Whose Hands Are Dirty?

Dirty Hands Written and directed by Claude Chabrol Now playing at Off the Wall

Pity the poor director who must shoulder the burden of a hackneyed plot. Damn the filmmaker who tries to weave too many new wrinkles into the same plot to justify the whole enterprise, thus producing a convoluted pattern that exceeds the limits of our credulity. Claude Chabrol has earned these conflicting reactions from his latest venture into the realm of the film noir, Dirty Hands, and his ultimate failure amounts to a minor tragedy. Seeing the 1976 release leaves you with the initial thought that Chabrol came so close to making a reasonably competent suspense thriller, only to blow it in the final minutes, when the money was really on the line. Ah, but these are charitable words, as further reflection demonstrates.

The opening 15 minutes of Dirty Hands reek of a doomed cliche: each scene serves up all-too-familiar cinema staples. The film begins with an apparently innocuous shot of a handsome man in his 20s going about the business of guiding his airborne kite, an activity which conveniently lands on the alluring buttocks of a naked Romy Schneider. Unruffled, she asks him if he wants his kite, and the young adonis replies in the affirmative. But before Schneider lets him out of her sight, she probes further, "Is there anything else you want?"

All of which sets the stage for a sordid menage a trois. Schneider happens to be the unhappy--and unsatisfied--wife of a pudgy Rod Steiger awash in the throes of alcoholism. Middle-aged and impotent, this pathetic millionaire launches into a self-pitying tirade that evokes memories of Richard Burton at his worst. He has clearly bought his wife with his fortune, and the arrival of Schneider's new friend has given Steiger little cause for comfort. Schneider's looks make her suitable for the role of an unfaithful spouse; blonde, slender and very cool, she has infidelity stamped all over her Nordic features. Her chance encounter with the kite-flyer--who is a struggling writer living near Steiger and Schneider on the southern coast of France--soon develops into a full-fledged affair, leading the two lovers to plot the murder of the deteriorating husband.

If a moviegoer's response to Dirty Hands could be measured graphically, the piece of paper would read like the polygraph printout of a bumbling liar. There is no even pace to this film, which features more peaks and valleys than a postcard of the French Alps. The task of sketching the outlines of the three characters and their tension-packed relationships makes for a plodding introduction to Dirty Hands, but the story suddenly picks up when the adulterers decide to carry out their macabre scheme. The inevitable police investigation maintains the interest level for a while longer before the film enters its finest moments about midway into the story.

Having dragged the viewer through the police investigation and voice-over readings of the letters written to Schneider from her lover on the lam, Chabrol finally throws in some new twists. Steiger resurfaces out of nowhere, savoring the confrontation with his faithless wife as he relates how he foiled her best-laid plans to do him in. Watching the would-be widow get her just desserts restores a sense of justice to the film, but here the structure of the story shows its first signs of coming a cropper. Chabrol chooses to dwell on Steiger's triumph for several more scenes, losing himself in the indulgent exercise of drawing out the rites of vengeance.

The temptation to forgive Chabrol for this excess is formidable; the story deals with a depraved woman, and the humiliation meted out to her seems apt. But in so doing, the director irreparably damages the flow of the narrative, and the next transition only calls attention to his oversight. Realizing that he has abandoned the intrepid detectives in the mid-stream of their investigation, Chabrol suddenly thrusts them back into the picture as a not-so-subtle afterthought. The policemen somehow fasten onto the idea that the husband--long ago presumed to have been the victim of a murder they cannot prove--might still be alive and kicking, but how they arrive at this uncanny hunch is never fully explained.

And then Chabrol destroys what little credibility Dirty Hands has left. Having led the viewer to believe that Schneider's paramour--and not her husband--had been murdered through a cunning substitution of bodies made by Steiger, the story now repeats the Lazarus twist and brings the wife-stealer back to life, even giving him some of the very same lines uttered by Steiger after his re-emergence. In place of the promised "erotic thriller," you see only farce tinged with a certain arrogance as to what an audience will swallow.

Even these problems do not exhaust the list of problems plaguing this chaos-as-cinema. Few foreign films are dubbed these days, and with good reason; the awkward insertion of another person's voice speaking a different tongue into the lips of the original actors, besides being aesthetically offensive, robs the viewer of the genuine performance. But Chabrol unaccountably elected to ignore this long-accepted truism, perhaps as part of a misguided effort to accommodate the English-speaking Steiger. Combine this blunder with the normally sluggish quality of a Chabrol screenplay, and you come up with a film virtually stripped of a crucial dimension--the dialogue and how it is delivered.

Dirty Hands also suffers from a regrettable tendency peculiar to the film noir: tiresome recapitulations at a certain point in the narrative of what has transpired thus far. Such devices are designed to perform a service for the audience, and the elaborately tangled plots of some films belonging to this genre cry out for an occasional rehash, so long as the timing is judicious. But Chabrol seems unable to grasp the delicacy that this device requires. The authorities' periodic attempts to sort out the more baffling knots in the narrative come off as hopelessly contrived, and Chabrol's vain effort to draw a confused viewer back into the uneven flow of the story merely succeeds in driving him further away.

No critique of Dirty Hands should end without a few harsh words about the movie's politics, what little there are to be found. An insidious sexism threads its way through the framework of the story, occasionally exposing itself in all its nakedness before submerging beneath the fabric of its jerky plot. Chabrol saves the bulk of his wrath for Schneider, a modern Circe whose corruption and faithlessness bring down both of the men in her life. She is held responsible for the havoc wreaked in this film; her partner in adultery is little more than a good-looking schmuck only too willing to cave in to his carnal desires. And when, at the film's conclusion, Schneider is genuinely widowed and turns to her attorney for solace, the lawyer throws himself with a certain relish into an affirmation of the male's primacy, declaring that this is a man's world governed by laws written by men and for men. Such an outdated paean to the macho ethic confirms your suspicion that the dirty hands of the movie belong neither to Schneider's murderess nor to her accomplice in crime and sin, but rather to their creator, Monsieur Chabrol.