Sunday, January 20, 2008


This period melodrama, set in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War is really a WWII propaganda movie at heart. The story begins in the small French village of Cleresville, occupied by the Prussians. The local priest has refused to ring the church bell for any reason, deciding to keep the bell silent until he witnesses a worthy act of resistance. In the nearby town of Rouen, we follow a group of travelers in a stagecoach which will pass through Cleresville; most of them are effete, upper-class men and women; one is the young priest who will replace the older priest, one (John Emery) is an ineffective rebel, and one (Simone Simon) is a saucy laundress (read: prostitute) who is looked down upon by most of the other passengers. When they spend a night at a roadside inn, a Prussian officer also on his way to the village (Kurt Kreuger) invites Simon to "dine" with him in his room. She has earlier said that she has made it a point of pride never to "dine" with the occupiers, and she refuses here. At first, the travelers seem to respect her for her decision, but when Kreuger refuses to let the group go on their way, they begin to pressure her to give up her ideals and go to his room. She finally relents, and the next morning, even though the group has its freedom, most of them shun her on the stagecoach. In Cleresville, she takes a job at a laundry, and Emery decides to stay in the village to help the new priest protect the bell. Kreuger also winds up stationed in the village and soon, confrontations occur involving both Simon and Emery which cause the priest to happily ring his bell to let the villagers know that resistance has begun.

This little-known film, directed by Robert Wise, was produced by Val Lewton at RKO but it has been excluded from the Lewton canon since it is not a thriller or a horror film like most of his others (though it did rate a brief mention in the Martin Scorsese documentary on Lewton which TCM ran recently). Nevertheless, this is as well done as any of his more well-known films and deserves to be more widely seen. It is a bit talky, and as it is based on two separate short stories by Guy de Maupassant, the narrative does break in half in the middle with some loss of momentum, but the film still works as a whole. I actually forgot while I was watching it that it was set in the 19th century since it works so well as a WWII allegory--Kreuger played Nazis is many 40's films, and the portrayal of the beginnings of a underground resistance is a staple of wartime movies. Simon, the Cat Woman in CAT PEOPLE, is quite good as the noble underclass heroine. Familiar faces among the other passengers are Jason Robards Sr., Norma Varden, and Alan Napier. The title character is actually Kreuger, who is given the nickname "Fifi" by his men for his constant use of the mild French curse "Fi, fi, donc!" [TCM]

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