Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Mauvaise Graine (1934)

(Belatedly written for the Billy Wilder blogathon.)

Billy Wilder's directorial debut saw him splitting duties with Alexander Esway, which seems appropriate given that the resulting film is something of a compromise between then-prevalent styles and the iconoclastic combination of cynicism and heart that Wilder would eventually make his stock in trade. This, in fact, is a film of schisms -- it's halfway between farce and tragedy, halfway between a silent and a talkie, halfway between sweet and seedy, halfway between predictable and unexpected. The setup scenes, wherein we meet our eventual hero Henri at his least interesting (i.e. he's a spoiled rich boy on Daddy's dole), are insufferable; thankfully (and surprisingly), this only lasts about ten minutes before Henri inadvertently runs afoul of a gang of car thieves, and after one really cool silent-movie-style chase later, the movie proper -- with Henri becoming a part of the gang and a man at last -- begins. At the least, this marks the origins of Wilder's fascination with all things underhanded; Henri manages to improve as a person and find love only by becoming a criminal, which strikes me as wonderfully perverse. As such, the film provides far more interest when it's setting up or running through a con (like the parking-lot gambit) than when it's moving through its romantic paces, and I can't help but think that the nascent sensibilities of Wilder are responsible for this emphasis. Likewise, the cheerfully quirky side doodles (like young thief Jean's tie obsession) point the way towards the man who would later have Fred MacMurray tell Edward G. Robinson that he loved him and get Jack Lemmon to strain spaghetti through a tennis racket. Too, the serious turn of the third act seems a piece with Wilder's later comic creations (even Kiss Me, Stupid broke past its sitcom setup to find the bruised heart beneath). The clash between sensibilites occasionally flattens the film, but it also keeps it off balance and thus interesting. Mauvaise Graine is a strange thing, most valuable these days for its historical import, but it's entertaining all the same.

Grade: B


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