Jean-Pierre Melville

Films of Jean-Pierre-Melville:

“Le Doulos” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1963)

The term, “film noir”, was coined by French critics to describe a class of mostly B-grade Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s that covered the criminal underworld, in which the “heroes” as well as the villains were cynical, disillusioned lawbreakers living in a dark, gloomy, and corrupt urban environment. Some of the archetypal films of this period were The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Killers (1946), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But it was French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville who distilled the essence of film noir as an art form, and his films reached its highest levels of expression. Melville’s first complete realisation in this genre was Le Doulos (1963), although his earlier Bob Le Flambeur (1956) had some noirish atmospheric elements without the full panoply and without a satisfactory narrative payoff. But you can’t get by just on atmosphere. While style and atmosphere would always take precedence in Melville’s subsequent film noir renderings, the narrative elements of film noir are also crucial, and they are probably what attracted most viewers to Le Doulos.

There are three fundamental features of film noir:
  • Fatalism. Most of the characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters. This leads to the narrative quest for an escape.
  • Truth. The world is dark and obscure, and the truth is always elusive. At every turn, there is someone ready to doublecross you, and the police are as untrustworthy as the gangsters. This leads to the narrative quest to know what is true, a necessity in order to effect an escape.
  • Loyalty. Because everyone, including the cops, are liars and noone can be trusted, there is a heavy demand to find someone who can be trusted – and then to remain loyal to that rare person. This leads to a professional code, the “honour among thieves”, which places life-threatening demands of loyalty on the trusted partners in the story. The required level of “professionalism” is almost inhuman, and when any human sentiment is manifested, it is a sure sign of weakness that leads to inevitable failure. It is only from the professional, trusted, loyal partner that one can know the truth that can lead to escape.
Melville elevated these three features to almost dreamlike abstractions. Indeed, his films often push the boundaries of credibility and reach near cartoon-like levels of emphasis on the trappings of the film noir style. (His influence can be seen in the work of later Hong Kong Triad filmmakers, such as John Woo, who injected heroic loyalty with oriental self-sacrifice.) In Melville’s film noir landscape, the principal characters, though placed in French settings, are drawn straight out of the dark urban underworld of America. The principal characters wear trench coats and American fedoras. Their automobiles are huge, tail-finned American sedans, such as Ford Fairlanes or Chevrolet Biscaynes, which look totally out of place on the French streets. The nightclubs and bars, which have names like “The New York” and “The Cotton Club”, evoke images of Manhattan, not Paris. And everything takes place at night in run-down urban environments. It is in these settings that the grim narrative machinations of fatalism, truth, and loyalty run their course.

In narrative terms, the syuzhet is the plot as revealed to the audience, while the fabula is the overall story that lies behind the syuzhet. It is up to the viewer to form a mental construction of the fabula as he observes the syuzhet, and in Le Doulos, Melville places numerous obstacles in the way that make this a far from straightforward task. First, consider the syuzhet as presented in the film:
  1. Maurice Faugel, recently out of prison, pays a visit to fellow criminal Gilbert Varnove, who urges Maurice to go ahead with his partner Remy and pull off a robbery in the in the Neuilly area of the city. As they converse, Gilbert warns Maurice not to trust his friend, Silien, who is a suspected police informer. Maurice then shoots and kills Gilbert and makes off with a lot of his stolen jewels. Leaving just before some other his criminal colleagues, Nuttheccio and Armand, arrive, Gilbert buries the jewels in a shallow hole near the apartment.
  2. Later in Maurice’s room his two friends, Silien and Jean, show up, and Silien gives Maurice some safe-cracking tools that will be needed for the Neuilly job. Then Maurice’s girlfriend, Thérèse arrives, having been casing the Neuilly site in preparation for the robbery.
  3. After Maurice leaves his apartment, Silien returns and brutally beats up Thérèse to find out the precise location of the upcoming Neuilly job. Then he makes a mysterious phone call to police inspector Salignari.
  4. The robbery at Neuilly initially goes smoothly, but it is interrupted by the arrival of the police. In the ensuing gun battle Remy and police inspector Salignari are killed, and Maurice, though wounded, escapes and is taken to Jean’s place.
  5. Silien is picked up on the street by the cops for questioning. They want to know the identity of Remy’s partner who killed Salignari and got away. They also explain that Thérèse has died in a car accident. Silien, threatened with further police harassment, helps them find Maurice, whom they suspect of killing Gilbert.
  6. Someone is seen digging up the jewels that Maurice had buried outside Gilbert’s apartment.
  7. Maurice is duly arrested and thrown in jail. Maurice, now certain that he has been betrayed by Silien, wants to see his former friend dead and discusses his wishes with fellow inmate, Kern.
  8. Silien goes to Nuttheccio’s nightclub, “The Cotton Club”, and bullies his former girlfriend, Fabienne, who is now Nuttheccio’s gal, to testify that Nuttheccio killed Gilbert, rather than Maurice. He then kills Nuttheccio and Armand and places the stolen jewels on them to make it looked like they are Gilbert’s killers.
  9. Maurice is let out of jail, and he, Jean, and Silien repair to a local bar, where Silien (still suspected of being a police-informing rat by Maurice) explains everything. Silien gives Maurice some money that he had taken from Nuttheccio and convinces Maurice that he is, in fact, a truly loyal friend. He then departs for his house in the country.
  10. A few minutes later, Maurice gets a phone call reminding him that he had contracted Kern to kill Silien. He rushes to Silien’s place to head off the killing, but fails to prevent disaster. In the ensuing gun battle, Maurice, Kern, and Silien are all killed.
Now as the viewer watches this story unfold, sequences #1 through #8 lead him to construct a mental fabula that is wrong. In this false fabula, Silien is a police informer who told Salignari about the Neuilly job and then gave the whereabouts of Maurice to the police. Thereafter he brutally beat up Thérèse so that he could rat on Maurice, and he also killed Nuttheccio and Armand out of jealousy over Fabienne. In this interpretation, Silien is the lowest possible scoundrel – a conniving police informer willing to betray anyone for money. But in sequence #9, about 90 minutes into the 109-minute film, Silien gives a completely different interpretation of all those events. He explains that it was Thérèse who was the real police informer, and that he had tried to delay the police intervention at the Neuilly scene. Then he and Jean had killed Thérèse so she wouldn’t talk. Afterwards he had killed Nuttheccio and Armand in order to clear Maurice of Gilbert’s death and to give Maurice some needed cash. According to this altered fabula, Silien is the best and most loyal pal Maurice could possibly have – he turned out to be a guy who took great risks in order to help his friend.

Within the context of this narrative framework of double-crosses and reversals, Melville embeds his treatment of the film noir triad of fatalism, truth, and loyalty.

