American Race Relations and Juvenile Delinquency through the Lens of J’irai cracher sur vos tombes
Cinematic adaptations of books have a long history of being derided by the source material’s author, but few have as dramatic a claim to this dubious honor as this adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1946 novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes. Vian had been warring with the production team, including director Michel Gast (who didn’t have a particularly prolific or successful career), co-screenwriter Jacques Dopagne (who had an even briefer, less successful career), and two additional scribes credited with working on the screenplay, Louis Sapin and Luska Eliroff (yet two more people with almost no experience before or after this film). Vian was so dissatisfied with the way his material was being adapted that he demanded his name be removed from the film. Despite railing against the film, he was gracious (or morbidly curious) enough to attend the premiere on June 23, 1959. As the now famous story goes, Vian stood up minutes into the screening to shout out his angry disapproval of what he was seeing. He then, suddenly, dropped dead.
His final words were, “E questi sarebbero americani? Ma andate a fare in culo!” More or less, “These are supposed to be Americans? Go to hell!” It was a heart attack that killed Boris Vian at the young age of 39, but of course it was hard for people not to link his death, given the timing, to his frustration over the movie. At the very least, it was surmised, surely an existing heart condition was exasperated by the movie. That’s not an unreasonable conclusion, but alas, one cannot test for “furious about a movie” in a forensics lab. One could say that Vian’s death during the premiere of J’irai cracher sur vos tombes cast a pall over the film from which it was unable to recover, but that would be assuming that anyone was predisposed to like it in the first place. It was met with indifference from critics and audiences and then swiftly forgotten. Pretty much everyone responsible for producing it went on to, at best, paltry careers dabbling in motion pictures (the actors fared much better) or, like producer Janny Gérard, retired entirely from the scene after this one effort; amateurs who dipped their toes in the hot tub, got burned, and then vanished, leaving behind almost no information about how they got involved in the first place.
Given the incendiary subject matter, one could reasonably assume that the filmmakers were aiming for some combination of film noir artistry and shocking “ripped from the headlines” sensationalism. Christian Marquand (who worked with, among others, Roger Vadim, Clause Chabrol, Luchino Visconti, and Francis Ford Coppola) stars as Joe Grant, a black man living in Memphis (frequent reference is made to Mississippi, not Tennessee, but given that Memphis sits on very close to the border between the two states, one can cut the French a little bit of slack; there is a Memphis, Mississippi) whose skin color and features enable him to pass for white even though his brother is more obviously black. His brother is also carrying on a romance with a white woman, a taboo that results in the poor guy being lynched by a vengeful gang of whites.
Joe is furious but incapable of extracting vengeance and knows the police and most of the town approve of the murder. Instead, he carries the body of his brother to a shack and sets it on fire, an act that seemingly sets the entire shanty town on fire (likely much to the annoyance of his fellow black citizens). He then swears to get revenge by…driving to Trenton, New Jersey, where no one will know he isn’t white, then making it with white women. As far as teaching a lesson to the racist citizens of Memphis, Mississippi, it doesn’t seem terribly effective, but there’s little to imply that Joe is a particularly impressive mastermind.
Despite the veneer of tolerance boasted of in the north, Joe soon finds that racism is alive and well there. Passing as white, his “fellow” white neighbors are more than happy to drop slurs and flaunt racist sentiments. It’s not the same sort of violence that he witnessed in the South; it’s something more casual but just as prevalent and just as insidious. He gets a job at a local bookstore where the owner, an old man named Chandley (Fernand Ledoux, in La Bête humaine and, like Christian Marquand, The Longest Day), is picked on by local toughs that are about as believable as a motorcycling gang of terrors as Eric von Zipper and his crew from the Frankie and Annette “Beach Party” movies. Their standard mode of operation is to push around Chandley, get in Joe’s face, get punched by Joe, then sulk off only to repeat the process the next day. The gang, led by Daniel Cauchy’s Sonny (Cauchy was much better as the ambitious young thief in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur), are the muscle for local gang boss Stan Walker (Paul Guers). Walker’s is a decidedly small-time operation it would seem, given the goofballs he hires as his goon squad, the fact that his territory seems to extend to Chandley’s bookshop and a general store across the street. Plus, no matter how many times Joe defies Stan’s edicts (which are, admittedly, really vague) the most they muster by way of retribution is…well, sort of begging Joe to be cool about it.
