Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on November 16, 2016
Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.
Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.
One of the great arthouse titans of the era, Truffaut had earned worldwide adoration with his lighthearted, impish studies of human nature including The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962). You could find some mystery and crime elements in two of his early films, Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and The Soft Skin (1964), but you couldn’t really call him a thriller filmmaker at all compared to some of his peers, most notably Claude Chabrol. However, by the mid-sixties he was throwing his admirers a number of curveballs by diving headfirst into pure genre, first with science fiction courtesy of a controversial but memorable adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and his two Woolrich films.
Of course, you can trace the Woolrich/Truffaut connection directly to the director’s legendary 1962 conversations with Alfred Hitchcock, which were tape recorded and became transcribed to become one of the great filmmaking books and the subject of study for generations. Truffaut’s questions managed to extract a seemingly endless supply of witticisms and precious nuggets of advice from the Master of Suspense, and the lessons from that experience can be found all over Truffaut’s first proper thriller, an adaptation of Woolrich’s 1940 novel, The Bride Wore Black (1968), published under his most common pen name, “William Irish.” The simple story charts the vengeful path of Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) who sets out to destroy the five men (Claude Rich, Michel Bouquet, Michel Lonsdale, Daniel Boulanger, and Charles Denner) whose mishap involving a loaded rifle resulted in the death of her groom on the church steps following their wedding. Truffaut plays up the sympathy level for Julie, intimating that she’s feeling romantic stirrings for one of her conquests and repeatedly flashing back to the fateful gunshot to keep us conflicted about her murderous mission, which went on to inspire a variety of pop culture moments like Kate Bush’s song “The Wedding List” and the strain of “avenging angel” revenge films that peaked in grindhouses with Ms. 45 (1981) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978).
Ever the humanist, Truffaut can’t quite bring himself to adapt the novel all the way through, abandoning its very dark, ironic final twist in favor of a more sardonic bit of black comedy that leaves viewers chuckling with satisfaction. It’s perhaps the purest example of the French New Wave’s love affair with Hitchcock, which came out of its Cahiers du cinema film critic origins and can be found here with the combination of French cinema mascot Jean-Claude Brialy in a key role, the glimmering cinematography of the great Raoul Coutard (who just passed away a few days before this was written), and the use of regular Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann, who had just been abruptly thrown off of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) with his score replaced by a new one composed by John Addison. Truffaut and Hitchcock butted heads a bit on this film too with the memorable “flight of the scarf” moment originally scored by Herrmann but replaced in the final film by a bit of Vivaldi.
Truffaut himself was very critical of this film over the years, noting in a French TV interview for Camera Three in 1977 that he had come to agree with some of the more negative reviews. Fortunately the film itself has enjoyed an increasingly positive reputation, and it’s a real delight for mystery movie fans in particular who want to see the styles of two masters intermingling with often tantalizing results. Plus you get Jeanne Moreau as a glamorous assassin with a personal hit list; how can you possibly turn that down?
In 1969, Truffaut returned to Woolrich territory for Mississippi Mermaid, adapted from the novel Waltz into Darkness and later remade with considerable changes as Original Sin (2001) with Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas. Despite its prestigious cast and a big release from United Artists, this was perhaps the worst received film of Truffaut’s career at the time with some significant cuts for English-speaking viewers severely hampering the film’s emotional punch. Luckily the original full-length version has since become the standard, and it’s a truly haunting, touching piece of work with a pair of terrific performances at its center.
Catherine Deneuve brings her mix of iciness and vulnerability into play here as another femme fatale named Julie, who’s brought in as a mail order bride to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion to marry plantation owner Louis (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Their immediate marriage doesn’t turn out to be so idyllic as he notices many inconsistencies with the letters she’d sent him, and it soon turns out that her background is something very different from what he imagined. It all culminates in a subdued but lyrical snow-filled finale that’s one of my favorites of the Truffaut canon, a departure again from the source novel but a nice companion of sorts to Deneuve’s last scene in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). It’s also a great-looking film, combining color and scope photography for the only time in Truffaut’s career (and it would also be his last of his three widescreen efforts to boot).
Despite the mixed receptions to both Woolrich films, Truffaut was clearly marked by them for the rest of his career; you can find traces of the writer filtering into such later works as the very divisive serial killer lark Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1972) and the more traditional thrillers that closed his career, The Woman Next Door (1981) and Confidentially Yours (1983). It’s still common to find critics pointing to his genre films as being weaker or less substantive than his more famous romantic, semi-autobiographical dramas, but if you’re familiar with the American artists Truffaut’s examining here and want to see a uniquely French take on the American crime genre, both of these films are full of rewards that continue to pay off after repeated viewings.
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