Fatalism. Very few people in this tale escape. In a Melville film, the existential characters are the men – the women don’t count for much, but I will discuss them further, below. Of the ten male characters of any consequence in the film, nine of them meet existential termination:
  1. Gilbert – killed by Maurice
  2. Maurice – killed by Kern
  3. Silien – killed by Kern
  4. Kern – killed by Silien
  5. Jean – arrested by Police Superintendent Clain
  6. Remy – killed by Police Inspector Salignari
  7. Police Inspector Salignari – killed by Maurice
  8. Nuttheccio – killed by Silien
  9. Armand – killed by Silien
  10. Police Superintendent Clain – survives
The narrative framework of fatalistic film noir almost requires the doom of all the underworld characters. And when these characters meet their termination, they seem relatively unsurprised.

Truth. Hardly anyone in the film has certainty about what is true. Gilbert says that Silien is untrustworthy. Maurice says that Nuttheccio and Armand are untrustworthy. Silien says that Jean talks too loosely. Thérèse lied to Maurice about being an informer. Fabienne is willing to lie about Nuttheccio for Silien. Superintendent Clain says that eyewitness reports of a crime are always untrustworthy – he needs hard evidence and confessions. And Silien (a) withholds his suspicions about Thérèse from Maurice, (b) lies about Maurice to the police, (c) lies to Fabienne to get her to testify against Nuttheccio, and (d) lies to Nuttheccio and Armand prior to murdering them. Yet in the end, Silien claims to be finally telling a really true story.

Loyalty. There are numerous betrayals and suspected betrayals throughout the film, as we might expect from the title, Le Doulos, which means in French underworld argot, the police informer. Informing to the police is an unconscionable act for a man in these underworld circles, but Melville’s women are treated as lower beings and are considered virtually incapable of loyalty. For example, there are four significant women in the story, and they are all abusively treated by their men and dismissed as weak creatures.
  • Arlette, Maurice’s unseen girlfriend, has been murdered by Gilbert prior to the beginning of the film’s action, because Gilbert thinks she might talk to the police.
  • Thérèse, the police informer, is brutally beaten up and then murdered. In fact, Jean boasts to Maurice later that he beat her unconscious and then had to waste a perfectly good coat in order to kill her.
  • Anita, Jean’s wife, reveals the truth about Jean to the police. Even when the wounded Maurice is tended by Anita, he treats her rudely.
  • Fabienne betrays her boyfriend Nuttheccio and is willing to lie about him to the police. At the end of the film, Silien reclaims her as if she were a temporarily mislaid object.
Melville’s mise en scène is fascinating and a key ingredient to the enjoyment of his existential thrillers. Notable in ths film are two shots that linger in the memory. One is the long (3:20) tracking shot of Maurice Faugel as he walks along a sidewalk bordering railway tracks while the opening credits are presented and the grimly disturbing theme music plays. The length of this shot is the key; it sets the tone of relentless fatality that will dominate the film. The other shot is the justifiably celebrated scene at the police station in which Silien is cross-examined by Police Superintendent Clain. This shot lasts 8:45, almost the full length of a 1,000-foot camera reel, and adroitly follows the movements in the conversation between Silien and his interrogators. It includes some 360 degree movements, which are always spectacular cinematographic achievements, and yet the shot is so smoothly performed that it is not overtly intrusive on the conversation observed. This shot is a testament to Melville’s visual style and worthy of comparison to Mizoguchi’s work.

In general, Melville’s camera shoots the portrayed characters from constantly changing angles, thereby avoiding any sense of a specific point of view. The spectator is the voyeur watching from many perspectives and thereby not up close and identifying for long with the characters under inspection. Adrian Danks has remarked on this aspect of Melville’s style:
This concomitant sense of seeing and hearing things from both within and outside character is one of the most fascinating facets of Melville’s style. In the process, Melville's films constantly throw up new perspectives, cross-cutting between multiple points of view. Thus, his films don't exclude the optical point of view of characters but they don't privilege it either.
– Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema
With the film’s spectacular narrative reversals coupled with Melville’s mise en scène, could we say that this is film noir classic? Unfortunately, not this time – these would come later with Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). There are some weaknesses to Le Doulos that hold it back. For one thing, all of the characters are essentially despicable murderers. The viewer is not motivated to care about any of them and/or have a concern for what happens to them. In addition, the deliberate attempts to subvert the viewer’s understanding are far too conspicuous. There are three red herrings in the film that are intentionally posed in order to confuse the viewer: (1) when Silien calls police inspector Salignari after conversing with Maurice, (2) when he beats and ties up Thérèse, and (3) when he digs up the jewels outside of Gilbert’s apartment. All of these scenes have the uncomfortable air of artificiality. Of less concern, but still a problem is the character of Jean. Jean initially seems to be an important figure, and yet he disappears for most of the film, only to turn up again near the end. His disappearance would not be significant in real life, but in the tight scenarios of a film noir, it is noticed. Finally, there is the problem of casting Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien. The Silien character is supposed to be a super-smooth string puller who gets his way with women, the police, and fellow criminals by spinning yarns. But Belmondo, already a young star from films like À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), is too good-natured. His boyish impishness is charming, but doesn’t fit the role of the cold, tough-as-nails Silien. Much better is the performance of Serge Reggiani, as Maurice. His dour, tense expression and body language prefigures a sense of impending trouble – the perfect image of a film noir character.

Because both Robert Bresson and Melville focussed on existential themes of loneliness and were the consummate film industry outsiders, one is tempted to look for affinities between the two. Indeed there are some connections, which deserve further exploration, but in a thematic sense, we can also see some opposite tendencies. Bresson was profoundly pessimistic about human greed and selfishness, yet there is always a suggestion that there may exist a transcendent reality – a higher existential plane that exists beyond these grim circumstances and which may offer grace. Melville, on the other hand, is a complete contrast on this score. For him, there is an optimistic belief in male loyalty in the here-and-now world, a belief in the honourable upholding of a professional code, even in the criminal underworld. At the same time, Melville’s world doesn’t offer even the slightest hope of transcendent salvation.
★★½ 

“Slumdog Millionaire” - Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan (2008)

“When asked a question, I give the answer.” This is Jamal Malik’s simple response to the police inspector’s question in Slumdog Millionaire concerning his amazing success on a TV game show. Jamal’s straightforward remark makes sense to those who believe that modern society is a meritocracy in which truth always triumphs, but it doesn’t wash with the police inspector. The real world today, the inspector knows, especially the world in India, is dominated not by truth and skill, but by lies, corruption, brute power, and the maintenance of social barriers. Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandam, presents a simple fable, cleverly told, about the contrast between our idealistic dreams of a just society and the more sordid reality in which we live. Though it features a number of dazzling production techniques that contribute to its success, it also leaves me wondering about some missed opportunities. An undeniably entertaining experience could have been something more.

Certainly the film’s manner of presentation and production values are seductive. Although a British production, the film has the appearance and flavour of being at least an Indian co-production, and it is this cross-cultural admixture that works so well. In fact, we could say the film’s style is effectively a combination of three stylistic elements: high-intensity cinematic drama à la Danny Boyle, Bollywood romance, and MTV. One would normally expect that any attempt to mix these elements together would results in a confused mish-mash, so the creative triumph that resulted comes as something of a surprise.

