Joy House (Les Felins)
Joy House (1964) by Rene Clement is an unseen and underappreciated film that really deserves a look by anyone who is interested in cinema that is peculiar, offbeat and sometimes a little strange.
It was adapted from a novel by the prolific paperback novelist Day Keene. The French seem to have a nose for finding these things and God bless them for it. It stars Alain Delon one of French Cinema’s biggest stars who is still around but semiretired. In youth he was a handsome almost pretty man with the rugged nature of a mountain climber and the projected soul of a gigolo. At least that’s the way he came across in most of his films. Despite his looks he was quite a good actor who in his long career made films with nearly every great director in Europe at the time. Everyone from Visconti and Antonioni and even Jean Luc Godard. His international breakthrough came four years before with Purple Noon (1960) the first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. That film was his first collaboration with Rene Clement director of Joy House. Mr. Clement was a distinguished filmmaker who had received an Academy Award (Best Foreign Film) in 1952 for Forbidden Games. But despite their pedigree and some name American actresses in the cast the film somehow fell through the cracks. It never got an art house release in the US and wound up on the bottom half of a double bill that featured Delon in an American gangster film called Once a Thief(1964) co-starring Ann Margaret. The idea was to expose Delon to the American film going audience and launch him as a box office star here. But it didn’t happen and after several poorly received films he went back to Europe and resumed his popular and critically successful career.
But Joy House is a fascinatingly perverse film that deserved a better reception than it got. I saw it on the double bill mentioned above. Both films were reviewed and Joy House was dismissed as a worthless throwaway. The people I saw the film with agreed with that assessment. I thought they were wrong and I still do, I was quite taken with it. I thought it a quirky and original film that deserved a repeated viewing and a closer examination but no one I knew agreed with me. I still do and over the years I have looked at it several times and its fascination still holds. It still exerts its power.
In genre terms I guess one could describe it as absurdist noir. On screen it plays like a collaboration between Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window and The Bride Wore Black), Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco with a touch of Edgar Allan Poe thrown in. Delon plays gigolo/playboy/petty criminal named Marc living on the Rivera, who is discovered having an affair with the sexy wife of a powerful gangster who orders his men to kill him. They catch Delon and take him out to the country to do the deed but he manages to escape and winds up in a flophouse among derelicts and winos. He is there a week when two beautiful but somewhat strange women dressed in black come to their soup kitchen to feed them. He is told that they do it on a regular basis and the denizens of the place refer to them as “The Black widow and her niece”. The women are played by Lola Albright, a beautiful actress who had done most of her screen work at that time on TV, particularly the popular series Peter Gunn (84 episodes). She was 39 in this film. Jane Fonda, 27, but looking considerably younger plays the niece. This was the 8th picture in her career and the beginning of her French phase that extended from this film in 1964 to 1972 with Godard’s Tout va Bien. It is revealed in the narrative that the widow’s husband died some time before and that she has become a recluse living in a sequestered mansion with only her niece who also serves as her maid. On their first encounter the widow is taken with Delon and hires him as her chauffer. Fonda is pleased about this because her interest in Marc is somewhat more basic. He gets to the house, gets the lay of the land and quickly sets out to seduce the widow for what he can get out of her. He succeeds but it quickly becomes clear to him and us that perhaps he’s in way over his head with both of these women. While at the same time the gangsters are in hot pursuit and are getting closer and closer.
The film is moody, off beat and off center. Nothing is what it seems. The gangsters are deadly but sometimes their behavior is so inept that they could be mistaken as members of the Keystone Kops. And this is deliberate because the lead gangster is played by Sorrell Brooke who later played Boss Hogg on the long running series The Dukes of Hazzard. Albright in the role of the widow is quiet, seductive and dark. She delivers most of her lines with a disarming smile that contradicts almost everything she has to say. Fonda, in her part is innocent, kittenish, pliable and emotionally in need. But her character can also be sly and cunning when need be.
The house too with its winding stairway and multiple mirrors has its secrets as well. The whole film plays like a game of maze where the story keeps leading down one blind alley after another until it all comes to an abrupt ending but with a snappy little coda that is both ironic and amusing in the black comedy sense of the word. Joy House is a film that stays teasingly in the mind long after you’ve seen it. Give it a try, see what you think.