Melvin Van Peebles in Paris

Is your dream to become a film director? Well, don’t expect Hollywood to give you a leg up. You need to forge your own path and think creatively like Melvin Van Peebles. When he tried to find employment in the Los Angeles-based film industry, a movie executive told him there were no jobs but there might be an opening for an elevator operator. Van Peebles’s solution was to figure it out on his own and taught himself the basics through making some film shorts. Eventually, he relocated to Paris and reinvented himself as a novelist, journalist and short story author. As a writer in France, he was eligible for a director’s card so he applied, got it and adapted his 1967 novel La Permission as his feature film debut under the title, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968). The story depicts a brief romance between a black U.S. soldier stationed in France and the French woman he meets in a Parisian nightclub. The premise might sound simple and straightforward but the execution is decidedly original, resembling a merger between Nouvelle Vague filmmaking techniques and Van Pebbles’ own idiosyncratic directorial choices.

Melvin Van Peebles’s 1967 novel La Permission was adapted for the screen in 1968 as The Story of a Three-Day Pass.

Made three years before Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Van Pebble’s explosive action drama of black empowerment and defiance, The Story of a Three-Day Pass has all the earmarks of a first feature, flaws and all, yet it takes a bittersweet love story and turns it into something fresh and unpredictable. It kicks off with Turner (Harry Baird) being given a promotion by his commanding officer (Hal Brav) and a three day leave before starting his new post. He decides to spend it in Paris but, after some random sightseeing, he longs for companionship and finds it in a basement dance club with Miriam (Nicole Berger), a shopgirl with an open, friendly manner. They spend the evening dancing, drinking and talking before ending the evening with a promise to meet in the morning for a weekend excursion to the beach.

Nicole Berger (center) and Harry Baird star in the 1968 interracial romance, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, directed by Melvin Van Peebles.

The second half of the film chronicles their time together in an off-season tourist town which includes their interactions with the locals as well as the ups and downs of their developing love affair. A pivotal moment occurs when Turner and Miriam encounter three of Turner’s fellow soldiers vacationing at the seashore and the men’s reaction at seeing the interracial couple has unfortunate consequences for Walker’s recent promotion.

Turner (Harry Baird, center) is concerned that his three fellow soldiers from the base might report on his private life to the commanding officer in The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968).

For Harry Baird, The Story of a Three-Day Pass was the only time he was showcased in a leading role. A native of British Guiana, Baird grew up in London and many of his roles were bit parts that unfortunately emphasized the stereotyped casting of the period – a native warrior in Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), a tenement resident in Flame in the Streets (1961), a slave in Goliath and the Rebel Slave (1963). Still, there were a handful of roles where Baird made a strong impression in bigger supporting roles such as the upstairs neighbor of Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967), a gay wrestler named Lilywhite in the British pop culture happening The Touchables (1968), a chauffeur being manipulated by the boss’s nympho daughter in 1,000 Convicts and a Woman (1971) and a mentally disturbed drifter in the 1975 spaghetti western The Four of the Apocalypse, his final movie.

European film aficionados should be familiar with Nicole Berger for some key roles in major French films of the 50s and 60s, first as an ingenue in Marc Allegret’s Julietta (1953) and Claude Autant-Lara’s The Game of Love (1954) and later in more adult roles such as an ex-prostitute in Girls of the Night (1958). She is often associated with the French New Wave too because of her participation in Jean-Luc Godard’s first narrative short, All the Boys Are Called Patrick (1959), and Francois Truffaut’s tragicomedy, Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Unfortunately, The Story of a Three-Day Pass is her final film; she was killed in a car accident shortly after the film was completed in 1967.

A promotional still from the French drama The Game of Love (Le Bie en Herbe, 1954), directed by Claude Autant-Lara and starring a very young Nicole Berger.

As the featured couple in Van Peebles’s film, Baird and Berger are attractive, personable and believable if somewhat awkward and self-conscious at times. Yet, the latter qualities are completely appropriate for two lovers who don’t speak each other’s language fluidly or share similar cultural backgrounds. Van Peebles manages to flesh out their characters with some narrative trickery. In the case of Turner, he creates an alter ego that appears when the soldier looks in the mirror and his reflection engages him in conversation, often playing the Devil’s advocate and dispensing negative comments. This stylistic device helps reveal some of Turner’s interior thoughts and anxieties but almost addresses the issue of race in ways which are less overt in the narrative.

Turner’s mirror alter ego taunts him and is always sharing his negative thoughts in The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) starring Harry Baird (pictured).

Miriam, on the other hand, is coaxed into revealing details about her life and dreams in a long sequence filmed inside a car as the couple travel to the beach. Van Peebles alternates between sharply observed medium shots of Miriam with grainy soft focus facial close-ups in an effort to convey Turner’s point of view as well as to decipher Miriam’s body language.

Miriam (Nicole Berger) opens up about her life and her dreams on the way to a weekend beach excursion in The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968).

