Saturday, 8 September 2007

Peur sur la ville

A woman in a Paris high-rise, Norah Elmer (Lea Massari), receives a series of threatening phone calls, culimating with one in which the caller indicates that he is coming over. Panicked, she dials the police and the conceierge, both of whom what they can to reassure her – no-one can come in the front entrance without being seen, while it is unlikely that the caller will actually show up and, just in case he should do so, the police can in any case be on the scene in minutes.

“I'm coming over...”

A few minutes later the doorbell rings. Outside is a man Norah does not recognise.

Note the man's attire, complete with black gloves, but that his face is visible: an odd breach of giallo convention. Note also the incongruity between his winter dress and Norah's having her apartment window wide open...

Terrified, she has a seizure and falls out of the window.

The man, meanwhile, realises he has the wrong apartment, goes along the hallway and joins his friends at a party.

Do you know this man? Fans of Italian genre cinema should...

Inspectors Letellier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Mossaic (Charles Denner) are called in to investigate but, truth be told, don't give it as much attention as they might. Everything points to a freak accident, while Letellier is more interested in the news that his old nemesis, bank robber Marcucci (Giovanni Cianfriglia), has returned.

Accident or murder: the urban detective must learn to read the signs

Though they follow up on a photo of a man found in Norah's possession, and thereby uncover a drug smuggling operation involving her lover, he is shocked to hear of her death and cannot be connected to it.

Minos makes his first appearance; am I the only one who thinks of Cocteau's Orpheus here?

Back at the station, there is a call from a man identifying himself only as Minos, after the judge of the dead in Dante's Inferno. He indicates that while he may not have killed Norah Elmer, he certainly would have. Moreover, he intends to continue his crusade against corruption and perversion. While Letellier continues to be dismissive, even after Minos has sent a letter containing a piece of a picture identifying himself, with the promise that with each successive victim he will reveal another detail of himself, the chief tells him to investigate the case nonetheless.

Done with mirrors; what is the man in the statue doing to the woman?

Whilst Letellier and Moissac are visiting a nurse who has received threatening phonecalls, Minos – previously glimpsed by us passing by the scene at the high-rise – deposits a copy of The Divine Comedy in their car and, posing as a police officer, goes to his next victim. By chance, Letellier and Moissac arrive at the scene too late to save the woman but in time to pursue Minos, leading Letellier into a rooftop chase. Unfortunately just at this moment, the policemen receive a call to notify them that Marcucci has been located – and nearby...

Done with mirrors Valdeck and Minos; was this the best role that Luciano Rossi never played?

An action-packed and exciting example of the policier, Henri Verneuil's Peur sur la ville has only one real problem, which I'm tempted to label as The Suspiria Syndrome: setting the bar so high early on that whatever follows cannot but be anticlimactic by comparison, even as it outshines 95 or 99 per cent of other films out there.

Emphatically not done with mirrors – Jean-Paul Belmondo's stunts are of Jackie Chan calibre

Although the filmmakers include the obligatory shots including the Eiffel Tower and have the centrepiece action sequence move from the famous Galleries Lafayette onto the Champs Elysee and from there to the Metro, these more iconic and touristic signifiers of Paris are counterbalanced by the emphasis on anonymous modernist architecture found elsewhere and thus also potentially representative of any big western hemisphere city.

As a strategy it is of a piece with their skilful incorporation of influences from the giallo and elsewhere, here noting such iconic signifiers as the black leather (motorcycle) gloves donned by Minos before he goes to work; the overlaying of his eye on the image, and the use of a storeroom filled with mannequins as the location for a shoot out.

Rather than just adopting giallo iconography, the filmmakers also manage, however, to weave elegant variations on models such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o' Nine Tails and the Telephone segment of Tre volte della paura, to which the opening sequence makes an interesting companion piece.

Thus, for example, Letellier is different from most giallo detectives, amateur or professional, in being imaginative enough to try to isolate the sound heard on the phone calls from Minos. This seems to comes, in fact, at the cost of not being able to see what is right before his eyes, as Minos, always wearing distinctive dark glasses to hide his glass eye, repeatedly appears right before his eyes to taunt him, first appearing as a (perhaps over-)concerned orderly by the name of Valdek at the hospital.

It is a lacunae that some may find stretches credibility and which gives a new meaning to the Machiavellian aphorism of the one-eyed man being king when in the land of the blind...

It may be with the camera of necessity situated to showcase Belmondo's stunts rather than his point of view – check out the screenshots, and be suitably impressed – we are positioned more synoptically than is usually the case in a giallo, able to see things that Letellier he does not.

This said, one feels it would have been better for the filmmakers to acknowledge and clarify this, perhaps by way of a throwaway witty line of the “I was too busy dodging bullets to get a good look at his face” type; undoubtedly dialogue writer Franci Veber, whose work here has that sharpness also seen in La cage aux folles and Le Dîner des cons, would have put it rather more wittily than my dull imagination can...

A difference between Minos and the typical giallo psychopath, and one that renders him closer to the example of Scorpio in Dirty Harry – tellingly the duel between Minos and Letellier later becomes increasingly ad hominem, though there is never the sense that they are in any way doubles – is that we never get any indication as to the cause of his psychopathology.

