Giving his thoughts on “late style” in the LRB in 2004, Edward Said wrote:
“For Adorno, Beethoven’s last works – those that belong to what is known as the third period (the last five piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets, 17 bagatelles for the piano) – constitute an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works are a form of exile from his milieu.”
What are we to make of Georges Franju’s 1974 ‘Nuits Rouges‘? (Also known as ‘Shadowman’, the title of its English-dubbed release by New Line).
The anti-hero is a red hooded master-criminal (Jacques Champreux) in the mould of Lang’s Doctor Mabuse, and especially of Feuillade’s Fantômas in ‘Fantômas – A l’ombre de la guillotine‘ (1913). Franju’s entire work was an unabashed tribute to the effect that Feuillade’s silent serial ‘Les Vampires‘ had on him as a boy. In Franju’s 1974 crime thriller, The Man Without a Face is on a killing spree across Paris to find the fabled treasure of the still-active Knights Templar.
In this, he deploys an evil organisation of hooded underlings. Since this is the Reggie Perrin, Sunshine Desserts, three day week world of 1974, the incarnation of Les Vampires in France of the mid-Seventies suffers from what we can see from 2017 is the chronic over-employment and habitual presentee-ism which beset criminal secret societies in the late Twentieth Century. This no doubt explains the success of law and democratic order in the pre-Thatcher, pre-Mitterrand period; and which has since been superseded by the “gig economy” approach of Uber-style, get-ahead evil fraternities like Breitbart and Russia’s FSB. (In 2017, Hydra members have to buy their own uniforms).
Shadowman’s minions are seen at various points doing evil typing and evil filing. His groovy distressed-metal desk matches the rest of his stripped-down, gleaming office décor. There are a few buttons on it but nothing else. Very much an innovator in the realm of evil-doing, Shadowman operated an empty-drawer, hot-desk, paperless evil office long before such things became commonplace among Napoleons of crime. One button on his desk opens the trap-door to the under-floor tank full of sharks (what amounts to ‘disciplinary suspension’). Next to it is a button for the tank full of liquid magma (‘You’re fired!’). Another dispenses piping hot espresso. But there’s a flexible nozzle so that the coffee can also be directed… into someone’s eye!
Presumably there’re also interminable evil cigarette breaks at Shadowman’s head office. In an evil windowless break room with orange carpet and evil, white spherical plastic chairs, Juliette Gréco’s secret ‘evil’ album warbles from a crème brûlée-coloured evil transistor radio. The little plastic players on the evil fusball table all look like Jean-Paul Belmondos under their red hoods.
But Franju doesn’t film any of that. We do, however, get to see quite long sequences of people putting their hoods, masks and other disguises on, and of buzzing secret-door mechanisms opening, very slowly.
Shadowman’s main accomplice is ‘La femme’ played by American actor Gayle Hunnicutt, who you saw the year before in ‘The Legend of Hell House‘ with Roddy MacDowall, Pamela Franklin, Michael Gough and Peter Bowles doing his Basil Exposition character again, which was mostly cut out of ‘Blow-Up’. In ‘Nuits Rouges’, Hunnicutt at one point gets to wear an Emma Peel skin-tight dominatrix suit and mask, which she wears to do a spot of Irma Vep breaking and entering.
She’s of the non-speaking, assassin-vamp, hyper-competent variety of flunkie to a charmingly retro, male super criminal, women who found quite a lot of employment around 1974 (here I’m thinking of Diana Rigg in ‘Theatre of Blood’, Virginia North as Vulnavia to Price’s ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and Valli Kemp’s Vulnavia in ‘Dr Phibes Rises Again’).
Jacques Champreux – in my opinion, turning in one of the great eye-acting performances of all time, and arguably giving Robert Helpmann in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ a run for his money – also has at his disposal a small army of surgically zombified assassins, who resemble the Autons from ‘Doctor Who’.
His brain-dead battalion are laid on by a kidnapped but also evil surgeon played by Clément Harari, who bears a passing resemblance to Pierre Brasseur in Franju’s 1960 ‘Les yeux sans visage’ (‘Eyes Without a Face’). However, Harari looks even more like an elderly Jesus Franco, whose oeuvre ‘Nuits Rouges’ is also somewhat reminiscent of. Shadowman has a self-driving car with a mannequin in the front seat. It swivels round to menace the hero like an evil ventriloquist’s dummy. Then, just as our hero has leapt free, the car explodes!
