That Old Feeling: Fear Noir

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The movies plot hews closely to the books. There the heroine was Julie Killeen (the killer colleen); here, Julie Kohler (pronounced colre, the French word for anger). As Julie, Jeanne Moreau shows no emotion as she executes these men (with a push, a poison, suffocation, an arrow, a knife). The love that spurs her on is not so much post-coital as post-mortem. Im already dead, she says. I died the day he did. When Im done Ill join him.

It gives pungent quirks to each of Julies victims: the wolf (Claude Rich) who has recorded the sound of his girlfriend crossing her silk-stockinged legs; the lonely loser (Michel Bouquet) who says he wont touch Julie, but wants to be asked; the pompous politician (Michel Lonsdale) who suggests they have sex so that You can say, For one hour he forgot about France and gave himself to me; the skirt-chasing artist (Charles Denner) who is almost too charming to kill. But not quite. (Woolrich minutiae: Lonsdales son is called Cookie — the same name Ricki Lake gives her son in Mrs. Winterbourne.)

The film version has a softer, woozily sentimental view of the bridal couple; it shows them running through a meadow in ecstatic slow motion — really. And it dispenses with the novels resolution. Woolrichs killer was the best friend of two of the men; in the film (where hes played by Jean-Claude Brialy) his function is merely to cast a net of suspicion on the bride. [SPOILER] In the film, the killer is one of the group of five (brutish Daniel Boulanger), who is put in jail before Julie can kill him. Julie materializes at the artists funeral, is arrested and jailed. In prison, she is assigned kitchen duty, and commits her ultimate murder just out of camera range in the final shot.

The director, best known for The Four Hundred Blows and Jules and Jim (warm Truffaut), also loved psychological thrillers (cool Truffaut). This one is cool — freon cold. Truffaut did a book-length interview with Hitchcock, and Bride is supposed to be his homage to the Master of Suspense. But Julie, in her uninflected implacability, belongs less to Hitchcock than to Robert Bresson, the great French minimalist. His heroines — Joan of Arc, Mouchette, the suicidal young wife in Une femme douce — all bear the cross of living. All seek the transcendence of death.

Mississippi Mermaid, 1969
Screenplay and direction by Truffaut, from the 1947 novel Waltz into Darkness by William Irish (CW)

Jean Renoir said every author writes the same story over and over. Woolrich surely did. Hed latch onto a plot, then refine it, try correcting its flaws, in a later novel. In Bride he created a vengeance machine, a killer of all killers; in the 1948 Rendezvous in Black his bitter protagonist decides to kill, not the five men responsible for his girlfriends death, but the person each of the presumed guilty men loves most, so that they will live out their lives in grief, as he has. (In 1972 Italian director Umberto Lenzi filmed the novel — without this poetic twist, or much else in its favor — as Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso / Seven Blood-Stained Roses.)

Another example: Waltz into Darkness. Like I Married a Dead Man, it has a wife who appears out of nowhere, lies about her identity, wins the love of a decent man, and withdraws thousands from a new bank account to pay off a slime-ball who was once her lover. The difference is that Julia, in Waltz, is a killer bitch with a larcenous agenda and an ex-beau even creepier than Helens Steve. [SPOILER] This guy, Billy, has killed the real Julie, who was a mail-order bride on her way to rich, nice-guy Louis. His pretty accomplice takes Julias place, marries Louis, steals his money and runs away with Billy. When Louis catches up with her and they become a couple again, she [SUPER-SPOILER] makes a murderer of him, then poisons him.

Truffauts Julie (Catherine Deneuve) has the same curt amorality. When she learns that Louis (Jean-Paul Belmondo) has killed a detective whos been trailing them, she glances at the corpse and says, Thats one bastard less. When Louis observes that You see evil everywhere, she replies, It is everywhere. Yet Truffaut wants Julie to be an alluring creature, so that Louis love for her is elevated from masochistic wimpery to amour fou. Or at least amour noir. I know what youre doing, the ailing Louis tell her toward the end, and I dont care. Im not sorry I met you. Im not sorry I killed for you. Im not sorry that I love you. In the book and the movie, the woman realizes she loves Louis as he is dying from her poison. In the book, he dies; in the film the couple trudges off in the snow.

Mermaid is dedicated to Renoir, but actually this is Truffauts Hitchcock film. Like Vertigo, its story of a man in love with two women who are the same woman, and one of whom is dead — and who finally decides that he can love the second woman even though she impersonated the first woman and was responsible for her death. (Hope thats clear.) But Woolrichs novel came first.

Even on the page, the siren-sucker relationship is a lot livelier than in Truffauts frozen Mermaid. Which, by the way, never gets to Mississippi, or even to North America. The first setting is Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean; then Louis follows Julie to Marseille, and they finish in the snow of Switzerland. The movies emotional trajectory is also from hot to cold, earth tones to glacial whites. For a man obsessed, Belmondo plays it low-voltage; Deneuve is only the most gorgeous paperweight. The film has no heat, only humidity, and that in the early going. By the end, Truffaut has packed his movie in Alpine ice.

Another 32 years would pass before Waltz into Darkness found its true screen version. And for that, you must read this to the end.

Kati Patang, 1970
Story and screenplay by Gulshan Nanda, dialogue by Vrajendra Gaur, from I Married a Dead Man
Directed by Shakti Samanta

Leave it to the Indians to take the congested saga of I Married a Dead Man — distressed young woman, fatal train wreck, her deception of a loving adoptive family, extortion by the old beau — and pack it with three times the plot, plus songs. Since the movie is both fabulous and obscure, Ill spell out what happens. This may take a while.

Its the wedding day of our orphan heroine Madhavi (Asha Parekh), known as Madhu; she is to marry a man shes not seen. Receiving a plaintive note from her low-life lover Kailash (Prem Chopra), she flees the ceremony (I threw all social norms to the wind... burning my boats) and rushes to his arms. They happen to be wrapped around his real amour, tarty singer Shabu (Bindu). Flummoxed and furious, she flees back to her rich uncle to beg forgiveness, only to notice that hes dead, probably of heartbreak. She flees yet again, to the train station. There she meets old friend Poonam, whose husband died in a jeep accident and who is about to suffer a similar automotive auto-da-fe. In a hospital after the train wreck, the dying Poonam begs Madhu to assume her identity and give her son Munni the home he was destined for.

In the films first 16 mins., Madhu has called off one marriage, found the chance for another crushed in disillusion, and held two dead loved ones in her arms. The pace never slackens. The driver who is to take Madhu and the child to their new home steers her into a monsoon and steals her money. Enter Kamal (Rajesh Khanna), driving by; he overtakes the brigand, engages in a hilariously speeded-up river- and mud-fight, and takes Madhu to his place to dry off. Turns out Kamal was the dead husbands best friend, and that this noble fellow is a heavy toper. Hes been drowning his sorrows since his wedding day, when the bride... whom he had never seen... never showed up. That heartless creature — is it Madhu?

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