Billy Wilder’s MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934)

The name Billy Wilder looms large over the American cinematic landscape.  Rightfully regarded as one of the finest filmmakers to ever grace the medium, he’s responsible for the creation of some of the most memorable films of Hollywood’s Golden Age- ineffable classics like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), and THE APARTMENT (1960).  It’s only fitting that the 20th century’s dominant art form would be sculpted in part by a man whose life story played out against a backdrop of the era’s most significant events.  Unlike some of his flashier contemporaries, Wilder’s understated approach to narrative belies his reputation as a fundamental innovator in the comedy and noir genres.  He also pioneered of the idea of the filmmaker as “writer/director”– an idea that helped to usher in the auteur ere that would birth so many of our best contemporary directors.  The World War II years and the 1950’s saw Wilder operating at his prime, and while he would lose some of his artistic potency in later years, he managed to establish a legacy beyond reproach as one of cinema’s greatest masters.

Born Sam Wilder on June 22nd, 1906 in Sucha Beskidzka, Austria-Hungary, the future director enjoyed a comfortable middle class childhood in a Jewish household.  His father, Max Wilder, and mother Eugenia, owned a small cake shop inside the town’s train station before uprooting the whole family and relocating to Vienna in the late 1910’s.  When he decided that he didn’t want to go into the family business, he dropped out of school in favor of moving to Berlin to pursue a career as a journalist.  By this time, The Great War had already been fought and won, and Germany’s economy was starting to stabilize after years of hyperinflation.  He spent the first half of his twenties making ends meet by working as a paid dancing partner at dance halls and picking up the sports and crime beats for local newspapers.  It was also around this time that Wilder began developing an interest in film, spurred on by the work of German directors like Ernst Lubitsch.  When Adolf Hitler was able to parlay German society’s disenchantment with its government into thrusting his Nazi party into power, Wilder saw the writing on the wall (as far as his future as a German Jew was concerned) and fled to Paris in March of 1933.

Upon his arrival, Wilder settled in at the Hotel Ansonia, which was a notorious house of refuge for other members of the German creative class who escaped fascism– people like actor Peter Lorre, writer H.G. Lustig and composer Franz Waxman.  This motley crew of expats helped Wilder develop his own literary interests, one of which was a script for a feature film about the underground world of Parisian car thieves he called MAUVAISE GRAINE (1934).  Writing with Lustig and Max Kolpe, Wilder managed to hook up with producer Georges Bernier in an attempt to get the film made.  For whatever reason, it was deemed necessary to find someone with previous directing experience to helm the picture alongside Wilder, and Alexander Esway was enlisted as MAUVAISE GRAINE’s co-director.  Despite his credit, it’s dubious as to whether Esway actually did any work on the film– female lead Danielle Darrieux is reported to have mentioned that she never saw him on set.  Wilder would become one of the most prominent mainstream studio filmmakers of his day, but his first picture (and the first of several he’d set in Paris) was made firmly within the independent realm.  The film’s low budget meant that Wilder had to make do with the limited locations and resources available to him, all while multitasking under various hats.

Translating to “bad seed”, MAUVAISE GRAINE is set in then-present day Paris, an eternal city of light enraptured by the glittering baubles of the Jazz Age.  Henri Pasquier (Pierre Mingand) is a rich playboy who putters around the city in a luxury car bought for him by his wealthy doctor father.  One day, however, the father decides his son should learn the value of a dollar and a hard day’s work, so he sells off Henri’s beloved cruiser and tells the spoiled young man he’ll have to earn the privilege of joyriding around the city.  Instead of getting a job, Henri decides to simply steal a car, and in the process he inadvertently falls in with a ragtag gang of low-class car thieves.  Henri seems to enjoy his new life as an outlaw, and even finds love in the form of the gang’s glamorous moll, Jeannette (Danielle Darrieux), but it’s not long until he finds out the hard way that crime really DOESN’T pay.

