Cinematographer and Director. Nationality: French. Born: Saint-Denis, 31 July 1915. Education: Attended the Ecole Technique de Photographie et de Cinématographie. Career: Made amateur films as a boy; worked for Poste Parisien as sound engineer and editor; Air Force cameraman during World War II; 1941—shot first film (also co-director); 1945—photo-journalist, Petit Parisien; late 1940s—shot first long films. Died: 7 March 1987.
Films as Cinematographer (Shorts):
Eau vive (+ co-d)
Glaciers (+ d); Premier prix du conservatoire (Guy-Grand) (co)
Au-delà du visible (+ d)
A tous les vents (+ d); Chanson de rue (Sevestre); Marseille, premier port de France (Mineur)
Hommes et bêtes (Mineur); L'Accordéon et ses vedettes (Sevestre); Sport de la voile (Sevestre and Motard)
Les Drames du Bois de Boulogne (Loew)
Un Homme à la mer (Loew); Sous les palmes de Marrakech (Mineur); Marrakech, capitale du Sud (Mineur); Le Mellah de Marrakech (Mineur)
Pensez à ceux qui sont en-dessous! (+ d); Surveillez votre tenue (+ d); Evitez le désordre (+ d); Ne compromettez pas vos loisirs (+ d); Apprenez à soulever une charge (+ d);Faites soigner vos égratignures (+ d); Bons baisers de Dinard (Loew)
A cheval (+ d); Cher vieux Paris! (de Gastyne); Le Premier Pas (Chartier); Paré pour accoster (Loew)
Visite au Haras (+ d); Le Garde-chasse (+ d); Caroline au pays natal (de Gastyne); Vacances blanches (de Gastyne); La Course de taureaux (Braunberger); La Lutte contre le gaspillage (Sevestre); Escale à Paris (Lukine) (co)
Caroline du Sud (de Gastyne)
Cow-boys français (Vaudremont); La Beauté de l'effort (de Gastyne); Avec les gens de voyage (de Gastyne) (co); L'Homme et la bête (de Gastyne) (co); Le Grand Cirque s'en va (de Gastyne) (co); A tout casser (Stock-cars) (Dupont) (co); L'Egypte éternelle (de Gastyne); Un Monde troublant (de Gastyne) (Vaudremont); Navigation marchande (Marine marchande) (Franju)
Mer Caribe (de Hubsch) (co); La Grande Terre (Vaudremont)
L'Enfant au fennec (Dupont); Coureurs de brousse (Dupont); Israel . . . terre retrouvée (de Gastyne) (co); Propre à rien (de Gastyne) (co)
La Voix des anches (Leduc); De bouche à oreille (Leduc); Neuf à trois, ou la journée d'une vedette (Leduc); Piano, mon ami (Leduc); Confidences d'un piano (Leduc); Robinson (de Gastyne) (co); Les Plus Beaux Jours (de Gastyne)
Bois et cuivres (Leduc) (co); Les Cuivres à la voix d'or (Leduc); Le Château du passé (de Gastyne) (co)
Images d'hier et d'aujourd'hui (Leduc) (co); Ce monde banal (Wagner)
Le Village du milieu des brumes (Chartier)
Le Marionnettiste (Languepin)
Toutankhamon et son royaume (de Gastyne—produced 1952)
Films as Cinematographer (Features):
Le Silence de la mer (Melville)
Les Enfants terribles (Melville); Bertrand, coeur de lion (Dhéry)
Au coeur de la Casbah (Maria-Pilar) (Cardinal)
Bob le flambeur (Melville) (+ voice); S.O.S. Noronha (Rouquier)
Le Désir mène les hommes (Roussell) (Bitter Reunion) (Chabrol); Un Témoin dans la ville (Molinaro); Les Amants (The Lovers) (Malle)
Les Quatre Cents Coups ( The 400 Blows) (Truffaut); Les Cousins (The Cousins) (Chabrol); Plein soleil (Web of Passion; Leda) (Chabrol); La Sentence (Valère)
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol)
Che gioia vivere (Quelle joie de vivre) (Clément); Cybèle, ou les dimanches de Ville d'Avray (Sundays and Cybèle) (Bourguignon)
"La Luxure," "La Paresse," and "L'Orgueil" eps. of Les Sept Péchés capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins) (Demy, Godard, and Vadim); Vie privée (A Very Private Affair) (Malle); Le Jour et l'heure (The Day and the Hour) (Clément)
Léon Morin, prêtre (Melville); La Tulipe noire (The Black Tulip) (Christian-Jaque); Dragées au poivre (Baratier); La Porteuse de pain (Cloche); L'Ainé des Ferchaux (Melville)
Week-end à Zuydcoote (Verneuil); La Ronde ( Circle of Love) (Vadim); Les Félins (Joy House; The Love Cage) (Clément); Le Corniaud (Oury)
Viva Maria! (Malle)
Le Voleur (The Thief of Paris) (Malle); Hotel Paradiso (Glenville)
