Henry Decoin: Scheming Women (1954) | featured image
Raymond Rouleau in Scheming Women (1954) | courtesy of Icarus Films

OVIDtv’s ‘Fric-Frac’ and ‘The Scheming Women’ Showcase Major French Stars in Minor Films

Fric-Frac is a character study of Jeanne Moreau’s role early in her starring career and The Scheming Women is bright with future French stars.

The streaming service called OVIDtv recently brought out several older French films not otherwise accessible in Region 1, as PopMatters reported here. Two more restored films are made available in April and, although not essential to French cinema, they showcase some of French cinema’s most important stars.

Fric-Frac (1939)
Directors: Maurice Lehmann and Claude Autant-Lara

Fric-Frac begins by zooming into a dictionary definition of the title: “Fric-frac” as slang for “burglary”. The action begins at a kind of carriage race, where Marcel (Fernandel), a middle-class merchant working for a jeweler, makes the acquaintance of a déclassé couple who latches onto him and begins teaching him slang.

The man is Jo (Michel Simon), a petty thief and grifter. The woman is Loulou (Arletty), a streetwalker (femme du publique) whose pimp is in jail; she’s French, so she takes it as a sign of love if he slaps her. Although oblivious of her vocation, Marcel isn’t immune to Loulou’s charms, and she strings him along to learn about the jewels. This annoys the jeweler’s daughter, the strident and petulant Renée (Hélène Robert), who sets her cap for the hapless Marcel.

If this were a Hollywood film Marcel would reform the prostitute with “a heart of stone” (as per Jo’s judgment) and live happily ever after. However, Loulou is a hard-bitten enforcer of class lines one shouldn’t cross, and she perceives Marcel’s loyalty as “with the losers” (the law-abiding).

Jo tries to explain that everyone is a thief, except some people steal from neighbors or the government while “honest thieves” like himself only take from strangers. This philosophy is typical of Gallic class comedy, and there are a few moments when the film almost becomes serious regarding Marcel’s education. He must accept his lot as a bourgeois who will always see others having more fun, and that’s the real theme of this not-quite-crime comedy.

Released in the tumultuous summer of 1939, a scant three months before the outbreak of war, Fric-Frac is an escapist trifle very slightly laced, like brandy in the cake, with the melancholy about life in which French comedies specialize. More pertinently to its audience, the film provides the spectacle of three of their biggest stars: Fernandel, Michel Simon, and Arletty.

Over a 50-year film career, Fernandel was a beloved institution known for a gentle demeanor and a huge mouth full of teeth like a whitewashed fence. He starred in a series of films about an Italian village priest, Don Camillo. He made very little dent in the awareness of American audiences save for being one of the best elements in Michael Todd and Michael Anderson’s lumbering Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

Simon, a monument of theatre and film, was often in character as a rough, gruff, scruffy, rowdy figure of burly appearance and slurred growl, like a dancing bear who somehow wandered on set. Half of his role in Fric-Frac is the way he speaks underworld argot like the title phrase with a half-intelligible grumble, as though clearing his throat.

Arletty, one of the great beauties of French cinema, was a favorite of many important filmmakers. Her apotheosis may be in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945), after which she found herself briefly imprisoned for treason over an affair with a German officer.

Arletty and Simon co-starred in Édouard Bourdet’s hit play of 1936, adapted by Michel Duran into Fric-Frac. Although Maurice Lehmann is credited as the director, while Claude Autant-Lara receives major billing for “technical support”, Autant-Lara is widely believed to be the real director. The film’s Wikipedia entry cites a statement by Arletty to this effect.

Lehmann was one of the country’s most celebrated and important stage directors, known for lavish musical productions. He founded a film company largely dedicated to versions of famous plays. His early co-director and protégé, Autant-Lara, would become associated with the postwar Cinema of Quality abjured by French New Wave critics. Autant-Lara aged into a bitter old man of retrograde politics.