Befitting its status as a low budget indie, MAUVAISE GRAINE’s 35mm black and white presentation is scrappy and decidedly lo-fi.  However, the presence of three credited cinematographers (Paul Cotteret, Maurice Delattre and Fred Mandl) makes for a surprisingly polished lighting approach– hinting at Wilder’s big-budget studio ambitions.  This is especially evident in the low-key lighting of the climactic Avignon car chase, the murky shadows of which foreshadow future Wilder’s innovations within the burgeoning noir genre.  His square 1.37:1 frame frequently showcases 2-shot masters with little supplementary coverage, strategically saving his close-ups for maximum dramatic impact.  While there are a few moments of subtle dolly work, for the most part Wilder chooses to employ a stationary camera in a bid to emphasize the performances.  Part of the overall rough-hewn image is a result of the deteriorated state of the film negative, but the real world locales also lend a hefty degree of narrative grit.  Wilder naturally had to make do with several lo-fi techniques to tell his story– because his budget didn’t necessarily allow for expensive process plates or rear projection, he would simply mount his camera on the hood of the car and instruct his actors to careen around the city for real.  While this technique might seem like simple common sense today, the dearth of poorly-funded independent films during the Golden Age of cinema meant that the practice was pretty much unheard of.  Wilder’s fellow Hotel Ansonia expat Franz Waxman collaborates with Allan Gray on the brassy, orchestral score, which unfurls without a break from start to finish.

Despite being made nearly a decade before Wilder’s true maturation as a director, MAUVAISE GRAINE hints at several thematic conceits that would come to comprise his signature.  At 70-odd minutes, MAUVAISE GRAINE is an exceedingly brisk little caper, and its tight plotting can be credited to Wilder’s writerly discipline and disdain for indulgence.  Wilder built his career on exploring the particular characteristics of the middle class, contrasting their experience with both those higher up on the ladder and those below.  However, MAUVAISE GRAINE isn’t particularly concerned with the middle class, as it was still a relatively foreign concept in the days prior to World War II.  Wilder instead compares and contrasts the privileged and working classes, showing a refined man of leisure “slumming it” with hardscrabble blue collar types who have to resort to criminality to eke out their living.  This situation is exotic and exciting to the young man, who has never had to work a day in his life.  Because the film is told from his perspective, the audience perceives this lifestyle as romanticized as well.  Even the film’s somewhat downer ending, where our hero and his girl have to skip town to avoid imprisonment, is slathered with a heavy of layer of idealized glamor– they’re off to exotic Casablanca, where even more adventures await.  There isn’t a trace of cynicism in Wilder’s vision here, perhaps reflective of the world’s innocence and obliviousness to the world-shattering horrors of the war waiting just around the corner– horrors that would touch him on a much more personal level than most of his filmmaking contemporaries.

The French production of MAUVAISE GRAINE afforded Wilder several narrative opportunities that he would later be denied upon his immigration to America, thanks to the strict content regulations of the Hays Code established only four years prior.  For instance, MAUVAISE GRAINE doesn’t shy away from letting its characters curse; indeed, it’s somewhat shocking to see the words “shit” and “bastards’ in the subtitles of an old black and white film. Wilder wouldn’t be able to use these words in his work again until the Hays Code’s abolishment in 1968.  Another example is the aforementioned ending that sees its criminal protagonist happily riding off into the sunset.  This wouldn’t fly under the Hays Code, where criminal enterprise was always punished, and those who strayed from the letter of the law left themselves with only two possible fates: a jail cell or a tombstone.

MAUVAISE GRAINE wouldn’t bring Wilder much success as a working director; it would be almost a decade before he got behind the camera again.  By the time of the film’s release, Wilder had already left Paris for America, where he would carve out a respectable career for himself as a screenwriter.  MAUVAISE GRAINE’s legacy within Wilder’s filmography could be positioned as a rough practice run for the stylish crime noirs that would make his name, and a safe training ground for techniques that would give us one of the most esteemed filmographies of the twentieth century.

MAUVAISE GRAINE is currently available on standard definition DVD via Image Entertainment


Producer: Georges Bernier

Written by: Billy Wilder, Max Kolpe, H.G. Lustig

Director of Photography: Paul Cotteret, Maurice Delattre, Fred Manl

Edited by: Therese Sauterau

Music by: Allan Gray, Franz Waxman


Via Wikipedia:  Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2002. ISBN 0-7432-1709-8, pp. 60-68

Via Wikipedia:  Philips, Alastair. City of Darkness, City of Light: Emigre Filmmakers in Paris, 1929–1939. Amsterdam University Press, 2004. p. 190.