As a big Lee Marvin fan, I have seen a large amount of his work on TV and the screen, even many of the early roles in the fifties when he was an unbilled bit player or an extra in such films as the war drama Teresa (1951) or the suspense thriller Diplomatic Courier (1952). As he moved into larger supporting roles, usually playing the heavy, he often became the most electrifying presence in the film, whether it was a noir (The Big Heat, 1953), western (Gun Fury, 1953) or drama (The Wild One, 1953). But he really hit his stride in the early sixties starting with his fearsome gunslinger in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and moving into starring roles with a string of iconic performances in The Killers (1962), Cat Ballou (1965), a dual role which won him the Best Actor Oscar, Ship of Fools (1965), The Professionals (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and the cult favorite Point Blank (1967). Nobody, however, even Marvin himself, could have predicted that one of his final movies would be made in France with an international cast and the result – Canicule (English title: Dog Day, 1984) – is certainly one of the oddest films of his career, if not the most eccentric.
Directed by Yves Boisset, who is best known for crime dramas like Un Conde (The Cop, 1970) and thrillers such as L’attentat (The French Conspiracy, 1972), Canicule opens with Marvin running through a wheat field as the credits roll and for a few seconds you might think you’re watching Prime Cut (1972) in which Marvin and Sissy Spacek (in her screen debut) try to escape a harvest reaper in the wheat fields of Kansas. Instead Marvin is in rural France playing an American gangster named Jimmy Cobb. An attack on an armored van in the city goes awry and Cobb escapes with a bag of stolen money. He buries the loot near a farm and hides in the barn but soon finds himself trying to navigate around the dysfunctional family that lives on the property.
Maybe dysfunctional is not the right word to describe the farmhouse residents. Grotesque, moronic, sleazy, homicidal and delusional might be better words. Horace (Victor Lanoux), the owner, is a drunken bully and peeping tom who treats his wife Jessica (Miou-Miou) like a servant/hooker. Socrate (Jean Carmet), his older brother, is a dim-witted peasant suffering from gonorrhea, Segolene (Bernadette Lafont), Horace’s sister, is an incurable nymphomaniac while another sister, Lily (Grace de Capitani), works in a brothel in the nearby town. There is also Chim (David Bennent), the son of Horace and Jessica, who is a conniving brat and troublemaker who lives in a fantasy world of his own. The only semi-sympathetic character among them is Horace’s mother Gusta, who is nicknamed “Fleabag” by her son and is constantly threatened with being placed in a nursing home.
You might feel some initial sympathy for Jessica due to the rough treatment she receives from her husband but she soon reveals a diabolical side which emerges in the course of the film and Jimmy Cobb is the first to realize it once she finds him hiding in the barn. Jessica agrees to help him escape if he will murder Horace but she also demands half of the money. Of course, everything goes nuts in the second half of Canicule and violence takes its toll on most of the cast.
Despite the opening heist attempt, which results in the deaths of numerous policemen and innocent bystanders including some school kids, Dog Day doesn’t really work as a suspense thriller. If you approach it as a black comedy, however, it is much more successful though there are some scenes that feel like Boisset was aiming for a broad farce. A typical example is the scene where Horace disguises himself as a scarecrow and hides in the cornfield so he can ogle two female campers who are sunbathing in the nude. This is also one of several subplots that strain credibility but only add to the bizarre nature of the film.
In case you are wondering how Marvin ended up in Canicule, an explanation is offered in Dwayne Epstein’s biography, Lee Marvin: Point Blank. “I’d always wanted to work in France and this was a French production with a good script,” rationalized Marvin. He also considered dubbing his own dialogue in French but ultimately felt he was not up to the challenge…The sole benefit for the actor was to be back in France for the Deauville Film Festival for which he was invited as the Guest of Honor. “I enjoyed that,” Marvin told the L.A. Times. “They’re such cinema fans in France. They told me stuff about myself I’d forgotten years ago. Best of all. Henry Hathaway was there…He’s the man who put me in pictures, remember?” (Hathaway cast Marvin as an extra in You’re in the Navy Now (1951) and ended up expanding his role).
