Thursday, August 08, 2013

Cine-Simenon: A Man’s Neck

Georges Simenon led a colorful life.  There might have been a few women and some fast living.  After the war, he also faced allegations of collaboration, but his defenders always maintained he was too self-absorbed for such matters.  Harry Baur was one of a multitude of actors to play Simenon’s signature detective, whose wartime experience is tragically above suspicion.  Imprisoned and roughly interrogated after ill-advisedly appearing in an early 1940’s German film, Baur either succumbed to injuries sustained or was helped along the way shortly after his release. His biographic details add further tragic context to Julien Duvivier’s A Man’s Neck, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Cine-Simenon retrospective.

Willy Ferrière has a rich aunt, who refuses to die, but a mystery pen-pal offers to help the old dear along for 100,000 francs.  The freelance killer also has a scapegoat lined up to take the fall: the clueless Joseph Heurtin.  Yes, this is the Maigret case Burgess Meredith later adapted as The Man on the Eiffel Tower, but it is simultaneously similar and different in intriguing ways.

As it happens, both films also serve as time capsules of Paris, pre- and post-war.  Not surprisingly though, the earlier French film is darker and somewhat franker than the RKO production.  The stories run along parallel lines, but diverge on key points, such as the complicity of Ferrière’s mistress in Duvivier’s film.  Indeed, there is little innocence per se in this distinctly dark crime drama.

Both Baur and Laughton look like world weary civil servants, but the latter could not help playing the part with panache.  He was Charles Laughton, after all.  In contrast, Baur’s Maigret is a down-trodden bureaucrat often at risk of fading into the background, until roused to outrage by the psychotic Radek.  It is a close call, but in a head-to-head match, Laughton probably takes it by a jowl.

Likewise, Meredith’s Heurtin is a truly unique portrait of a man made vulnerable by his acutely anti-social nature.  Alexandre Rignault’s Heurtin also quite effective, but we have seen such simple-minded hulks before and since.  However, Valéry Inkijinoff’s frenzied and lusty Radek is something else entirely. Franchot Tone exceeds expectations in Eiffel Tower, but the Russian Inkijinoff is truly creepy.

In fact, both are very good films.  Duvivier shows an eye for procedural detail, giving viewers an unromanticized look inside the Paris gendarmerie. While more naturalistic and generally jaundiced in his portrayal of human nature, Duvivier also shoehorns in small, elegantly telling moments, as when Maigret and Radek take time out from their verbal sparring to listen to his Chanson-singing neighbor.

Neck is a lean, mean film noir that packs surprising punch. It is a deeply flawed world, but not one in which moral judgments are impossible.  Recommended by itself or in conjunction with Meredith’s Eiffel Tower (showing separately), A Man’s Neck screens this Saturday (8/10) and next Wednesday (8/14) as part of Cine-Simenon, now underway at Anthology Film Archives.