty-two years ago? Yes, it's one of the most moving genuflections to a great actress/star I've read, too. By a critic not known for gushing.
Just to know that a few deities still roam somewhere among us -- Darrieux, Belmondo, Delon, de Havilland -- in these drear days of Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson.

La Faustin said...

john_burke -- I wonder if you're thinking of LES TONTONS FLINGUEURS, in which Lino Ventura (but I remembered it as Gabin myself!) inherits the guardianship of a friend's daughter who is involved with a pretentious Saint Germain type.
http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/tuesday-morning-foreign-blu-ray-disc-report-les-tontons-flingeurs-georges-lautner-1963

DavidEhrenstein said...

As for its druggy atmosphere, comare and contrast it with Rivette's Duelle one of the featured items at this weekend's Petit MacMahon at Dennis Cooper's site.

X. Trapnel said...

The same, mas82730, and as you list Olivia de H among the living deities let's not forgot Joan F. Or have you taken sides among the Olympians?

Shamus said...

"She does, however, reveal consummate lack of talent, butchery of the French language, sticky narcissism, and a rather trivially pretty face." Quoth Simon on Anna Karina.

X, are you sure that there is anything that could move this man to tears (excuses of infancy, notwithstanding)?

And thanks to the Siren, for, (once again!) pointing out the grievous shortcomings in this reader's knowledge of film history. But I think that Decoin was one of the targets for Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, et. al., which may have contributed to his relative obscurity.

The Siren said...

Shamus, there are many people hereabouts who put me to shame in the French-film department, and they're all on display up there. What happened was that TCM did Gabin in a "Summer Under the Stars" and I recorded pretty much the whole day...then neglected to watch. So I have been going through them. "Remorques" is still my favorite, a glorious movie and I am so happy it introduced me to Gremillon. Decoin may do the same.

I quietly fume over "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" and was delighted to find a slap at it by none other than one of my favorite rock-ribbed auteurists, Dave Kehr. Mind you, I love Truffaut and many of the directors of the New Wave. I just grieve for the way they unjustly damaged some reputations, not least because it remains damn hard to find some of these films subtitled.

As for Simon, I like to define critics more by what they love; I'd certainly prefer to be judged that way. And loving Darrieux is a fine thing. I'd like to see that piece too.

David E, thanks so much for filling us in on Razzia's release. No, it's NOTHING like Rififi, aside from some incidental ruthlessness.

By the way John Burke and Enid, I watched Le Desordre et la Nuit and it's also a very good film, even if I have a preference for Razzia. But the scene you describe isn't there. And La Faustin, I don't remember that scene in Les Tontons Flingeurs but I'll check with my husband; it's one of his favorite films and I have only seen it once.

The Siren said...

P.S. Gareth, I am wild about Jouvet; my gateway drug was Quai des Orfevres.

The Siren said...

P.P.S. Hoping everybody can excuse my lousy French spelling this evening.

X. Trapnel said...

"I like to define critics more by what they love"

Yes, indeed; just as we should judge artists by their best work. Simon's popular reputation is based on a tiny, fairly insignificant part of his critical sensibility. In the years when he was most active he was probably the best all-around culture critic in America. Besides film and theater, he wrote--and writes--superbly well on literature (poetry in particular), the visual arts (I recall opening up a monograph on the wonderful and too-little-known American painter Joseph Solman and finding an excellent appreciation by Simon), music and opera (Simon On Music is a splendid collection of essays and reviews, full of insight and independent thinking).

Enough with "A Certain Tendency." I still haven't managed to see Devil in the Flesh (maybe I won't like it, but even so) and having finally seen the astonishing Une si jolie petite plage I can't help but wonder what other great films have been withheld from us because they were not made by "the saved."

Gareth said...

Siren -- me too. I am pretty sure that was my first Jouvet too. That or Hôtel du Nord, anyway.

I spent this year watching or re-watching every Jouvet performance I could track down -- something like 28 of his 32 films. I couldn't find the final four for love nor money. At least two of them seem to be, to all intents and purposes, lost, though I did manage to find clips from the others.

Trish said...

Can someone tell me where I can buy a pair of her eyelashes?? ;)

mas82730 said...

Mon Dieu! Joan Fontaine, how could I have forgotten her - Siren's avatar?

Shamus said...

Ah, summer under the stars... The cable operators dropped TCM here, back in September, and I'm still feeling bitter and resentful about it.

Late one evening, I turn on the TV, push in the channel number, only to realize it was gone. (I had seen Minnelli's Four Horsemen of Apocalypse the previous evening, albeit horribly cropped, so it doesn't really count, but I still rather liked it. That's one Minnelli film that is not talked about often.)

dandylion said...

Did Henri le Nantais (Razzia) have the opportunity to meet Lulu la Nantaise (Tontons flingueurs) ?

I wonder...

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lulu_la_nantaise

FDChief said...

Nantes was an industrial and port town in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, so I'm guessing that being from Nantes would be the equivalent of being from Pittsburgh or a similar sort of grimy working-class town for a French tough guy in the Fifties. Probably a fair amount of smuggling and related underworldy business going on there and thus a great place to develop criminal tough-guy skills...

The Siren said...

FDChief, I figured as much, thanks for the confirmation. My husband grew up in Paris and I find that Parisians often have that trademark NY ignorance of the hinterlands: "Boise, that's near Cleveland, right?"