Monday, June 20, 2011

LES FELINS (Joy House, 1964)

Blame the hard-boiled author Day Keene for the American title of Rene Clement's proto-erotic thriller: that's what he called the book it's based on. It pretty convincingly fails to convey the sinister mood of the piece; despite the hothouse hype M-G-M applied to selling the picture, that title can't help but make you expect something happy, or perhaps something musical. And with Lalo Schifrin composing the score it is a pretty musical picture, but that telltale harpsichord should tell all but the most obtuse that something decadent is going on here.

Alain Delon plays Marc, a crook caught sleeping with the wrong woman, the property of a big man in the Mob. Taken out to the Mediterranean coast of France to be whacked, Marc manages to escape by commandeering a car and driving it over a cliff, then hopping across some railroad tracks just before a train roars by. Ragged and bruised, he hitchhikes into the nearest city and hides among the homeless in a mission shelter. Meals are provided by a glamorous pair of American women: Barbara (Lola Albright), a widow who owns a mysterious mansion, and her cousin Melinda (Jane Fonda). They just happen to be looking for a new chauffeur, too, ideally a guy who looks good in a Kato uniform.

Delon: from frying pan to fire

It's a good deal for Marc since it keeps him out of town, where the mobsters are still looking for him. He doesn't want to stay for long, though; once he earns enough money he wants to reunite with the girlfriend with whom he started all the trouble. That doesn't fit with Barbara's plans or Melinda's -- it develops that they are not the same. Both women want to keep Marc on the estate, but Melinda's motivated by possessive lust, while Barbara has an ulterior motive. It's up to Marc to figure that out -- it may have to do with the secret wing of the "neo-gothic" mansion -- before it's too late for him. That means playing the women against each other if necessary, with sex as a weapon, but Marc is not the only player on the premises, and his isn't the only game. It may have been too late for him the moment he took the job....

Jane Fonda as Melinda

Lola Albright as Barbara

"Neo-gothic" is right, right down to the gimmick of the secret room and its possible occupant. It's only fitting, too, since film noir is arguably crime cinema with a gothic tinge, while Clement's film of Keene's story is a "neo-gothic" way station from noir to something else, something closer to the "swinging gothic" style of the giallo. It puts Delon in an extreme noir situation, caught between two rival femmes fatales, on top of an ultimately familiar noir plot. It ends up feeling like a cross between His Kind of Woman and The Beguiled, and in cocky gigolo mode Delon makes the perfect mark for the story, confident of his manly power to master the situation while someone is almost always a step ahead of him. As the femmes (the felins tag extends to Delon's character, described as a "wildcat"), Albright (best known as Peter Gunn's love interest) and Fonda control the tension between them quite nicely, letting it build gradually as you wonder which will backstab the other first. Also worthy of note is Sorrell "Boss Hogg" Brooke as a picturesque mobster shutterbug stalking Delon.

The prisoner of "Joy House"

Les Felins is slick and sleek throughout, thanks to Schifrin's moody music and Henri Decae's sharp cinematography. Clement keeps things moving with the occasional burst of action while slowly building the tension in the main triangle. There's nothing profound here but it'll keep you entertained and perhaps a little chilled by the end. I recommend it most for fans of Fonda and Delon and Euro-thriller enthusiasts in general.

Here's a French "Les Felins" trailer with English subtitles, uploaded to YouTube by icsprks.


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Rob said...

I believe, in fact, that this film was originally released in English. I owned that video and saw it many times before tiring of it (which I never really have.
If it is overdubbed in French, it is very well done, as the tones of the actors' voices match those of the real stars.
There are, in the more recent versions, scenes cut out, such as where, at the dénoument, Vincent nearly strangles Barbara, who in turn uses the attic trap door to try and crush Vincent's head. The older, uncut version is visually more interesting, and some of Albright's scenes have been diminished, giving Fonda greater profile.
Additionally, there have been numerous cuts of this film, one where it is Fonda who gives Albright the clawing on the arm, instead of conversely, as is most current, or in the scene where Delon asks for money. Here, Albright wears dark glasses, and when he leaves with the money Fonda (Melinda) gave him, Albright (Barbara) takes off the dark glasses and gives a dark, dirty look. Different, again, from the current release.
Nevertheless, the onscreen chemistry in this film, combined, as mentioned, with the music and cinematography, render this a classic thriller for all time.
May it always be available; never archived or destroyed.