Wednesday, August 22, 2012

La Maison du maltais

1938, France, directed by Pierre Chenal (aka Sirocco)

Made the year after L'Alibi, this feels at times like the work of a completely different director: the opening section, set in an unnamed North African town, recalls Jacques Feyder's Le Grand jeu, not just because of the exotic location but for the wonderfully mobile camerawork, exploring the crowded streets of the casbah and the teeming life of brothels and nightclubs with equal zest. That vigorous movement is reflective of the state of mind of Marcel Dalio's lead character, a man bewitched by the sight of a beautiful woman and determined to do anything for her.

Later, when the plot transfers to Paris -- like so many of the colonial adventures of the 1930s -- the camera is a quieter presence, and Dalio, too, is tamped down by his bitter experiences, though Chenal can't fully hide his delight in exploring the new spaces offered to him by the change in setting -- a park, a thieves' lair, a lavish entryway. It's unusual to see Dalio squarely in the lead role, and his character is more unusual still: an exoticized but fundamentally sympathetic, hard-working Muslim character, hardly a regular occurrence at the time.

His support is top-notch, too: Raymond Aimos, one of the truly great character actors of the 1930s, is wonderful as Dalio's protective pal, while Viviane Romance, like Aimos a veteran of Duvivier's La Belle équipe, is entirely convincing as both prostitute and society dame, and the sequence where she revisits her past, in an attempt to purge it once and for all, is a terrific bit of acting, the actress perfectly moving between her different personae. Oh, and then there's a fellow by the name of Jouvet -- who excels in these smaller roles as oily lawyer/detective/factotum -- he's delicious here, turning on his clients as he spots the potential for much bigger paydays, though for once his part doesn't dazzle so much that it overshadows the remainder of the film.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States