In 1974, the Canadian government of the day tabled legislation allowing 100 per cent of investment in Canadian feature film production to be deducted in the calculation of taxable income. The intent of the program, known as the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA), was straightforward. American dominance of the theatrical marketplace had made it all but impossible for Canadian-made feature films to turn a profit or even secure a screen at the local bijou. The tax sheltering was designed to move Canadian feature production beyond its self-limiting cultural and artistic parochialism towards a commercially sustainable footing. The legislation also was structured so as to open up projects to foreign involvement. Therefore, the CCA required that a production need only have a single Canadian producer and limited ‘above the line’ Canadian participation in order to qualify. As a result, caravans of Hollywood producers and stars, many of whom would make out like bandits, high-tailed it North.
As had been anticipated, the introduction of the CCA was followed by a production boom as well as the hoped-for boost in box-office receipts. In 1974, only three home-grown projects were filmed; at the program’s peak in 1979, the number had increased to seventy-seven. Admittedly, there were some stinkers among these rush-to-production projects: City on Fire (1979), starring Henry Fonda and Ava Gardner; Running (1979), with Michael Douglas and Susan Anspach; and Circle of Two, directed by Jules Dassin, who’d been dragged out of retirement to salvage the laughable love story of a womanizing artist, Richard Burton, and a much younger Tatum O'Neal.
However, more than a few succeeded, both critically and at the box office: Murder by Decree (1979), The Changeling (1980), Atlantic City (1980), Quest for Fire (1980), and two of the highest-earning Canadian movies of all time, the amiably wacko Meatballs (1979) and the progenitor of all teenage gross-out comedies, Porky’s (1981). Also among the winners was Canadian director Daryl Duke’s adrenaline-fueled thriller The Silent Partner (1978), filmed (and set) in Toronto, starring Christopher Plummer, Elliot Gould and Suzanna York, with a spell-binding script by Curtis Hanson (L. A. Confidential, 1997) and tense score by jazz great Oscar Peterson. The movie gave English-Canadian movie audiences, long inured to drab tales of rural and small town hardship, something to get excited about.
In French-speaking Quebec, things happened differently. Quebec cinema was firmly rooted in the province’s Francophone culture and audiences welcomed seeing their heritage and everyday stories reflected on screen. It also was possible for Quebec-made films to be successful without exposure beyond the province’s borders. However, producer Denis Heroux (Atlantic City, Quest for Fire) had ambitions for bigger and more commercial projects. The first of them was a Canadian/ French co-production, L’homme en colère, an atmospheric noir thriller set in Montreal and featuring an international cast, including Lino Ventura, Angie Dickinson and Donald Pleasance.
Ventura, the gravel-voiced French actor who specialized in stoic tough guys working on either side of the law plays an Air France pilot, Romain Dupré, whose wife dies in a forest fire while his young son, Julien, manages to escape. Years later, after father and son have become estranged, Julien immigrates to Montreal where he becomes involved in dope peddling and the smuggling of illegals across the Canada/ US border. Notified by authorities that Julien has been killed in a shootout with police, Dupré flies to Montreal to identify the corpse. It turns out not to be that of Julien but a crony who had lifted his passport and assumed his identity. His son is now on the run and Dupré commits to help find him. The search turns deadly as Dupré runs afoul of the Quebec mob with whom Julien had been involved. Along the way, Dupré encounters Karen (Dickinson), an ex-pat American working as a waitress in Montreal who is drawn into the hunt. Donald Pleasance creeps around as a go-between who’s looking for both Julien and a suitcase full of the mob’s money that’s disappeared with him.
Director Claude Pinoteau and the much-venerated Ventura (who has his own French postage stamp) made four films together, three of them noirish policiers: Les Silencieux (1973), L’homme en colère, and La septième cible (1984). L’homme en colère flaunts its mixed-production parentage, an amalgam of Eurocrime splashiness, bare-bones Canadian realism, and the grit and unsparing violence of signature American crime dramas of the period such as Across 110th Street (1972) or The Nickel Ride (1974). In L’homme en colère, a roused Dupré makes his way through a sleazy world of mob-controlled clubs and discos, seedy boxing gyms (Julien worked as a sparring partner), drug arcades and shooting galleries, and fleabag walk-ups. However, Montreal, can’t help being Montreal, long the most style-conscious city in North America, its streets full of boho hippy fashionistas and mod bistros done up in beads and burnished Naugahyde. It’s the ‘70’s and there’s no way around it.
