Darkness falls at the crossroads and near all is silent. Milky fog opaques the inky blackness pierced by an occasional light. In a mechanics shop a worker sniffs a pinch of cocaine hidden in a spare tire. In a locked room a lazy lady lounges near a turtle, the cigarette ashes tumbling onto its shell. Behind a nearby painting, a pistol and a bottle. Behind a garage door, a stolen car with a dead man in the driver’s seat. Behind a still nearer face, the soul of a murderer.
Such is the microcosm at the center of Jean Renoir’s Night at the Crossroads, a stunning mystery thriller based on the novel by Georges Simenon, one of the greatest of all detective writers. And at its center, the eagle-eyed Inspector Maigret (Pierre Renoir). When violence breaks out at a crossroads at the distant outskirts of Paris, Maigret descends upon the tiny community and discovers a maddening mystery.
Summarizing the actual story proves difficult; the film itself seems disjointed and incomplete (one of the most prominent rumors surrounding its production involves the supposed loss of three of its reels). Though the end features Maigret calmly working out the solution to a robbery and several murders, we hardly notice. As with American film noir, the story takes a backseat to the visuals, atmosphere, and general tone of pessimistic resignation and duplicity.
Though German Expressionism may have served as the primary influence for film noir, much of the genre can be found in its nascence in this queer little French film. First, the stunning cinematography. Renoir’s boldly experiments with light and darkness, frequently lighting scenes with only one light source or plunging the entire frame in blackness. Nowhere is this more effective than in the climactic car chase scene through village back alleys where the cars explode into and out of view with each passing streetlight or muzzle flash. Renoir repeatedly obscures his frames with odd junk and materials obscuring the foreground, transforming the viewer into a voyeur even during rudimentary scenes.
My personal favorite stylistic flourish involves an early sequence where Maigret interrogates a subject in his Paris office. Renoir cuts back and forth from the office to a street-corner newsstand to track the passage of time: at first people buy the morning paper, then the afternoon, then the evening. And all the while Renoir focuses not on the people buying the papers, but a gutter into which the headlines are eventually swept by a street-cleaner late at night.
Then there’s the lustful specter of Winna Winifried as Else Andersen, the sister of Danish immigrant Carl (Georges Koudria), the initial suspect of the murder that sets the whole film in motion. Vacillating wildly between coquettish nympho and soulless schemer, Winifried seems progenitor to the femme fatale tradition. The fact that she only appeared in a handful of other, more obscure films increases her allure. Who was this vibrant actress who so shimmered on the screen? Whatever became of her?
Though released a year before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Night at the Crossroads bleeds a nervous anxiety that something…wrong…is in the air. The townspeople are all viciously xenophobic, persecuting the Andersen siblings for their Danish origins. They only discover the first murder by chance after storming their house en masse to locate a stolen car. Why the Andersen’s house? Why, who else would be rotten enough to steal it?
Nobody in the community seems to trust each other. Nobody can. When darkness falls at the crossroads, near all is silent. Tucked away in their homes, people are scheming, fearing, killing, and waiting. For what? Who can say?