Monday, January 30, 2023

Chair de Poule aka Highway Pick-Up 1963 French "Spaghetti" Western Noir

irected by Julien Duvivier (Pépé le MokoPanique). 

Written by Julien Duvivier and René Barjavel (screenplay), adapting a James Hadley Chase novel  "Come Easy--Go Easy." This was, by the way, also the first Chase novel I have read. I sort of shied away from the idea of English (UK) writers writing, crime, thriller, suspense novels set in the USA. Especially if they never lived here. So I was tuned into reading the tale with a skeptical, prove you can do it attitude. 

The way he does the novel is to create a sort of "noir universe" a Noirsville that uses the basic set up of a James M. Cain story but with added twists. Start it out with a botched burglary on a rainy night. Then a Chain gang, then an escape to a Death Valley / Lone Pine / Mojave desert like location. A "last Chance" truck stop. 

Think of a Noirsville that's a little dash of Bad Day At Black Rock, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Detour. The "good" guy is an escaped falsely convicted murderer who took the rap for his best friend. He becomes an employee and fast friends with the truck stops owner. The Femme Fatale is the owner's wife, supposedly and ex hotel waitress of some sort, wink, wink. Who got off a bus and stayed because it was convenient and there was a wad of cash to keep her there until she figures out a way to get it. It works. 

The film just changes the local to France but uses the same aesthetics and story. The truck stop, a last chance gas, called the  "Relay de Col" is an Avia station with lunch counter "Chez Thomas," on the arid Col de Vence, a mountain pass through the 10,000 foot high peaks of the Maritime Alps between the Mediterranean coast and the interior. The next gas is 96 kilometers (60 miles) The film also blends in a some nods to the Noir Western Rawhide (about a stage relay station) and enforces this with what sounds like a prescient  Spaghetti Western like score. 

The Cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel (Pickpocket (1959)) with Music by Georges Delerue (Black Robe (1991), Le dernier métro aka The Last Metro (1980), The Day of the Jackal (1973), Viva Maria! (1965),  L'homme de Rio aka That Man from Rio (1964),  Le monte-charge (1962) and (1963), Le mépris aka Contempt (1963)).

Robert Hossein as Daniel Boisset / Pierre Gilet

Georges Wilson as Thomas

Catherine Rouvel as Maria

Jean Sorel as Paul Genest

The film stars Robert Hossein ( (known for Noirs Du rififi chez les hommes (1955), Toi... le venin (1958), and Le monte-charge (1962))) as Daniel Boisset. Catherine Rouvel (Borsalino and Co. (1974)) as Maria, Jean Sorel (Belle de jour (1967), The Sweet Body of Deborah (Il dolce corpo di Deborah)(1968), One on Top of the Other (1969), The Day of the Jackal (1973), as Paul Genest, Georges Wilson (Poison Ivy aka La môme vert de gris (1953), Mélodie en sous-sol (1963) as Thomas. 

Lucien Raimbourg as Roux

With Lucien Raimbourg (Rafles sur la ville (1958) ) as Roux, Nicole Berger (Shoot the Piano Player aka Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) as Simone, Jacques Bertrand as Marc, Jean-Jacques Delbo as Joubert, Sophie Grimaldi as Starlet, and Robert Dalban  (know for Noirs Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Les diaboliques (1955), Berlin Express (1948), Un témoin dans la ville (1959), and Le monte-charge (1962) as the gendarme brigadier. 

The Story

Daniel Boisset and Paul Genest grew up in the locksmith business. Their fathers were locksmiths. On a recent job of opening a safe for a nightclub owner who lost his key, Daniel, getting a look at the tempting stacks of francs within, gets the itch to break bad. The nightclub owner is gone every night that the club is open with his gal pal till 4AM. 

Daniel talks his buddy Paul into pulling an easy job. On the night they pick to do the heist is where the film begins. They sit in a company 1961 Citroën 2CV AZU. It's pouring rain. They watch the street entrance to the apartment house. After a janitor rolls out a garbage can to the sidewalk from the service entrance they make their move to the front door. They enter easily and run up to the target apartment.

