In 1949, Jean Cocteau led the jury for a festival in Biarritz, the vision for which was to resurrect a number of films that had been buried in their own time, whether by audiences, by critics, or even by the filmmakers themselves. They called it “Le Festival du Film Maudit,” thus coining a term—literally, “cursed film”—that would be used and debated long after. Is a film maudit just a worthy flop, or is it one that was reviled? neglected? You can argue these points and more. But above all, a film maudit is one that arrived at the wrong time, only to find that its brilliance could not be appreciated by more than a few. And it’s hard to imagine a film more maudit than one that arrived with the last gasp of an era, when fashions had changed so completely that movie houses could scarcely be persuaded to screen it.
Such was the fate of Dans la Nuit, the extraordinary silent film directed in 1929 by the great French character actor Charles Vanel. It’s that year—1929—that doomed it, and not any defect of quality or even critical judgment. The reviews, in fact, were quite good. The timing was not; Dans la Nuit wasn’t released into theaters until May 1930, making it one of the last, if not the last major French silent film. And by 1930, what the punters wanted, to quote Norma Desmond, was “talk, talk, talk.”
The movie was what we now call “a passion project,” but far better than most such endeavors. Vanel was thirty-seven, but had almost sixty years of career still ahead of him. He was born in Rennes, Brittany, in 1892. Vanel at first wanted to be a sailor, but poor eyesight put him on the path that eventually made him an actor. He appeared in his first film sometime around 1911, age twenty; Vanel died in 1989 after a career of nearly two hundred movies (he worked so often that the numbers remain fuzzy). The idea that would lead to his one full-length feature was linked to memories of childhood and family life. Vanel’s father worked in a sawmill in the vicinity of where Dans la Nuit was filmed: Jujurieux, in the Rhône-Alpes region, on the left bank of the Ain River, an area “dear to Vanel,” as Bertrand Tavernier said years later.
Location filming, conducted outdoors as much as possible in the summer of 1929, was a virtue of necessity for Vanel, as it was cheaper than the fees for renting a studio. He himself played the nameless quarry worker, who we first see moving through pictorially magnificent scenes of his daily backbreaking work. Still, the worker is a happy man, and soon we see why, as the next sequence follows the worker through the breathless happiness of his wedding day. The worker and his bride (Sandra Milovanoff) dance on sun-dappled terraces and ride to a local fairground, Vanel’s often handheld or ride-mounted camera echoing their dizzy happiness. (The cinematography was by Georges Asselin.)
This section of the movie lasts nearly the entire first half, but it’s easy to sense that joy won’t last for a man who makes his living in such a dangerous way. He’s injured in a horrifying cave-in, caused unknowingly by a group of romping children. It seems the worker might die, but his life is saved. His face, however, is not; seeing that his bride can scarcely bear to look in his direction, the worker obtains a metal mask to cover most of it.
And here the visuals take on all the darkness and pulsing terror of a horror movie. The shots become long, even agonizing, as the camera slows down and lingers on the wife’s sadness and revulsion and the intense bitterness of the worker. Milovanoff, an actress of tough, muscular good looks, is playing a young woman of strong appetites; what can this wife do but take a lover? And should this lover happen across a spare mask, and with casual cruelty decide to try it on—what can ensue, but more pain and terror.
The late Bertrand Tavernier long championed Dans la Nuit, saying it “shows a freedom of tone to treat both dread and happiness, a richness of subject, a patience with the image itself, a requirement, a rhythm: in short, cinematographic poetry.” The bucolic first half has warmth and charm, but it’s the second half, with its inky shadows, menacing hearth fires, and abrupt violence, that achieves the richest emotions and bleakest fear. It’s a shame, then, that censorship worries eventually resulted in a tacked-on ending that was not part of Vanel’s original vision, even if it stays in tune with the dreamy beauty of his earlier images.
Of course, Dans la Nuit is far from the only film that has ever tried to undo a gloomy denouement with an abrupt shift to “it’s all a dream!” One such case is Fritz Lang’s 1944 The Woman in the Window. Lang claimed the dream fake-out was his idea, and I’ve defended the ending before; while not ideal, it does fit with the movie’s consistently off-kilter style, its grim jokes and its overall stylized film-noir vibe. It’s harder to make such an argument for the ending of Dans la Nuit; the abrupt reversal feels instead like a betrayal of both the vivid realism we’d fallen in love with during the movie’s first reels, and the searing emotion of the second half.
Vanel directed one more film, a short called Affaire Classée, in 1932, but it wasn’t released until 1935, under the title Le Coup de Minuit. He continued as a character actor of astonishing range and accomplishment; no one who sees Vanel in Le Ciel Est à Vous (1944) or perhaps in his most famous role, in The Wages of Fear (1953), will ever forget him. But the directing road remained not taken. In a late-life interview, Vanel remarked that “the most interesting job in cinema is not that of actor but that of director.” Still, he admitted, the sheer volume of what a director had to put up with got to him. “It was necessary to justify each line of the scenario in front of the producer—when it was not in front of his mistress; to embark on complex financial negotiations, to accept actors imposed by the distributors when they weren’t right for the roles….” Vanel continued, “As I earned a lot of money as an actor, I did what I wanted, I was calm. I finally gave up, but I sometimes regretted it. I didn’t feel like having to fight all my life.”
There have been a number of actors who directed a film (or two or three) only to rush straight back to acting, including some in the silent era. Lillian Gish directed 1920’s Remodeling Her Husband, now lost; Mabel Normand directed a number of comedy shorts in 1914–15, but nothing after; Reginald Denny directed a talkie, The Big Bluff, in 1933. Perhaps the most famous example is from the sound era, though it is suffused with silent-film aesthetics: Charles Laughton’s 1954 Night of the Hunter.
While preparing his one-off masterpiece, Laughton screened D.W. Griffith’s silents over and over, and told Lillian Gish that “Griffith’s pictures made you sit up straight in your chair in anticipation of what was coming … All the surprise has gone out of modern films.” The gorgeous, haunting world of Vanel’s film is certainly another example of what Laughton was talking about. Now the restoration of Dans la Nuit shows Laughton’s fellow Charles was also a distinctive talent, another actor-filmmaker who left behind a compelling work of art along with wistful thoughts of what might have been.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne