After Plein soleil / Purple Noon (1960), René Clément directed the French star in the comedy Quelle joie de vivre / Che gioia vivere (1961) before returning to the suspense genre with Les felins, based on the Day Keene novel Joy House.
More of a tongue-in cheek noir, Clément co-wrote the French dub version with Pascal Jardin, whereas the English dub version was written by Charles Williams, best known for the suspenseful novels Dead Calm, and The Hot Spot. The wry dialogue is matched by smart-assed performances that seem to slyly satirize the worn conventions of double-crossing characters, and the film’s finale – brilliantly funny and cruel at the same time – provides the perfect wrap-up to a tale that’s more about overconfident, amoral swines than a man hiding out in the French Riviera to avoid persecution by henchmen sent by a cuckolded New York ‘businessman.’
Marc (Delon) is part James Bond and fool for letting his junior member decide his next course of action (stick to the girls), and director Clément crafts some great action sequences in the opening reel using long, fluid takes that sometimes appear to place Delon is mortal danger.
Once he’s hijacked from a church by a pouty widow Barbara (Lola Albright) and her jealous cousin Melinda (Jane Fonda) to become their chauffeur/handyman, Marc seems to remain in a constant state of confusion: Does he boff the wealthy Barbara, whom he suspects is hiding a man named Vincent in the walls of the chateaux, or does he keep teasing little Melinda, since her aim to claim the chateaux might actually fall into place, and that might benefit the womanizer in the long run.
The script keeps the character count low, and the final double-cross is brought on by a character whose initially subtle blackmailing clearly functioned as a rehearsal to keep a wayward tool under lock and key.
Henri Decaë’s black & white CinemaScope cinematography is luscious, and there are some deft touches where shots end on portrait-styled compositions, and lighting tricks add a bit of malicious glimmer to an already delicious moment of character scheming.
Lalo Schifrin’s score – one of his first feature-length films – clearly marked him as a talent to watch, because his instincts in nailing the edginess and humour of the characters is beautifully balanced with a great mix of nascent urban jazz, modern classical, and a collision of both for when the film starts to turn towards more serious plotting are desperate needs.
Often cast for his striking looks and rather chilling demeanour, Delon shows he can play a character with self-effacing qualities, and Albright is gorgeous in whatever pose or outfit Clément proscribes. Fonda elevates what’s basically a sexpot role to a wily little brat whose patience pays off when she doesn’t get her way, and Fonda’s scenes with Delon shimmer with the right amount of naughty electricity. Albright may be the veteran co-star, but Decaë’s camera is clearly trained on making Fonda look ravishing.
Koch Lorber’s DVD is a reissue of their older release, and the disc sports the French theatrical trailer as well as both English and French dub versions; the actors clearly spoke their dialogue in English (including Delon), and while the versions seem identical in terms of footage, the French print is much cleaner (and includes optional English subtitles quite faithful to the English dialogue).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan