Human trafficking is recognized as a form of modern day slavery today but it has been around for decades. In the early 20th century the white slave trade in Europe became a major crime phenomenon in which hundreds of young women went missing only to end up enslaved in prostitution rings. This criminal activity provided the basis for countless melodramas and sexploitation films but one of the most entertaining and accomplished efforts is the French feature Des Femmes Disparaissent (1959), which was released in the U.S. in 1962 as Road to Shame. Women Disappear is a more accurate translation for the original title but the movie is a tautly directed thriller which has the look of a vintage noir with moody black and white cinematography by Robert Juillard (Forbidden Games, Gervaise).
The opening crawl to the movie might remind you of the kind of law enforcement disclaimers that used to appear before dramatizations of crime activities in American melodramas like The Naked City (1948) or The Phenix City Story (1955). The text reads, “Every year, around the world and even here, thousands of young women disappear. Perhaps if they had been more aware of the fearsome tricks employed by the traffickers, some women would not have fallen into their sordid traps. Only by revealing the tactics of the bandits will it be possible to provoke their failure, by showing without pointless hypocrisy how the most odious constraints are exercised through sophisticated approaches followed by dramatic violence. Hiding the truth would mean hiding the seriousness of the danger and thus remain defenseless against the most despicable of traffics.” After such a pompous intro, you might expect a dour, documentary-like cautionary tale designed for police recruits but instead what follows is a slam-bang pulp fiction delight.
Directed by Edouard Molinaro long before he found his niche in gallic farces like La Cage aux Folles (1978), Road to Shame is the story of two young lovers Beatrice (Estella Blain) and Pierre (Robert Hossein) whose lives are immediately put in danger when Beatrice is imprisoned at a remote chateau in the Marseilles countryside by sex traffickers and Pierre attempts to rescue her. The villain of the piece is Victor Quaglio (Jacques Dacqmine), a refined but cunning international criminal with expensive tastes who procures unsuspecting young women for the sex trade in other countries.
When the film opens, Beatrice goes to a local seamstress to be fitted for a fancy dress she plans to wear to a private party for prestigious businessmen. In reality, the men attending are all illegal sex traffickers and associates of Victor who pretend to be fashion designers, doctors or any reputable occupation other than their own. Beatrice naively thinks the party may lead to better job prospects but once she arrives at Victor’s isolated estate, telltale signs indicate things are not as they seem.
Pierre is already suspicious of Beatrice’s evening plans (she won’t tell him where or why she is going out at night without him). But once he notices two suspicious men in a car, waiting outside the dressmaker’s shop, he decides to investigate. Nasol (Pierre Collet) and Tom (Philippe Clay), two thugs employed by Victor, are monitoring the situation to make sure everything goes according to plan. Coraline (Magali Noel), who recruits young, attractive women for Victor’s operation, drives Beatrice and the other party girls to the chateau but complications ensue when Pierre attempts to uncover the scam and find out where Beatrice was taken.
Events escalate quickly once the women arrive at Victor’s soiree and are given drugged champagne. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that Victor and his gang are extremely dangerous, willing to kill anyone who threatens their operation. It all ends in a lethal machine gun shootout between the police and Victor’s minions plus a spectacular brawl between Pierre and Victor in a greenhouse.
[Spoiler alert] At the conclusion, Pierre and Beatrice are among the few survivors so Road to Shame doesn’t really qualify as a true noir. Yet the movie looks and feels like a vintage noir with Victor and his henchman Tom emerging as some of the most memorable villains in the genre. As Victor, Jacques Dacqmine oozes reptilian charm and amorality as the sort of gang boss who gets everyone else to do his dirty work but punishes those who screw up or are incompetent in their jobs. As his top henchman Tom, Philippe Clay might be even more intimidating with his six-foot-six-inch-plus height and angular face which has a jaded, cynical look. He has a sadistic streak too which emerges in his work. Notice how he smiles as he beats his inept partner Nasol senseless and later smashes the man’s skull with a brick.
