In French film noir, nobody personifies bad karma like Lino Ventura. Unfortunately, his characters were not immune from the payback they dispensed. That is true in spades for the vengeance-seeking Ancelin. On the streets of Paris, what comes around goes around, especially after hours in Édouard Molinaro’s Un Témoin dans la Ville (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s retrospective tribute to the storied French film production house Gaumont.
Well-heeled lothario Pierre Verdier had been carrying on an affair with Ancelin’s wife until he tired of her and threw her to her death from a speeding train. He managed to wriggle out of a formal prosecution, but he will not escape Ancelin’s rough justice. The steely long haul trucker stages Verdier’s (involuntary) suicide to the last detail, but he did not know the cad had called for a cab. Unfortunately, that means Lambert the cabbie can place him at the scene. Reluctantly, Ancelin starts stalking the witness, just as Lambert’s courtship of Liliane, a company radio dispatcher starts to bear romantic fruit.
Témoin (or Witness in the Night) is based on a novel by the collaborative partners Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, as were Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique. Frankly, it is hard to figure why this film doesn’t rank alongside the latter, because it is a wickedly lean and mean noir thriller. As Ancelin, Ventura is at the peak of his hardnosed, taciturn powers. He was born to play this sort of role and Molinaro brought out the best in him. However, Franco Fabrizi (later to be seen in Fellini’s I Vitelloni and Ginger and Fred) and Sandra Milo (Fellini’s 8½ and Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques) are also completely engaging as the amorously bantering Lambert and Liliane (no slouches in this cast). The unexpected charm of their earthy chemistry really sneaks up on you and adds an additionally tragic layer to the naturalistic, street-level thriller.
In fact, Témoin offers a fascinating time-capsule snapshot of nocturnal Parisian life, circa 1959. Unlike the rather transient nature of the cab driving work today, Lambert and his colleagues (most definitely including the white coat-wearing ladies working the radios) seem to lead a strangely insular and tribal existence. They work together, drink together, and the lucky ones pair-up together, like Liliane and Lambert. Of course that means when one of their own is threatened, they instinctively respond in kind.
Even by high film noir standards, the black-and-white cinematography of Henri Decaï is a thing of beauty. It is also matched by the vintage “crime jazz” soundtrack, featuring French tenor player Barney Wilen (somewhat familiar to American fans through his work on the Miles Davis soundtrack for Elevator to the Gallows and the Jazz Messengers’ soundtrack for Dangerous Liaisons), along with visiting Americans Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Kenny Clarke and drums, and Duke Jordan and piano. It sounds consciously inspired by the Davis session from the previous year, with Dorham’s trumpet more prominently featured than Wilen’s tenor. It is tasty and very effective underscoring the skullduggery on screen (particularly some of Clarke’s percussion solos), but it is not quite a classic on the level of Gallows.