Arts Review

Panique: French Crime Classics, A Film Review by Marc Glassman

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Panique: French Crime Classics
A TIFF Cinematheque Retrospective
Reitman Square, 350 King Street West, Toronto
July 6-September 3
For more information:
Films in August and September include: Diva, Eyes without a Face, Le Trou, Bande a part, Pepe le Moko, Shoot the Piano Player, Port of Shadows, Judex, The Wages of Fear

The French had a phrase for the most effective American downbeat melodramas of the Forties: film noir. Panique, TIFF Cinematheque’s tribute to French crime classics and effectively programmed by James Quandt, isn’t a tribute to noir, which was all about expressionistic lighting, doomed men and femme fatales. Elements of those films exist in Panique, particularly in the set pieces, but most are shot in a clear unaffected style. If men are doomed here—and some are—it’s because the system—post-war Western capitalism—has left them alone, without a way to make a living with dignity.

The masterpiece left in the series, which has been running all summer, is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Four men drive trucks filled with nitroglycerin through a South American landscape so treacherous it seems as if it was set up to cause their demises. Yves Montand, one of the finest actors of his generation leads a crew of gritty, determined men to an implacable fate.

Two films starring Jean Gabin, the iconic French star of the 1930s, presage film noir. Pepe le Moko, Julien Duvivier’s legendary hit, which was remade in Hollywood (with Charles Boyer) as Algiers, may be the ultimate film about romantic folly. Gabin’s Pepe, a criminal hiding in Algiers’ notorious Casbah, has a passionate affair with a French woman visiting North Africa. Unwittingly, she lures him to his demise.

Made a couple of years later, Port of Shadows still stands up as a beautiful stylish film, which lovingly supports its bleak scenario. Made by the brilliant duo of scriptwriter Jacques Prevert and director Marcel Carné, it is classified as “poetic realism” but is a precursor to film noir. The romance between deserter Gabin and the gorgeous teenaged Michelle Morgan is never fated to last—especially with the charismatic Michel Simon on hand to stop their attempt at a forbidden love.

Panique covers such 1950s successes as the great prison break film Le Trou and a funny, suspenseful tale of France’s Occupation, La Traversée de Paris before hitting another peak with the New Wave classics Bande a part and Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste). Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande a part is one of his finest and most inventive films. A trio of disaffected 20-somethings decides to commit a robbery, mainly for kicks. Mayhem occurs—as well as one of the great numbers of the period, in which Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey dance The Madison.

Just as good is Francois Truffaut’s black comic take on noir, Shoot the Piano Player. Charles Aznavour was never better than as the existential pianist, who tries desperately not to fall in love again—having been devastated once. There’s a crime plot, wonderful cabaret scenes and one of the great lines of the Sixties. When asked to describe the pianist, someone in love with him says, “Even in a crowd, he walks alone.”

Panique is filled with terrific films. Check out the TIFF schedule and see one. You won’t be disappointed.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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