That door also proves to be cake and in they go. Daniel leads Paul to the safe (disguised as a cabinet) Daniel puts the dupe key in the lock. He takes out a stethoscope and begins to turn the tumblers. Just as they get the door open and are about to empty the safe, the nightclub owner returns with his gal pal who got sick. 

When they hear the door open Daniel freezes but Paul hides behind the living room door. The gal pal sees Daniel and starts screaming running out of the apartment and down the stairway. The owner grapples with Daniel getting his arm around his throat. Paul springs out from behind the door, and grabbing a small statue, knocks the guy in the back of the head. He goes down and Daniel and Paul run out of the apartment. Daniel heads down the stairway towards the street level, while Paul heads to the roof. 

All the commotion and screaming by the gal pal gets the concierge attention and he tries to stop Daniel from leaving. Daniel pushes him out of the way and runs into the street. The concierge follows yelling for the flicks (cops). Daniel start's running one way but sees a flic bearing down on him. He turns and begins to run in the opposite direction but the flic shoots him down in the street. He takes a ball in a lung. 

Daniel spends about one year in the hospital recovering from his wound. The nightclub owner died from his head wound. Daniel goes on trial for murder and is convicted. He doesn't rat Paul out even though he didn't have anything to do with the killing. 

On the train trip to the penitentiary, the flic escorting Daniel falls asleep on the train When he wakes up the handcuff lock was picked and Daniel is long gone.

We see a steam locomotive, pulling a freight drag around a curve and making it look easy. Daniel leaps off it from between two boxcars. He tumbles. Rolls, He gets to his feet. 

We next see Daniel walking in arid country, goin uphill along a high mountain road cut into the rocks of a cliffside. It's punctuated by switchbacks and tunnels. It's the Col de Vence, Vence, a 3,176 foot high pass through Alpes-Maritimes, (in the Town of Bouyon, Alpes-Maritimes, France).

Coming out of the shade of a cool tunnel we see a 1929 Citroën C6 flatbed truck, pulled to the side of the road. Hood folded back. A man, Thomas, is bending over the fender and tinkering with motor.

Thomas hears Daniel walking by and calls out, asking if he knows anything about motors. Daniel tells him sure, he used to soup up these old flathead Dauphine six bangers, up to a 140-160 kilometers an hour (90 -100 mph). They both laugh.  He fiddles around and tells Thomas to turn it over. Doesn't catch, fiddles some more. Then it fires. 

"Know anything about motors?"

"I used to soup up these old flathead Dauphine six bangers, up to a 140-160 kilometers an hour" 

Thomas offers Daniel a ride they hop in. Road trip. They share smokes and laughs. Thomas tells Daniel that he looks like a bum. Daniel tells Thomas it's because he got rolled for his money and papers. He also tells he been in a hospital for a year recovering from a punctured lung. Thomas tells him the air out here is the best thing for that. 

Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée , Alpes-Maritimes, France

They go through Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée a mountain town. There a gendarme stops Thomas and tells him that his brother in law Roux and his son have been shooting guns again and he's getting complaints. Thomas says he'll tell him. While this is going on Daniel uses a rag to wipe his face. 

Robert Dalban as the brigadier

When they get to the top of the pass Thomas pulls the overheating C6 over to the shoulder. He hops out and takes off the radiator cap. Thomas grabs the water can out from behind the headboard. 

Climbing the pass

Top of the pass

Thomas' spread the Relay de Col

While he's filling the radiator he motions Paul to get out and come over to take a look at his spread. Its the Avia "Relay de Col" Truck Stop on a small flat below them. A Last Chance Gas for 96 kilometers.

Thomas tells him that he makes extra money with body work tax free on the side and he could use a good mechanic if he wants a job. He really could use another hand at the place. With him helping out they could split the work into three different shifts, and get some days off. Thomas tells Daniel that he could take Maria to the movies every week. They are working two shifts now and its wearing them down. 

Thomas even tells him he converted an old stone sheep fold into a bunk room that he lets tired out truckers use occasionally. He shows it off to Daniel. He can stay there for free with meals included. Daniel can't beat that offer and its a good place to lay low for a while until the whole escape thing cools off. It's a deal. Finally at this point, Thomas and Daniel finally exchange names and Daniel makes up Pierre Gilet. 