Even though the film was made in 1968, there are moments when The Story of a Three-Day Pass seems like a New Wave film from almost a decade earlier. Van Pebbles experiments with jump cuts, freeze frames, slo-mo, jarring edits and renegade, on-the-fly shooting and it creates a playful, anything-goes vibe. There is also a remarkable, almost magical dolly shot when Turner first enters the underground nightclub and appears to float across the dance floor as the couples retreat to the sidelines and stare.

One of the many visually arresting sequences in Melvin Van Peebles’ The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) starring Harry Baird (center) and featuring the cinematography of Michel Kelber.

One fascinating aspect of the film is how Van Peebles refuses to conform to the conventions of a typical romance drama from Hollywood. He shifts from broad satire (Turner’s commanding officer is an overbearing, cartoonish caricature) to documentary-like realism (book stalls along the Seine, prostitutes in a back street) to pure fantasy, such as the couple’s first tender sexual encounter which contrasts the imaginings of Walker (a country squire on his estate) and Miriam (on the run from tribesmen in the jungle!).

Hal Brav plays Turner’s pompous, self-righteous commanding officer as a racist buffoon in the 1968 film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass avoids heavy drama or message mongering but an underlying sense of racist attitudes and behavior is always lurking just outside the frame or sometimes hiding in plain sight. There is one unexpected moment when Turner explodes in anger in a flamenco cabaret when the guitar player toasts the couple as “Miss Big Eyes and Mr. Nice Black.” Turner attacks the musician and a brawl ensues, ruining a fun night on the town. Miriam is upset by Turner’s reaction and tries to assure Turner that the musician was paying a compliment, not an insult, but Turner ends the discussion with, “How can anyone think that black is a compliment.”

A love affair between a Parisian shopgirl (Nicole Berger) and an American soldier on leave has its ups and downs in the 1968 film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass.

What is most striking about Van Peebles’ film debut today is its unique point of view which is deceptively casual and candid. To see a black man and white woman in bed together being affectionate and loving was not something you would see in a 1968 Hollywood movie. Even though Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner had been released the year before and was considered groundbreaking, the treatment of the Sidney Poitier- Katharine Houghton was completely chaste and formal in comparison to Baird and Berger’s flirtatious, physical romance.

Melvin Van Pebbles (left) on the set of The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) with Nicole Berger and Harry Baird.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass is also subtle in seemingly innocuous little moments while Turner is on leave such as a scene where he plays soccer with a group of French schoolboys. That would not have been a common sight or even allowable in certain parts of the U.S. then. At the same time, France is not idealized in the film as some liberal utopia for people of color but a place where Turner is still made to feel like an outsider. A perfect example of this is an outdoor café scene where Turner is greeted by three black men at a nearby table. They might be immigrants from Senegal or some other former French colonial territory but after acknowledging Turner, they don’t invite him to their table and clearly seem to be making fun of him in their native language.

Some final notes about the film’s production: Van Peebles also composed the movie’s score with blues guitarist Mickey Baker (best known as part of the singing duo, Mickey & Sylvia, who recorded the hit single, “Love is Strange”). The music selections include a lush, recurring romantic theme song plus upbeat, rhythm and blues compositions like “Hard Times” and “When My Number Gonna Hit,” featuring vocals by Van Peebles (identified in the credits as “Head Nitwit in Charge”). Equally impressive is the luminous black and white cinematography of Michel Kelber who lensed such prestige films as Claude Autant-Lara’s The Red and the Black (1954), Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s A View from the Bridge (1962).

Miriam (Nicole Berger) and Turner (Harry Baird) hitch a ride with a French farmer on his hay wagon in The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), directed by Melvin Van Peebles.

Most film reviewers in the U.S. praised The Story of a Three-Day Pass when it opened with Renata Adler of The New York Times calling it, “A kind of gentle cross between “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”-a little hard to imagine, it is true, but less pretentious than the first and less false than the second.” Some critics may even have believed that Van Peebles was some new French auteur on the rise. At any rate, his film debut opened some doors in Hollywood and he would soon be hired by Columbia Pictures to direct Watermelon Man (1970). That was a mixed blessing since he spent a lot of time battling studio executives over creative control of the film including the change of the title from The Night the Sun Came Out on Happy Hollow Lane to the more demeaning Watermelon Man. Nevertheless, the experience inspired Van Peebles to go rogue and create one of the seminal films of the seventies, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), in which he served as star, writer, director and producer.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass was released on DVD by Xexon Films in January 2006 and includes a brief introduction by Van Peebles. The film is long overdue for a Blu-Ray upgrade and it appears that that situation will be rectified in the near future thanks to a recent 4K restoration by IndieCollect in consultation with Mario Van Peebles with support from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The restored film is distributed by Janus Films, which is a subsidiary of The Criterion Collection. The latter recently announced that The Story of a Three-Day Pass will be featured in a 4-film Blu-ray box set in September 2021 along with three other key Van Peebles films.

Other links of interest:

https://www.dga.org/Craft/VisualHistory/Interviews/Melvin-Van-Peebles.aspx

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7382-melvin-van-peebles-s-bold-debut

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