Review: The Old Gun
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
The Old Gun came to the Second Seattle International Film Festival with a host of French “Oscars” (Picture, Actor, Original Music Score) to recommend it. While Philippe Noiret was excellent (he doesn’t know how to be less than excellent, in supporting role or lead), the film itself tended to confirm that the same sorts of movies win foreign Best Picture awards that customarily take the prize in the States. The Old Gun is basically a lame excuse for a film with a Big Subject: war crimes and their devastating impact on the hearts and minds of decent individuals. Noiret plays a French physician who treats wounded Frenchmen and wounded Germans with equal diligence and compassion, sympathizes with but keeps clear of the Resistance, and mainly tries to do his job and look to the safety of his family, a wife and daughter. Most of the action takes place within hailing distance of 1944, when the Germans were hanging on to their occupied territory even though it was apparent to one and all that Allied victory was near. Noiret ships the family off to an out-of-the-way village where his tribe has maintained a château for centuries. Seeking to protect them at this critical period of the fighting, he inadvertently puts them right in the way of retreating troops desperate to make up in havoc what they cannot achieve as tactical victory; he arrives on the scene to find the village massacred, his daughter murdered, his wife reduced to a charred statue by flamethrower. The Germans, scarcely more than a patrol, are still in residence, and he sets about their methodical annihilation, making use of his familiarity with the château and its subterranean, intramural passages and an old hunting piece he recalls being stashed away in an attic.
Robert Enrico gets a certain awful relentlessness in the scenes of Noiret’s revenge-taking, but mostly his narration is arbitrary and never pulls itself together with real force. We get a lot of cuts back to happy times with the family—and Noiret, Romy Schneider, and Madeline Czeray do make a tremendously appealing family group, charming, attractive, capable of having authentic, uncloying fun with one another. It’s satisfying, too, the way Enrico introduces Schneider as a good housewifely sort, then subsequently reveals that she was once a bit of an adventuress and is not, in fact, the actual mother of Noiret’s child. But by and large the switchback cutting develops little resonance, merely reinforces the obvious. Enrico is clearly a personal filmmaker—he returns obsessively to themes of time and memory, images of families and homes shattered in the most terrible, irreparable ways—but all his films after Au coeur de la vie… and Zita fail of deftness and suggestibility as visual experiences, being all but indistinguishable from the hackwork of other commercial French filmmakers typified at their best by the “Tradition of Quality” boys. (I felt a similar, if less crippling, dissatisfaction with another festival entry, Bertrand Tavernier’s highly applauded The Clockmaker—fine performances, interesting script solidly based in a Simenon novel, little visual or narrative grace.)
THE OLD GUN (Le Vieux Fusil)
Direction: Robert Enrico. Screenplay: Robert Enrico, Claude Veillot and Pascal Jardin. Cinematography: Etienne Becker. Music: François de Roubaix.
The players: Philippe Noiret, Romy Schneider, Jean Bouise, Madeline Czeray, Karl Michael Vogler, Antoine St. Jean
© 1977 Richard T. Jameson