Jean Vigneron (Jacques Dumesnil) is a naval engineer who when out racing one of his vessels in a sailing competition, caught sight of Inès (Marie Déa) in her husband's boat and was immediately smitten. Hers was an unhappy marriage and she sought distraction that Jean could provide and soon they were conducting an affair, but this had not gone unnoticed by his manservant Lucien Bonnet (René Blancard) who sets about blackmailing his boss to make a pretty penny. The trouble with that is, Lucien moves in sinister circles, and soon what happens to him lands Jean in even hotter water...
There's one reason 56, Rue Pigalle is recalled, if at all, today, and it was nothing to do with what happened in the film itself, it was about the reaction to it. When it was released in France, critic François Chalais wrote about it in most unflattering terms which so enraged its director and writer Willy Rozier that he challenged the man to a duel, with swords rather than guns, as if this was some slight where recompense could only be met by slapping the offending party in the face with a glove and getting on with attempting to inflict a mortal wound - if you've seen Barry Lyndon, you get the idea.
Chalais accepted the challenge, and it was filmed for a newsreel, depicting him and the dark glasses-sporting Rozier going at it with their rapiers for a few minutes, until Chalais was wounded - but not mortally, he simply received a nasty graze on his forearm and it was decided his opponent had won the day. All of this generated considerable publicity for this film in France, with the consequence that it was a big hit at the box office, though how many audiences saw it and thought Chalais had a point went unrecorded, as when you came down to it, this was a frequently illogical melodrama trying a Gallic spin on Hollywood film noir.
That was perhaps ironic because the French critics had given this American genre of dramatic thrillers its blanket term in the first place, but those Americans (who quite often were Europeans) had been influenced in turn by the French cinema of the nineteen-thirties, as well as German expressionism, to fashion their own style. But what was for sure, nobody saw 56, rue Pigalle in Hollywood and thought, yes, that's what we've been missing, let's do more like that, please! This was down to it being a mishmash of a plot that could not settle on what it wanted to be, whether that was a torrid romance (the lovers are frankly miserable), a murder yarn, a courtroom drama or a "natives are restless" jungle adventure on the Congolese plantation.
More certain was that it did not succeed as any of those, it stumbled from scene to scene in anguished but uncompelling manner and stubbornly refused to jump to life: now you understand why it is little recalled, one of countless mediocre potboilers thrown up by the world’s film industries that may win a release, but that's no guarantee it will stick in the memory. You're tempted to believe Rozier's antics with the duel was a cheap publicity stunt, except he genuinely believed he was a great talent, notwithstanding nobody remembers him either, apart from his cinematic output. The most thought-provoking aspect was the critical one, as in this age when the internet has made anyone a critic, you have to wonder about the effect a poor review will have, maybe not going as far as prompting a duel, but it's wise to choose your words carefully. Not with this, however, nobody involved is still alive so you can say what you like and no feelings will be hurt. Music by Jean Yatove.