Lehmann’s handful of films are under-researched in America and certainly unavailable. I found a Time Out review of Lehmann and Autant-Lara’s historical drama, L’Affaire du courrier de Lyon (1937) comparing it to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1957). Lehmann produced films for Sacha Guitry and Abel Gance. In the 1950s, his last films as a producer were a version of Alexandre Dumas’ Camille and a police/gangster noir. This guy needs to be better known.

The Scheming Women (Les Intrigantes, 1954)
Director: Henri Decoin

Subtitled The Plotters on this print and based on Jacques Robert’s novel La Machination, The Scheming Women isn’t a whodunit nor the noir tale implied by any of the titles. It’s partly a backstage drama and eventually a character study of Jeanne Moreau’s role early in her starring career. She plays an enervated wife of a famous theatrical producer who finds, when he’s suspected of murder, that she can take advantage of the situation to demonstrate her hidden abilities.

Producer Paul Rémi (Raymound Rouleau), supposedly our lead character, is so uninteresting that he’s yanked out of the picture for much of the last third. That’s partly the point, for his chic tiger-furred wife Mona (Moreau) runs things in his absence, and Paul is so surprised by her flowering capacity “for everything” that he blurts it out in voice-over as the film suddenly reads his mind. Uneasily, he sees himself sidelined and superfluous by Mona’s previously unguessed efficiency and authority.

If told more from Mona’s POV, this would be a feminist discovery. For Paul, it’s a warning of rising feminine freedom, or at least an observation of evolving society. The film may be a toe dipped into the pervasive intellectual presence in France of Simone de Beauvoir, who created a stir with The Second Sex in 1949 and, in the year of The Scheming Women, won the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins. Like Paul, the film seems to observe this presence uneasily without quite being ready.

The plot opens after Paul’s disagreeable co-owner has fallen to his death from the catwalk. Paul had been up there too, and the police have an accusing letter from an anonymous witness. It doesn’t take much brainpower to work out that Paul’s envious secretary, the dark-spectacled Andrieux (Raymond Pellegrin), is the main villain as he puts the moves on Mona. She slaps him, but when he whispers snakelike temptations in her ear about women directors, she’s vulnerable to the ploy because her thoughts already run in that direction.

The other scheming woman is the dreamy typist Marie (Etchika Choureau). She’s so transparently making a play for the married Paul that she’ll use anything to her advantage, and thus she’s able to work out what’s going on and wrap things up. Choureau’s film career lasted little more than a decade but she only died in 2022.

Also in the picture are future comedy star Louis de Funès as the temperamental writer of the lousy musical in rehearsal about Olympian gods; Renée Passeur as his Juno-esque wife; Robert Hirsch as the frantic director; Jacques Charon as the near-flaming actor playing Pan; Claude Borelli as Jany, a blonde and shapely dancer; Marcel André as the not terribly important police inspector from central casting; and Paul Demange as a mysterious little man who spends the film trying to find Paul. They might all be partly inspired by Greek myths, and perhaps the film’s subtext is the twilight of the masculine gods.

Henri Decoin was among the busiest and most intriguing French directors to be almost totally unknown outside his country. He was an Olympic athlete, a WWI pilot, a sports journalist, an experimental writer, a husband of Danielle Darrieux, and a reliable jack of all genres including romances, mysteries, war, and gangster films from the ’30s to the ’60s. French film historian Georges Sadoul pegged him as “prolific and conventional” in his Dictionary of Film Makers (University of California Press, 1972).

Decoin is another of those practitioners of the Cinema of Quality who got tossed out with the bathwater during the New Wave. His final film, Nick Carter va tout casser or License to Kill (1964), stars Eddie Constantine as two-fisted pulp hero Carter, and Decoin may have felt it a come-down from his headier years. The Scheming Women can hardly be among Decoin’s best, but I’d love a festival of those that are, especially the crime films.