White Shanks

Perhaps the most neglected of all the major French directors, at least in the U.S., Jean Gremillon (1901-1959) was a figure of such versatility that it’s difficult to make generalizations about his work. (One can, however, speak about its close attention to sound and rhythm–he started out as a musician–and its frequent focus on class divisions.) White Shanks (Pattes blanches), made in 1949, is not one of his very best efforts–I prefer Lumiere d’ete (1943) and Le ciel est a vous (1944). But this moody melodrama of adultery set on the Normandy coast is still full of punch and fascination, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a taste for the classic French cinema. Coscripted by Jean Anouilh (who originally intended to direct), it’s a noirish tale about a promiscuous flirt from the city (Suzy Delair) who marries a local tavern keeper and becomes involved with a plotting local malcontent (Michel Bouquet) and a faded aristocrat (Paul Bernard), nicknamed “White Shanks” because of his spats, who is the target of a revenge plot. A sensitive maid with a hunchback who loves the aristocrat rounds out this odd quintet, who are regarded with a caustic compassion that recalls Stroheim. The lovely camera work is by Philippe Agostini, and the great Leon Barsacq is in charge of the sets. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 25, 7:45, and Sunday, August 27, 4:15, 443-3737)

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