Once Upon a Crime
Director Marcel Carné (1909-96) is best known for a single film, the rhapsodically romantic melodrama, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). Made under the nose of the Nazis during the occupation of Paris, it depicts the city during the early 19th century, with a seemingly effortless sense of detail. Historians place this picture, along with Carné‘s Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939), in the category of “poetic realism.” With the assistance of poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert and veteran production designer Alexander Trauner, Carné conjured in these films an atmospheric environment ruled by vigorous emotions, rendered with an eye to the melancholy amid the mundane.
And yet, Carné‘s second film, Drôle de Drame (1937), is a daffy romp, wherein collisions of self-possessed, idiosyncratic characters lead to confusions of identity. Adapted by Prévert from The Lunatic At Large or His First Offense by the British writer, J. Storer Clouston, it takes place in a London of the imagination, where the lives of clerics, botanists, crime novelists, and homicidal maniacs intertwine with dizzying consequences.
The concatenated plot begins with a public lecture by the fatuous Archibald Soper, the Bishop of Bedford (Louis Jouvet), on the deleterious effects of crime novels, most particularly the bloodcurdling volumes written by one Felix Chapel. In the audience is his scholarly cousin, Irwin Molyneux (Michel Simon), a botanist consumed by the study of the mimosa. Unbeknownst to the Bishop, the infamous Chapel is, in fact, Molyneux under a pseudonym. He has written the books in order to boost his income and allow him and his status-conscious wife, Margaret (Françoise Rosay), to live above their means. To add complication to complication, he has purloined the tales from their servant, Eva (Nadine Vogel), who has in turn cobbled them from the verbal meanderings of a lovesick milkman, Billy (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who pursues her.
The Bishop invites himself to dinner at the Molyneuxes’, where Margaret is unexpectedly left cookless, and so must prepare the meal. Embarrassed, she hides away in the kitchen, while Irwin concocts a cover story about her being out of town, which the Bishop translates into a plot whereby the meek scientist has murdered his wife. The cleric then reports the supposed crime to the police, after which a frenzied series of events ensues. The Molyneuxes are forced to abandon their home, and Irwin disguises himself as Felix Chapel in order to keep an eye on the bumbling police’s investigation.
If Irwin possesses an alternate identity as a writer, the Bishop, father of a dozen children, leads a parallel love life, attested to by a cheesecake photo that a dance hall performer has autographed for him. Worried that he has lost the photo at the Molyneuxes’ home, he returns under cover of helping the police, in search of the incriminating evidence. At the same time, he encourages the officials’ zealous investigation, even if no crime has actually been committed. The plot turns even zanier with the introduction of actual serial murderer William Kramps (Jean-Louis Barrault), who compulsively kills butchers and crime writers.
Carné acts like the perfect traffic cop, guiding his characters through one absurd coincidence after another, and the Drôle de Drame‘s humor succeeds by virtue of his not overplaying the gags. His cast includes some of the most notable French performers of the day, among them Jouvet and Rosay, who customarily took on dramatic roles. Jouvet’s finely chiseled features and imperious air give the Bishop an air of implacable pomposity, while Rosay’s elegant bearings never waver even under the most trying of circumstances, as when Kramps, who becomes obsessed with Margaret, grovels at her feet. Simon played a gamut of roles throughout his long career, but especially in the early sound films of Jean Renoir, from the anarchic spirit in Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932) to one participant in the tragic love triangle of La Chienne (1931). Here, he perfectly possesses the hangdog expression of a man who would like just to be left alone with plants.
Carné relied on a consistent body of collaborators in much of his work, and many critics have argued that their separation after WWII and the release of Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) played a crucial role in the downward spiral of his material. In Drôle de Drame, Trauner’s art direction creates a London that may bear little relation to actual geography, yet crystallizes the kind of society bound by codes and cautions necessary to the humor of the tale. The sharp cinematography does not call attention to itself, but instead, focuses on the actors and their delivery of Prévert’s dialogue. The cinematography is the work of cinematic pioneer, Eugene Schüfftan, whose career stretched from the groundbreaking special effects of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) through to his Academy Award for the widescreen images in The Hustler (1961).
Schüfftan’s adept camerawork, as well as Prévert’s witty script and Carné‘s assured direction, are more than well served by the Home Vision Entertainment edition of Drôle de Drame, which includes a cleaned-up version of the film from the French institute, Les Grands Films Classiques. However, despite its evident delights, this film was a notable commercial failure during its initial release. Perhaps this explains why Carné went on in his later work to embrace the melodrama he mocks on this occasion.