In hot pursuit of Champreux’s master criminal is the tersely buttoned-down mariner-navigator nephew of one of the murder victims, played by Ugo Pagliai. He’s assisted in his grail quest by Josephine Chaplin, by a verbosely romantic light-relief private detective played by Patrick Préjean, and by Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe, as the police commissioner.
Besides ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ romps, Fröbe frequently got himself roped into low-budget sub-Bond, kinky spy-fi setups like this one. He often played a comic relief end-level baddie, such as in Christian-Jaque’s 1975 ‘Dr Justice‘ staring John Phillip Law in the eponymous role. Adolfo Celi had a similar career after ‘Thunderball’, for example as mafia boss Ralph Valmont up against John Phillip Law as well, but as rubber fetishist jewel thief in Bava’s peerlessly bonkers ‘Danger: Diabolik‘. At least in ‘Nuits Rougues’ and the TV series it’s based on – which he’s also in – Fröbe gets to do some actual policing, along with clouding his brow with sweet mystery and partially articulating his good-natured bafflement, with each twist and turn of the villain’s convoluted machinations.
From the mid-Sixties, European film studios tried to cash in on Bond and TV shows like ‘The Man From Uncle’ and ‘The Avengers’ by harking back to Arsène Lupin, Fantômas, Mabuse and Judex, who was Feuillade’s effort in the era of silent movies to come up with a goodie-baddie after ‘Les Vampires’, but denuded of the dangerous-yet-sexy anarchist intent of Irma Vep.
Dr Mabuse got various additional outings from the Sixties on, like the grim but gripping Anglophile ‘Dr. Mabuse vs. Scotland Yard‘ in 1963, and – needless to say – Jesus Franco’s 1971 ‘La Venganza del Dr Mabuse‘. The German krimi adaptations of Edgar Wallace’s thrillers also belong in this film genre between genres, starting with ‘Der Frosch mit der Maske‘ (‘The Frog with the Mask’, based on Wallace’s ‘The Fellowship of the Frog’ which was also filmed in the UK in 1937, with a 1938 sequel). Usually starring Klaus Kinski, krimi films carried on till around the time that Franju made ‘Nuits Rougue’. Tobi Baumann sends up the krimi genre gloriously in his 2004 film ‘Der Wixxer‘.
‘Nuits Rouges’ is essentially a re-run for the big screen of Franju’s eight-part TV detective mini-series ‘L’homme sans visage‘ (‘The Man Without Face’), all of which – like the English and French releases of the movie – can be found online. A restored version of ‘Nuits Rouges’ appears along with Franju’s ‘Judex’ on one of Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ DVDs, which you can get for £8 if you feel like putting money into the parlous system of film restoration and appreciation (hi David!) In the case of the French TV series it’s without subtitles, sadly, until a keen Francophone Franju fan obliges, hint hint.
By being a television show adapted to cinema in 1974, ‘Nuits Rouges’ is in a way a French version of British TV’s ‘Callan’ and ‘The Sweeney’. Most of all, it’s like Roger Moore’s take on ‘The Saint’. The tone of the film – high-camp, high-concept, a dadaist polyptych shot with an auteur–sensibility, on no-budget and cheap-looking studio sets – makes it a cousin of Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’, the semi- sequel to his Bond knockoff, ‘Danger Man’.
Franju, not only a TV and film director but a celebrated film archivist and exhibitor too, left behind on undisputed masterpiece, 1960’s ‘Les yeux sans visage‘; also, a film full of striking visual imagery in his 1963 ‘Judex’ ; and 22 other features and documentary shorts in which he consciously continued the work of Feuillade and of the surrealists like Max Ernst by whom his films were partly inspired (Breton was a friend of Franju’s). That work was the perpetual stripping away by artists of the meniscus normality, careless acceptance of which occludes the viewer’s gaze, confronting them with the world’s inherent strangeness.
‘Les yeux sans visage’ is a much-loved, somehow flawless film, in which every shocking, haunting shot is perfectly composed and judged in relation to every other. Famously, it was the first mainstream film to feature footage of surgery. Even then, the gory sequence is distorted through a magnifying lens, rendered more jarring by being in black and white. Like the iconic opening shot of Buñuel’s ‘Une Chien Andalou’, we’re required to imagine the blood as the knife penetrates facial tissues. Franju often relies on a Lewton bus to scare us but Franju’s bus is being driven by the ghost of a criminal mastermind from ‘The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’ and it’s driven at speed directly inside our psyche.
