Sunday, 26 July 2009

Le Dernier Tournant: Postman's First Ring

Le Dernier Tournant (Aka: The Last Turning) is the first adoption of James M. Cain’s novel, “The postman always rings twice.” It is made in 1939. Other versions are Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione and two American film with the same title as book, one -- probably the best -- in 1946 (with Lana Turner and John Garfield), and the latest -- and the weakest of all -- in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lang.

This French adoption has been forgotten since its director doesn’t belong to the league of giant French cineastes of the glorious 1930s and 1940s, and unfortunately it hasn’t been released on DVD yet. According to Georges Sadoul the film was banned in the U. S. by Hayes office and it closed the doors for further appreciations, so it could be another reason for obscurity of this version.

Although this is a very important film for noir scholars, because the French poetic realist cinema always has been recognized as a great source for latter American noirs, as long as theme and style were concerned. Now we see a French film that unites the very elements of a national cinema with the literary sources that later caused a big tide in Hollywood crime films.

But who is Pierre Chenal? Well, as long as I know his birth name is Pierre Cohen. He was born in 5 December 1904 in Bruxelles, and died in 23 December 1990 in Paris. First he started to make short films and then became a feature director from 1933, the era known as French poetic realist cinema. He has made one of the first adaptations of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The crime and punishment in 1935 and also a remake of Luigi Pirandello’s Feu Mathias Pascal in 1937. Lots of his films deal with the issue of crime and responsibility, in the context of intellectual despair of the post first world war France. He was Jewish, so he left the occupied France in 1942 and moved to Argentina, where he directed three films. After the war he came back and continued to making films till the 1970s.His most famous works belong to pre-war era, films like L'Alibi (1937, with Louis Jouvet and Erich von Stroheim) and Le Dernier Tournant.

Le Dernier Tournant is a sincere adoption of Cain novel, so the story is quite familiar for everybody and changes are few:

Frank, a vagabond, arrives at a service station on a mountain road near to Marseilles. The owner, Nick, offers him a job which he accepts. Frank is instantly attracted to Nick’s young wife, Cora, and they have a passionate affair. The two lovers plan to kill Nick so that they can profit from his life insurance. Having made Nick’s death look like an accident, they are acquitted of his murder.

Without enough concrete evidence to convict Frank and Cora, a suspicious police inspector tries to pit the two against each other, and tricks Frank into signing an official complaint against Cora, alleging that she tried to kill both him and Nick. Inspector strategy nearly succeeds when Cora incriminates herself and agrees to sign a full confession. She is later released on probation. Several weeks pass, and Cora and Frank still do not trust each other. Of course, Frank meets Madge, a beautiful blonde, and falls in love with her and Cora finds about them. But finally Cora trusts Frank and one day, when they’re driving home in peace, Frank loses control of the car and Cora gets killed. Now Frank is accused and convicted of Cora's murder; a simple twist of fate.

In Le Dernier Tournant the most impressing part appears when the picture read as a poetic realist reflection of American noir fiction, completely in opposite way of what has been happened so far by reading the American crime films via French poetic realist directors like Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier.

The picture tends to substitute the “man/femme fatale” characters with “doomed lovers” -- a favorite poetic realist theme evident in many films of the period -- after the first kiss we see lovers in a typical pastoral view of life in country, sleeping by the river and the big sky above them. Chenal constantly focuses on their connection to the environment that surrounds them, and like those master works of Carne this is a cold, dead and cruel world. Love is an excuse for escaping from this ambiance, but it ends in the frightening coldness of tragic death. And from the existential point that director has choose, the sexuality is less in focus than other three versions of Postman.

By observing the effects of environment on two major characters we’ll be able to see some of the early sketches of life in bore and gloom in the suburbs that later became the center of attention for directors like Antonioni in Il Grido.

Unlike most film noirs the husband is very quite sympathic, because after all he is Michel Simon the heart of the all poetic realist films. The scene which Frank is trying to kill Simon is unforgettable. Simon shouts loudly to the valley and the echo of his voice came back after a few seconds. After his last shout, Frank knocks him in the head; he is dead and his body falls down; suddenly the echo of his voice comes back like he is still alive and calling Frank and Cora.

One of the key methods used by Chenal could be found in his two some framings when he studies one person carefully, and leaves the other unfocused. By this technique we are able to read the influence of characters and place in these powerful medium shots.

It’s interesting how Pierre Chenal and his marvelous writer Charles Spaak have changed the American themes of Cain’s novel into a more native one and have turned the subject to a perfect French poetic film. And again, it would be fascinating if we track down these very elements in American films that were made in the years after Le Dernier Tournant and French poetic realist cinema.

--Ehsan Khoshbakht


Frank (Fernand Gravey) sees Cora

Studying one person, and leaving the other out-of-focus in two-some shots.

The lovers and their environment; a key theme of Poetic Realist films.

Michel Simon, the real star of poetic realist films

Cora (Corinne Luchaire), a passionate lover or a femme fatale? French-ising the American source

There are sudden emotional changes in Chenal’s mise-en-scène: camera angels, pace and lighting.

Odd compositions by Chenal

The real femme fatale arrives later



Director: Pierre Chenal
Script: Charles Spaak, Henri Torrès, based on the novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James M. Cain
Photographer: Christian Matras, Claude Renoir
Music: Jean Wiener
Cast: Fernand Gravey (Frank), Michel Simon (Nick Marino), Corinne Luchaire (Cora), Marcel Vallée (Le juge), Robert Le Vigan (Le cousin maître-chanteur), Etienne Decroux (Le bistrot), Florence Marly (Madge)
Runtime: 90 min; B&W

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