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Francois Truffaut - Friday Night Spotlight
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,The Bride Wore Black

The Bride Wore Black

In the spring of 1967 French filmmaker Francois Truffaut had in mind a small-scale, modestly budgeted film he wanted to make. It had been almost two years since his last picture, Fahrenheit 451 (released in the Fall of 1966), his first and only attempt to make a movie in the English language. It had been a frustrating and unsuccessful project in both critical and commercial terms and, after that experience, he took a break from filmmaking to concentrate on a book with collaborator Helen G. Scott about Alfred Hitchcock, based on extensive interviews with the director. During this difficult period - he was still upset over the end of his eight-year marriage to Madeleine Morgenstern (they had two daughters) - he began an intimate relationship with actress Jeanne Moreau. They had briefly been lovers during the filming of Jules and Jim [1962] and now Truffaut wanted to pay tribute to her by offering her a great role. The project, which was titled La MariƩe etait en noir, was conceived as a B-movie noir, and based on the 1940 detective novel, The Bride Wore Black, by William Irish, whose real name was Cornell Woolrich.

Besides serving as an idealized project for his muse, The Bride Wore Black (1968) was also partly a homage to Hitchcock, which was another reason why he choose a Cornell Woolrich novel to adapt to the screen; Hitchcock had based his 1954 thriller Rear Window on Woolrich's short story "It Had to Be Murder." Without spoiling any of the movie's subtle development of its premise, all you need to know is that it is about a woman who is obsessed with a deadly personal mission. Truffaut was a great admirer of the crime novels of both Woolrich and David Goodis (Dark Passage, Shoot the Piano Player) and in an article once wrote, "I see Irish...as the artist of fear, terror and sleepless nights...The plot usually centers around an ordinary man or woman with whom the reader can easily identify. But Irish's heroes never do things by halves and no unforeseen event can stop their march toward love and death. His world frequently also includes amnesia and mental problems, and his hypervulnerable, hypersensitive fictional characters are at the opposite extreme from the usual American hero. Just as there is a touch of [Raymond] Queneau in David Goodis, there is a touch of [Jean] Cocteau in Irish, and it is this combination of American violence and poetic French prose that I find moving."

Truffaut instructed his American agent Don Congdon to purchase the rights to The Bride Wore Black. Woolrich, a very sick man near the end of his life (he died in December of 1968), haggled for more but eventually sold his book to Truffaut for $40,000 and Oscar Lewenstein, Truffaut's co-producer at MCA on Fahrenheit 451, tried to persuade United Artists to finance it. UA was reluctant to commit to the project based on the poor box office performance of Fahrenheit 451 but Lewenstein finally secured a favorable coproduction deal for Truffaut that allowed him considerable creative control and the freedom to shoot The Bride Wore Black in France.

During the 1966 Christmas season, Truffaut and actor/writer/director Jean-Louis Richard holed up in the Hotel Martinez in Cannes and collaborated on a 237-page script, taking care to create a female protagonist with a methodical revenge plan but one who was also credible and not crazy or hysterical. The casting and location scouting quickly followed and The Bride Wore Black began shooting on May 16, 1967 in a rented apartment at the Residence Saint-Michel in Cannes.

From the very beginning, problems developed between Truffaut and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who worked often with Jean-Luc Godard and had enjoyed a creative relationship with Truffaut on three previous black and white features (Shoot the Piano Player [1960], Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin [1964]). The Bride Wore Black was shot in color, however, and this became a major bone of contention between them. According to the biography Truffaut (by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana), "...Truffaut found the scenes underlit. He quarreled with Coutard for the first time, and interrupted the filming for two days. The Bride would turn out to be their last collaboration...As a result of this discord, the filming was tense, with Truffaut expending a great deal of energy on trying to convince Coutard, so that part of the job of directing the actors fell to Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Louis Richard. Jeanne Moreau recalled that "There were tensions between Francois and Coutard because the light was supposed to change radically every week to suggest different locations, which in fact our shooting locations were geographically close. Francois was very mysterious, very secretive. He never spoke on the set. In Jules and Jim, there had been a lot of improvisation, in The Bride, none at all. The mood was very different."

