He started his career by producing Les lavandières du Portugal in 1958, a film of Pierre Gaspard-Huit. He started to direct erotic feature films in 1961 with L'éternité pour nous.
Bénazéraf had a passion for German Expressionism and American Film Noir of the 40s & 50s. His favorite actors were John Garfield, George Raft and James Cagney. As soon as he was able he made this, his dream project, combining American style Crime Noir with erotica.
Cinematography by Edmond Richard, written by Anne-Marie Devillers (novel The Scent Of Fear) (as Dominique Dorn), and screenplay by Guy Fanelli (adaptation). The music was by jazz great Chet Baker an American trumpeter and vocalist.
The film stars Yvonne Monlaur (License to Kill (1964)) as Nora Rivière, Hans Verner as blind trumpet playing crime boss Eric Voltay, Michel Lemoine as Bruce Valdo, Jean-Pierre Kalfon as Sacha Margieff, Regine Rumen as Wanda, Willy Braque as Martin, an accomplice of Sacha, Marcel Champel (Jean de Florette (1986)) as Tito Mascani, André Rouyer as Rif, the accomplice of Valdo, Jean-Claude Massoulier an accomplice of Sacha.
|Nora (Yvonne Monlaur)|
|Pierre Chevrel (Robert Darame)|
|Sacha Margieff (Jean-Pierre Kalfon )|
|Rif (André Rouyer) Valdo (Michel Lemoine), Nora (Yvonne Monlaur)|
What looks added and somewhat out of place are the extended extra strip routines, and I'd surmise that a lot of outside location/establishing shots are missing, especially when considering that the various action sequences look like some thought was taken setting them up. The exterior shots left in look great. It's a Paris shrouded in the dead of winter with ice and snow in the streets.
As a result of the cuts the film feels a bit uneven. The strip sequences go on a tad too long with no serious connective explanatory back story footage to flesh out the male protagonists. Those strip sequences needed to either be balanced out with other shots or shortened.
The way the cut American distributed version plays though is interestingly more like its circa 1966-1968 American exploitation product equivalent, though shot quite stylistically. It's quickly apparent that in 1963 the French were 3-4 years ahead of American films (going through the slow disintegration of the MPPC), in what they could get away depicting, in terms of artistic freedom. The version I have runs 56:54, and is heavily narrated much like an American police procedural noir, this probably also was done to explain and bridge verbally, what the visual sequences that were cut probably showed.
The voice over tells us "that the story we are about to see is true, taken from Interpol file 218 code name: Eric." It's about one of the most brutal gang wars in French history.
The film opens at the old Club Lido (originally located at 78 Avenue des Champs -Élysée) with a long innovative, cabaret strip routine, to the mesmerizing free jazz music of Chet Baker. These sequences play like long erotic jazz music videos.
A voice over tells us that it's a Paris based French crime story about two rival drug gangs, the Voltay brothers Eric and Fred, who operate one of the largest dope syndicates in Europe on one side, against Sacha Markriff a small time gambler/pimp from Sicily on the other who wants to mussel in on their territory. Eric is a bit eccentric being not only a criminal mastermind but also a blind jazz trumpet player.
|Chevrel and Tito Mascani|
Maria tells Chevrel that he never showed up and didn't even call. She wonders if Eric Voltay and his brother Fred ran him out of town or worse. Chevrel tells her to tell Sacha that he thinks Eric is wise to Sacha's plans and that freelance assassin Mascani, is following him. Also tell Sacha that he's with his (Sacha's) sister Nora and that he will take her to her apartment. He tells her to have Sacha get over there with his boys to set up a trap. Maria however gets herself strangled by one of Eric's goons as soon as she hangs up the phone.
We cut back to the stripshow in the cabaret downstairs for some more routine. Then we go right back to Chevrel making a nervous call to Fred Voltay. Fred pleads ignorance but he is gunning down Sacha's rats one by one. Chevrel thinks from his previous call to Michael's girlfriend that he's setting up an ambush for Eric and Fred. Chevrel and Nora leave the cafe.
Fred leaves the bar to go to his car. At his vehicle he is kidnapped by Sacha's goons and taken away to Sacha's barge on the Seine. The barge is where he keeps his hookers supplied in grass and sells heroin that he gets from his connection "The Gypsy" to his clients. His biggest problem is that The Gypsy is unreliable which is why he wants to make his move against the Voltays and find out who is their source connection.
After dropping off Nora at her apartment Pierre Chevrel is shot in his car and Tito is captured by Eric (these scenes are missing in the American cut). The next morning Nora is visited by two undercover policemen. She was last seen with Pierre Chevrel outside her apartment house.
When Sacha calls Eric to tell him he'll exchange Fred for his heroin connection, Eric tells him no dice he's got his sister as a hostage. Five hours later Eric calls Sacha after he beats Sacha's phone number out of Tito. They decide to do a straight across exchange Nora and Tito for Fred. Eric wants more reinforcements and he gets them from his legit cover the Tanjay Club Caberet a strip club and brothel in the Pigalle section of Paris out of which Eric also pedals dope. The exchange is to take place in a woods near Eric's country house.
Things go Noirsville when Sacha heads for Erics house instead, Fred Voltay is taken not to the woods but towards a freight yard for execution, and Valdo drives Nora and Tito to the woods and into Sacha's ambush.
Fred manages to grab the driver by the neck when he swerves to avoid a tree, but get a bullet for his trouble. The out of control vehicle crashes into a tree catches fire and explodes. Fred escapes but dies a short distance away from a bullet wound in the stomach. Sacha confronts blind Eric alone in his house. As he is about to shoot Eric, Eric throws his trumpet at the only light in the room pitching them both in darkness, where Sacha with his hypersensitive perceptions has the advantage. Valdo and Nora manage to survive the ambush and Valdo turns himself in to the police.
It's interesting to note that the great score of this film about the heroin trade was performed by junkie jazz man Chet Baker. Baker it's reported was on drugs from the early 1950s. Baker like many other jazz greats would at times pawn his horns for money to feed his habit. In the early 1960s around the time period this film was shot, Baker served more than a year in prison in Italy on drug charges. He was later expelled from both West Germany and the United Kingdom for drug-related offenses. Baker was eventually deported from West Germany to the United States after running afoul of the law there a second time.
I wasn't expecting much, but was impressed with what I saw, the cinematography is interesting enough to make me curious now about what is in the cut sequences. I'd like to see it uncut and in French with English subtitles. The cut version is only a tease for what may be a decent Noir as is it's a 7/10.