For the most part, Joe is cool about it. He happily beds one of the gang’s girls, runs the book shop, and slaps around Sonny with impunity. All of Trenton loves Joe, because in this movie Trenton is about the size of Memphis, Mississippi. Joe’s presence is somehow a threat to Stan, or so everyone says, though there’s no real explanation of how or why. It’s not like Joe is gunning to become gang boss. He pretty much just skulks around in the bookstore, having pleasant sex with delinquent girls. Among the people entranced by this mysterious newcomer are rich sisters Lisbeth (Antonella Lualdi) and Sylvia (Renate Ewert) Shannon, both of whom find lumbering, awkward Joe positively enchanting (Marquand’s body language and acting here are best described as “not unlike a Frankenstein monster”).
Life probably could have continued like this, with Joe running a bookstore while sexing up the local delinquent girls and alternately tolerating and beating up Stan and the gang of young hoodlums. One questions how exactly that avenges his brother’s lynching, but Joe seems satisfied. Unfortunately, he and rich girl Lisbeth fall for one another, even though she is promised to Stan Walker. Her attitude toward this arranged marriage is fluid, and ultimately she decides to go through with it, resulting in Joe having sex with the wilder Sylvia in the bathroom during the engagement party. Even that seems of only minor consequence until Stan discovers the truth about Joe’s past…and Joe’s race.
Director Michel Gast might have been shooting for importance and film noir artistry, but he came up with pure AIP juvenile delinquent film silliness with an odd strain of social awareness which, because of the way it’s handled, transforms into cheap exploitation. Vian’s exclamation that the film’s idea of America and Americans was laughable (possibly lethal) is the least of the film’s concerns. Granted, Gast’s Memphis is not exactly Memphis, and his Trenton looks like something out of a production of Our Town. And sure, the mountains of south-central New Jersey have snow-capped peaks. But these are details of place that are dismissible. Similarly, the film’s gang of teen rebels are not exactly believable as a band of dangerous delinquents, but they’re no less ridiculous than similar gangs in movies made in the United States around the same time. Of greater concern is the fact that very little about the way this film is put together makes much sense. Joe’s entire scheme is daft but not outside the realm of believability. However, when he arrives in quaint Trenton, the mechanics of the world he enters border on surreal. This is a place that almost seems real, but the few things wrong with it serve to augment a sense of the dreamlike, or the sense of “someone who didn’t know much about Trenton, America, or making movies tried to make a movie set in Trenton.”
Stan’s position as “the boss” is undefined. We have no idea what his game is, the scope of his enterprise, or what he wants to accomplish by mildly hassling a local bookstore owner. Given the evidence on screen, he’s really nothing more than a middle-aged guy who bosses around a group of teenage toughs. In a city full of corrupt politicians and Mobsters, Stan hardly cuts an impressive figure. Similarly, his and the gang’s reaction to Joe changes from scene to scene with no reason. On one page of the script, their puffing out their chests and giving him grief. A page later, after Joe has slapped them around, they’re perfectly fine hanging out with him and having one of the girls be his plaything. Then they’re all back over at the bookstore threatening him and getting beat up again. None of them seem to carry knives or guns. Even Stan seems pretty lackadaisical about running whatever sort of rinky dink empire it is he thinks he owns. Joe embarrasses them at every turn, and their reaction is usually, “Yeah, well, we let him. Now let’s go have a drink with Joe.” At one point, it even seems like Joe and Stan are going to put their differences aside, let bygones be bygones, and join together to rule that drugstore and book shop empire, though that alliance falls apart when Stan brings Joe to a juke joint on the edge of town where he admits to a taste for underage black girls. So at lest Joe has some moral standards.