The screenplay for Canicule was based on a novel by screenwriter/director Jean Herman, who had helmed some popular crime genre films for Alain Delon (1968’s Adieu I’am aka Farewell, Friend and 1969’s Jeff), but he was one of five writers who contributed to the Canicule script. That may explain the way-too-many plot twists in the final half of the film and the fact that Marvin’s role starts to take a back seat to the crazy shenanigans of the farm clan. In a way, Jimmy Cobb starts to become the Mr. Bill character (from the famous SNL skits) in the way he is increasingly victimized by everyone, even the impish Chim, who forces him at gunpoint to don a fancy fedora and smoke a cigarette in the manner of a famous gangster like Al Capone. Admittedly, Cobb is not the brightest bulb on the planet, even though he is death-defying with boasts like “I’m tough, mean and I have a heart of stone!” You know this from the outset when he uses a switchblade to dig a hole in the hard ground (to bury the money) and the blade breaks. Like duh!
Director Boisset may have intended Canicule to serve as a tribute to Lee Marvin and his tough-as-nails screen persona while commenting on the impact of American gangster films on French cinema. You also have to wonder about the inspiration for Horace and his family of misanthropes. They are even more degenerate and wacko than the white trash Snopes family who figured so prominently in the work of novelist William Faulkner, especially the trilogy of The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion. To top it off, the Horace clan are blatant racists as witnessed by their treatment of Doudou (Joseph Momo), the African immigrant farm hand who is constantly subjected to their insults (They are probably jealous of his pink Cadillac convertible).
As horrible as their characters are, however, Canicule must have been a fun lark for most of the first-rate French cast. Victor Lanoux seems to enjoy playing a horny, drunken lout which is quite a departure from his romantic image in frothy comedies like Cousin, Cousine (1975) and Pardon Mon Affaire (1976). Bernadette Lafont as the sweaty, grime-coated Segolene appears to be doing a parody of the numerous sex siren roles she played during the glory years of French cinema in the 60s and 70s. As for Miou-Miou, a superb French actress who has never shied away from edgy material, she has the most alarming character transformation of all, going from a depressed housewife to a cold-blooded murderess [Spoiler alert: The murder of her husband while he in the shower is unexpectedly harsh (even if he was unbearable) but Jessica’s seduction and murder of the local police investigator is a genuine WFT moment).
The strangest one of all though is Swiss actor David Bennent, who first achieved international fame at age 11 in Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum (1979), in which his character Oskar Matzerath stops growing at the age of three after falling down a flight of stairs. He was eighteen when he made Canicule but he looks ten years old or younger and is a disturbing presence throughout the film, especially the sequence where he uses some of Cobb’s stolen money to treat himself to an evening at the local brothel where his aunt works. Fondling all of the prostitutes, drinking expensive liquor and cussing up a storm is not what you expect to see from someone who looks like a nine-year-old boy.
It is also worth noting that several other familiar faces pop up in smaller roles in Canicule. Tina Louise of Gilligan’s Island fame has a few scenes as Marvin’s lover and accomplice in crime while Pierre Clementi (Belle du Jour, The Conformist) has a colorful cameo as Snake, Cobb’s treacherous partner in the heist who later brings his gang to the farm house to kill everyone and take the missing money. There are also prominent supporting roles for French character actors like Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), Jean-Pierre Kalfon (L’amour Fou, The Valley Obscured by Clouds) and Henri Guybet (Themroc, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob). And all of the madness is accompanied by the off-kilter musical score by Francis Lai (A Man and a Woman, Love Story), which uses synthesizers and strings in a conspicuous mix that would be more appropriate for….maybe an Italian exploitation film?
Needless to say, Canicule is a crazy mess of a movie but perversely entertaining and highly recommended for Lee Marvin completists. The film has been available on VHS in various editions for years including one terrible pan-and-scan, dubbed release. I never thought I’d see a Blu-ray release of this thing but Kino Lorber came to the rescue in December 2019 with a widescreen special edition of Canicule, which looks spectacular and includes both English and French audio options so you can hear Marvin swearing in French and talking dirty (dubbed by another actor).
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