Later that evening after he cleaned up and rested up at the bunk room, Pierre walks over to the lunch counter. He walks in on an argument coming from the kitchen. Maria is not hot on the idea of a hired man. Thomas tells her that they will have some break time and with his mechanic skills they can make more money. Thomas backs out of the door and reenters making enough noise that Thomas and Maria quit bickering.

Maria comes into the lunchroom with a cardboard box full of washed ashtrays. Pierre calls her mademoiselle, Maria irritatedly corrects him "Madame!"


Over food Thomas tells Pierre he lost his first wife five years ago. Tells him he was lucky to find a girl like Maria. After his wife died the nights were unbearable. So he closed the station and went down to Marseille. In the La Joliette Hotel restaurant Maria was a waitress. He watched her work and offered her the job to run his lunch room. She didn't say no. Thomas and Pierre laugh.

That night Pierre is laying on his bed by the window in the dark trying to sleep. A light suddenly shines onto his face. He sits up and he is looking right into Maria's bedroom. He watches her as she takes off her blouse and skirt. 

The Peeping Tom Sequence

She sits on the bed and slips off her sandals. Then she stands and looks out the window towards the bunkhouse. She sees Pierre peeping at her. She just closes the drapes.

The next day Pierre walks into the kitchen where Maria is sitting at the kitchen table torturing a fly with the point of a pair of scissors. She says nothing about last night. Her un-fastened robe is half off her shoulder, she is not wearing a bra. She tells Pierre there are coffee bowls in the cupboard. Pierre pours himself a bowl a grabs a slice of bread. Then watches her with a curious fascination.

Thomas comes in and tells Maria that with Pierre here now that he can come to town with her. Maria tells him she didn't know she needed his help at the hair dressers. Thomas tells her that she can do what she wants but he needs to get some supplies. He adds, then afterwards we can go to the movies. Besides, he tells her, he doesn't like the rowdy construction workers from the dam, that unwind in town at night.

When Thomas and Maria go to town Pierre / Daniel calls Simone, Paul Genest's girlfriend at a hairdressers in Paris. He tells her that he needs to ask Paul a favor which he owes him big time, new papers and a passport.

As soon as Pierre gets off the phone Thomas' brother in law from his first wife, Roux drives into the Relay in his 1927 Citroën B14 Torpédo beater. He's the French version of a desert rat, a scrounge who collects junk like packrat. 

He wants to borrow tools, he wants free food, he wants free gas, all the while telling Pierre what a whore Maria's is and that she is just shacking up with Thomas for the money. 

He tells Pierre that his son is from Marseille and knows her from there. Apparently she likes sex, and Roux tells him that if she didn't always have a man between her legs she'd fuck a cactus. Pierre chases him off.

After Maria and Thomas get back, Pierre and Maria are unpacking the box of groceries in the kitchen. Pierre tells Maria that he made a long distance call to Paris about his papers and that they had a visitor that knows her well, Roux. She asks him if he told him that she married Thomas for his money? Pierre tells her yes an a lot of other things. 

Pierre is called to the garage where Thomas is removing a car door. Back in the kitchen it all goes Noirsville when Maria sits down to peel potatoes and grabs the newspaper out of the box, and while spreading it out flat to catch the peelings sees Pierre's picture but with his real name Daniel Boisset. Reading the story brings a big mischievous grin to Maria's face. Her attitude towards Pierre does a 180.

When Pierre comes back into the kitchen Maria is singing. She breaks out a bottle of Cinzano and offers Pierre a glass. 

She tells him to sit down and peel her some potatoes. Pierre tells her that he likes her this way, before she acted like she wanted to bite him. She tells him women are fickle.

At about this point in their conversation Pierre pick up a potato off the newspaper and sees his picture. She watches his reaction. He shifts his chair over to block Maria's view of the table. She blows his hope out of the water when she calls him Daniel and laughs. She tells him to keep peeling, we'll talk about this later. 

Later, when Thomas is banging away on an auto body, Maria brings Daniel into the bungalow where she and Thomas live. She opens a closet door and behind it lays the safe set into a block wall. She wants him to open it when Thomas goes off to the French equivalent of a VFW meeting at a town that is a four hour drive one way from the station. 

She threatens to call the gendarmes if Daniel doesn't do her bidding. Her plan is to let him have some of the money and a 24 hour head start. Thomas will come home drunk and sleep most of the following day and he probably wont check the safe for at least a couple of days. 

The day arrives and it's raining. Thomas takes off for the meeting and Daniel and Maria head to the safe. Daniel puts his ear to the safe door and begins to turn the dial listening for the falling tumblers. 

A car drives up and honks. Maria goes out to take care of it. When done she puts the money in the till and grabs an automatic. 

When she gets back to Daniel she pulls the gun on him and pats him down to make sure he is unarmed. She thinks he will try to double cross her.  She throws a carry bag at him and tells him to put the money in when he gets it open. At this point she hears another car drive up. She runs out again to service it, but she see that Thomas has come back. 

The rain brought down a slide that blocked the road. She wants to get into the lunch counter kitchen but it's too late, Thomas is already moving through the lunch room and into the kitchen. 

Maria runs to hide behind the building as Thomas crosses over to the bungalow. 

Daniel meanwhile hears the last tumbler fall into place and opens the door to the safe. He takes out an envelope from his work jacket and places it in the safe. He hears someone come into the room. He thinks it's Maria returning but he is frozen in place when he sees it's Thomas. 

Thomas asks him what he thinks he's doing. Maria comes running in a announces "you see he could have cut our throats in the night." Thomas tells her to shut up. Thomas again asks Pierre what does he think he's doing? Daniel tells him the truth. That he is Daniel Boisset, that Maria found out that he is an escaped prisoner and was blackmailing him to open the safe or she would tell the gendarmes who he really is. Marie angin pipes up and Thomas again tells her to shut up. 

Daniel takes out the letter from the safe and gives it to Thomas. The letter explains that he was going to take all the money save a little bit to make his escape and send the rest back to Thomas. It was the only way he could think of, of  keeping the money out of Maria's hands. Thomas believes Daniel and gives him a stack of 30,000 for getaway money seeing as how he's not going on a round the world trip with Maria.

Maria freaks out and pulls out the automatic. She tells Daniel to put the money in the bag. Thomas turns and walks towards Maria. He starts to slap her around and the gun goes off. Thomas falls dead to the floor.

Maria screams and runs out of the room. Daniel picks up the automatic and tucks it inside he pants. The fun has just begun.


This is a great Film Noir, the general story is a wonderful riff on other familiar noir storylines and yet they are tossed enough to keep you guessing. Robert Hossein and Georges Wilson are believable as  friends and are both very compelling. 

Julien Duvivier and René Barjavel stick pretty much to the Chase novel with some minor changes. For instance, in the novel Daniel's safecracking partner Paul just randomly drives into the Relay de Col Avia station and meets up with Daniel in a true twist of fate. The locksmith company they worked for suspected that Paul may have been involved with the heist. The company thought it would be better for the company's image if Paul was out selling safes on the road rather near any temptation. Out of site out of mind. In the film Daniel actually sends for Paul to help him get a forged passport and papers so he could get out of the country. It's the least he could do as a favor. Also in the novel the shootout at the Relay de Col is between Daniel and a couple of crooks out to rob the till. They are eliminated in the film and Roux and his son come in looking for where Thomas buried his money.

Catherine Rouvel shines. She elevates herself into one of the great Femme Fatales of Noir. Her character portrayal in excellent. She is sexy, gorgeous, devious, and dangerous. She is alluring and it helps that all of her outfits are tight or quite revealing, most notably is what looks like a gold lame halter that becomes sticky and clingy after working in the hot kitchen and serving tables. The halter  leaves almost nothing to the imagination. 

Jean Sorel always reminds me of a French Robert Wagner, while Lucien Raimbourg and Jacques Bertrand are great as the French hillbillies. As far as the Spaghetti Western angle, besides the soundtrack there's also a scene between Daniel and Maria reminiscent of the Tuco / Blondie scene at the mission in Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad And The Ugly). Screencaps from the Gaumont DVD 9/10. 

Noirsville bonus more Cathriene Rouvel below as Sonja, showing off her assets in La rupture aka The Breach (1970) - How Noir of Her?

Possibly a photo shoot for  "Adam" n°32, June 1969 below.