If Raoul Coutard was the prime agitator on the set of The Bride Wore Black. Jeanne Moreau was its savior, exhibiting good humor and an uncomplaining professionalism despite her own difficulties. Like Truffaut, she was despondent over her personal life; she had recently broken up with Pierre Cardin, who designed the fourteen black and white costumes she wears in the film. Truffaut would later write in a letter to Hitchcock, "On the set, she is ready to perform quickly or slowly; be funny or sad, serious or nutty, do anything that the director asks. And when misfortune strikes, she sticks by the captain of the ship: with no fuss or to-do...The danger for her in The Bride is that her part is simply too extraordinary; the heroine, a woman who dominates men and then kills them, is too "prestigious." To counterbalance this, I asked Jeanne to play the part with simplicity, in a manner that is familiar and would make her actions unexpected, plausible and human. As I see it, Julie is a virgin, since her husband was killed at the church on the day of their wedding. But this revelation doesn't come out in the film and will have to remain a secret between Jeanne Moreau, you and me."

The Bride Wore Black proved to be an unqualified hit in France despite mixed reviews but its U.S. release proved to be only a modest success. Truffaut would later state that of all his movies, he liked this one the least. Part of the reason was his dissatisfaction with the filming of Moreau - he didn't think Coutard captured her beauty on the screen and disliked her costumes as well. The only aspects of it he liked were the two episodes involving victims Coral (Michel Bouquet) and Fergus (Charles Denner). Many disagreed with him though such as his friend Alfred Hitchcock who wrote him, saying "I especially liked the scene of Moreau watching the man who had taken poison Arak dying slowly. I think my particular sense of humour might have taken them a little further so that Moreau could have picked up a cushion and put it under his head so that he could die with more comfort."

As expected, most American critics pointed out the resemblances between The Bride Wore Black and Hitchcock's thrillers, which was made more obvious by Truffaut's use of composer Bernard Herrmann, who had scored Hitchcocks's The Wrong Man (1956),Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960), among others. This wasn't necessarily a criticism, however, and in some cases, the reviewer preferred Truffaut's thriller over Hitchcock's. Renata Adler of The New York Times wrote that "Truffaut is such a poetic filmmaker that the film turns around and becomes, not at all Hitchcockian, but a gentle comedy and one of the few plausible and strange love stories in a long time...A sign of the absolute confidence one has in every moment of the film is that, although one of the killings is done by high-powered rifle, from a window to the street, the movie recovers from real associations to that act almost at once. Everything is so clearly the result of thought and wit; this is, for a change, a film in which it is pure pleasure to be alert...It is not a great, great picture but it is touching and fun at a level so much higher than other films..." Roger Ebert voiced a similar opinion in his review in The Chicago Sun Times, writing that The Bride Wore Black was a "homage to Alfred Hitchcock. As homage, it succeeds. As Hitchcock, it doesn't quite. What a relief. Truffaut is a master in his own right...In The Bride Wore Black, he achieves what he was aiming for in Fahrenheit: a marriage of the French new wave and Hollywood tradition....He allows something else Hitchcock would never have permitted. He never explains how in the world Miss Moreau discovered the identities of her husband's killers (or were they?). But that would matter only if this were Hitchcock, and it isn't. For the rest, Miss Moreau remains one of the screen's great actresses, and there is a supporting cast of unusual quality."

Truffaut would later return to the work of Cornell Woolrich for Mississippi Mermaid (1969), based on the novel Waltz Into Darkness, but for his next project following The Bride Wore Black, he would enjoy a career resurgence with the autobiographical Stolen Kisses (1968), another chapter in the adventures of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) which first began with his debut feature in 1959, The 400 Blows.

Producers: Marcel Berbert, Oscar Lewenstein (uncredited)
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Jean-Louis Richard, Francois Truffaut; William Irish (novel)
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Production Design: Pierre Guffroy
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Claudine Bouche
Cast: Jeanne Moreau (Julie Kohler), Michel Bouquet (Coral), Jean-Claude Brialy (Corey), Charles Denner (Fergus), Claude Rich (Bliss), Michel Lonsdale (Rene Morane), Daniel Boulanger (Delvaux), Alexandra Stewart (Mlle Becker), Sylvine Delannoy (Mme Morane), Luce Fabiole (Julie's mother), Michele Montfort (Fergus's model).
C-107m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana
www.afi.com
rogerebert.com
The New York Times VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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