There also is no way around Angie Dickinson in L’homme en colère, who at age 48 is as beautiful and as sexual a presence as ever. Though Dickinson’s virtues as an actress were not those of a major star, she was an assured performer who featured for over five decades in films and on TV. In the ‘50’s, she was memorable as ‘Feathers’, a flirtatious saloon girl in the classic western Rio Bravo (1959); in the ‘60’s, Dickinson was in full bloom as Frank Sinatra’s wife in Oceans 11 (1960), and then as cast alongside Lee Marvin in The Killers (1964) in a role that anticipated the remote and brittle femme fatale she’d play in the existential thriller Point Blank (1967). In the 70’s, she broke age barriers as a libidinous teacher in Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), a lusty bank robber in Big Bad Mama (1974), and a sexy undercover cop, Pepper Anderson, in Police Woman, a series which ran from 1974 to 1979. Dickinson reveled in the character that made her a household name by eschewing the sex kitten compliancy of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield in favor of parts more in-line with her real-life, one-of-the-guys persona. As she said in a 2010 interview, “If you’re only trading on your looks and your body, that’s only going to go so far. But that was never me. I was always about the whole package”.
No one understood this better than the French. Both The Killers and Point Blank when first released were better received in France than at home - as was Dickinson who’d garner more expansive coverage and praise for her performances. French director Roger Vadim insisted on her for the role in Pretty Maids, ignoring the list of actresses proffered by the studio and choosing Dickinson whom he thought “was someone who looks like she likes men”. In L’homme en colère, Dickinson likes Lino Ventura, though their relationship takes time to develop. It’s not clear for much of the first half of the film what Dickinson’s relationship is to Ventura, or to the story itself. Dupré first encounters Karen as a result of a car accident and then again just as incidentally. In the course of conversation, she tells him that nearly everything she’s said about herself is a lie and owns up to being an ex-con who spent two years in a US prison. When she asks if he wants to know why, he says, “No”. He knows little about her and nor do we. Karen disappears from the film for a time as Dupré resumes his search for Julien. But we’re ready for her return. Karen is a marked noir heroine, worn down but not worn out and holding out cautious hope. Dupré seeks her out after being beaten half-to-death by mob thugs, in an attempt to persuade him to surrender his son. Karen and Dupré now share too much. They’re in it together.
Still, Dupré resists any easy intimacy. As he gets on a train to meet up with his son, Karen says, “I don’t think you’re the type to kiss a woman on a platform before a train leaves”. Dupré, again, says “No” but this time embraces and kisses her with a fury. This scene proved difficult for Ventura, a profoundly moral man who had never kissed a woman on-screen, both out of personal modesty and respect for his wife and children. This time though he made an exception. Dickinson said that on the first take he grabbed and kissed her to the point of asphyxiation. It took several more tries before Ventura relaxed enough to proffer a more sensual kiss, all with the willing participation of Dickinson.
Ventura is his usual dominating persona in L’homme en colère, though it’s more dependent on physicality than acting skills, in greater evidence in French noir touchstones such as Touchez-pas au grisbi (1954), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) and Classe tous risques (1960). However, like Robert Mitchum, Ventura only had to show up to give an indelible performance. Ventura’s peasant strength provides an anchoring counterpoint to Dickinson’s vulnerability and need.
L’homme en colère is a harsh and hectic crime thriller but one with a beating heart. Though it refers to American crime dramas of the early ‘70’s, it’s also evokes French policiers and Italian poliziotteschi of the time, due in part to the film’s being set in Montreal and its distinctive international milieu. Only French jazz composer Claude Bolling’s mawkish score and the film’s fabricated ending bring it down a level.
As for the CCA, it came to an end in 1982. Too many of the films failed to find distribution, being derivative efforts indistinguishable from US productions just as badly made. However, like the British quota system of the 1930s, which resulted in sub-standard output but also nurtured Alfred Hitchcock and Alexander Korda, the CCA gave rise to the beginnings of a dynamic Canadian film and television industry. It also gave us L’homme en colère and The Silent Partner, two certifiable Canadian film noirs, something one might reasonably have thought to be an oxymoron. Vive le film noir, vive le Canada.
(A version of this article appeared in Issue No. 21 of NOIR CITY magazine)