RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his ninth column, Kim unearths a forgotten Truffaut film based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich.
This is a less well-known François Truffaut picture than The Bride Wore Black, which is also a Hitchcockian adaptation of a novel by the American pulp genius Cornell Woolrich — though the blonde, slightly blank Catherine Deneuve is a more authentic, creepy-gorgeous femme fatale than the darker, glummer Jeanne Moreau in the earlier movie.
One of the key writers of the noir mystery school, Woolrich (who tends to be published in Europe under the name William Irish) isn’t as remembered as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but wrote a library of novels and stories which have served for dozens of terrific movies — including The Leopard Man, Phantom Lady, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Rear Window. His stories Nightmare, The Window and I Married a Dead Man coined plots which have been recycled over and over with or without credit (I Married a Dead Man was that Ricki Lake vehicle Mrs. Winterbourne), and the recent Disturbia is a blatant lift from Rear Window.
Woolrich’s Waltz into Darkness (remade as the disastrous Angelina Jolie-Antonio Banderas movie Original Sin) is a classic of obsessive noir fiction in which a sucker repeatedly lets himself be rooked by a manipulative and murderous woman. It has an uncharacteristic 19th Century setting which tends to get it mislabelled as bodice-ripping period romance rather than soul-searing relationship horror story. The reason for the book’s frilly shirts and fancy manners is that the narrative hook (a man who marries a woman he’s corresponded with but never met) makes more sense that way.
Truffaut opts for a contemporary setting, but almost pulls off the trick of casting Jean-Paul Belmondo as the sort of naive loser who’d have to write off to France for a wife. Louis Mahé (Belmondo) is the co-owner of a cigarette factory on a remote Reunion Island, and acts as if he owns the whole place. When ‘Julie’ (Deneuve) turns up at the docks and greets him as her fiancé, she sells him a story about sending him another woman’s photo during their lengthy long-distance courtship and they are married.
The long first act drops clues — references she doesn’t pick up, a dead canary, some bank arrangements, an argument with a barely-glimpsed rough — but Deneuve’s habitual reserve as an actress really tells us Louis is due for a nasty shock. When the penny drops, Louis finds his wife has cleared out his business and personal bank accounts and vanished, then Julie’s stern sister Blanche (Nelly Borgeaud) turns up on Reunion determined to find out what happened to the real woman. Louis and Blanche hire a competent private eye (Yves Drouhet) to comb the world for the culprit, but Louis cracks up without the woman who robbed him.
In a typical bit of the-hell-with-it-let’s-get-on-with-the-story plotting, Louis glimpses ‘Julie’ — who is really Marion Vergano, a mercenary orphan adventuress — in a TV report about a seedy dance club, and looks her up. The money and the partner/pimp are gone, and Marion spins several more stories which Louis swallows but we might be suspicious of. The upshot is that Louis is convinced that his wife really has fallen in love with him and takes her back, which prompts him to sell his half of the factory and go on the run with her, even murdering the detective when he catches up, wilfully ignoring Marion’s evident ruthlessness and obsession with financial security above all else.
Holed up in a frozen cabin near the Swiss border, with their cash stash impounded by the cops, Louis falls sick and realises — from a Disney Snow White newspaper strip which is excised for copyright reasons in some versions of the film — that Marion is slowly poisoning him. He goes along with it, drinking her deadly soup, until she sees he knows what she’s doing and, really together at last, they limp off in the snow presumably to die before they make it across the border.
In homage to his Master, Truffaut works in elements of Vertigo (the duality of the anti-heroine and the hero who wants to control her, Deneuve’s swirly snailshell hairstyle), Psycho (the competent detective who gets suddenly killed) and Notorious (the semi-willing poisoning victim). For all his supposed misogyny, Hitchcock never presented a fatal woman quite as fatal as this, even if Truffaut — considered a much more humanist filmmaker than Hitch — doesn’t go quite as far as Woolrich in depicting Julie/Marion as the kind of killer shrew Kathleen Turner plays in Body Heat.
Made in widescreen, with a preponderance of long- and medium-shots, it’s a deliberately cool, distanced film about amour fou. Belmondo is restrained in an uncharacteristic role as mild-mannered victim, as if his screen image were being paid back for all the sexy heels he had played in earlier films — like Cagney, he’s an actor who always seems to have been dangling an insolent cigarette while slugging some adoring girl in the face. Deneuve, cold-eyed and beautiful, is always well cast as dead-inside madwomen, seductresses or vampires and has one of her great roles as the mercurial monster con-woman who feels nothing at all until the very end — when the complete submission of her victim finally touches her frozen heart.