Christian Marquand isn’t a bad actor, but he’s hung out to dry in this thankless role, reciting clunky, nonsensical dialogue as he lumbers around town like a confused iceman who has just been thawed and can’t figure out the society of modern man. He has one expression through the entire film, whether he’s discovering the corpse of his brother, making love to a sassy gang girl, or counting the day’s receipts at the bookstore. As for the central conceit that he’s black but can “pass” for white, well, it’s true that Marquand wouldn’t be mistaken for a black guy. Oliver Reed with a perm, maybe. Michel Gast seems to have had no idea how to direct his actors, and so Marquand and co-star Antonella Lualdi just sort of show up, say their lines, and count the days until the paycheck arrives.
Supporting cast members Fernand Ledoux, Renate Ewert, and Marina Petrova (as the gang girl Joe beds) put a little more oomph into their roles, but no one seems to be on the same page. Some are deadpan, others are hamming it up, and everyone seems confused about the tone of the movie. Special mention must be made of Petrova for livening up the film a bit, and Jean Droze as Sonny’s suit-wearing right-hand man. Possessed of the presence of an awkward, timid teaching assistant, he never the less gets in Joe’s face at every opportunity and is mercilessly slapped around — yet never loses his appetite for posturing and swagger.
As for the film’s messages about race, it communicates them in a way typical of exploitation fare. Which is to say, it both condemns racism while reveling in it (Joe seems to develop a noose fetish, for one). There is a powerful point to be made about casual racism, about how even “decent, honest, tolerant” folks are racist in ways they probably don’t even notice, such as how they command around black servants, use slurs without thinking of them as slurs, or regard a lack of racial prejudice as something for which they should receive a medal and the endless thanks of minorities. There’s also something to be said for the fact that Joe escapes the overtly racist South only to discover the enlightened North is no paradise.
At the same time, however, the film is built on a central conceit born of the mystique of a black man’s sexual prowess. Joe doesn’t seek revenge by outsmarting racists whites, or even outfighting them. Instead, he flees town, shows up somewhere that had nothing to do with his brother’s death, and sets about satisfying his lust for white women who, in turn, are all mysteriously attracted to him, enticed by his black sexuality even though they don’t know he’s black. His brother is left without justice. The other black people back home are abandoned to the same racist institutions that would lynch a person for loving someone of another skin color. But hey, Joe gets laid a lot, so…victory?
All of these foibles, both technical and thematic, are likely the result of almost no one behind the camera possessing any experience with making a film or first-hand (or even second-hand) experience with the subjects with which the film deals. Some of the blame may rest with Boris Vian’s original novel which, for all his acclaim, is generally regarded with mixed reviews. At its worst, Gast’s clumsy film traffics in the same sort of racial stereotypes it sets out to condemn. At its most harmless, it simply creates an awkwardly paced slice of surreal “youth gone wild meets a tale of racial strife” drive-in fare that aspires to more artistic significance simply by virtue of being French. But speaking French doesn’t mean you’re not making a cheap, seedy Roger Corman film, and ultimately that’s what J’irai cracher sur vos tombes is.
The same year, British director Basil Deardon made Sapphire, a film about a murdered black woman who easily passed in society for white. Dearden’s film is much better at dealing with the serious topic of racism both violent and casual and with racial identity, so if you want to see a competent handling of the material, watch that instead. But there’s something interesting about the mess that is I Spit On Your Grave (in which there no graves, spit upon or otherwise), bad choices and all, taken on its own terms as a seedy exploitation film. The cinematography by Marc Fossard is quite good, at times even beautiful, and Alain Goraguer’s jazz score is solid. It’s somewhat surprising, in fact, that Corman’s frequent home, American International Pictures, didn’t pick this up, dub it, and release it on a double bill with Untamed Youth or Juvenile Jungle. Instead, it fell into the hands of Radley Metzger, who gave it the title I Spit On Your Grave and did OK business with it despite the film’s version of Trenton, New Jersey, that includes palm trees. Michel Gast might have been aiming for Rebel Without a Cause or The Defiant Ones, but what he came up with was much more along the lines of a B-movie cheapie like This Rebel Breed.