The clever narrative trick in Slumdog Millionaire, derived from Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q and A, is to use the TV game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” as a vehicle for an examination of Indian society. It tells the story of an eighteen-year-old boy from the Mumbai slums and with no formal education who was lucky enough to be chosen as a contestant for the show. Astoundingly, he has given a string of correct answers to the questions posed, and at the outset of the movie he is about to face the final question the could earn him 20 million rupees. Since an uneducated slum dweller is presumed to be incapable of such success, Jamal has been circumstantially accused of cheating and has been hauled before the police and tortured in order make him confess his crime. Jamal proceeds to recount various episodes from his past, which are presented as extended flashbacks, in which he just happened to pick up the information crucial to answering each of the questions he has been asked. Each flashback, however, also provides us with a glimpse into the cruel machinations of various sectors and prejudices of Indian society that oppress the poor. These include ruthless beggar masters who intentionally capture and maim children in order to produce effective beggars, underworld gangsters, and police who are indifferent to the bigoted oppression of religious minorities (in this case of Moslems beaten and killed by Hindu fanatics). Note that the order of questions asked on the show just happen to correspond to flashbacks occurring in the chronological sequence of Jamal’s past. Such an artificial chronological coincidence can perhaps be forgiven on the part of the writers (Simon Beaufoy scripted the film from Vikas Swarup’s novel), since it conveniently aligns the two main narratives, Jamal’s quiz-show narrative in the present, and his flashback-told experiences of the past.

Not so long ago India, a country and people that I love and admire, was a nation primarily of upper classes and lower classes, with only a very small middle class. But now India has a vibrant and rapidly growing middle class that is one the largest in the world. Despite this dramatic transformation, however, anyone who has spent some time in India can see that the country still has, as do many other parts of the world, monumental problems of (a) an enormous portion of the population that is utterly destitute and (b) a woefully inadequate infrastructure. Basic essential amenities, such as clean water and adequate sewage, are not available to huge numbers of people that are still living in squalor. Unfortunately, a good many prideful Indians with feelings of insecurity about their national image don’t want to hear about this and often bristle when presented with moving depictions of Indian poverty, such as Pather Panchali (1955) and Salaam Bombay (1988), and they condemn them all as “poverty porn”. But there is no escaping the reality of this situation, and it is important that an open society not suppress the presentation of these issues. This is what makes Slumdog Millionaire something of a breakthrough. Here we have a popular movie made in the Bollywood style which situates its romantic fable directly in the middle of the Mumbai hutments. Since the film has mass entertainment appeal, this fascinating mixture of Bollywood and serious drama will likely draw a large audience and may have a uniquely beneficial social impact. Unfortunately, though, about halfway through the film, the story wanders away from the social issues and settles on a romantic love story in typical “destiny-driven” Bollywood style. As a consequence it more or less loses sight of its earlier social themes. To be sure, the romantic story is well told and uplifting, and the audience leaves the theatre on an upbeat note, but the haunting themes of the first half of the film are drowned out in the clamour of individual triumph.

Now one might conjecture that this kind of fantasy could have been presented as a sly vehicle to expose the cruel absurdity of the real world. A sardonic example of this sort was Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, 1976), an absurdly comic story about a woman who manages to find marriage contentment by combining two contrasting husbands (one of whom is a ghost). The satirical twist in that film was the contrast between the loony culmination of the film and the limited marital options available for many women in macho-dominated societies. Satisfaction, the film seems to suggest, may only be possible in a ridiculous world of fantasy. Along similar lines, Slumdog Millionaire could have played that card and suggested that only in the impossibly remote circumstances of unbelievable luck could someone from the hutments achieve his dream. But the film doesn’t adopt that line and make such a cynical suggestion. Instead, it seems simply to settle for the typical Bollywood fantasy of uniting lovers who are destined for each other, without the social overtones that could have elevated the film to greatness.

The cinematography in Slumdog Millionaire combines Bollywood lushness with rhythmic music and fast cutting – all heavily dosed with in-your-face closeups. It’s a jarring, pulsating visual world that will appeal to a TV-oriented crowd, but there are not many shots evoking contemplative reflection on the proceedings. In addition, the camera angles come from all directions, thereby lessening the potential intimacy of the subjective perspective. We are watching Jamal from every possible angle, as external observers, but that technique reduces our identification with his personal point of view. This all-angles cinematography is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville, who typically created a visual milieu in which his characters were inserted and observed as if they were part of his bleak, noirish landscape. Nevertheless, in Slumdog Millionaire, there are so many closeups of actors Dev Patel and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (who play older Jamal in the present and the younger Jamal in flashback, respectively) that the viewer can identify with Jamal and champion his cause.

There were a couple of thematic elements inserted in Slumdog Millionaire that I found particularly appealing:
  • Jamal and his brother Salim were Moslems, an underappreciated community in India. Furthermore, though it is not explicitly evident to which ethnic group Jamal’s love interest, Latika, belonged, I believe the name “Latika” is of Hindu origin. That would suggest that Jamal, a Moslem, was in love with a Hindu, which would represent the kind of cross-cultural pairing that I think is healthy to see in a film. (Even better for the cross-cultural mix, the role of Latika is played by the beautiful Frieda Pinto, who is a Christian.)
  • The closing scene of the narrative ends with the two lovers kissing, a specific shot that is conventionally avoided in Indian cinema, even though Bollywood films frequently have subject matter that is implicitly much more adult oriented. So it is especially satisfying to see this film close with an explicit romantic embrace.
On the other hand, one segment that was aesthetically inappropriate was the choreographed mass dance number at the end of the film as the credits rolled. This was entertaining in its own way, but it broke the “fourth wall” and completely jerked the viewer out of involvement in the storyline, leaving the impression that the film was not much more than an elaborate dance number. Still, one might speculate that just maybe that was precisely the cunning intention of the filmmakers – that we should finally realise that the happy ending was pure fantasy and unrepresentative of the stark Indian milieu that had just been depicted.
★★★½ 

“The Willow Tree” - Majid Majidi (2005)

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, one of the greatest directors working today, has always presented narratives imbued with the themes of Sufism and focused on the deepest personal and spiritual connections in the lives of his characters. His The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon, 2005) continues with these considerations, and in some ways it is his most explicitly philosophical work to date. Like his superb immediately preceding fiction films, Father (Pedar, 1996), Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye Aseman, 1997), The Color of Paradise (Rang-e Khoda, 1999), and Baran (2001), there is a focus on an individual who undergoes an anguish-filled, life-changing experience. At the close of all of those films, which always contain a contemplative shot over water, the main character has failed to achieve his personal goals, but we can see (even if the character, himself, is only dimly aware) that he has emerged as a more complete human being. This narrative arc is more or less parallelled in The Willow Tree, but perhaps not quite.

