Back to the Wall

Back to the Wall ★★★★

So you say you like film noir? So you say you like French films? So you say you like Jeanne Moreau? Well, have I got a film for you, bubby. Back to the Wall is terrific from beginning to end.

“This comedy was getting more and more sinister.”

Directed by Edouard Molinaro, best known for La Cage aux Folles, the film opens with a lengthy, tense, mostly silent sequence in which Jacques Decrey (Gerard Oury) carefully wraps a corpse in a carpet, takes it to a factory, and buries it in concrete. We later learn that the body is that of Yves Normand (Phillipe Nicaud), the lover of his wife, Gloria (Moreau). This opening scene is tightly constructed like something by Jean-Pierre Melville, showing that both the filmmakers and the protagonist are fascinated by the mechanics of process.

The film then begins a flashback to reveal how Decrey, owner of the factory where the body was disposed, arrived at these circumstances. We see him accidentally discovering his wife’s affair and his coldly calculated response. He decides to pose as someone else to blackmail the lovers, enlisting the aid of private-detective Mauvin (Jean Lefebvre). Sympathetic bartender Ghislaine (Claire Maurier) gets caught up in the machinations, ending up working for both sides.

Although based on a French novel by Frederic Dard, who also worked on the screenplay, Back to the Wall seems like one of those French films based on an American source. The score by Richard Cornu even sounds like a Miklos Rozsa noir at times. The film is full of twists and twists within twists, being playful and dark at the same time. The noir feel is aided considerably by the moody cinematography of Robert Lefebvre, who shot Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or.

The film works as well as it does because of Oury’s deadpan everyman performance. We can’t help feeling Decrey’s pain at Gloria’s betrayal. The way he looks at the rumpled bed where his wife has been unfaithful is quite moving. And Moreau is at her mysterious best, convincing us that Gloria sincerely loves both men in her life. Her expression when she discovers her husband is the blackmailer is priceless. With this film, Elevator to the Gallows, and The Lovers, Moreau had a spectacular 1958.

“I had planned everything but this incident.”

The film is full of lovely little details. My favorite is the private eye’s pride in the “artistic” quality of his surveillance photos. My only quibble is that Decrey makes a stupid mistake to cause matters to unravel at the end. I don’t believe that someone as meticulous as he is would overlook something so obvious. Of course, if people weren’t imperfect, we wouldn’t have noir.

Random thoughts:

We know that Decrey is a loser and that Normand is more Gloria’s speed because the husband drives a 1950 Buick Super, while the lover has a flashy 1954 MG TF.

Oury gave up acting for writing and directing shortly after Back to the Wall. He had a huge international hit with The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob in 1973.

Maurier, best known as Jean-Pierre Leaud’s ma in The 400 Blows, is still with us. She will be 94 on March 27.

Watched on Kino Lorber Blu-ray.

Favorite Films of 1958

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