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CLOCKMAKER, THE (L’Horloger de Saint-Paul)(director/writer: Bertrand Tavernier; screenwriters: from the book “The Clockmaker of Everton” by Georges Simenon/Jean Aurenche/Pierre Bost; cinematographer: Pierre-Wiliam Glenn; editor: Armand Psenny; cast: Philippe Noiret (Descombes), Jean Rochefort (Commissioner Guiboud), Jacques Denis (Antoine), Julien Bertheau (Edouard), Christine Pascal (Lilliane), Andrée Tainsy (Madeleine), Sylvain Rougerie (Bernard), William Sabatier (Lawyer), Yves Alfonso (Policeman Bricard); Runtime: 105; Kino International; 1973-France)
“Philippe Noiret is marvelous in this role…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is ex-film critic Bertrand Tavernier’s worthy film debut. Tavernier chooses to adapt a book by Georges Simenon, while working on the screenplay with Aurenche and Bost to make it a technically well-crafted precision effort in directing, screenwriting, and acting. Tavernier came up with a riveting, old-fashioned character study for a crime story film about an aging, bourgeois, clockmaker in Lyons, with a hangdog expression, named Descombes (Noiret). Descombes is shaken out of his lethargy when he learns his only son has been arrested for murder.

Descombes learns of this after we first see the divorced father, widow, and longtime bachelor, having an enjoyable boys’ night out in his favorite restaurant, where his friends make witty comments on the news topics of the day: the elections, the leftists, a demonstration by streetwalkers, and capital punishment. Antoine (Denis), one of his close friends, is a Communist sympathizer and feels disgusted that France can have Communist mayors for their cities but not trust them to be elected president. The clockmaker walks back to his apartment with a look of contentment after a hearty meal, some wine, and the warmth of friendship under his overweight belt.

The next day two policemen come to Descombes’ workplace and search his back apartment. They especially search his son Bernard’s (Rougerie) room before bringing him down to the police station where the police chief, Guiboud (Rochefort), tells him his son is wanted for murdering a factory security guard and has not been apprehended. That his girlfriend Lilliane (Pascal), a fired worker at the factory, was with him, and that there was an eyewitness. He also torched the victim’s car.

Descombes will have to deal with the following: the press, who are just interested in getting the story to sell papers; right-wing thugs who break his store window; and, he will encounter two factory girls, who confirm how nasty the murdered dead guard was to women.

The beauty is in the touches that Tavernier uses to show how much the relationship means to the father and how baffled he is that he doesn’t know what to do to help his son, as he takes the trolley back home from the police station and can’t stand without feeling ill–so he has to ask a passenger for his seat. We soon learn that he was estranged from his son for no particular reason as his son was raised by a caretaker, Madeleine (Tainsy). That the father hardly knows much about his teenager son, and questions himself about what he did wrong and why they couldn’t communicate.

The police chief sympathizes with him as a fellow father who has a son the same age, and appreciates that the clockmaker is the typical Frenchman who is representative of all French fathers who suffer because of the communication gap between generations. The father will do anything for his son, he even appeals over the radio for his son to give himself up because he thinks that’s the best thing to do to avoid being shot on sight by the police. It soon becomes evident that the victim was a brutish man, a parachute war hero in Indochina who hated leftists, who leered at the women workers and sexually harassed Lilliane, even getting her fired for stealing transistors from the factory. There is also the possibility that he might have raped her.

But when the runaway couple is caught on the island of Bréhat, his son refuses to see him and offers no defense for his actions except to say that the guard was filth and deserved to die. When the high-priced smooth lawyer the clockmaker hired tries to build a case of it being a crime of passion to get the public’s sympathy in order to knock down the time in the inevitable jail sentence, the accused insists he killed the guard because he’s a pig and deserved to be killed.

The film is told with precision in an almost documentary style just like how the clockmaker works to fix his clocks, and that is also how he goes about investigating what his son did. He finally decides to let the trial go the way his son wants and fully backs him, even though he realizes his son will get a stiff sentence. It turns out he gets 20-years, while his pregnant girlfriend gets 5-years.

But the silver cloud in the story’s lining is that Descombes can now openly communicate with his son, there are no more barriers even if they are talking to each other briefly during prison visiting hours in a noisy room and from behind bars.

The film kept me engrossed in the assured way it told its story and the way it created a very real atmosphere of the Lyons locale, but the story itself was very slight and not all that reassuring. The kid could have used a shrink or someone he could relate to, in order to clue him in that you shouldn’t kill someone just because you don’t like them.

Philippe Noiret is marvelous in this role, his every action is done with a fine precision that mimics the kind of work he does as a clockmaker.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”