Billy Wilder made his directorial debut with MAUVAISE GRAINE, a 1933 French film which he co-wrote and co-directed after fleeing Nazi Germany, featuring a charming performance by 17-year-old Danielle Darrieux. Released on home video in 1996, it's a very entertaining comedy-drama about an
irresponsible playboy who falls in with a gang of Parisian car thieves after his rich father cuts him off financially.
Henry Pasquier (Pierre Mingand), the spoiled son of a doctor, cares only about his sports car. While having a new horn installed, he meets an attractive girl named Jeanette (Darrieux) and charms her into meeting him for a date. When he asks his father for some money, the father (Paul Escoffier)
tells Henry that he's just sold the boy's car and won't support his lavish lifestyle any longer. Henry storms out and starts walking to meet Jeanette. On the way, he notices an empty car with the keys in it and he impulsively jumps in and drives off. He's followed by another car with three men who
have been watching him. They corner him in an alley, then accuse him of stealing the car and force him to drive away with them.
They drive back to a garage which doubles as the center of a giant stolen car ring. Henry befriends Jean-la-Cravatte (Raymond Galle), who loves to steal ties. Henry learns that Jean is Jeanette's brother and that the gang uses her to pick up men, whose cars they then steal. Henry and Jean go out
on one such job and Henry is thrilled by the illicit excitement. The chief of the gang lets Henry join them and he moves in with Jean. After a few more jobs, Henry has an argument with the chief over a bigger share of profits for the gang, and the two later have a fistfight. The chief decides it's
time to get rid of Henry and arranges for him to deliver a hot car to Marseilles, which Henry doesn't know has a bad axle and could crack during his trip.
Henry takes Jeanette along for the ride, but on the way, they're stopped by the police and a wild chase ensues. The axle cracks during the chase and the car crashes, but Henry and Jeanette escape unharmed and elude the cops. While walking home, the couple talk about how they're sick of criminal
life and decide to board a ship for Casablanca. Henry tells Jeanette to wait for him while he returns to Paris to get Jean. Henry goes back to the garage, but while he's there, a police raid takes place. Henry and Jean escape by driving a truck through a wall, but Jean is shot. Henry takes him to
see his father and asks him to operate, but his father tells him Jean's dead. Henry breaks down and confesses his criminal activities to his father, then goes to meet Jeanette, and they sail away together.
Considered to be little more than an obscure and minor footnote in Billy Wilder's career, the long unseen MAUVAISE GRAINE finally surfaced in the US in the early '90s and proved to be a rich and important early example of his work. Wilder is credited as co-writer and co-director, and his personal
imprint is unmistakable, particularly in the wry touches of sophisticated sexual humor, the dubious morality of the characters, and way the story's tone shifts from light humor to serious drama midway through. There is also the Wilder trademark of contemporary cultural allusions, such as when
Henry imitates Maurice Chevalier, or when Jean boasts that he stole one of his ties from Marcel Pagnol.
The cinematic style is also fascinating in the way it mixes several styles, recalling the past as well as prefiguring the future. The montage where Henry walks to meet Jeanette and the numerous chase scenes are all filmed in the manner of silent films, while the vivid location shots of Paris,
Marseilles, and the beach have a candid neo-realist freshness and authenticity about them, similar to Wilder's previous work on the classic PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1929). There is also a spirit of cinematic joie de vivre and experimentation--notably the enthralling shots taken from a moving car, several
jump cuts, and even the judicious use of a zoom lens--which looks forward to the freewheeling style of France's New Wave of the 1950s. MAUVAISE GRAINE is a delightful caper comedy that's also a thoughtful and moving study of maturity and responsibility, and a worthy addition to the oeuvre of one
of the cinema's greatest artists. (Profanity.)
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Billy Wilder made his directorial debut with MAUVAISE GRAINE, a 1933 French film which he co-wrote and co-directed after fleeing Nazi Germany, featuring a charming performance by 17-year-old Danielle Darrieux. Released on home video in 1996, it's a very en… (more)