News and Commentary – Tavernier’s Round Midnight

Regular followers of Mid Century Cinema know that Bertrand Tavernier is one of our favorite directors, so it is no surprise that we read with great interest a new collection of interviews with the filmmaker.  Not every artist need be a great raconteur, but vicariously spending time with Tavernier – intelligent, articulate, politically alert and with the instincts of an historian – is a treat. I gleaned subtle insights about films I thought I knew like the back of my hand, had more than my share of uber-nerd fan-boy moments (stories of his brainstorming with Claude Sautet, and lines like “Chabrol and I were discussing this sentence the other day”)—and, of course, I was happy to laugh out loud at the obtuse Hollywood suits (“when I mentioned Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel, they acted as if I’d just proposed a film starring my grandmother and my cleaning lady.”)  There are simply too many great observations and anecdotes here to possibly recount, so I will limit myself to these three: screening for his crew the Altman obscurity Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, “because I thought the framing in that film was prodigious”; his thoughts on the blacklist “Kazan behaved very, very badly,” of course, but more attention needs to be paid to “the people who behaved well . . . people like Fred Zinnemann, Robert Wise, and Otto Preminger,” whose courage is “sometimes forgotten”; the time, when working as an assistant director for Jean-Pierre Melville, Tavernier “sent him to see Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, which he hated, and as punishment, ordered that nobody speak to me for two days.”

Tavernier has directed the masterpieces The Clockmaker (1974), Life and Nothing But (1989), and Safe Conduct (2002), along with half-a-dozen other gems, but it has always been our contention, and reading these interviews only confirms, that Round Midnight (1986) is his greatest film.  Set in 1959 and loosely inspired by actual events, Round Midnight is about the friendship of two men, a black American jazz legend (Dale Turner, played by real-life jazz legend Dexter Gordon), and the devoted Parisian fan (Francis, played by the versatile François Cluzet) who helps bring about a late autumn resurrection of great man’s career. David Rayfiel wrote the screenplay with Tavernier, and his influence is not to be underestimated—Dale Turner’s choice of words is as subtle and complex as his choice of notes. (Rayfiel, Sydney Pollack’s go-to script doctor, co-wrote Three Days of the Condor, and let’s give a little shout out to his teleplay for Swan Song, the terrific Columbo episode featuring Johnny Cash.)  Round Midnight is filled with lines that last forever – our favorites usually involve the poetically oblique ways in which Dale expresses his feelings, but other lines are more direct, and rather wise (“You know who’s going to be waiting for you at the airfield in Paris . . .? You.”)

In Interviews, Tavernier let loose with so many insights about the movie – among them the edge to Francis’ character, the motivation for scenes set near water, interviews with Gordon that were used for the voice over, and, heartbreakingly, the pivotal role of the family visit that led directly to Dale’s decision to return home – that we were sent scrambling to re-screen it.  A deeply moving film, Round Midnight is also distinguished, among other things, by the live recording of its outstanding music (by Herbie Hancock), pitch perfect cinematography (Bruno de Keyzer also shot A Sunday in the Country, Life and Nothing But, and In the Electric Mist for Tavernier), and the towering performance by Gordon, a non-actor in his first role.  How good is that performance?  According to Tavernier, “when the film was released in America, Marlon Brando sent a letter to Dexter in which he said that for the first time in fifteen years he learnt something about acting.”  That good. 

Gordon/Hancock

Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) with Eddie Wayne (Musical Director Herbie Hancock)

 

On the Beach

On the Beach: "The World is Inside of Nothing"

 

Goodley

With Money-Man Goodley (Martin Scorsese) – “You can sign for it”

 

You were happy?"

"You were happy in Paris?"

 

Kindness

"You Know, Francis, There is not Enough Kindness . . . In the World"