Le Roi des Champs-Élysées
Nossek (so billed) has the genius to allow Keaton to direct as far as possible, which is quite enough to establish this film in the canon. His one miscalculation is to overdub most of Keaton’s lines with a French actor, even though the half-dozen or so brief lines Keaton is heard to speak in French are spoken excellently well, and one of the two characters he plays is an American gangster, and exceptionally difficult lines might have been rewritten. This is mainly a loss to the cinema on the order of Peter O’Toole in The Savage Innocents and Oskar Werner in The Angel with the Trumpet. Nonetheless, the French actor who dubs him does it well, and Keaton doesn’t need a soundtrack, anyway.
It happens in this film business that audiences somehow find it impossible to follow an artist beyond a certain point. That is what happened to Frankenheimer and Ritchie and Keaton, their best work in some respects was created in a void of non-recognition. So be it, they might say, let the future look to its laurels. In that light, a print of this film by the C.N.C. Archives du Cinéma presents itself as a restoration in much the same way Buster Garner here comes across as a tragedian, hopefully that is. But audiences are bored with theatricals too far descended from the classical heights, his botched entrances from the flies onto a paper moon or over a prison wall landing flat on his back are new, and in that light the opening scenes on the Champs-Élysées are a foreglimpse of Laszlo Kovacs.
His look-alike, the slightly Hitlerine gangster Jim le Balafré, who in spite of his name (which roughly means Scarface) is an American (and please note that the All Movie Guide has these characters reversed), breaks out of jail simultaneously. There is a mix-up in the gangster’s swanky digs, and a chase which culminates on stage.
Paulette Dubost is instantly recognizable as the soubrette in La Règle du Jeu. She praises the authenticity of Garner’s performance as an escaped prisoner, having watched from the audience without realizing the delays caused by an interfering ladder and a cane-seat chair.
The art direction is a comfy Deco, the chorines have a charming jazz number, there is an astounding evocation of the French tragedian, tons of very funny material, a poster for Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse, and Garner alone on the stage after the police have come and gone, modestly receiving the applause of a posh audience, until he faints away.
Madeleine Guitty as Garner’s mother not only anticipates Beckett’s Happy Days in the role of a stage prompter up to her diddies in her coign of vantage, she greatly resembles Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, too. Beckett’s Film is prefigured here as well, when Garner goes out to the kitchen to kill himself by turning on the gas, and first must eject the cat and the canary, only to be surprised by the gas man. And yet, according to Alan Schneider, the director of Film, Keaton the cameraman was not first choice.
The most distinctively Keatonian directorial measure is the low wide foreground use of the trapdoor in a hallway at the hideout, the entire floor in front of the camera (at a characteristic angle) simply disappears into blackness, taking a pesky henchman with it. Max Linder is no slouch, and Keaton must have had little trouble inducing one of the actors to drunkenly bumble off-balance up a flight of stairs.
Much of Keaton’s position seems to be presently occupied by those who, like Nicholas Schenck, just “don’t like slapstick,” and the rest by adherents of the maestro who take at face value his utterance, “you can’t be a genius in a porkpie hat,” all of which leaves little room for Keaton, never mind the magic and music of slapstick, and the defense of art in Le Roi des Champs-Élysées.
Pared down to its barest essentials, a robbery for $7.20, prison, a cinema holdup, bank robberies, a train robbery that fails to gain a Treasury shipment, wounds, death at the Biograph with $7.20 in his pocket, the lady in red is the box office girl he robbed.
Dillinger buys his girl a plush item, pays cash for it, sends her to the car and robs the joint.
He’s talking utilities and oil in the first scene. In prison, Bank Digest shows the wave of the future.
Not a bright one, with a one-track mind. The film of course is Manhattan Melodrama, with a Disney cartoon (Mickey Mouse) that makes him laugh like Sullivan on his travels.
Dillinger breaks into public enemy number one with a tear-gas robbery later re-created on The Untouchables. He’s betrayed by the gang boss he deposed, but escapes from jail by carving a small pistol of wood and shoe polish.
To begin with, he wants to buy a drink for himself and a blonde, the waiter won’t take a check, he robs a grocery store and bumps into a policeman. Out of prison, he elaborately smuggles weapons in to his future gang, they bust out firing, Nosseck makes the instantaneous transition to their first heist.
On his mother’s tearful plea, he’s paroled. He takes a job pumping gas at his brother’s service station, there’s a bank across the street. He organizes a daylight robbery of the armored car that picks up the cash.
There, shorn of petty details, is the action. Nosseck magnifies the portrait in a close-up behind the wheel of a getaway car at night, brows clenched, the curved rim passing over his upper lip, Hitler.
With no apologies to Buñuel, he dies from a police bullet in the city dump.