The story is relatively straightforward. Youssef, played by noted Iranian actor Parviz Parastui, is a middle-aged literature professor in Tehran who has been blind since the age of eight and who now lives relatively comfortably with his devoted wife and young daughter. At the beginning of the film, he is suffering from a worsened medical condition that he learns has become life-threatening. He prays to God to let him live, reminding God that he has already put up with his diminished life due to blindness for thirty-eight years. “If I come out of this darkness, I’d be with You forever,” he says in his mind to God. His family then send him to Paris for an operation on the tumour behind his eye in the hopes that it is not malignant. Unexpectedly, the tumour turns out to be benign, and the doctors are able to perform a cornea transplant that restores his sight. At the one-third mark of the film, he returns to Tehran a new man and open to the world of sight. But he does not experience the joy that he expected, and he is troubled by doubts about what he now really wants out of life. Before, his goal was simple, to see, but now things are more complicated. He sees himself now as old and sidelined: a victim who has missed out on the chances to have a full life. He is distracted by the complexity of the newly-discovered visual world, including the hypnotic allure of attractive women. Previously, when blind, he was always looked after by the people around hm, but now he sees himself as only having been a passive ward of others. Assertive action is now required of him, but he is paralysed and frustrated. His wife, feeling neglected, leaves him, and he miserably burns all his past writings, feeling that they represented his past, wasted life. But just as he at his most self-pitying, he loses his sight again and is returned to the world of darkness. The film ends with his sorrowful contemplation of his earlier plea to God to give him a second chance.

On the surface, this story sounds like a simple moral tale, and this is how it has been interpreted by most critics. A man makes a bargain God, wishing for something and promising to change his life. The man fails to live up to his end of the bargain, so the granted wish is taken away at the end. But are we to assume that a filmmaker such as Majidi, so inspired by Sufi mysticism, would be simply cautioning his viewers by invoking the crude economics of moral bookkeeping? Surely there must be more to this story than that.

First, we must bear in mind that Youssef, himself, is a professor specialising in Iranian Sufi poetry. The issues of love, freedom, and the spirit would not be unknown to him. Early in the film, he has written that
“Rumi with his tact and sharp mind gave all he had to Shams-e-Tabrizi and told him to burn it. Was Shams getting something in return? As for Rumi, he always bet on love and expected nothing in return.”
It is perhaps reflecting on this act of Rumi's that he later burns his own books and writings. Even when Youssef returns from Paris with his sight restored and is distracted by his uncle’s vivacious sister-in-law, Pari, there is still a connection with his interests in Sufi poetry. Pari has given him her student thesis on Sufi poetry to review, and later he appears to be reading and highlighting this thesis (the book he is reading at this time has the same red binding as the thesis that Pari had earlier handed to Youssef’s wife, Roya). He is inspired by a commingling of both her comments about Sufi poetry and her exuberant womanliness.

He is presumably aware of the relative insignificance of the world of words and abstract ideas, when they are compared with the vital reality of embodied existence. Yet, as a blind man, that world of words had been his primary option and had come to dominate his existence. As a successful academic, the life of words was a natural focus, and he had not wholly engaged in the fullness of life. So I would contend that his earlier domestic life of blindness was not necessarily a paradise lost, but had been instead a passive world of minimal engagement. A key shot in the film is when Youssef first experiences the wonders of the visual world in the hospital. He looks down at a window blind and sees an ant carrying a grain of food across the blind. This reveals a world, not simply of objects and shapes, but one that is alive, even down to the smallest things. It is a mysterious, vital world that is animated with a life force, perhaps the all-pervasive God. The shot of the ant may also be a reference to a passage from Rumi’s great work, Masnavi:
The spirit is like an ant, and the body like a grain of wheat
which the ant carries to and fro continually.
The ant knows that the grains of which it has taken charge
will change and become assimilated.
One ant picks up a grain of barley on the road;
another ant picks up a grain of wheat and runs away.
The barley doesn't hurry to the wheat,
but the ant comes to the ant, yes it does.
The going of the barley to the wheat is merely consequential:
it's the ant that returns to its own kind.
Don't say, "Why did the wheat go to the barley?"
Fix your eye on the holder, not on that which is held.
As when a black ant moves along on a black felt cloth:
the ant is hidden from view; only the grain is visible on its way.
But Reason says: "Look well to your eye:
when does a grain ever move along without a carrier?"
-- (Masnavi VI: 2955-2962)
Here, the ant represents the vital spirit that animates all of reality, and it is that aspect to which we must direct our awareness, not just to the cold, lifeless objects in the world. It is the spirits (the ants) that collectively make the world move, that animate it, and we should focus our consciousness on that level of reality. But it seems that Youssef has “lost sight” of this image. At the very end of the film, when Youssef is contemplating his earlier written plea to God to give him another chance, we again see an ant carrying a grain of food as it walks across the page. From our perspective we know that it is carrying not only the grain of food but the Sufi message that Youssef had forgotten.

Related to this is Youssef’s existential inability to take action in his newly animated world. This can be connected with his previous forced (because he was blind) existence that was almost exclusively in the realm of the narratives of others (including his family members), as opposed to his own autonomous life constructed from direct experience. French director Robert Bresson has remarked that he hates drama and the theatre, because they always represent someone’s already existing “story”. All the events in a drama, according to Bresson, are connected to identified causes – causes that have been identified and ascribed by the storyteller. But when we, ourselves, experience the world in its existential flow, there are no immediately perceived causes for events – those causes are only attributed later by us, upon reflection. At the time we experience the immediate events, there are no causes tied to them. Bresson insisted that, in contrast with typical dramas, he wanted to craft films such that the viewer did not have any prepackaged causes tied to the events that are depicted (hence his aversion to any theatrical “performances” on the part of his actors that would be motivated by their own prepackaged narratives). Bresson wanted the viewer of his films to bear a much greater burden in constructing the story in his own head as he watches the film – an activity that would simulate our experience of everyday life as we live it. From this perspective, we can see that Youssef is a person who has always lived with existing narratives and their prepackaged narrative causes. When he is out there in the world of direct visual experiences, he is unable to construct his own narratives that afford suitable action. So he is frozen in his tracks.

From this angle, we can understand what happens when Youssef visits a jewelry factory, where they are making artifacts with melted gold. Perhaps contemplating the contrast between this concrete world of rivulets of melted gold and more abstract thoughts of Rumi’s visit to the goldsmith, Salah ud-Din-e Zarkub, he is startled out of his reverie by an accidental shower of sparks from the furnace that spray onto him. This world of gold-crafting is alive and dangerous! Later, he watches a pickpocket at work on the subway and remains paralysed in inaction while the theft is carried out. Moreover, he feels an emotional desire for the girl Pari, but is unable to take any decisive action on that front, as well. In all these cases, he demonstrates his inability to act – he sees, but is confused by both all the options and his personal responsibilities. He is still disengaged from life, and he knows it. This is what drives him mad. Note that the Farsi title of the film, “Beed-e Majnoon”, carries with it an additional colloquial suggestion of madness, in reference to the Iranian legend of Leila and Majnoon, in which Majnoon goes mad with love for Leila.

