Carrefour (1938)

Carrefour (1938) is an amnesia noir proto-noir French thriller with a pedigree so crucial to film noir and the noir style, that pages must and will be written about this classic of the noir manner.

Crossroads, as anglophones might intone, being the translated term, much it might be said in the film noir mode, with its emphasis in naming, upon streets, roads, and other similar type of concept.

Actually titled Carrefour in French, this early expression of the film noir trend is a mystery drama film from 1938. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, it features Charles Vanel, Jules Berry, and Suzy Prim in leading roles. This influential film led to two remakes in English: the British Dead Man’s Shoes in 1940 and the American Crossroads in 1942. Filming took place at the Billancourt Studios and around Paris, with Jean d’Eaubonne and Raymond Gabutti as the art directors responsible for the film’s visual design.

Curtis Bernhardt’s journey through the film industry mirrors that of his contemporaries, traversing Germany, France, and America. Unlike Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak, Bernhardt never returned to Germany to film. 

His work during the French period includes the amnesia thriller “Carrefour (Crossroads),” which delves into the intriguing concept of identity loss — a phenomenon not typically found in real life to the extent depicted in films. But yet a concept suited to the demising forces of modernity which were about to be annihilated by a second world war, which almost proved that the world had forgotten istelf, and in a short period too.

The plot revolves around the industrialist Charles Vanel, who faces accusations of being a small-time gangster due to a case of mistaken identity following amnesia suffered in WWI. The film’s suspense builds as a man, played by Jules Berry, testifies in court, potentially lying to protect Vanel’s assumed identity.

Bernhardt’s Carrefour is rich in noir elements, suggesting that French cinema may have had a more direct influence on American noir than German expressionism. The film features a night club with patterned shadows and a torch singer, adding to the atmospheric tension. The narrative also incorporates a femme fatale character, Suzy Prim, who brings a sense of doomed romance characteristic of French dramas of the time.

Carrefour, which inspired the American film noir CROSSROADS (1942), is a gripping tale of identity and deception. What siren claims of criminal and military madness, it seems to be a tale that needed to be told several times between 1938 and 1942. You have forgotten in your violence, you have forgotten.

The story is quite French at the same time, echoing even Les Miserables, in its grabbing at identity. The claim is that de Vetheuil is actually a criminal named Jean Pelletier who assumed a new identity during the Battle of the Somme. As the narrative unfolds, de Vetheuil’s past is called into question, and he faces a legal battle to prove his true identity.

Despite winning the case with the help of a dubious testimony from Lucien Sarroux, portrayed by Jules Berry, de Vetheuil’s conscience is plagued by the possibility that he may indeed be Pelletier. His visit to Madame Pelletier and his former lover Michèle Allain, a nightclub owner played by Suzy Prim, only deepens his suspicions about his true identity.

The emotional turmoil reaches a climax when de Vetheuil’s son, Paul, attempts suicide due to the shame brought upon by the scandal. This act of desperation forces de Vetheuil to confront his past and make a decision that will affect the future of his family.

Carrefour is a complex exploration of a man’s struggle with his past and the lengths he will go to protect his loved ones. It is a story that delves into the themes of memory, identity, and the consequences of our actions, all set against the backdrop of a society grappling with the aftermath of war. The film’s dramatic tension and moral quandaries make it a compelling piece of cinema that resonates with the uncertainty and moral ambiguity of the times.

The film’s visual motifs and references to mythology, such as the Ulysses myth through a tree motif in Vanel’s apartment, add layers of meaning. The story draws parallels with the real-life case of film producer Bernard Natan, whose identity was questioned by the press, linking his past to pornographic films and fraud, thus challenging his French identity.

The era of Poetic Realism in French cinema, preceding World War II, was marked by a pervasive sense of foreboding as France braced for conflict and the fall of the Third Republic. Films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes encapsulated this existential gloom with their urban settings, dim lighting, and stark sets. Jean Gabin emerged as the quintessential tragic hero of this genre, embodying the everyman in the face of adversity.

The Nazi occupation brought profound changes to the French film industry, particularly in Vichy France. The Vichy regime exerted strict control, purging Jewish and communist workers, censoring content, and commandeering resources. Jewish contributions were erased, both literally and symbolically, as the regime demanded proof of Aryan status for employment in the industry.

In response, many industry professionals fled to the Free Zone or abroad, while others resisted by aiding Jewish colleagues or sabotaging Nazi efforts. The public also resisted, showing disdain for propaganda and supporting clandestine efforts like the Comité de libération du cinéma français, which worked against the occupation through various forms of subversion.

Post-occupation, the French film industry saw significant restructuring, leading to lasting changes such as the formation of the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée. The period also gave rise to the “tradition de qualité,” characterized by a rigid, technically correct style that would later be critiqued and dismantled by the New Wave movement.

Financially, the industry struggled post-liberation, grappling with material shortages and competition from Hollywood. The Blum-Byrnes Agreement further complicated recovery by imposing quotas on American films. Additionally, the Comité d’épuration du cinéma sought to hold collaborators accountable, leading to the punishment of figures like Arletty and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

In the aftermath, French cinema began to reflect on the war, initially portraying France as a nation of resisters and de Gaulle as a hero. Over time, this narrative evolved, with films like Le Chagrin et la pitié challenging the collective memory of the war and offering a more nuanced view of France’s role, including its treatment of soldiers from colonized regions.

Documentaries and fiction films continued to explore the complexities of wartime France, contributing to a deeper understanding of this multifaceted historical period. Films like L’armée des ombres and Au revoir les enfants painted a more sophisticated picture, examining the Holocaust, the Resistance, and the impact of these events on French society and cultural memory.

Carrefour is without doubt an expression of film noir's ability to blend German cinematic starkness with the romantic flair of commercial cinema, creating a unique noir style. Film noir constantly explores themes of identity, memory, and the complex nature of truth, all while maintaining a high level of suspense and style. 

Bernhardt’s work during this period showcases his directorial prowess and sets the stage for his later successes in Hollywood, directing stars like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. The film’s exploration of identity and memory resonates with audiences, as these themes remain universally compelling and relevant. 

Carrefour (1938)

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt

Written by André-Paul Antoine / Curtis Bernhardt / Lilo Dammert / John H. Kafka / Robert Liebmann

Produced byEugène Tucherer

Starring:  Charles Vanel /Jules Berry / Suzy Prim

Cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel / Georges Régnier / Henri Tiquet 

Edited by Adolf Lantz

Music by Paul Dessau

Production company: B.U.P. Française

Distributed by Les Films de Koster

Release date: 9 September 1938

Running time 84 minutes

Country France

Language French

No comments:

Post a Comment