Last Ace in the Deck - 1942
Directed by Jacques Becker
Written by Maurice Aubergé and Pierre Bost
Jacques Becker’s feature film directing debut Last Ace in the Deck (originally released under the title Dernier atout), is a buddy cop action comedy (or at least what passed for one at the time) originally released in 1942. Set in an unnamed South American country, this French-language film is the story of Clarence and Montès, two rookie cops vying to finish first in their class at the police academy. Since they are tied, it is decided they will both be assigned to a case and whoever solves it will be declared first. They end up being sent out on the murder of a foreign man who later turns out to be famed Chicago criminal Tony Amanito. The detectives, sensing that there is more to this case than there might seem, eventually end up tangling with Chicago crime boss Rudy Score and his sister Bella, who are also in town.
This movie is obviously an attempt to recreate the film noir genre for a French audience, but the noir elements are largely defanged by the introduction of humor to the plot. In the beginning, both the police officers are racing against each other to solve the murder and they do what they can to impede the other’s progress, such as hiding evidence or putting each other on the wrong trail. They must also deal with their pompous, loudmouth commanding officer, who attempts to take credit for the case all for himself.
Clarence and Montès draw straws to decide which will go undercover into Rudy Score’s criminal organization. Clarence cheats and wins and sleeps with Rudy’s sister Bella. Clarence and Bella each think they are seducing the other for information, but Bella ends up falling in love. Up until this point it was looking like she would be fulfilling the femme fatale role, but by allowing herself to be used by both Clarence and by her slavish devotion to her brother, she loses that designation.
Watching this film, I was surprised at how similar it was not only to American films of the time period (Pierre Renoir’s Rudy Score is very reminiscent of Kasper Gutman from The Maltese Falcon), but also of those that would follow forty years later. Things that have become known as cliches today were already present in this film. Clarence, smoothly played by Raymond Rouleau, is the “good cop”: quiet, intelligent, and earns people into his trust. Montès, portrayed by Georges Rollin, is the “bad cop”: leaning on witnesses and rushing into action. There’s even a version of the standard “fake confession” scene where it looks as though a person is fessing up to something, only to have the camera pull back to reveal that they are only rehearsing. Even the premise itself sounds like something that could be released as a summer blockbuster today. The only thing the movie was missing was a grizzled veteran to declare "Je deviens trop vieux pour cette merde!"
The main difference from American films is that it’s obvious that this movie was not made under the draconian restrictions of the Production Code. It is heavily implied that Clarence and Bella have sex, yet they are not punished at all for this action. While he is working with Score’s gang, Clarence also takes part in the theft and murder of Tony Amanito’s wife Pearl, but he is still regarded as a hero at the end. An American film also probably would have been unable to portray two police officers as competing against each other or their commander as a bumbling fool.
Overall I was very entertained by Last Ace in the Deck, and while most people may claim that it doesn’t have the artistry of the French new wave films that will follow it, I think that it shows that American noir films were already influencing French directors even while World War II was still going on.