On the technical production side, it is worth nothing that although the film is beautifully crafted and photographed, the Iranian prohibition concerning the presentation of adult Iranian women is severely restrictive. Women must be shown wearing the hejab at all times, even inside their own homes, which is unnatural. Not only are men and women forbidden to kiss, of course, they cannot even touch in any way. This is a problem that Iranian filmmakers try to overcome in creative ways, but it is clearly problematic, for example in the case when Youssf is joyfully greeted by his wife and family upon his return from Paris. In addition, there are elements in the film that I find somewhat open-ended and make me wonder.
  • The flashback scene where Roya recollects an episode in Youssef’s classroom in which he had dropped his ring on the floor, is unclear. What is it's significance? The fact that almost all the action in the film is seen from Youssef’s perspective, make this scene from Roya’s point of view stand out. But what is this scene’s import?
  • Later in the film when Youssef is wandering around in the night, lost in his confused and frustrated thoughts, he is shown walking down a dark lane. In the middle of this shot, there is a dissolve to Youssef, seen from the same perspective but much further away from the camera. Why such an odd transition? There doesn't seem to be any motivation for this or progression suggested by the shot.
  • At the end of the film, the blind-once-again Youssef, having awakened and found himself delivered back to the pool in his own garden, desperately searches for his earlier, Braille-written plea to God for another chance. Though sightless, he knows it’s in the bottom of the pool somewhere, and he finds it and reads it again. Although this is a dramatic reminder to the audience of his earlier promise to God, it’s motivation within the action here is not clear. He presumably knows what’s printed on the paper, or he wouldn’t be searching for it. Why, if he knows what's written on it, does he want that paper so much?
  • And what is the role of his friend, Morteza, whom he meets at the hospital in Paris? There are suggestions that Morteza (played with characteristic panache by Mohammad Amir Naji, who had performed admirably in Children of Heaven and Baran) is a messenger from God: his two appearances are connected with critical changes in Youssef’s situation, and he appears to have unworldly knowledge of Youssef’s circumstances. He writes Youssef a letter, in which he says:
    “Tell me what’s worth seeing, and I will tell you what’s not worth seeing. Ever since I have practiced not seeing, I have seen many wonderful things.”
    What is Morteza's intent? In any case, one wonders if perhaps the charismatic Morteza’s presence in the film should have been more emphasized.
In the end, we must consider the possibility that Youssef's sight is restored again at the end of the film by a compassionate God. After all, there is the familiar image of the ant walking across the paper, which was connected with his earlier gift of sight. However, I don’t think Youssef’s sight is restored at the end of the film, and if it were really Majidi's intention to portray that, I believe that it would weaken the power of the drama.

In addition there is the question as to whether Youssef is now a more enlightened person at the end of this story. I believe that he is not, and this means it would be a departure from the earlier Majidi films in which the protagonist always emerges from his ordeal as a better person. In their closing shots over water, those other Majidi films evoke an epiphany about the richness of human existence. In each case something in the material world has been lost, but something higher, in the world of the soul, has been gained. But in The Willow Tree that epiphany, for me, was not present. Youssef is simply suffering, and he has been returned to darkness. He may have seen the "light", but it is not clear. His brief opportunity to see just how rich and complex is the world of human interaction has led him to despise even more the sightless life to which he is now returned. He has still not learned how to reach out to others and to take action.
★★★½ 

“Le Jour se Leve” - Marcel Carne (1939)

Some of our most deeply felt experiences cannot be put into words, and we must turn to other forms of expression. Le Jour se Léve (Daybreak, 1939), Marcel Carné’s greatest film, is a truly exquisite exploration of those feelings. During the late 1930s Carné worked with screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and their moody, romantic dramas were said to be examples of “poetic realism”, a film genre that also featured works by Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier. Certainly among the many great films of this genre, Le Jour se Léve and Renoir’s, La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939) were the high points. (Lamentably, remarks in Carné’s autobiography suggest that these two great visualizers of romantic humanism did not get along -- c’est la vie.) Ever since it's release and despite the deplorable condition of available prints since, Le Jour se Léve has been regarded as one of the greatest French films ever made.

It is particularly noteworthy that Carné’s greatest achievement in romantic expressionism was achieved without significant investment in set design. In addition, there are essentially only four characters of any consequence in the entire film, and each of these cast members plays his or her role to perfection. Like the preceding Carné-Prévert collaboration, Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), Le Jour se Léve starred Jean Gabin, who had not only become the leading French actor at this time, but was also almost the iconic figure of “poetic realism”. What Gabin was able to project in these films was something similar to what James Dean and the early Marlon Brando offered later in American films: a sensitivity and passion for feelings that was communicated outside the usual theatrical modes of verbal discourse. Somehow we viewers can empathise with Gabin, as we can with Dean, even when others around him in the story do not understand him and cannot share his feelings. We not only understand the Gabin character, we assert that he is perfectly normal, like us – we identify with him, even when, as in Le Jour se Léve, he is driven by his passions to commit murder.

Le Jour se Léve is about love, of course, but more than that, it is about the existential despair that is felt in connection with the usually hopeless quest to open oneself completely to another and achieve a kind of soulful union – the one, true love. The narrative, the sujet, is told as a series of three extended reverie flashbacks that represent the main character’s reflections concerning events that led up to the murder that he has committed. Overall, the plot comprises four sequences in “the present”, which are separated by three separate flashback reveries concerning earlier events.

1. Present. From the top of a high-rise apartment building, a shot rings out, and an exiting figure falls down the stairs and dies. A crowd gathers and police quickly ring the building. From inside the apartment, Francois, fires some warning gunshots to hold the police at bay.


2. Flashback #1. Francois in seen working at his job as a sandblaster in a foundry, a noisy, grimy industrial environment cut off from normal human interaction. A young, pretty girl, Francoise, walks by looking for directions, and despite the overwhelming noise of the factory, they engage in some polite small talk. The delight in discovering the similarity of their names and the fact that they were both raised in orphanages.

Three weeks later at Francoise’s apartment, the two are shown to be in love, particularly Francois, who wishes to progress their relationship further. He asks to stay the night, but Francoise demurely says that she has a prior engagement for the evening. Francois masks his jealously and leaves, but then he surreptitiously follows her when she soon goes out to a cabaret. There he discovers that she is enthralled by middle-aged entertainer, Valentin, who commands his trained dogs to perform tricks. Despite his utterly tasteless performance, Valentin is utterly confident on stage, and Francoise, sitting in the audience up front, enthusiastically appreciates every bit of it. Midway through the act, Valentin’s stage assistant, Clara, walks off the stage and over to the bar, where she meets and strikes up a casual, but flirtatious, conversation with Francois. At the end of his act, Valentin exits the cabaret with Francoise (still oblivious to the presence of Francois), but he returns a few moments later and berates Clara for walking out on his act. Francois, standing next to her, steps forward and tells Valentin to shove off.

3. Present. The besieged apartment room is now subject to a fusillade of police bullets, but Francois barricades the door and holds out.

4. Flashback #2. Clara’s apartment, where Francois is now the paramour of the mature and worldly woman. Though cohabiting, their relationship is casual, with no long-term commitments. Much to their annoyance, Valentin shows up and cajoles Francois into having a private talk about Francoise. In that talk Valentin claims that Francoise is his long-abandoned daughter and that he is worried about her welfare. Shocked by this revelation, Francois angrily swears that he loves Francoise, and that Valentin has no claim on her affairs.


The scene shifts to a flower shop attended to by Francoise, where she is visited by an ardent Francois. He is happy to learn from her that Valentin had lied and is not really her father. After Francois proposes marriage, the two lovers exchange amorous caresses. Francoise gives him a ceramic broach as a keepsake of their mutual, passionate love.

Francois then goes to Clara to break off their relationship. Clara, hiding her hurt, cooly comments how the venal Valentin trained his dogs by torturing them with a red-hot iron. And worse, she says that he has a collection of identical, cheap ceramic broaches, which he gives as souvenirs to each woman that he conquers. Clara shows Francois her own broach from Valentin, and he recognises that it is exactly like the one Francoise had given to him.

5. Present. Francois angrily throws the tainted broach out the window and then screams down to the crowd of onlookers. Francoise, in anguish among that crowd, faints and is taken to back Clara’s apartment.

6. Flashback #3. Valentin comes to Francois’s room and starts putting on another phony performance, showing off a gun he had intended to use on Francois. But instead he starts taunting Francois about how he had seduced Francoise. Enraged, Francois grabs the gun and shoots Valentin, bringing the action to the film’s starting point.


7. Present. At Clara’s apartment, Clara is trying to comfort the still delirious Francoise, but both women are in tears. Meanwhile Francois awaits his inevitable fate as the police close in with tear gas.

The performances of each of the four principal cast members is superb. Jean Gabin was never better than in this role of Francois. He is the perfect mixture of brooding toughness mixed with romantic sensitivity. Jules Berry, a distinguished character actor who had earlier played brilliantly in Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), is perfect as the role-playing Valentin, who manipulates the civilized customs of our culture in order to grab what he can and avoid responsibility. This overt exploitation of culture is foreign and infuriating to the working-class Francois. Arletty, as Clara, is a sympathetic observer to the tragedy who is unable to prevent its fatal denouement. Jacqueline Laurent, who was eighteen at the time of the film shooting, is also just right as the guileless Francoise. Each of these players is able to express the crucial interpersonal overtones that make the film a special experience.

In Flashback #1, Francois is presented as someone with whom most men can identify: genial but reserved. He doesn’t put on a show for others, but wishes to retain an authentic bearing that is true to himself. By maintaining his balance, he retains his “cool”, and he avoids showing any jealous concerns that may temporarily upset him. His efforts to maintain his authenticity are sharply contrasted by Valentin, who is most self-evidently a phony in every way. In his looks, manners, and actions, Valentin is the essence of inauthenticity: a duplicitous worm who unashamedly slips from one slimy mendacious role to the next without batting an eye. Though he is internally infuriated that Francoise, the embodiment of innocence, is so easily fooled by Valentin’s cheap tricks, Francois tries not to show his feelings of jealousy to her.

In Flashback #2, which is the key sequence in the film, the romantic relationship between Francois and Francoise reaches its culmination. In it, they swear their true love, their authentic love. The amorous scene in the flower shop shows them building their own special world of tenderness and affection.


For Francois, his relationship with Clara was sensual, but it was not the true union of souls that he longs for. Francois and Clara have been too cool, too reserved, too adult, to let themselves go very deep into an interpersonal union -- although there are indications that Clara (in a subtly resonating performance by Arletty) is masking her feelings and is actually in love with Francois. We could say then that the affair between Clara and Francois, though it passes for a love affair in our society, is not an authentic union of souls. Similarly, whatever the relationship was between Francoise and Valentin, it, too, was undoubtedly inauthentic, even for the sincere Francoise – it was merely an inauthentic dabbling in romantic fantasy that had been conjured up by a lecherous shapeshifter.


In the end, Francois could not abide with the idea that Francoise had slept with Valentin. The mere thought of it tainted and cheapened his memories of the romantic moments they had shared. These anguished thoughts probably implied to him that his opening up of his heart to her had perhaps been no more meaningful to her than those cheap "magic tricks" of that elderly and disgusting con man. To contemplate that idea meant the death of his dream of love (and hence the existential death of his own soul), and he could not bear it – especially when Valentin was standing there taunting him, and the gun was lying there on the table next to him. But Francoise, crying out in Clara’s bed at the end and delirious with grief, was different. For the innocent Francoise, the authentic commitment had reached totality. Though Francois’s affair with Clara had worried her and made her hesitant, she forgives him. She says it was not his fault, that she knows that he really loves her, and that she really loves him.
★★★★

Marcel Carne

Films of Marcel Carné:

“Le Quai des Brumes” - Marcel Carne (1938)

Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak, 1939) were the two greatest collaborations between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, both films being far superior to their more celebrated but somewhat overblown Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945). Both Le Quai des Brumes and Le Jour se Lève were existentialist films noir, although they were classified at the time as examples of “poetic realism”, a term that now only applies to a few French films (mostly scripted by Prévert) made in the 1930s. Le Quai des Brumes is the more explicitly philosophical work, but its great strength lies not so much in its philosophical musings, but in the romantic relationship between its two main stars, Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan, in the last half hour fo the film. In other respects the films mannered stylistics may be off-putting to some modern viewers.

The story of Le Quai des Brumes is one of continual gloom and depression from the very outset. All of the principal characters are pessimistic and weary of life, and the expressionistic production values consistently maintain an environment shrouded in the fog and murky shadows of French seaport Le Havre. The pervading romantic mood is also considerably enhanced by the Maurice Jaubert's sombre background music. Carné seems to have wanted to present a visual tone poem dedicated to melancholia, and the details of the crime plot that drives much of the action seem to be of only secondary importance. In most narratives, there are two types of plot themes: one type based primarily on action and attainment in the environment, and the other type based on personal relationships in the story. Usually these narrative types are intertwined, so that the protagonist might both solve the murder mystery and win the heart of his beloved. In Le Quai des Brumes there are both types of narratives present, a criminal plot and a developing relationship, but the criminal plot seems to be almost window dressing compared to the relationship between Gabin and Morgan. In fact in the prints of the film available today, some of the key details of the criminal plot are somewhat unclear.

