From Georges Simenon, writer-director Jean Renoir’s Night at the Crossroads is a dark, humorous, fog-enshrouded mystery in a remote suburban patch of near-nothingness, consisting of three houses and a garage, outside Paris. Pierre Renoir, the filmmaker’s brother, wittily plays Inspector Maigret, who is investigating the murder of “the Jew,” perhaps by “the Dane”: victim and prime suspect both “outsiders” (it is the presumably Danish man who refers to the murdered man as “the Jew”), conferring a conspiratorial air on the few locals and the busy space they inhabit.
One of the hallmarks of this film is its inscrutable ambiguity. Consider the bravura opening: a subjective shot, presumably from a moving motorcycle, surveying a tree-dotted landscape to the side of the dusty road. As prominent as what we see is the sound of the motor as the unseen motorcyclist rips by. A road sign indicates the distance to Paris, but also draws a line between a subjective camera and an objective one. In long-shot, a police sergeant, his motorcycle limping on a flat tire, pulls into the garage/station. We may be finally seeing the motorcycle rider from the film’s opening shot. Or not. Renoir may be having the fun of leaving the first rider, who is off to Paris, and giving us now an entirely new rider. But didn’t we hear the tire puncture and go flat? Did we? Perhaps the initial rider, who was headed for Paris, changed course after the flat. This would explain Renoir’s whipping the camera from the road sign to the garage for the officer’s visible entrance.
Hiccups of discontinuity puncture the narrative. Or do they? Some say an entire reel of the film has been lost, generating “gaps,” but the film proceeds in this manner from start to finish. Isn’t it possible that we are noting instead the discontinuous nature of the film and its elliptical style? (Alerting us to this possibility are the discontinuous sounds we hear as the opening credits roll: the motorcycle’s running motor alternating with gunshots.) Might not “the lost reel” be a legend much like the one that Renoir left Une partie de campagne (1936) unfinished when in fact it exhausts the Maupassant story on which it is based?
Renoir’s film fascinates; while excluding the upper class, its detailed observation of working-class and bourgeois individuals suggests a look-ahead to the satirical social analysis of Renoir’s phenomenal La règle du jeu (1939). On the other hand, this earlier film also has coy and lame aspects, almost all of which involve a dismal character: the sister who turns out to be the pretend-brother’s wife. Such masquerades are a low form indeed of ambiguity even as they contribute to the ambiguity’s thematic resonance.
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