By contrast with ‘Les yeux sans visage’, ‘Judex’ tends to plod but it gets credit, rightly, for its set-pieces; sudden invasions of the narrative flow by dream logic – like Terry Giliam’s animations interrupting, and thereby quickening the overall tone and pace of – ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. At the end, the Irma Vep character flees in her robbing costume over the rooftops, plunging to her death. A single Mariachi trumpeter plays, incongruously, over her grave.
The enigmatic hero Judex, played by Channing Pollock and recruited by Franju from Feuillade’s silent serial, appears at a masked ball in a bird-head costume which is channelling Max Ernst’s 1940 painting ‘La Toilette de la mariée’ (‘Attirement of the Bride’) and Ernst’s 1934 collage book ‘Une semaine de bonté‘, which Ernst created by détourning images cut out of Victorian novels and Encyclopedia. ‘Une semaine de bonté’ was made in the same year as Franju’s and Langlois’ first film, ‘Le Metro’, comprised of aerial shots of the Paris subway, for which they borrowed a 16mm camera and three reels of film.
In ‘Une semaine de bonté’, Ernst was mimicking the highly political, delicately judged, acerbically humourous and deeply strange depictions of animal-headed people in the illustrations of French Victorian caricaturist J J Grandville, acknowledged by Breton and Bataille as a “pure surrealist” predating Freud, and by Franju’s screenwriter Jacques Champreux as the source of the imagery for the ballroom scene in ‘Judex’.
Walter Benjamin used Grandville’s drawings from ‘Le Diable à Paris’ in his study of the city as an organic organism. The opening image of ‘Nuits Rouge’ is an old print of the city of Paris. In the opening to New Line’s English-dubbed version, we’re told – in a clunky voice-over appended to this image of the city, which explains the history of the Templars to an American audience – that “on Friday the 13th October, 1307, King Phillip IV of France personally ordered the arrest of their leaders. Found guilty of heresy, sodomy, sorcery and black magic, they were all burned at the stake” (sodomy, sorcery and black magic… no wonder the order was still popular in 1974).
Long before he painted ‘La Toilette de la mariée’ in 1940, as early as 1929, Ernst had identified himself with the weird green bird on the left in the painting, inventing an alter ego for himself, Loplop, Superior of the Birds. In its look and overall feel, ‘Nuits Rogues’ reminds us a bit of the way in which super hero films and television can veer, inappropriately given their intended family-friendliness, towards the fetishised and intentionally perverse.
This is partly due to the origin of colourful comic book vigilante playboys (and skilled acrobats) not only in the deliberately kooky and unnerving circus and stage magic posters still-familiar in the Thirties, when Batman added a macabre Freudian element to the Superman formula, but also to Bruce Wayne’s indebtedness to silent films such as ‘Les Vampires’, ‘Dr Caligari’ and to the original ‘Judex’. Ernst’s Loplop was a kind of occultist’s secret identity for erotic adventurism. If we also see glimpses of the films of Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin, and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella in ‘Nuits Rogues’, it’s no coincidence.
The music in the opening titles and all the scores in the film and preceding television version are by Franju as well. It would be great to have an isolated score of ‘Nuits Rogues’ some day. Franju was also a gifted composer, with a range covering Debussy, to hokey ‘B’ picture timpani antics. All of Franju’s work sounds incredible. When Maurice Jarre’s creepy barrel-organ symphonium of shock for ‘Les yeux sans visage’ is absent, it’s only so Franju’s Foley work can give us the sound of Alsatian dogs howling as Edith Scob’s disfigured and masked Christiane wafts spectrally out of her dad’s laboratory, in a perfect New Look dress, a nightmare Disney princess lost in a mist-strewn forest of 1001 Damnations.
A guest star on the score of ‘Nuits Rogues’ is the tuba mirum, part of the dies irae movement from Berlioz’s ‘Requiem’. In his ‘Memoires’, Berlioz recalls the first time that his most recognised work was played for the public: it was written to commemorate French soldiers killed in the Revolution of July 1830, but the first performance was on 5th December 1837 in commemoration of General Damrémont and the soldiers who died in the Siege of Constantine. Just before the tuba mirum, the conductor Habeneck put down his baton for a pinch of snuff. This prompted Berlioz to rush the podium and finish conducting the piece himself.
In Franju’s film, the music coincides with the hooded and masked Order of the Templars inducting a new member. Outside their Sanctum Sanctorum, explosions and all other kinds of merry hell break loose, as the police try to penetrate the Knights defences, and an elderly couple listen to the Berlioz composition on a creaky 78 rpm record player. Never try to flimflam a flimflammer, Barnum said. The lesson for Gert Fröbe and the French police on this occasion is that Sod’s Law never applies to actual sodomites, and certainly not to the black magicians in their ranks.
