Saturday, February 02, 2008

Get Ready for Eddie

For the 32 years I spent researching and writing MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Italian cinema stood immoveably at the very core of my being; I thought about Italy and Italian art and culture incessantly. When I finished writing the book, I felt a surprisingly sudden shift of that internal, emotional center toward French cinema and pop culture. Actually, France was always a part of my inner landscape; I've always been a devotée of Fantomas and Judex and Arsene Lupin, Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, Truffaut and Godard, Franju and Rollin, with a special place in my heart reserved for Eric Rohmer's films, but it was only within the past two or three years that I fell unexpectedly and violently in love with the music of Serge Gainsbourg (I'm listening to COULEUR CAFE as I write this) and, more recently, with the films of someone who promises to become another of my grand obsessions, Eddie Constantine.

Constantine -- a California native of vaguely reptilian complexion who talked like a Brooklyn native but found success as a singing protégé of Edith Piaf in Paris -- is best known to American viewers as the star of Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965), in which he plays a hard-boiled G-man with the unlikely name of Lemmy Caution. The transgressive irony of Constantine's being cast in an "art film", especially as Caution, was generally lost on Americans -- who generally didn't know that, before ALPHAVILLE, he had played the role in seven other pulp dramas (it would be wrong to call them "B-movies") primarily shown abroad. These films do exist in English dubbed versions -- POISON IVY (1953), DANGEROUS AGENT (1953), DAMES DON'T CARE (1954), DIAMOND MACHINE (1956), WOMEN ARE LIKE THAT (1960), LADIES MAN (1962) and YOUR TURN, DARLING (1963) -- but only because they filtered into circulation from 16mm prints struck for Canadian TV syndication. Most of them remain fairly hard to see in English.

Lemmy Caution was actually the creation of British thriller novelist Peter Cheyney, who featured him in more than a dozen novels and even more short stories (beginning with 1936's THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS), but Constantine laid claim to the name in much the same way that Dick Miller became Walter Paisley. He reprised the role in several projects after ALPHAVILLE and also starred in more than 100 other pictures, playing various shades of his two-fisted, whisky-chugging Caution persona, most of them going by the name "Eddie." He also played John R. Coryell's famous detective Nick Carter twice in the 1960s.
The first time I laid eyes on Eddie Constantine -- and this is when I was a kid -- I thought he would make a great Ben Grimm if they ever made a film of THE FANTASTIC FOUR. He had a granite look about him in middle age especially and, in ALPHAVILLE, he's fairly expressionless -- but in the earlier Lemmy Caution films, which are prototypical of the Bond films in many ways, he flashes one of the most ingratiating smile you'll ever see. French artists made the most of this happy-go-lucky, bon vivant smile when designing the posters for his movies, whether the art depicted him as leering at the ladies, hoisting a glass, or knocking a stooge for a loop in a billiards hall. I've been daydreaming of late about taking down all the posters currently on display in my house and replacing them with affiches showing Eddie revelling in the good life. They would probably impart a cheerier, healthier atmosphere than my current array of monster, severed head and drug delirium art.
I own only a few Eddie Constantine movies in English, and I've moved on from them into a couple of three-film DVD box sets that I ordered from Amazon.de: EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION VOLUME 1 - LEMMY CAUTION and EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (in which two of the three films are Lemmies). These are German releases from Tobis, now notorious for withholding English subtitles or audio, but they do feature the original French audio tracks. French gives me only slightly less trouble than Italian, but I find I can navigate my way through the dialogue fairly well if I play the movies with the optional French subtitles activated. In the earliest of the Lemmy Caution films, LA MOME DE VERT-DE-GRIS (POISON IVY), I was pleased to find Eddie communicating with his FBI contacts in English, which made it that much easier to enjoy. Adding to the pleasure is the presence in the cast of Jess Franco stalwart Howard Vernon, looking younger than I've ever seen him as a white-tuxedoed baddie. And forget Veronica Lake and Gloria Grahame: the femme fatale of both this film and its follow-up LES FEMMES S'EN BALANCENT (DAMES DON'T CARE) -- Dominique Wilms -- scores a TKO against them both as "bad girl" pulp cover art incarnate. She's so impressive, she even knocked Eddie Constantine off his own movie poster for what I assume was the first and only time.
The films are low-budget but shot with economic style and imagination. LA MOME DE VERT-DE-GRIS features a remarkable scene that shows a pilot forced at gunpoint to land his plane on its belly in a desolate location, and the entire scene is pulled off entirely with camera set-ups and camera movement -- without the plane so much as moving. It also contains a scene where Lemmy is tied to a rope and dragged behind a moving yacht, which possibly inspired or influenced Ian Fleming's writing of such a scene in his novel LIVE AND LET DIE, published the year after the film's release. With only one exception, when he happened to be visiting a hospital, whenever Lemmy enters a new place, he either calls out for a whisky ("A big one!") or just helps himself -- even at FBI Headquarters, where he cuts past all the Miss Moneypenny horseshit in the reception area and makes like a masher with his superior's pretty receptionist. With all that Lemmy imbibes, he should be staggering through these movies like a Barrymore, but he never gets worse than happy, never oversteps his personal charm, and always comes out on top in every fight.
Five of the initial seven Lemmy Caution films were scripted and directed by Bernard Borderie, also known for his series of "Angélique" films starring Michele Mercier. With each new Borderie film that I see, the more convinced I am that his work should be better-known -- starting with Jess Franco fans, because much of the style found in Franco's early classical work (not to mention some of its casting choices) appears to have had its roots in the popular 1950s entertainments crafted by Borderie and contemporaries such as Henri Decoin.
I mention Decoin in particular because of his attachment to a movie called NATHALIE, AGENT SECRET (1959), which I first encountered -- and have only ever encountered -- as a trailer bearing the English title ATOMIC AGENT. I saw this trailer projected in 35mm at one of the countless kiddie matinees I attended, and I've never forgotten its quirky energy or the pride with which it listed the names of actors of whom I'd never heard: Martine Carol (who of course was Max Ophuls' LOLA MONTES), Howard Vernon, Dario Moreno (who I discovered only today, like Eddie Constantine, was also a recording star). Perhaps those names and faces resonated with me then because, on some level, I knew they would occupy an important place in my later life. If any of my readers happen to be in possession of NATHALIE, AGENT SECRET -- or better yet, ATOMIC AGENT -- would you please reward my efforts here by sending me a copy?
So what is it about Eddie Constantine that I find so compelling, so relevant, so fulfilling? Part of it is the way he projects a sense of comfort about his standing as a man of the world; he has no time for anything other than grabbing all the pleasure he can between Mission and Mission Accomplished. He may look like a thug but he carries himself with more than a measure of rugged grace. I also admire that he was an American who looks at home in Europe, which is the me I always aspired to be but haven't succeeded in becoming, except in the work I produce. I once saw someone on television who offered a valid definition of a writer: "A writer is someone who spends his entire life wondering why he isn't somewhere else." That, I suppose, is why, when I see Eddie Constantine on the screen, everything suddenly seems blessedly and uncomplicatedly right with the world.
Even though sometimes I can't understand a word he's saying.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Lucas, if you want to watch another pre-Franco Howard Vernon, you must seek the spanish noir film El fugitivo de Amberes, where he plays a international thief. It's a bit dull, but you can see great images of Barcelona in the fifties and the climax, set in a tunnel of terror, it's great.

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