News and Commentary – Henri Decaë 101

Cinematographer Henri Decaë would have celebrated his 101st birthday on July 31.  “It was he who liberated the camera from its fixed tripod,” Michel Marie wrote, and “made the New Wave possible.”  The contributions of Decaë (and fellow cinematographer Raul Coutard) to the films and the possibilities of the New Wave (and, by example, to the New Hollywood) cannot easily be overstated.

Decaë joined forces with Jean Pierre Melville for the feature debut of both men, The Silence of the Sea.  Cobbled together on a shoestring budget (it would become a sensational success), Melville’s commitment to an uncompromising visual style led him to part company with the first two cinematographers on the production before hiring Decaë, who he would later characterize as “exactly sharing my tastes for all things cinema.”  On Silence, Melville explained, the two men “did everything together: shooting, editing, dubbing and mixing,” and Decaë would ultimately shoot more than half of Melville’s films, including the visually stunning masterpieces Leon Morin, Priest and Le Samourai.

Decaë also shot the first feature films of Louis Malle, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol: Elevator to the Gallows, The 400 Blows, and Le Beau Serge—each a landmark in the emerging new cinema of its time, and each of which remain vital and essential to this day.  (Decaë would shoot all of Chabrol’s initial achievements, including Les Cousins and Les Bonnes Femmes).  Elevator, the first of these debuts, clearly marked the start of something new.  As Malle recounted, filming on the streets, at night, “we had the camera in a pram,” and Jeanne Moreau “was lit only by the windows of the Champs-Elysées. This had never been done.”  Perhaps predictably, “there was a rebellion of the technicians at the lab after they saw the dailies,” who wanted to fill the frame with more artificial light (and even more proper make-up on the star). 

Fortunately, Elevator was shot as intended, and its cinematographer – whose background in photojournalism and documentaries honed a facility for location shooting and working with natural light – would be very much in demand. “Shooting can’t start before 1 October, since my cinematographer is going to be Henri Decaë, who in France is the one I like best,” the then twenty-six year old Truffaut wrote excitedly to a friend about the upcoming production of 400 Blows.  “At the moment he is filming Les Amants (by Louis Malle), then Les Cousins (Chabrol) and won’t be free till the beginning of October.”  It was worth the wait.

Silence of the Sea

The Silence of the Sea (Melville, 1949)

 

Elevator

Elevator to the Gallows (Malle, 1958)

 

Cousins

Les Cousins (Chabrol, 1959)

 

400 blows

The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)