A BIRTHDAY TODAY, AN HOMMAGE IN NOVEMBER
THE Internet is all-too-often a cruel place; I see birthday wishes for aging actresses that matter-of-factly (and coldly) list their ages as part of their info without so much as a second thought. Of course, there are far greater cruelties than this that happen on the Internet (and elsewhere) every single day, but respect for the aged remains a long-time problem for western societies; so, as we celebrate the birthday of the ageless and criminally undervalued actress Mylene Demongeot—one of the truly sensational rediscoveries in the early years of our THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT festivals…I’ll simply suggest that if you’re curious to know her age, feel free to look it up for yourself!
The shadow of Brigitte Bardot cast itself upon many young actresses who arrived on the scene in France in the second half of the 1950s, and Demongeot was one of them. Sadly, she had barely registered in America despite three superb performances in films that we can definitely classify as “French film noir.” We will reprise two of them on Monday, November 7th as part of our FRENCH ‘22 series (15 films in all): KISS FOR A KILLER aka UNE MANCHE ET LA BELLE (1957, directed by Henri Verneuil) and THAT NIGHT… aka CETTE NUIT-LA (1958, directed by Maurice Cazeneuve).
They were sensations when we showed them in 2014 and 2015, and they are just as noteworthy now; we hope this “heads-up”—and the fact that we have 13 other great films playing at the Roxie Theater on November 6, 7, 12, and 13th—will prompt you to strongly consider giving us your full support by purchasing a festival pass (on sale now; see the link at the bottom of this post). French film noir remains a lost continent, and our ninth series excavating it covers some fascinating ground.
Demongeot is electrifying in A KISS FOR A KILLER—a film that French screenwriters François Boyer and Annette Wademant gave a sinister Gallic flair when they adapted it from a somewhat derivative source novel by James Hadley Chase (who, oddly but gloriously, became a catalyst for what we like to call the “last wave” of French film noir, operating in the shadow of the nouvelle vague whose lingering aura still keeps it criminally under wraps). Demongeot’s dangerously sexy secretary Eve Dollan is a devious criminal mastermind, and as the action proceeds, we are discovering in real time—along with her duped partner (played by the star-crossed Henri Vidal)—just how perilous it is to fall for a jeune fille with a body to die for.
There is not a trace of infantile, bubble-headed Bardot booty to be found here, only lust, greed and treachery. Director Henri Verneuil is by no means averse to eye candy (witness Françoise Arnoul in THE LOVERS OF LISBON…), but he keeps his eye on the prize here: the tangled, twisted murder plot borrowed from another James—James M. Cain—but redistributed in ways (and with added twists of the knife) that take it beyond anything concocted in “merely” American noir. As Vidal is duped into a scheme to murder his wealthy but borderline menopausal wife (Isa Miranda, a legendary Italian beauty of the 1930s), the plot proceeds spasmodically, with tripled tension—and the ever-penetrating eyes of Mylene Demongeot, quite possibly the sexiest and most ruthless criminal mastermind ever.
THAT NIGHT… has a different set-up, and a totally different character for Demongeot to play. She’s Sylvie Mallet, an uber-glamorous fashion model who finds herself in a deadly tug-of-war between her husband Jean (Maurice Ronet) and his boss André Reverdy (Jean Servais), a venal publishing magnate who’s developed a deadly obsession with Sylvie and is willing to destroy Jean in order to possess her.
The tension in THAT NIGHT… starts out at neck-wringing level and just keeps ratcheting up, as Servais once again demonstrates his masterful gift for psychological sadism. The cumulative effect is triggered by Reverdy’s trickery that makes Jean believe that Sylvie has submitted to a sexual liaison. It pushes Jean toward what had previously been unthinkable—committing murder.
And that’s where THAT NIGHT… creates its matchless plot twist, one that changes the direction of the film and provides an opportunity for Demongeot to show a different side of her character—indeed, of virtually all female characters in classic-period film noir (French or otherwise).
These two films were originally screened separately (KILLER in FRENCH #1, from 2014; THAT NIGHT… in FRENCH #2, from 2015) and made quite an impact on audiences at that time; however, having recently re-watched them back-to-back, I’m of the opinion that they will gain even more resonance and power from being paired together. They demonstrate the still-vibrant power of French film noir on the eve of the nouvelle vague, and provide us with a superb double dose of Mylene Demongeot at her loveliest and most versatile.
And though it is sacrilege to say so in a world that overweeningly worships ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS for its connection with “cool jazz” and the “coming out” of Jeanne Moreau (something, in fact, that had already occurred in Luis Saslavsky’s THE SHE-WOLVES and Edouard Molinaro’s BACK TO THE WALL), it is possible to prefer Maurice Ronet’s increasingly agitated performance here in THAT NIGHT… to his considerably more pallid portrayal in Louis Malle’s frustratingly iconic film.
(For those who find these to resemble “fighting words,” I invite you to keep an open mind and support our ever-valiant efforts to expand the history of French cinema—examine our 15-film schedule, and take a leap of faith into a “lost continent” that just might be a truly eye-opening experience. THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT has re-introduced more than a hundred forgotten French noirs to American audiences since 2014: why not take a calculated risk, buy a pass, and give yourself over to something completely different?)
I hope some of you will take the “French noir challenge.” Read my previous Substack entry for an overview of the 15-film FRENCH ‘22 series, and reserve your seat now for a most unusual November inside a movie theater that you’ll ever have.
Oh, yes—bon anniversaire to the ageless, exceptional, criminally underrated Mylene Demongeot! (I hope to show her other sensational performance, as Abigail Williams in the 1957 French production of Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE aka LES SORCIERES DU SALEM, also starring two individuals you’re probably familiar with: Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. With any luck, next year.)