The story begins with a French soldier coming alone to Le Havre, and it proceeds in three main sections.
  1. Setting the Scene (about 22 minutes). The French soldier, Jean, has recently served in the colonial army in Indochina and hitches a ride with a truck driver into Le Havre. The soldier may be a deserter, and it is clear that he wants to hide from the authorities. He runs into a drunk, known as “Half-Pint”, who guides him to a seedy, out-of-the-way tavern, Panama’s, along the coast near the harbour. Meanwhile the action cuts to a nightclub where two gangsters are attempting to bully an elderly gentleman, Zabel (played flamboyantly by Michel Simon, with his signature quirky voice and awkward physical mannerisms). The gangsters, the leader of whom is Lucien, are searching for the whereabouts of someone named “Maurice”. Back with Jean, he arrives at Panama’s, where he meets Michel, a gloomy, philosophical painter, who speaks longingly of the temptations of suicide and the hopelessness of existence. Jean also meets a beautiful young lady, Nelly, who he takes to be a prostitute.
  2. Zabel and the Gangsters. Lucien and his thugs show up at Panama’s looking for Zabel (and perhaps Maurice – it is only later that we learn that Zabel has already killed Maurice and has dumped the body near Panama’s). A gunfight breaks out between the tavern proprietor and the gangsters, ultimately driving them away. At daybreak, Jean and Nelly, now casually friendly, walk into town, where they encounter Lucien and his men. After Lucien rudely tries to grab and embrace Nelly, Jean humiliatingly roughs him up in front of his own men and drives him off. Jean and Nelly then part, promising to meet that night at a street fair. Meanwhile, back at Panama’s, the painter Michel has committed the foretold suicide by drowning himself in the sea. The scene now shifts to Zabel’s gift shop in town, which is first visited by Lucien and the gangsters (who are still demanding something from Zabel) and then by Nelly, who turns out to be Zabel’s goddaughter. Jean happens to wander into the same shop, and discovers Nelly there and her relationship with Zabel.
  3. Jean and Nelly. Panama gives Michel’s clothes, passport, and cash to Jean, which give him the new identity he needs to escape on a ship. After arranging passage on a ship headed to Venezuela the next day, Jean meets Nelly at the street fair. This is 65 minutes into the 91-minute film, and the narrative focus now shifts to their relationship, which has been minimal up to this point. Nelly melts before Jean, and they kiss passionately. While enjoying a ride at the fair’s bumper car concession, they encounter Lucien again, and once again, Jean slaps the bully around in a humiliating fashion. Jean and Nelly then continue their romancing and spend the night together in a hotel room. The next morning the lovers part, and Jean boards the ship bound for Venezuela. But after a few minutes, Jean wants to see Nelly one last time and runs back into town to find her. He discovers her with Zabel, who has admitted to murdering Maurice and is now throttling Nelly. Jean brutally bludgeons Zabel to death with a brick, but on his way back to the ship, he is shot to death by Lucien, who had been waiting for him. Jean dies in Nelly’s arms.
The principal attraction of Le Quai des Brumes is the comprehensive atmosphere of existential despair that pervades the entire film. In this connection the criminal action narrative is relatively confused and ultimately unresolved. The driving element in the film is the romantic narrative, which only really picks up after 65 minutes of the film. Prior to that point, although we expect that there will be something between Nelly and Jean, there relationship is hardly more than that of passing acquaintances. One could view the preceding action narrative as merely a setup that provides the noirish background and circumstances to their story.

Consider how the action plot starts off and then peters out. In part 1, we are introduced to a set of characters who all appear to have some significant narrative weight and are given some attention: Lucien, Zabel, Jean, Panama, Half Pint, Michel, and Nelly. There is also the mysterious Maurice. Yet Panama, Half Pint, and Michel quickly fade away into insignificance in Part 2, despite their atmospheric presences in Part 1. Maurice never appears (there were plans to show his severed head contained in a package, but this shot was cut by the censors). We never learn what business Lucien has with Zabel, and Nelly never tells whatever she knows to Jean about these circumstances. So the criminal action plot is more or less a red herring all the way, despite occupying much of the film. Nevertheless, the film is worthwhile to me, because of the hypnotic charm of the romantic tragedy that takes over the story in the last 25 minutes of the film and which is worthy of comparison to von Sternberg’s dream-like cinematic meditations. After the previous doleful proceedings, in which everyone was either glum or passively resigned to a dead-end existence, Nelly erupts with a passionate love for Jean and sweeps the two of them into romantic hopefulness. This dramatic appearance of hope had been cinematically foreshadowed by the depiction of natural innocence in the form of a little mongrel dog first befriending Jean early on and then tagging after him through much of the film.

Jean Gabin had emerged as a leading French star by the late 1930s, but the precise nature of his charisma is not easy to grasp. He is not tall, does not have an athletic physique, and is not particularly handsome. Perhaps as a consequence he has been compared to Humphrey Bogart, although his persona is quite different from Bogart’s. He represents a kind of gritty, working class hero, who is usually not demonstrative, but who holds strong passions inside and out of view. So it is in this film. At times he explodes with anger over his pent-up frustrations. He holds things in reserve, but when goaded into it, he’s a man of action, not words. Early on at Panama’s, he blows up at Michel’s melancholy musings about art and suicide, saying that he hasn’t eaten in two days and was fed up with such self-indulgent talk. Up to that point he had not shown outward signs of hunger, an example of how he typically held his feelings in check. Later when he sees Lucien hassling Nelly on the street, he blows up again and furiously slaps Lucien rudely across the face. In this explosion, he reveals his underlying, passionate nature. He repeats this violence on Lucien at the town fair, and when he finally beats Zabel to death with a brick, it is a shockingly violent scene that exposes the tragic flaw of his character.

Nelly, who is a 17-year-old-girl in the story, is played superbly by Michele Morgan in her first major role. Although to me she looks older than 17, she was actually that same age at the time of the filming. Her convincing looks of rapture are what stay in the mind after the film is finished. The mise-en-scene in Part 3, showing their mounting ardour, carries the audience along with them. This is a brilliant depiction of the sudden rise of hope and exhilaration that changes the world from shadows into sunlight. But at the end, dark fate puts and end to their dreams, the little dog runs a way, and the dreary port of shadows returns.
★★★½

"The Leopard Man" - Val Lewton (directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

Val Lewton produced a string of low-budget “horror” films in the 1940s that have since attracted a large following and become cult classics. Of these under-appreciated films, the most overlooked of them all, even today, is probably The Leopard Man (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur. This was the third and final collaboration between Tourneur and Lewton, after Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and while the first two are widely celebrated, The Leopard Man is often dismissed, incorrectly in my opinion, as a failure. On the contrary, I would rate it perhaps the second best, after I Walked with a Zombie, among the films that Lewton produced. It is a surprisingly complex and fascinating work, but like all of Lewton’s films, it suffers from some minor deficiencies, perhaps due in part to resource constraints. On the surface it is a murder story and a film noir, but as with Lewton’s other works, there is a dark undercurrent that conjures up feelings of primitive, supernatural powers that go beyond our “modern” understanding. In fact, like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and Isle of the Dead, the film suggests an underlying confrontation between a traditional, pre-scientific cultural mode and our own modernist Western culture, which is dominated by positivist and materialistic thinking. In this film, the setting is New Mexico, where the native ethnic Mexican inhabitants sometimes have superstitious fears of dark forces and the mysteries of fatal destinies. This presentation of this confrontation raises the film above the level of an ordinary murder mystery and propels it into the murky regions of our inexpressible fears

