Saturday 20 December 2008

Reunion in France (1942)

This one looked so odd that I couldn't resist it: a Jules Dassin movie, made Stateside but set in France, starring Joan Crawford and with John Wayne in a supporting role. Here's why it sounds so ridiculous. Dassin was a major directorial name in the States with films like Night and the City, Brute Force and The Naked City, but he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House on Un-American Activities about his past involvement with the Communists so he moved to France. There he made the films that made him famous, not least Rififi, the granddaddy of all heist movies. This one is a patriotic film, made in the country that kicked him out but set in the country that took him in.

Crawford makes sense as a lead actress in a Hollywood film but she's playing a spoiled and selfish brat of a woman. Given that Crawford could very easily be described as a spoiled and selfish brat of a woman, she would appear to be playing herself and it's impossible to see the character without seeing the actress. Wayne was almost never a supporting actor, so much so that he holds the record for the most leading roles in films at 142. There are apparently only 11 films that have him as a supporting actor and this may well be my first. So this becomes a telling film for Dassin and Crawford and a rare one for Wayne.

We're in Paris in 1940. It's the ninth of May and the war is 'too uneventful to be taken seriously and too far away to worry about'. The speech being broadcast on the radio tells the people that the Germans are stuck helpless behind the Maginot line and France is as safe as could be. So Michelle de la Becque ignores the war utterly with a haughty shake of her head and takes the train to Biarritz. Her fiance, Robert Cortot, is on the committee for the industrial defence of the nation, so remains behind in Paris.

Of course this was all complete nonsense. The Germans ignore the Maginot Line as surely as Michelle ignored the Germans. They attack Biarritz just like everywhere else and Michelle gets a well deserved wake up call, as the bullets dance around her and prams roll away from dead mothers. Dassin must have been watching Battleship Potemkin. When Michelle gets back to Paris, it's a completely different place, with swastikas draped down the train station she left from and Germans running parts of the war from her confiscated house. Worst of all, her fiance is doing part of that himself and on her first day back he introduces her to people like Ulrich Windler, head of the Gestapo in Paris.

This is not a great film but it's fascinating to watch Crawford. The question is of course is what Crawford would do in the same situations her character finds herself in. I've never been a huge Crawford fan, partly because I first heard about her along with all the Bette Davis rivalry, and it's quite plain that Davis was a far better actress. However she's opened my eyes a few times and she did so here too. Michelle de la Becque populates this film with so many left handed compliments it's unreal, often to the most inappropriate people in the most inappropriate circumstances, and it's not difficult to believe that Crawford herself would have said the same things. There's no doubt that she had balls.

Wayne is more than a little out of place but he has fun with the role. Naturally it's hardly surprising to see him in a patriotic film but it's hardly a John Wayne film. Dassin throws in some interesting shots and setups here and there but it's hardly an essential Dassin film either. It's really a Crawford film, with solid performances from Philip Dorn as Robert Cortot and John Carradine, who plays the head of the Gestapo with relish. I also particularly liked the black American band singing in English about how bad Hitler is because the German tourists avidly listening don't speak English.

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