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The second half of the thirties was the moment when the French cinema was at its best !Only the Nouvelle Vague aficionados will disagree ,more power to them but boy If I could,I 'd find the mathematical formula which would prove me right.
Take Robert Siodmak:"Mollenard" is probably his French masterpiece,the great work he threatened to make during his French years .Along with "Pièges" (1939).Suffice to say that these two films (and particularly "Mollenard" )contain the seeds of everything he would make in America in the forties,particularly his films noirs and his thrillers.But none of his American movies can be compared to "Mollenard" where the director reaches for the first time a breathtaking directing maturity.
Charles Spaak ,the script writer ,comes up with plenty of his better lines.The dialog is sometimes so anarchistic ,so risqué in the writer's vitriolic style that they say the 1937 audience was baffled by the crudeness of the language.Simply,it has something of Renoir's first bourgeois attacks such as "la chienne" -there are many similarities- .
The film features two parts ,and those two halves do not seem to belong to the same film;against all odds ,they do...
ROBERT SIODMAK: A FILM NOIR GENIUS. Suffice to write he made "the killers" " cry of the city" and "criss cross" to name but three. At least 50 minutes of the film are film noir virtuosity where virtually all the scenes are unforgettable: a mythic Shanghai recreated in a studio -but as exotic as Von Sternberg's "Shanghai Gesture" - where a captain and his crew indulge in illegal practices :arms dealing .Siodmak's flair hits home at every picture:the young Chinese contact standing tied on his boat ,the international concession where "no one can come back alive" from this dark part of the town,among the ruins,the fog and the machine gun waiting for the sailors;Dalio's face in the mirror which a bullet breaks ;Dalio's death on his piano,after he confessed that anyway he was bound to lose and it was not his fault if he was an informer.The characters move like jaded human beings ,almost zombies,or as if they were out of an opium den.The ship which catches fire in the night...
The captain of a wrecked ship is always a hero.Although the company knows they were traffickers (first for the company itself ,then for themselves,a thing the boss cannot stand),an official fanfare is waiting for them ;actually two are here in Dunkirk harbor,for their buddies have their own band which plays "Dors Mon P'Tit Quinquin" in a gleeful cacophony while the other breaks into "le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse.In a fit of anarchistic delirium ,the captain stops the stodgy speech a notable is delivering and refuses to kiss his wife ("I'd sooner snuff it!") This wife ,we met her at the beginning of the movie.It's a sexually repressed bourgeois character ,full of bigotry (you'll serve tea and biscuits to the vicar;you "ll bring the jam jar but don't you open it") ,despise and hate for her husband .Everytime he returns is for her a calvary.
The performances will blow your mind:Harry Baur was definitely the strongest actor of the era ,an anarchistic macho when he was a sailor, an anti-bourgeois anti-clerical boor when he comes home and then a poor bedridden man asking for a revolver to end his life with dignity;Albert Préjean gives fine support as the big-hearted second in command;Gabrielle Dorziat shines in her part of a selfish socialite who smiles when she takes her dying hubby to bed;Marcel Dalio who was often cast as a traitor is so pitiful the audience feels like forgiving him;Robert Lynen portrays Baur's son (he'd already done it in Duvivier's "Poil de carotte" 1932),a shy boy who's afraid of his father (and of his over possessive mum).Both Baur and Lynen,oddly,were killed by the Nazis.
At a time when the French cinema was at his best,I say it again,"Mollenard " compares favorably with all the classics of the era "Quai des Brumes" "Pépé le Moko" " Le crime de Monsieur Lange".It's the lost great masterpiece of the golden age.It's essential viewing for anyone interested in Robert Siodmak's sensational American career.
The final pictures are superb for the captain has finally come home.
The captain cried,
we sailors wept
Our tears were tears of joy
A salty dog ,
the seaman's log
Your witness my own hand (Keith Reid)
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