There’s a sense in ‘Nuits Rougues’, as in Luis Buñuel’s 1969 ‘La Voie lactée‘ (‘The Milky Way’), that a sempiternal yet anarchic order is about to reassert itself. (In Buñuel’s film the cultists in white robes are Priscillian heretics in the Languedoc). Was this a premonition of Punk Rock? The May 1958 Algerian putsch, when no-kidding secret societies worked with the French army to dislodge the elected government and reinstate de Gaulle, had happened only 16 years earlier. In Britain in 1974, there was widespread paranoia about a Soviet takeover and counter-plots against Wilson. In France in the same period, the paranoia was even more justified.
It’s fun to look at ‘Nuits Rouges’ now and remember that there was time before the Dan Brown industry monopolised the folklore surrounding ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail‘. The book by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln was based on Lincoln’s three films for the BBC’s ‘Chronicle‘ in the 1970s, which were themselves based on Gérard de Sède’s 1967 book ‘L’Or de Rennes‘, which no doubt inspired the original ‘L’homme sans visage’ at the time.
The confabulation of the mystery surrounding how 19th century priest Bérenger Saunière suddenly became so rich, with the hoax perpetrated by Pierre Plantard included such delightful nonsense as Jean Cocteau having been the secret Grandmaster of the Priory of Sion, which existed to protect the hidden Merovingian bloodline which could be traced back to Mary Magdalene and Christ. “It is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvellous theme for a novel,” Anthony Burgess said of ‘The Holly Blood and the Holy Grail’ when he reviewed it for ‘The Observer’ in 1982. The novels we got were Margaret Starbird’s ‘The Woman with the Alabaster Jar’, and Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and all that it begat in literature and cinema. I would far rather see the movie where the director of ‘Orphée’ secretly ran the world. I can’t help but feel it would be a lot like Franju’s ‘Nuits Rouges’.
In the sense in which Said is talking about ‘late style’ in the quote above – of the artist at the end of a career looking back but also forwards, setting themselves apart from contemporary tropes and mores to make a statement about their medium and the world generally, based on a lifetime of work and contemplation – ‘Nuits Rouges’ is to Franju as ‘Black Star’ is to Bowie: odd, bleak, alienated, gnomic but with a sense of humour, including about itself. It’s Franju’s ‘late style’ in the sense that all of Franju’s work is his late style.
The end of Franju’s body of work is also its beginning: the cultural Year Zero of Paris of the Thirties and Forties, when it seemed that half a century or more of ‘decadent’ art, including cinema and other trashy, outré pop culture, would be incinerated; first in the reverberating world economic collapse and then by the Nazi-occupiers.
In an effort to preserve silent film prints which French studios were destroying at a rate which alarmed them, Langlois and Franju formed the Circle of Cinema and invited friends to Langlois’ apartment, where his mum cooked meals as Henri projected precious films on the living room wall. The club’s informal atmosphere attracted, among other cultural luminaries, Jean-Paul Sarte and André Gide. Soon it grew to become a more formal Cinémathèque, conceived not only to exhibit but also to conserve and archive films, in which they enlisted Jean Mitry and Paul-Auguste Harle as well.
Once the German occupation began in 1942, film prints considered ‘decadent art’ were at risk. Langlois traded a trifling documentary about the Maginot Line with a film-obsessed SS officer in return for the negative of Josef von Sternberg’s ‘The Blue Angel’, thus saving it for posterity (Hitler wanted the film destroyed). Soon after making ‘Nuits Rogues’, Franju’s TV work dried up and he took over the Cinématheque Française which he’d set up in the Thirties with Langlois.
‘Nuits Rogues’ is a film about a ruthless but infinitely flexible genius outwitting not only the cops but also an equally self-serving but more rigid subliminal order. It’s tempting to see in it the tracings of a parable which applies to Franju’s friend Langlois, and to the role that the Cinématheque Francais played before and after the war, during periods of constant political and cultural instability.
Langlois aimed to physically preserve a new art form in its entirety. In the Thirties when the Cinématheque movement started out, cinema was only fifty years old. In the 1950s, Langlois famously was able to bring Abel Gance in from the artistic wilderness, when Gance was in his Seventies but still wanted to make movies. The act of custodianship of French cinema made Langlois bigger, in some ways, than the French state. Truffaut opens his 1968 film ‘Stolen Kisses’ with a shot of the Cinémathèque’s shuttered entrance. He dedicates the film to Langlois.
