Friday, August 15, 2008

Joy House: Noir and Swinging

Joy House (Les Felins)
Directed by René Clément
Koch Lorber

René Clément’s career had its ups-and-downs, but his collaborations with Alain Delon were high points. Their first, Purple Noon, established Delon as an international star. The second, Joy House (original trailer here), is a sophisticated film noir that ought to have been included in either the MoMA’s Jazz Score series or the Film Forum’s French Crime Wave retrospective. Happily though, it is now available on DVD.

Delon plays Marc, an amoral gigolo, which is a promising start to any film. Dumb enough to romance the wife of an American mobster, he quickly finds he is not safe, even on the Riviera. Needing a hiding place, he takes work as the chauffeur of Barbara Hill, a reclusive American widow living alone with her niece Melinda, or so they tell Marc. He quickly suspects there is another player somehow involved in the Hill household—someone who probably played a role in Barbara’s bereavement. After all, it is impossible for Marc to believe the beautiful widow, played by Lola Albright, is not enjoying the attentions of a man. He would certainly volunteer for the position, but it is the niece (a pre-Barbarella sex-kittenish Jane Fonda) who repeatedly throws herself at him, leading to something more complicated than a love triangle (a rhombus maybe).

Delon’s adventurer might not be particularly likeable, but he is not an idiot, immediately recognizing all is not right with his employers. Lola Albright, of Peter Gunn fame, brings a surprising vulnerability to her black widow role. As Melinda, Fonda is reasonably credible, conveying the danger lurking beneath her coy surface. What really makes the film enjoyable though, is some of the hardboiled dialogue. At one point the European contact for the American gangsters tells them he is Corsican. “Well, that’s not your fault,” one replies.

Titled Les Felins in the French version, there is a pronounced feline theme, with the women literally showing claws at times. Clément creates a sense of desire turning claustrophobic, heightened by Jean André’s production design, which really makes Barabara’s castle-like villa another character in the drama.

Adding a sultry flavor is Lalo Schifrin’s groovy little crime jazz score. Recorded with members of the Paris Opera Orchestra as well as trumpeter Roger Guérin, who also played on Martial Solal’s soundtrack for Breathless, and bassist Pierre Michelot, who played on Miles Davis’s Elevator to the Scaffold soundtrack and was a member of the house band seen in Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, Schifrin’s soundtrack was only just issued in full four years ago. However, his main theme, “The Cat” took on a life of its own, with Jimmy Smith, Claude Nougaro, Peggy Lee, and Schifrin himself recording cover versions of it at the time.

The new DVD version includes both the English and French language versions, and they are not precisely the same, with the French being a bit longer, giving a bit more context, as when Marc and Barbara spar during their initial interview. In either version, House is a clever crime story with a cool swinging sixties vibe. Having taught it in a jazz and film class as an example of Schifrin’s film work, I am happy to see it readily available again.