The Night of the Generals (Litvak); Le Samourai (Melville) (co); Diaboliquement vôtre (Duvivier); The Comedians (Glenville)
Le Clan des siciliens (The Sicilian Clan) (Verneuil); Castle Keep (Pollack)
The Only Game in Town (Stevens); Hello-Goodbye (Negulesco)
Two People (Wise); La Folie des grandeurs (Oury); Jo (Girault); La Luz del fin del mundo (The Light at the Edge of the World) (Billington)
Le Cercle rouge (Melville); Le Droit d'aimer (Le Hung)
Isabelle devant le désir (Berckmans); La Moutarde me monte au nez (Zidi)
La Course à l'échalotte (Zidi); Operation Daybreak (Gilbert)
Seven Nights in Japan (Gilbert)
Bobby Deerfield (Pollack); Le Point de mire (Tramont); Mort d'un pourri (Lautner)
Ils sont foux, ces sorciers! (Lautner); The Boys from Brazil (Schaffner); Flic ou voyou (Lautner)
An Almost Perfect Affair (Ritchie); The Hard Way (Dryhurst); Le Guignolo (Lautner)
The Island (Ritchie); Le Coup du parapluie (Oury); Inspecteur la bavure (Zidi); Est-ce bien raisonnable (Lautner)
Les Parents ne sont pas simples cette année; Le Vengeance du serpent à plumes
Le Charcutier de Machonville Yvernel—short) (cam)
Le Silence de la mer (Melville—short) (co-ed)
Trois hommes en Corse (d—short)
Faits d'hiver (d—short)
By DECAË: articles—
Cinéma Français (Paris), March 1954.
Films and Filming (London), February 1967.
Revue du Cinéma (Morges, Switzerland), January 1971.
Cinématographe (Paris), July 1981.
On DECAË: articles—
Cinéma (Paris), November-December 1961.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), 1963.
Cinéma (Paris), no. 91, 1964.
Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 2, 1970.
Focus on Film (London), September-October 1970.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Maillet, J. C., in Cinéma Pratique (Paris), November-December 1973.
Film Français (Paris), 4 February 1977.
Avant-Scène (Paris), 1 February 1981.
Obituary in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 427, May 1987.
Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 432, November 1987.
* * *
Scornful of cinematography which drew attention to itself at the expense of a film's aesthetic coherence, Henri Decaë modestly regarded the cinematographer as an invisible technician serving the director's vision. He rejected the notion of a "Decaë style," arguing that every film required a fresh approach and that different directors made individual demands on his skills. The characteristic feature of his practice was a flexible attitude to constantly changing technical challenges. To ensure aesthetic unity, he advocated close collaboration between director and camera crew: production strategies in respect of narrative intentions or options regarding the creation of tone or atmosphere were best arrived at collectively. More inclined to leave framing to others, Decaë was above all concerned with lighting to promote the required mood or the appropriate exposure of actors. With colour, no less than with monochrome, he sought to suggest meaning rather than simply to record action. In a career embracing both the austere and the spectacular, the modest documentary and the large-budget movie, working creatively in both black-and-white and in colour, Henri Decaë successfully served directors on both sides of the Atlantic for over forty years.
After graduating from the Vaugirard cinema school, he joined Poste Parisien as a sound recordist and editor, but it was as an Air Force photographer that he developed his ability to work quickly and inventively under pressure. His first film, Eau vive, was a nature documentary processed by the Jean Mineur laboratories. This contact with the publicity filmmaker led to over forty shorts in genres as disparate as the travelogue, the educational documentary, the publicity short or the nature film. In turn Decaë worked with, amongst others, Dupont, Leduc and Loew, but his principal collaboration was with Marc de Gastyne for whom he shot fourteen films. His association with Jean Mineur also led to a remarkable debut in features as Melville's cameraman for Le Silence de la mer.
