The fourth edition of “The French Had A Name For It” began last night at the Roxie. Renegade programmer Don Malcolm calls this edition: “Despair. Delirium. Destiny.” Opening night was devoted to America’s gift to France, Eddie Constantine.
As is appropriate, we must proceed with Caution. Lemmy Caution. The American gangster Lemmy Caution has escaped from the Oklahoma State Prison and is heading for France. THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS (Jean Sacha 1953). And this man leaves a string of dead bodies – male and female, friend and foe – in his wake as he plots the kidnapping of a beautiful American heiress in order to worm his way into an international criminal enterprise. The enterprise beats him to it, and turns on him…maybe because of that badge he wears.
THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS has the third appearance of Lemmy Caution on film (the first was in a segment of FULL HOUSE, directed by Henri Verneuil in 1952), and the second in 1953 to have Constantine portraying him. Constantine reprised the role in ten more feature films in France, Germany, and Norway, in a TV movie and two TV episodes. Other than that first movie in 1952, he is the only actor to play the role. Constantine is Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution is Constantine. Tough guy. Smirk. Scotch – poured, not shaken or stirred.
Of particular note, especially to Welles obsessives, is the look – composition and editing – of the film, particularly the first third or so. Sacha’s filmography is short, and he was primarily an editor. Two years before this film, he was the editor for Welles’ OTHELLO. It showed, and wonderfully so.
The final sequence of the film is a long fight (as if there hadn’t been plenty of fights earlier) in a barn with stylized fisticuffs and deus ex machina weaponry, providing a mash-up of exaggerated gangster/crime/film noir scenes and anticipating Hong Kong martial arts movies. Caution the Indestructible. Plus the kidnapped woman keeping her female captor at bay with a fire hose, then the tables being turned after a tussle in the hay, then equilibrium restored. Delirium as entertainment.
The second film, LUCKY JO (Michel Deville 1964), confounds nearly all notions of film noir. Made the year before Lemmy Caution was sent into outer space by Jean-Luc Godard in ALPHAVILLE, Constantine is Jo. Jo is everything that Lemmy isn’t. A loser at everything he does. Or is he? He and three friends rob a bank. One gets caught due to an unforeseeable glitch and does time. The other three greet him when he is freed. Tellingly, two are on one side of the gate and Jo is on the other. Jo has a sense of guilt for what happened. Another robbery, another unforeseeable glitch, another gets caught and does time, and the above repeats, including Jo’s sense of guilt. Finally, Jo gets caught and does time, but upon greeting him at his release, the other three say they don’t want to be involved in capers with him anymore. His involvement dooms any caper. He feels guilty.
Four men commit a robbery. Jo’s and one of his old pal’s fingerprints are all over it. But they weren’t involved. Unfortunately, it’s Jo’s fault that they appear guilty. Jo, again, feels guilty. Jo goes to find the guilty parties and bring them to justice. He does. Two of the four, however, are his old pals. Jo feels guilty. Guilty enough to put himself out of his, and everyone else’s, misery? Lucky? Maybe yes, maybe no. Despair. Delirium. Destiny. Yes. And, whether you want to believe it or not, Comedy. Despair, Delirium, and Destiny as the structural components of the Human Comedy.
This was the seventh of Deville’s thirty-three films as director. He was assistant director for ten films directed by Henri Decoin, one of which appeared in a previous “The French Have A Name For It” program: RAZZIA SUR LA CHNOUF (1955). RAZZIA and LUCKY JO are at different ends of the Despair-Delirium-Destiny spectrum, and that is just one of the joys of discovery at “The French Had A Name For It” programs.