That said, she gets a bit too glib in her comparisons down around the fourth graf--the film does not have the dizzy tonality of LADY FROM SHANGHAI or the set-piece "noir comfort food" sequence/structure of the 1946 version of THE BIG SLEEP. What it does share with those films is a protagonist who is on the bubble between being a meta-sleuth (Big Mike is a good sleuth, but a bad chess player with the sharks he's consorting with; Marlowe as played by Bogie is just smart enough to see the forest for the trees but keeps trying to drive his car by bouncing it off every third tree trunk he encounters) and a total sap. Maigret remains oddly besotted with Elsa even when he knows better, and the crime's solution, which winds up making her out to be a second-to-none psychosexual athlete, only leaves him grappling with the notion of bedtime fantasies barely tempered by a semi-priapic paternalism.
It's really the first infantilization of the classic vamp, and it certainly bolsters Chris Fujiwara's notion that noir operates from an adolescent framework. The real point is that the besotted detectives manage to solve the case and survive despite themselves. This is more pronounced in LADY (weakest link in the narrative chain), is sentimentalized in THE BIG SLEEP (Bacall is rehabilitated into a "good bad girl", but at the end of CARREFOUR we're left with the prospect of a prurient, amoral Maigret, taking a gamble that his experience and skill can keep him from perversity, scandal and future ruin.
We trust that Maigret and Marlowe and, in his own way, Mike O'Hara have solved the case, even if we don't quite follow all the details of their solution. These solutions only lead to greater conundrums that exist outside the narrative field of each film, and it's actually important that noir begins in 1932 with this "meta" type of moment, drawing a circular line around the connective tissue of crime and perversity which will take many different (protean) forms as it evolves, first in France; then in the spy noirs that create new narrative contexts and further play out the templates for sexual betrayal; and, ultimately, in Hollywood.
I think Nora is right on the money with Winfried--though the vampirism thing is overstated: she's “merely” an accomplished, instinctive sexual predator who’s sized up Maigret and is using a particular combination of wiles upon him that don’t produce the most desired result—getting off scot-free—but seems to have created a kind of “post-hypnotic effect” that will reduce the penalty she’ll pay for being the sexual catalyst that escalated the scope and range of criminal activity buzzing around her hive.
Here's her take:
5. La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)
What’s it about? In the wake of a big robbery and a murder, Inspector Maigret (Pierre Renoir) investigates among a cast of eccentrics at a garage in the country. And… well, I have no clue beyond that. There are double crosses and assumed identities and discarded husbands, but really the plot is clear as Nutella.
Why do I love it? Because it’s a shadow-cloaked, fog-shrouded film noir that somehow time-travelled to the 1930s. A film noir with the sleek lines of everyday deco and the hissing eeriness of early sound movies. Sounds like the dull thump of a car door take on an alien tonality, and voices seem less modulated for microphones. That’s not to say that La Nuit du Carrefour is primitive. Au contraire. From the opening credits, as a melancholy Italian song is punctuated by audiovisual snippets of a heist—a blowtorch opening a safe, the screech of a getaway car—you know you should brace yourself for brilliance.
Some blame La Nuit du Carrefour‘s unintelligible plot on a mythical missing reel, but I don’t quite buy that. The film would lose much of its enigmatic, trance-inducing luster if it were comprehensible. In any case, there’s a very special place in my heart for crime thrillers that make absolutely no sense and don’t give a damn about it. (Lady from Shanghai and The Big Sleep, I’m looking at you.) If you get the ambiance right—and La Nuit du Carrefour surely does—narrative logic is for suckers.
Still, the main reason why I put La Nuit du Carrefour on this list is the obscure Danish-born actress Winna Winifried who continues to stalk my imagination, smirking coyly behind a cigarette. Her performance is such an off-putting cocktail of gamine charm and decadence that you’re never quite sure if she’s a little girl playing at being a femme fatale or a femme fatale playing at being a little girl. Her presence amps up the film’s surrealness. Certain shots of her lounging on a bed while caressing her pet tortoise, smoking, and gazing at herself in a silver hand mirror wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film of the era. There’s something fetchingly macabre about her; if you found out in the third act that she was Dracula’s daughter, you wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And IMDb lists no death date for her, so perhaps she really is.