If the film is a tribute to Melville's commitment to a project for which he had little money, it is also a magnificent testimony to Decaë's adaptability and resourcefulness. Making do with discarded lengths of studio negative (often with different emulsions), meagre lighting equipment, and unreliable hand-held cameras (occasionally used surreptitiously in unauthorised locations), Decaë achieved a film of striking visual quality. This spare approach to filming, born out of pure necessity, was to be hailed a decade later as the way forward by young directors seeking to break away from the tyranny of prohibitively expensive studio productions. The New Wave generation was fortunate to have available lightweight cameras and fast film stock requiring little artificial lighting, and was able to benefit from Decaë's no-nonsense, direct method and his inventive resourcefulness. The cinematographer readily drew on his documentary experience to produce striking images imbued with a sense of raw authenticity and immediacy for, among others, Truffaut and Chabrol. Decaë's knowledge of film stock was invaluable, preferring the softer and faster Gevaert monochrome to Kodak, and later, Eastmancolor for its superior colour range. In Melville's Bob le flambeur, for example, the brilliant evocation of Paris by night was achieved using specially produced ultra-fast film stock.
Characteristics of Decaë's style include his atmospheric work in monochrome. For Truffaut he captured the doleful greyness of the Parisian suburbs in Les Quatre Cents Coups; for Melville, in Léon Morin, prêtre, he evoked the grinding mood of austerity and repression in occupied France through dull, flat tones; for Chabrol, in Le Beau Serge, he conjured up the bleakness of autumnal landscapes drained of colour, and, in Les Bonnes Femmes the harsh realities of life for urban working girls, while for Clément's thriller Les Félins he brilliantly developed tension through high contrast images.
Decaë's handling of colour registers was no less masterful. Muted hues were produced for shadowy gangster films such as Melville's Le Samourai or for Malle's Le Voleur. Warmer colours shaped the mood of Melville's L'Ainé des Ferchaux as did more sensual colour tones for Malle's Les Amants or the rich range of glowing reds for Clément's powerful Plein soleil, while for Chabrol's A double tour images of bourgeois decadence were expressed by an overripe palette. However, it was in Malle's Viva Maria! with its bright costumes, gaudy caravans, and fireworks lighting up the night sky, that Decaë exploited to the full the colour spectrum.
Invariably his resourcefulness resolved technical difficulties. To convey Antoine Doinel's point of view from inside the rotor in Les Quatre Cents Coups, he strapped himself to the central pole, while in Plein soleil to film the storm-tossed boat he secured himself to the mast. Technical challenges of a different order were posed in Le Samourai—particularly impressive are the shadows of passing cars seen on Jeff Costello's ceiling and the tracking of the gangster in the underlit Metro.
The long tracking shot is almost a stylistic marker in Decaë's films. Apart from the Melville gangster canon and Toback's affectionate homage to the French master in Exposed, the tracking shot features prominently in, amongst other films, Les Quatre Cents Coups, here to detail Antoine's escape from the reformatory, and in Ascenseur pour l'échafaud to chart Jeanne Moreau's distracted walk through Paris in the early hours.
Decaë's urban landscapes, from the early monochromes of Les Quatre Cents Coups and Les Bonnes Femmes through to the colour compositions in his gangster movies such as Le Clan des siciliens or Exposed, are richly atmospheric. His country landscapes are equally memorable, from the documentary notations of village life in Le Beau Serge and the delicately conjured parkland in Les Amants to the rolling Mexican landscapes of Viva Maria! and the beautiful rural compositions of Gilbert's Seven Nights in Japan.
In the mid-sixties, after the initial impact of the New Wave began to fade, Decaë turned his attention to the less adventurous, studio-based cinema of Lautner, Oury, Vernueil and Zidi, and to collaboration with American directors such as Pollack, Stevens, and Wise. His corpus of transatlantic films testifies to his international recognition as an artist and serves to consolidate his already considerable reputation. However, Decaë's place in cinema history ultimately rests on his formative influence within the New Wave movement, as the liberating cinematographer whose initiatives made possible a whole new approach to cinematic practice.
—R. F. Cousins