It’s often said that this aura around Langlois triggered the fight with Culture Minister André Malraux which led to Langlois’ firing, and then to his reinstatement as head of the Cinématheque, and the incredible events of the Summer of 1968 in which student leaders, film-makers, celebrities and intellectuals physically manned barricades to keep Langlois in post. This was one subplot in the Paris student riots of that year. Later, the fire which destroyed his Musée du Cinéma in Paris was blamed on shadowy forces in the French state (the Musée du Cinéma was in a wing of the national Ethnography Museum, the Museum authorities being responsible for fire safety).
A key text to the 1968 Paris student protests was ‘Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti‘, a four-page cut-up comic strip made by André Bertrand, circulated at Strasbourg University campus in 1966, which was handed out with along with ten thousand copies of the pamphlet ‘The Poverty of Student Life’ by the Tunisian historian Mustapha Khayati. The scandal of using student union finances to print these propelled Situationism from being a small Parisian intellectual clique centred round Guy Debord, into a talking point for the mainstream media; as each new stunt and sit-in vaguely connected to student radicalism and art protests – from Berkeley to Ladbroke Grove – was described, breathlessly, in the press as ‘Situationist’. In response, the Situationist International re-evaluated their stance to education, moving from a position where they mostly dismissed academic institutions out of hand, to seeing them anew; as locations from which the détournement (rerouting) of society as a whole could be actualised, just as they saw that other public spaces such as streets and cinema foyers could be utilised in a similar way.
What’s the thread connecting ‘Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti’ to François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard making their short film for ‘Le Comité de défense de la Cinémathèque Française‘? What links ‘Une semaine de bonté’, to Walter Benjamin’s use of Grandville’s drawings from ‘Le Diable à Paris’ in his Arcades project, through Franju, to ‘Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti’? It’s impossible to tell what all the fragile, friable steps were between each set of ideas but that one took inspiration from the other chronologically is clear.
While Langlois wished to preserve the physical prints and holy relics of cinema, his friend and ally Franju was part of a left-handed work to keep the esoteric and counter-cultural roots of cinema and all Art alive and vital. The hero of ‘Nuits Rouges’, Paul de Borrego, is a diver and navigator. He has a similar skill-set to that of the Knights Templar, which made them able to extend their power beyond the thrall of the King, and to accumulate the vast wealth which led to their eventual persecution by the French state. The Templars had the ability to locate themselves in the world – from North Africa to the Urals – and to detect and excavate buried treasures. Their triumph was one of technology combined with limitless intuition and imagination.
Feuillade’s ‘Les Vampires’ appeared at around the same time that Griffith made cinema commercial with ‘Birth of a Nation’. The right-handed path for film turns people’s darkest fears into dollars by making the jiggaboos and bogeymen they intuit, wrongly, in the shadows of cinema aisle seem momentarily solid on the film screen.
Feuillade and those he inspired – from the Marx Brothers and Betty Boop cartoons, to Franju, to David Lynch – do the same magic trick, of manifesting objects of the imagination as seemingly real, but they don’t show you what they think you want to see. The origins of Art House movies, in contrast with commercial cinema, is in continuing the common objective of stage magic, psychoanalysis, of dada and surrealism, which is to be a portal into dreams and to transform hallucinations – ideations of sexuality, anxiety, the unreal – temporarily into a mass-observation spectacle. A lot of that consensual dreamtime resides in trash, and trash culture, in things which seem to have no commercial value.
Franju’s late work began in the 1930s and continued, without remission, till the end. His work usually includes overview shots (of Paris, like at the start of ‘Nuits Rouges’, or of a human face) and then takes us on an exploration of the unsettling details within it. Preservation of the objects of the collective unconscious is, in this sense, Franju’s act of continually jolting viewers into a state where the inherent oddness of an underlying, generally accepted reality is transiently revealed. Unlike Lynch’s work, with Franju there’s often some meaning at the end of the dark, claustrophobic tunnel.
Franju made a series of documentaries for the French state – about the industrialisation of Paris, war veterans and the cattle industry – but in each case he upset the authorities, by filling the films with imagery of the cruelty of abattoirs, the filth of industry, the abject state of wounded ex-soldiers.
Langlois wanted to save everything about cinema that he could, as a distillation of the human experience.
By shocking them, dredging up discordant and weird associations, as in analysing dreams, Franju wanted his audience to remember and experience everything that they could.
On which note,it’s late and I want to go to bed.