The seven films included on Clouzot: The Early Works were made long before Henri-Georges Clouzot became a celebrated director of thrillers. The extent to which these films—all comedies, five of them musicals—are “Clouzot films” in the recognized sense is further thrown into question by the fact that, except for one short, he only co-wrote them. Films by six different directors are collected in this set, none of which have much in common with Clouzot’s penchant for lurid, pulpy compositions and macabre themes, and most of which do not evince a distinctive visual or dramatic style of their own.
The first film in the collection, 1931’s Dragnet Night, though, is something of an exception, even if it’s not much of a Clouzot film. It stars Albert Préjean as a singing sailor turned boxer, the kind of suave, working-class crooner he had played in René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris the year prior. Director Carmine Gallone brings the story to life with a mobile, restless camera that tracks through the narrow streets of Montmartre, pans in a full circle while revelers sing at a neighborhood tavern, and dangles directly above the center of the boxing ring when Préjean’s Georget and his opponents face off. Préjean’s charisma and the film’s audacious visual style combine to make Dragnet Night one of the highlights of the set, even if it feels a bit uneven, beginning as a Clair-esque musical and ending as a boxing melodrama.
In its romanticized, working-class environs and resilient, down-on-his luck hero, Dragnet Night also looks forward to classic poetic realist films like Jean Renoir’s The Human Beast. The remainder of the films in the set take place in the milieu of the haute bourgeoisie. Viktor Tourjansky’s The Unknown Singer, Anatole Litvak’s Tell Me Tonight, and Géza von Bolváry’s Dream Castle are all musical comedies about cases of mistaken or lost identity. Each of these films exhibits an interest in the construction of public personas, particularly in the age of single-channel media like radio. The resolution in both The Unknown Singer and Tell Me Tonight comes when the romantic lead is able to match the face of a singer with his voice. Of these three, Tell Me Tonight is the strongest, with a modernist visual flair and a deft comic touch.
Jacques de Baroncelli’s I’ll Be Alone After Midnight and Gallone’s My Cousin from Warsaw, both from 1931, are farces redolent of early Ernst Lubitsch comedies and other pre-Code Hollywood films. The one film Clouzot directed in the bunch is a short called The Terror of Batignolles. It begins almost as a thriller, and we can perhaps see the emergence of Clouzot’s visual sensibility here in its initial aura of mystery and suspense. But this short quickly devolves into another farce, featuring a buffoon of a robber eventually being outsmarted by a well-dressed couple who’s robbing the same home.
With the exception of The Terror of Batignolles, none of these films provide particular insight into Clouzot’s later work. On top of this, this isn’t a highly curated collection, as My Cousin from Warsaw, Dream Castle, and Unknown Singer are highly formulaic, indifferently directed, often stagy romances. Instead of insight into the characteristics of an auteur, what this collection provides is a look into an industry attempting to recapitulate the success of both Hollywood films and previous home-grown successes. The title of the set is therefore misleading, but the films on offer in Clouzot: The Early Works would not likely find their way onto Blu-ray if not stamped with the label of a filmmaker now recognized as a major auteur.
None of the films here are in perfect condition, with scratches and blemishes of varying types visible throughout. The soundtracks are similarly damaged, as they're abundant in the hissing and pops that one associates with early sound-on-film features. Given the films' age and obscurity, some amount of damage is to be expected, but other problems in the image are probably not the fault of film stock degradation. Details in white areas of the frame tend to be washed out, and there's relatively little gradation in the grays. It's unclear just how much restoration work was performed on the prints.
The set is accompanied by a brief essay by film critic Peter Tonguette. He keeps with the auteurist framework in which Kino Lorber presents these films, seeking connections between the Clouzot who co-wrote these films and the one who directed The Wages of Fear. Tonguette is, as he admits, at something of a loss: "Clouzot's pre-directorial adventures are something of a mystery even to those who specialize in his work." A more illuminating introduction to the films might situate them among European films from the same period rather than forcing connections to the established classics of a later date.
The films collected in Clouzot: The Early Works are valuable as artifacts of French film history—more so than as stepping stones in the career of a great auteur—but their audio-visual presentations are less than spectacular.