Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thought this was Gilligan's Island in French.
"A hidden gem of 1960s New French Cinema."
As I write, filmmakers are gathered at Cannes for its celebrated film festival. Alain Cavalier, the writer/director of Le Combat Dans L'Ile (released as Fire and Ice in the States), has presented four films at Cannes, and claimed awards twice, a jury prize in 1986 for Thérèse and Un Certain Regard in 2005 for Le Filmeur. Zeitgeist is giving viewers the chance to see the early work of a now-acclaimed director with the release of this modest 1962 black-and-white thriller.
In Le Combat, right-wing extremist Clément (Jean-Louis Trintignant, The Outside Man) believes he and his friend Serge have assassinated politician Louis Terrasse, but soon learns that their target is alive—and that someone warned him in advance of the attempt. Hiding from the police, Clément and his wife Anne (Romy Schneider, Good Neighbor Sam) visit Clément's old friend Paul (Henri Serre, Jules et Jim). When Clément decides to pursue his betrayer, Anne is left alone with Paul. The two fall in love. When Clement finds out, he wants to fight a duel with Paul—in other words, le combat dans l'ile.
Le Combat Dans L'Ile has a decidedly French New Wave atmosphere, with touches like Paul stopping for a smoke in a neon-soaked street after being beaten up by thugs. It also takes in the '60s political situation in France. What it turns out to be, though, is a noirish B-movie. That's the feeling you'll get when you're learning the details of Clément's right-wing politics or his plot from a narrator, taking in the shadow-filled scenery, listening to the violent Clément, or watching Paul gradually become violent to meet Clement's challenge. Of course, if you have to have a narrator tell you what you should be seeing in dialogue or action, it's better to have a Walter Winchell type than the soft-spoken voice heard here. That and the abruptness of Paul's final decision seem a little bit off, but these aren't unusual flaws for a low-budget crime movie.
The violence Clément shows in his politics turns out to be a reflection of his violent nature. He's abusive toward his wife and sends thugs after Paul when he learns of his friend's affair with Anne. Basically, Trintignant comes across like a movie gangster. There's also an atmosphere of doomed romance, as Anne gets to know Paul (and finds herself) only to have Clément return to threaten her new love.
The fact that Le Combat came early in Cavalier's career and was shot on a low budget works in its favor. The cheapness may have created an over-reliance on narration, but it also leads to a tight movie that focuses on its three leads. It may be New French Cinema, but fans of noir and B-movies will be most likely to find it the "hidden gem" the DVD cover assures us it is. It's not one of the essentials, but you're likely to enjoy it.
The movie is sometimes grainy, but I suspect, given its low-budget genesis, that this has always been so. Otherwise, the transfer doesn't look all that bad for a film of this vintage.
An extra, "France 1961," finds Alain Cavalier going back to look at his movie, using old photos to frame his anecdotes. Given the title of the short, I'd have liked to have learned more about the politics of '60s France to put the film into context, but he's still got some interesting things to say. There's a behind-the-scenes photo gallery but it has only a few pictures in it. A booklet on the movie was missing from my review copy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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