The French filmmaker Claude Chabrol has directed over 70 films in his illustrious career. Many of them are thriller-dramas much in the vein of Hitchcock but with a stinging anti-bourgeois perspective and somewhat intellectual veneer.
He is a master who has been able to maintain a long, profligate career which is now in its fifth decade. The recently released The Claude Chabrol Collection from Pathfinder Video features eight of his films from the 1970's and is an excellent introduction to his work. The collection includes at least three of his masterpieces and I've listed all 8 here in order of my preference.
La Boucher (1.66:1) (Commentary Track)
This tight thriller is perhaps his best film. It tells the story of a small town school teacher (Stéphane Audran) who befriends a butcher (Jean Yanne) at about the same time that a serial killer is on the loose. It's a fine whodunit but not because it has tricks up its sleeve but because of the fine script, good acting and character development and the taut direction.
This Man Must Die (1.66:1)
The intense thriller is about a man (Michel Duchaussoy) who seeks revenge for the hit and drive death of his son. The entire plot revolves around the man's concentrated search for the cold-blooded killer and the interestnig things he encounters when he finds the killer. The film is among Chabrol's most perfectly structured and realized films.
Les Biches (1.66:1) (Commentary Track)
This character driven drama (pronounced lay beesh) is tightly arranged drama about a rich woman (Stéphane Audran) and a common woman (Jacqueline Sassard) whose relationship falls apart when a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) enters their lives. At once a ménage a trios gone bad and a psychological study of sacrifice brought on by unusual obedience, the loss of identity and madness. It would make a good double bill with Ingmar Bergman's Persona
La Rupture (1.66:1) (Commentary Track)
A woman (Stéphane Audran) defends herself and her young son from a vicious attack by her husband and suddenly finds herself in the battle for the custody of her son. While she waits for her son to recover in a nearby hospital she holes up in an unusual boarding house. Meanwhile her husband's conniving mother and father hire a man (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to do anything and everything to discredit her. The film is a lot looser than other Chabrol films – there is even a psychedelic angle – but it is still gripping.
The Unfaithful Wife (1.37:1)
This suspenseful and well scripted film is about a man (Michel Bouquet) who seeks to kill the lover of his wife (Stéphane Audran). The film is as tight as most Chabrol films but it is also a bit to cold and calculated. The film was remade last year as Unfaithful.
Ten Days Wonder (1.37:1) (Commentary Track)
Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles star in this odd mystery based on an Ellery Queen novel. In it Orson Welles plays a Citizen-Kane-like character (imagine that) who lives in a manson where he welcomes his son who has suffered memory loss. In time deception, blackmail and murder ensue leaving the viewer intrigued and a little puzzled. The film is not top drawer Chabrol but deals with many of his themes.
A leftist terrorist group kidnaps a US Ambassador from a Parisian brothel and take him to a hide out in the country. A detective one by one hunts them down until the final showdown in which death and destruction supercede diplomacy and intelligence. Chabrol leaves neither the police department nor the terrorists unscathed. The whole thing has a B-movie quality to it including low grade humor and rather slack gun fights.
Innocents with Dirty Hands (1.37:1)
A woman (Romy Schneider) and her lover plan the murder of her husband (Rod Steiger) but her plans go awry. The film has a few what I would call predictable surprises.
The picture quality for each of these DVD's leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the films show wear, have muted colors and are a bit blurry. The best transfers are for Les Biches (1.66:1) and La Boucher (1.66:1). Both are anamorphically transferred and have good (but not great) color. The picture in these two films shows a slight amount of artifact but at least the image is somewhat clear. This Man Must Die (1.66:1) and La Rupture are passable if only because their stories are so good. Part of the problem is that the films seem washed of color. It's obvious that they have not been restored. The Unfaithful Wife (1.37:1), Innocents with Dirty Hands (1.37:1), Nada and Ten Days Wonder are of rather poor quality. Each shows their age and don't look good although they do look slightly better than VHS.
A few of the films are poorly dubbed including Innocents with Dirty Hands and Ten Days Wonder. Each of the other films are presented in stereo and sound good but with a limited dynamic range. It should be noted that on a couple of discs including Les Biches the audio track automatically goes to English dubbing, which was not the original intent of the filmmaker – but it can easily be changed to French.
The extras are a mixed bag. The best are the commentary tracks, which appear on four of the films.
Les Biches has a fair commentary track by film critics F.X. Feeney and Wade Major. Feeney has a loose style but Major pulls him back in and is well prepared providing good analysis. La Boucher has a commentary track by Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Lee both of whom are screenwriters. Both complement each other well and Curtis Lee provides a lot of shrewd observations. La Rupture has a commentary track by Howard Rodman, Terry Curtis Lee and F.X. Feeney. Lee Curtis gives a very good analytical reading of the film. Ten Days Wonder has by far the most lively commentary but that's probably because it is done by three critics - F.X. Feeney, Andy Klein, and Wade Major – who seem to be good friends enjoying themselves. Each complements each other well and even though they go off subject a few times they are enjoyable to listen too. The only other extras on each disc are trailers and brief bios. Each of the films too include English or Spanish dubbing and subtitles which can be removed.
If you've never seen a Chabrol film this DVD set is the place to start. If you are a fan already then this is a welcome selection of his early 1970's films. The transfers are fair to good and the audio is just okay but at least they are better than VHS. One plus is that the viewer need not buy the entire collection; each of these DVDs can be bought separately.