There is no backstory with primal scene presented in flashback, no indication that – for instance – it was the trauma of losing an eye (equals symbolic castration, no doubt, along with a lesson on the dangers inherent in voyeurism) in an abortive romantic / sexual encounter that lies behind his madness and motivates his moralistic cum misogynistic crusade. (Compared to Se7en's John Doe, Minos is not much of an equal opportunities moralist, his targets exclusively female)

While Letellier does get a flashback, by way of indicating that Marcucci was responsible for the deaths of his previous partner and an innocent bystander in a high-speed pursuit, again there is again no suggestion that he is particularly haunted / traumatised by the memory.

Rather, Marcucci's escape seems more representative of an affront to his professional reputation, as signalled by the way in which he and his men actually celebrate with champagne on hearing that the Italian is back in town. It is less about a compulsion to repeat and hopefully ultimately master a past trauma, in the classic psychoanalytic / giallo sense, as the return leg in which Letellier will settle accounts with the Italian.

On reflection, there are a few sequences that don't quite work. One is the aforementioned in which Letellier and Moissac arrive at the hospital and are joined by Minos in his regular guise as orderly Valdek. It feels slightly contrived in terms of the amount of time that passes between the scenes – how quickly did the detectives enter the hospital and find the nurse they wanted to speak to? how quickly did Minos get changed to join them?

While excusable as contrivance to avoid revealing that Minos and the orderly are one and the same at this point in the narrative, that this same revelation is made barely five minutes later – with another indeterminate period of time in between – perhaps also suggests a slight uncertainty of intention in the overall dynamics of the piece.

Likewise, the calculated games that Minos plays with the police here and elsewhere seem to make a mockery out of the psychological profile that we are given of him, by which he is outwardly normal except for when the need to kill overcomes him.

As might be expected, the film's politics and morality are difficult to pin down. While Letellier and Moissac repeatedly bend the rules and use method of decidedly dubious legality there is not the sense that the law is in itself weak and ineffectual, as found in the aforementioned Dirty Harry or a plethora of Italian cop films from around the same time.

Yes, the camera tracks back through an empty station office to rest on a sign that indicates we are outwith normal opening hours, but a call to the local station gets through.Yes, Letellier and Moissac are away from their car when the call comes through, but they are very much on the job, following up a lead on Marcucci.

Indeed, the one figure who goes out of his way to (ab)use the system is a intellectual looking type who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and who, it would seem, decides not to with their inquiries as a matter of political principle.

Classic imagery

The key sequence in this regard is, however, arguably that early on where Letellier and Moissac discover 38 African immigrants, presumably illegal, in the basement of a bar. Ever the pragmatists, they turn the situation to their advantage to get the information they seek. What they do not do, however, is actually make any intervention for or against the Africans who might well, at the end of the film, still be there, living in appalling conditions and paying a tidy sum between them for the privilege. At least the clearly terrified one who wounded Moissac wasn't jailed or deported for this. (Director Verneuil, despite his name, was a Turk of Armenian descent who grew up in France and adopted a French name, possibly indicating a sensitivity and sensibility here less readily accessible to a more conventionally French countryman.)

As is often the case with this kind of film, however, most of these weaknesses and omissions only really become evident as you sit back and begin to analyse things. When actually watching Peur sur la ville it's hard not to be swept along by the wit of the Veber's writing, the performances from Belmondo, Denner's and Adalberto Maria Merli, Vernieul's assured direction and, above all, the sheer elan with which the action sequences are handled.

Ennio Morricone's score, centred around a relentless percussive rhythm often overlaid with discordant piano, moaning harmonica or vocalism, is another asset, helping to ratchet up the tension and create the necessary air of unease. Considering the quality of Morricone's work on The Sicilian Clan, Le Serpent and Le Casse, the director and composer would appear to have had a trust and rapport.

Highly recommended.


Jean-Yves said...

Great analysis of a really, really good film.

Just a few comments:
* I grew up in France in the 70s and I remember seeing this film at least twice on TV... I believe it is still regularly scheduled (even if I watch a lot less prime time French TV these days). I am still amazed at the kind of dark, violent movies which were being shown at the time and thankful that my parents allowed me to watch them!
* Verneuil could put out good movies like this one or I... comme Icare, but also standard thrillers like Le Clan des Siciliens, which is just OK.
* It is pretty obvious that French genre cinema has really decreased in quality since the 70s. I wonder if parallels with Italian cinema could be drawn?

K H Brown said...

Thanks Jean-Yves, still missing your blog :-)

On point three, one difference I feel here - bearing in mind this is as an outsider to both French and Italian cultures, and also speaking as someone within what seems a very Francophile Scottish film culture at present - is that to me France has never meant genre cinema, unlike Italy.

I know there is a French genre cinema, just as there is an Italian - I still have fond memories of seeing the likes of Une chance sur deux and Le jaguar in the French Film Festival for example - but it's always seemed for domestic consumption only, whereas Italian films appear more geared towards the international as well as the domestic market.

The nouvelle vague has a lot to answer for :-)