The story, based on the novel The Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich, begins at a local nightclub in a New Mexican town. A woman entertainer, Kiki Walker, along with her press agent boyfriend, Jerry Manning, have arrived from out of town and hope to win the favour of the local audience. In an effort to outshine a competing local Mexican performer, the dancer Clo-Clo, Jerry arranges for Kiki to enter the nightclub with a semi-tame black jaguar (the leopard) on a leash while Clo-Clo is performing. But Clo-Clo, upset by the upstaging, intentionally antagonises the leopard, and it breaks from its leash and escapes into the night. In the next few days there are a series of grisly murders presented, all attributed to the leopard. As Jerry observes the ongoing police investigation, though, he begins to suspect that the leopard may not be responsible for all of the deaths. His suspicions are quickly directed towards the local museum curator, the urbane pipe-smoking Dr. Galbraith, who is an expert on natural history and local wildlife. Jerry and Kiki attempt to bait the curator into engaging in another attack, and when they are successful, the murderer is finally captured.

The acting in The Leopard Man is generally satisfactory, but Dennis O’Keefe’s performance as Jerry is unfortunately wooden and unconvincing. Another deficiency is the absence of any real “chemistry” between Jerry and Kiki (played by Jean Brooks) as a romantic duo. This was not the only time that a Lewton-produced film was undermined by an unconvincing male character actor. Curiously, the actresses in Lewton’s films were almost always uniformly good. Also, as a whodunit murder mystery, The Leopard Man is not very puzzling and fails to live up to the usual demands of that genre. Halfway into the piece there is enough evidence available for the audience to suspect Dr. Galbraith, and this failure to keep the audience puzzled concerning who perpetrated the crime has led some people to dismiss the entire film as uninteresting. But we shouldn't really look at the film as a just an ordinary whodunit mystery (although that may have been Woolrich's original intention in the novel), because the filmmakers have pursued some more subterranean currents that make the film an interesting cinematic experience. Of particular interest is the portrayal of the circumstances leading up to the three grisly murders, which take up more than half the film's running time.

In connection with the fates of the three doomed women, there is an early portentous, iconic shot of the garden fountain at the nightclub, which constantly shoots a stream of water into the air and maintains a rubber ball aloft at the top of its stream. Dr. Galbraith remarks later on in the story that all people and animals are similar to that fountain ball – they may appear to be in a stable situation, but they are actually driven by powerful and turbulent forces that are beyond their understanding. Our ignorance concerning the dark forces of our destiny is a major theme of the film. In addition to that recurrent visual icon, there is a relentless audio motif associated with the driving, rhythmic sound of castanets, and this haunting background sound similarly conveys a feeling of hidden forces stirring up the passions. While the sound of the castanets is the specific sonic signature of the vivacious Clo-Clo, the pulsating sounds also evoke the passions underlying flamenco music in general. With these symbols and sounds recurring in the background, the film obsessively tracks the fatal narratives of three different Mexican girls, each of whom has the youthful passion for life to try to overcome her fears of the unknown -- that unknown danger that lies just outside and beyond the comforting light of the community and lurks out there in the darkness. Each of these mini-narratives follows one of the girls and quickly establishes its own social context and circumstances filled with both hopes and apprehensions. Each of the girls in her own way resolves to push back her instinctive feelings of fear of the dark in order to follow her own pursuits. And each girl is ultimately subjected to a violent death, apparently by the leopard, and forthwith her story, along with all of it social context and personages, is abandoned. This is an unusual narrative format for a film, but it goes with the themes of fatal destiny and the terminal fears of darkness and death. We follow the story of each girl, becoming involved in her concerns, until she encounters a fearful situation in the darkness. But unlike most stories, where the protagonist survives the scary test and the story continues, here each of these stories ends in the brutal death of the female protagonist, with whom we have come to sympathise. Each of the endings of these mini-narratives is brilliantly filmed and manages to convey a graphic sense of mounting tension and alarm. Particularly noteworthy is the first sequence, involving the teenage girl Teresa, who must go out at night to purchase some cornmeal for her mother. To carry out this task, she must walk across some dark fields and under a railroad bridge in order to get to the store, and this frightening walk in the darkness is truly a cinematic tour de force and a credit to Trouneur and cinematrographer Robert De Grasse. In fact this early sequence is so extraordinarily gripping that the viewer may doubt that the remainder of the film can possibly live up to it. But the second murder sequence, involving an upperclass girl (played by the beautiful Tuulikki Paananen) who goes out at night to a cemetery for a lovers’ tryst, is also haunting and enthralling, in a different way. These two sequences alone make the film a memorable and worthwhile experience.

The three mini-stories are part of the larger themes of the film. Jerry and Kiki, the modernist characters in the larger narrative, are gradually made aware that their own self-images are merely artificial masks that they have adopted from their own cultural backgrounds. They have always been trying to act cool, cynical, and sophisticated, but they come to realize in this film that they are only fooling themselves. They are perpetually hiding their real emotional feelings and sympathies, not only from others, but also from themselves. This contrast between the modernist culture and the more authentically in-touch-with-their-feelings Mexican people is picked up later on in the film during a nightclub encounter between the Hispanic Clo-Clo and a middle-aged gray-haired "European" (i.e. non-Hispanic) gentleman patron. The gentleman’s adult daughter and her husband, who have accompanied him to the nightclub, are also cut off from genuine feelings and bored with their surroundings. When the man's daughter sees him socialising with the Clo-Clo at a separate table, she expresses disgust and embarrassment with his, to her, unseemly behaviour. Meanwhile the gentleman and Clo-Clo, alone at their own table, engage in a spontaneous and cordially innocent discussion about what interests them. We are led to the feeling that this business of being cut off from one's inner feelings is common to our modernist Western culture, whereas the traditionallyl-oriented Mexican people in the film are more natural and emotionally spontaneous.

This brings us to the consideration of Doctor Galbraith, the curator of the museum. He exhibits the behaviour of an academic, familiar with scientific understanding about the natural world. But inside of him is a boiling cauldron of twisted passion that, we ultimately learn, drives him to commit savage, animal attacks on innocent people. It is as though the conflict between his inner self and his outer persona is so great that it leads to violent, uncontrollable eruptions.

The overall outcome of The Leopard Man, with its individual mini-narratives each dead-ended by the cruel turbulence of dark forces, is ultimately a matter of interpretation. Jerry and Kiki resolve to be more authentic and responsive to their true feelings in the future. Perhaps, in the face of the mysterious and turbulent forces that perpetually surround us, just out of sight and in the darkness, this is our only option. Yes, the film seems to suggest, we should all have the courage to walk straight towards our dreams . . . . but don’t go out alone when darkness falls.
★★★½