Monday, October 27, 2014

L’école Truffaut

In the new issue of Cahiers (N.704) there is a good dossier on Truffaut to coincide with the Toubiana cinémathèque exhibition. In it Stéphane Delorme highlights one of Truffaut’s paradoxes, “it is this polemist that theorizes in the most efficient way,” and how for Truffaut film-criticism as a concept is tool of combat. And this means, “Today, where the excessive protection of auteur cinema prevents critical thought, there needs to be a return to Truffaut’s critical standards, to get ready for tomorrow’s cinema. So one must always repeat: this isn’t enough.”

Truffaut’s writing, as characterized by his first text at Cahiers, Les extrême me touchent (N.21, March 1953), a review of David Miller’s Sudden Fear, is one of a restless energy and subjective response. In this first text, Truffaut lays out the arguments that he would bring to the magazine: a defense of American films over French ones, a preference for small B films over pretentious serious ones, compassion for outsiders, and a love of actresses.

It is also worth noting that Joan Crawford plays a key role in Sudden Fear and in Truffaut’s review of it just like she does in one of Steven Spielberg’s early television works Eyes from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Coincidence? – D.D.

I’m Affected by Extremes (Translation from The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut)

Sometimes they make films in the streets of Paris. A few extras [are there], more gapers, but no stars.
Concerned that you are not mistaken for one of the Béotians [people from the rue de la Béotie] who are hoping for the arrival of Suzy Carrier or Philippe Lemaire, you spot an assistant. You explain to him that you are not who he thinks you are. You directed a public debate at the Ciné-Club de Chamalières in Puy-de-Dôme on pure cinema before at least eighty people, and there is nothing you don’t know about the theme of failure in John Huston or about the misogyny of American cinema.
Supposing this first or second assistant hears you out, you ask him the ritual question, “What are filming?” To which he replies – what could he reply? – “We’re filming a linking shot.”
If Aurenche and Bost were adapting Le Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), they would cut sentences, even words: what would remain? A few thousand suspension points; that is rare angles, unusual lighting, cleverly centered. The notion of a shot in France has become concern for clothing, which means following fashion. Everything happens to the right and to the left, off the screen.
This preamble, in order to introduce a film is completely different. An American film. David Miller is the director of Sudden Fear. He made La Pêche au trésor [Love Happy (1950)] and Celle de nulle part [Our Very Own (1950)]. Before that he assisted in [the World War II Allied propaganda series] Why We Fight.
While respectable, nothing in his recent career led us to suspect that David Miller would give us the most brilliant “Hitchcock style” known in France.
Outside of two very short but fairly unpleasing sequences (a dream and a planning sequence in pictures), there is not a hot in this film that isn’t necessary to its dramatic progression. Not a shot, either, that isn’t fascinating and doesn’t make us think it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
If the audience laughs when it isn’t suitable to do so, I take that as a sign of daring, of finish. The public has lost the habit of intensity. Twenty years of adaptations that are guilty of excessive timidity have gotten the public accustomed to golden insignificance. Filming Balzac has become impossible. Put into pictures, Grandet’s deathbed agony reaching for the crucifix would cause gales of laughter in the same people who swoon with admiration when a legless cripple hurtles down a street at fifty kilometers an hour.
The “in” public, the public of the Ciné-Clubs, is hardly any different. Althoug they may allow Ladies of the Boies de Boulogne [1945] (no doubt because of Diderot and Cocteau), they are ready to burst out laughing at all of Abel Gance’s films. What Ciné-Club has shown Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night [1949] or Robert Wise’s Born to Kill [1947] – the most “Bressonian” of the American films?
As for the films, films of psychological anguish, laughter is a form of revenge of the spectator on the auteur of the story, which he is ashamed to have believed in. Yes, twenty years of fake great subjects, twenty years of Adorable Creatures, Return to Life, Don Camillo, and others like Minute of Truth have created this blasé public, whose sensibilities and judgment alike are alienated by the base and despicable “fear of being duped,” denounced by Radiguet.
No doubt it is this attitude of the public that has made Hitchcock pretend not to believe in the subjects he is dealing with by introducing into his films that element of humor –English, so they say – that is useless in my opinion, and Hitchcock’s detractors claim is the “tithe” through which the auteur of Strangers on a Train [1951] will be able to claim a right to purgatory of bad filmmakers of good will.
A weekly paper that no one is obliged to take seriously affirms that Joan Crawford herself financed Sudden Fear with half of her personal fortune: half a million dollars. No Matter.
The casting: it is permissible to have forgotten Crossfire [1947; Dir. Edward Dmytryk], but not a young blond woman who was better than an intelligent extra: as a prostitute, she danced in a courtyard. Even professional critics noticed the dancer; it was Gloria Grahame, whome we saw again in L’as du cinéma [Merton of the Movies (1947); Dir. Robert Alton] playing opposite Red Skelton.
Then Gloria Grahame became Mrs. Nicholas Ray and made In a Lonely Place [1950], with Humphrey Bogart as costar, under the direction of Nicholas Ray himself.
Gloria is no longer Mrs. Ray, as far as we know, and is filming in Germany under the direction of Kazan. We will see her again even sooner in Cecil B. DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth [1952].
 It seems that of all the American stars Gloria Grahame is the only one who is also a person. She keeps from one film to the next certain physical tics that are so many acting inventions and that can only be vainly expected from French actresses. Let’s be serious (we are required to, since a production hangs in the cinematographic balance); Edwige Feuillère, Madeleine Robinson, Danielle Delorme, Michèle Morgan, and Dany Robin opposite the [production] that proposes among a hundred others Lauren Bacall, Joan Bennett, Susan Hayward, Jennifer Jones, and Gloria Grahame? It took all the genius of Renoir, Bresson, Leenhardt, and Cocteau to make Mila Parely, Maria Casarès, Renée Devillers, and Edwige Feuillère appear to have any genius. From one film to the next, on the other hand, Gene Tierney, Joan Bennett, and Susan Hayward equal on the other hand, Gene Tierney, Joan Bennet, and Susan Hayward equal themselves. That and the bill for American cinema, often perfect right down to “Series Z” films, upset by hierarchy that could not be the same in our country where the only things that count are ambitious screenplays and the producer’s quote. In reality, there are no directors of actors in France, except those four names whose praises can never be sung enough: Renoir, Bresson, Leenhardt, and Cocteau. Gloria Grahame’s acting is all in correspondences between cheeks and looks. You can’t analyze it, but you can observe it. Let us make ours the definition  by Jean-Georges Auriol: “cinema is the art of doing pretty things to pretty women,” and let us wager that as he wrote that, he was thinking more of Jean Harlow than of Lisette Lanvin.
Jack Palance has been known to us since a good film of Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets [1950]. His character here is that of a young man with unusually fine physical qualities and who, by his exceptional charm, acquires the favors of women whose experience with men has made them less demanding and, at the same time, more so.
Joan Crawford? A question of taste. She takes her place in a category that I label rather crudely the “Raimu/Magnani tradition.” But if it’s really true that we owe the existence of this film to her…
Each follows his own path. The one that Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame have chosen will lead them to death.
Joan Crawford’s path is also the San Francisco street that seven years of American cinema from The Lady from Shanghai (1948; Dir. Orson Welles] to They Live by Night [1949; Dir. Nicholas Ray] have made familiar to us. An ingenious screenplay with a fine strictness, a set more than respectable, the face of Gloria Grahame and that street of Frisco whose slope is so steep, the prestige of a cinema that proves to us every week that it is the greatest in the world.”

François Truffaut

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