The Forgotten: "Carrefour" (1938)

Charles Vanel plays a rich man with amnesia, plagued by doubts that he may not be who he thinks he is, in '30s French melo "Carrefour".
David Cairns

Curtis Bernhardt followed the route of his fellow directors Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak: Germany, France, America, but unlike them he never went back to film in Germany at the end of his career. I looked at his Marlene Dietrich vehicle here. Now let's consider one from his French period.

Carrefour (Crossroads) is an amnesia thriller. Je t'aime amnesia thrillers. They're particularly interesting since the kind of movie amnesia where you forget who you are appears not to exist in real life: if you lost your identity, you would have lost so many other brain functions it's doubtful you would be abe to talk about it. The device remains popular not just because it's so useful for crazy plots, but because questions of identity fascinate us.

(Speaking of crazy plots: French novelist Sebastien Japrisot, whose name itself was an anagram, wrote one of the best, the twice-filmed A Trap For Cinderella. If anyone can locate the sixties movie adaptation, I'd be grateful. An heiress survives a fire but her face has to be reconstructed and she has forgotten who she is. Another girl died in the fire. Can you guess where this is going? But the state of anxiety Japrisot spins out of this obvious and unlikely set-up is remarkable, as the girl swings from believing herself to be one person, then another, then back, and the plot keeps on throwing up compelling reasons why she wouln't want to be either...)

In Carrefour, industrialist Charles Vanel is beset by allegations that he may in fact be a small-time gangster who was mis-identified after suffering amnesia during WWI. In fact, his wealth and his family may not be truly his. It doesn't take us long to realize these suspicions are true, but what to make of the man who saves his skin, testifying in court that the man Vanel is accused of being died in North Africa?

Well, since this man is played by Jules Berry, who excelled as an oleaginous swine in Renoir's Le crime de M. Lange and Carné's Le jour se lève, and as Satan himself in Les visiteurs du soir, we may suspect him of lying. And when he turns up later to claim a reward for his story—or else—our suspicions are confirmed. What happens next shouldn't be spoiled, but there's plenty of opportunity for femme fatale Suzy Prim to inject the kind of doomed romance French dramas thrived on before, during and immediately after WWII.

All of this is served up with high noir style by Bernhardt, who would go on to megaphone duties on moody melos for both Bogart and Bette Davis in Hollywood. French cinema of this era seems to me to be a much closer influence on American noir than German expressionism, though Bernhardt's roots suggest that maybe noir can be created by a blend of German starkness with any romantically-inclined commercial cinema. There's a disreputable night club with patterned shadows and a mixed-race torch singer warbling in Franglais, and Jules Berry flaunts his punchable face with the usual relish, while Charles Vanel looks tragic.

Two things struck me as being of more than passing interest. A weird tree motif in Vanel's apartments suddenly struck me as a reference to the Ulysses myth. Remember, Ulysses too is a warrior who returns to his wife and whose identity is in doubt: he proves himself by referring to the fact that the marital bedpost is made from a living tree growing through the floor and ceiling.

Organic pillars follow Vanel around the movie, actually, and his former mistress's elegant boudoir is decorated with Greek busts...

The other link I made is with the case of film producer Bernard Natan, who had employed Vanel on ten or so movies earlier in the decade. In 1938, Natan was arrested for fraud, but the press muddled things by referring to pornographic films he was supposed to have made, either before or after his military service in WWI (they were vague about this, and tended not to mention his distinguished military career at all). Pictures were published of another man, an actor in porn films, who was supposed to be Natan. Like Vanel in Carrefour, the case seemed to be not merely about Natan's possible actions, but about his very identity, with the press continually referring to him by his birth name, Natan Tanenzaft, as a constant reminder than he had not been born French. Tanenzaft-Natan became a kind of two-headed monster.

Of incidental importance to this film, perhaps, but I wonder if the resemblance occurred to Vanel, and contributed to the air of melancholy hanging over his bulldog features in this film?


The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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