Clay looks like he could be Serge Gainsbourg’s evil twin, which is curious since Clay was equally famous as a chansonnier on the Parisian nightclub circuit and even helped advance Gainsbourg’s career by making some of his songs popular. Clay’s other notable film roles include Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956), in which he played the King of Thieves.
Robert Hossein, who was multi-versatile as an actor, screenwriter, director and producer, is often underrated by French film critics and audiences, and it may be because he was often typecast in roles where he played scoundrels, criminals or dissolute ladies’ men in genre films. In Road to Shame, however, he is recklessly heroic and barely survives several attempts on his life in a scenario that has enough action scenes and close calls to make the film seem like an old-fashioned escapist serial like The Perils of Pauline. If anything, Hossein’s Pierre has more brawn than brains but he is relentless and saves the day. To get a better idea of his versatility, you should check out his excellent contribution to the spaghetti western genre Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) as the director/co-screenwriter and star or delve into his filmography and sample the heist film classic Rififi (1955), Julien Duvivier’s Highway Pickup aka Chair de Poule (1963) or Le Vampire de Dusseldorf aka The Secret Killer (1965) in which he plays serial killer Peter Kurten who terrorized Dusseldorf during the Great Depression.
As Beatrice, French actress Estella Blain is elegant and lovely as the rather clueless heroine but the role is mostly decorative, giving her little to do in the male-dominated narrative except be victimized. Blain had some success as a pop singer and made a strong impression in some of her early work like the crime thriller Le Fauve est Lache aka The Tiger Attacks (1959) and Jean-Pierre Mocky’s romantic drama Les Draguers aka The Chasers (1959). Cult movie fans will recognize her as the femme fatale with poisonous fingernails in Jess Franco’s The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966). Unfortunately, her career never really took off and she committed suicide in 1982 at age 51.
Director Edouard Molinaro was a first-rate director of crime dramas and noirs as evidenced by such superior fare as Le Dos au Mur aka Back to the Wall (1958) starring Jeanne Moreau and Un Temoin dans la Ville aka Witness in the City (1959) with Lino Ventura. He was also an accomplished purveyor of romantic comedies like Male Hunt (1964) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a carefree bachelor and the spy spoof Agent 38-24-36 aka A Ravishing Idiot (1964) with Brigitte Bardot. For some reason he opted to specialize in more lightweight entertainments during the 70s and finally achieved international success with 1978’s La Cage aux Folles and its 1980 sequel.
Road to Shame is a great place to start as an entry point for Molinaro’s crime thrillers and it has plenty of attributes that reward the viewer on second and third viewings. For one thing, the groovy jazz soundtrack is composed by drummer Art Blakey and performed by him and his Jazz Messengers, which includes Benny Golson (tenor sax), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Bobby Timmons (piano) and Jimmy Merritt (bass). The entire film also takes place at night, which creates an eerie ambiance, and features a number of suspenseful set pieces such as a cliffside fight to the death and the brutal whipping of Coraline for attempting to help Pierre escape from the diabolical Tom.
My favorite scene of all is the final meeting between Victor and Tom as the former intends to run off with the contents of his safe, leaving Tom behind to get arrested or killed. [Spoiler alert] When Tom protests vehemently, Victor casually remarks, “I don’t take anyone along, especially you. You’ve got a face cops are unlikely to forget. I know people who died for less.” At which point, he calmly shoots Tom numerous times, saying, “[Here’s] one for your clumsiness. One for your imprudence…and three others for pleasure!” It’s a well-deserved death for Tom but Victor will soon get his comeuppance as well.
The soundtrack album for Road to Shame is still available as a CD and/or MP3 under the title Des Femmes Disparaissent on Fontana Records and is paired with some selections from Les Tricheurs, the 1958 Marcel Carne drama, featuring music by Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz legends. Unfortunately, the film Road to Shame is not available on any format as a domestic release in the U.S. You might be able to find a French import of it on DVD (no English subtitles) if you own an all-region DVD player but Road to Shame seems like an ideal project for a complete film restoration by The Film Noir Foundation or some similar outfit.
Other links of interest: