Deadlier Than the Male


Director: Jules Duvivier
Year: 1956
Rating: 7.5
Country: France

Aka - Voici le temps des assassins

Now is the killer's hour
The hour of poison and rope
When there is no mercy
For the life of our fellow man

So begin the lyrics to the song La complainte des assassins sung by Germaine Montero as the opening credits roll by thus setting up the dark cynicism and human frailty that is to follow. A heavy fatalism hangs over the film like a constant drizzle soaking everyone with despair. This is French Noir starring the great Jean Gabin whose face at this point in his career looks like a waiting room for noir and tragedy. This is directed by Julien Duvivier who began directing films in the silent era until the early 1960's - he builds this up slowly - a tile at a time - though he tips us off long before the two male protagonists catch on. For us it is like watching a snake taking its time in swallowing its prey. A sociopath at work is a fascinating thing to witness. Especially such a pretty one.

Andre (Gabin) runs a popular bistro in Paris where he knows all of his customers by name - their children too - and watching the restaurant run for the first fifteen minutes is like divine choreography as supplies are purchased, orders taken, cooked to perfection and served - all orderly and executed with precision and charm. Andre is like a friendly bear - good to his staff and loyal to his friends - in particular a young man Gerard (Gérard Blain) who he has known for much of his life and treats like a son. A good life for a good man. Food is his only passion.

Into this good life sneaks an asp in the form of a young lovely girl of 20 with a face that would make a cat purr - and a tentative smile that pierces your masculine heart. Vulnerability leaks out of her like the Titanic and every man in her path is road kill - they just don't know it. Women on the other hand who are unencumbered by sexual desire see right through her, but are also portrayed as manipulative and controlling. Catherine is played by Danièle Delorme with a fine line between being sympathetic and insane. Even once we begin to realize who she is we still can't quite believe it. She is so sweet.

She tells Andre that she is the daughter of his ex-wife who just died and that she has no money and no place to go. What is a man to do? Old men should live by the rule that when a young pretty girl looks at you with yearning eyes, it isn't you she is yearning for. But we never learn. She insinuates herself between Andre and Gerard trying to break up their friendship with lies and kisses and her machinations and manipulation is a well-oiled machine that can't end well for someone.

This is very nicely shot - the street and market scenes are so well done - the pacing is so slow compared to how films are made now but it creates a tension that perks along and though the plot is to some degree predictable, it doesn't go exactly where we might think. Duvivier is it seems a director of divided opinion - French critics have often judged him harshly - especially many of the French New Wave directors - others have a much higher opinion and as his films have found their way to DVD and festivals his reputation has grown. I quite liked this (7.5) but need to see more of his films before I can come to an opinion of my own. The fact that Gabin worked with him often is a plus for me though.

Written up October, 2019