OBITUARY: Charles Denner

The nouvelle vague threw up a dozen leading acting talents in French cinema, but among the men only one genuine star, Jean-Paul Belmondo. There was one Hollywood wannabe (which was what Belmondo refused to be), Alain Delon, and a number of sensitive players equally adept in leads or supporting parts, including Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean- Claude Brialy. Charles Denner was another of these, but like all the best actors he was only like himself: subtle, febrile, often as tense as a bowstring, but, when the role required it, with a certain gift for self-mockery, a characteristic of both the French and the Poles. Denner was born in Poland but his family moved to France when he was four.

Denner was on the stage for 10 years before Yves Allegret gave him a small part in La Meilleure Part (1956), which starred Gerard Philipe as an engineer losing both his job and his mind. He played the assistant to police inspector Lino Ventura in Louis Malle's outstanding thriller of an adulterous wife (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover (Maurice Ronet), Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (1957).

Denner concentrated on the stage while Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and other film-makers revolutionised French cinema (or so it seemed at the time). When he returned it was in a star role - and with a bald head and a full beard - as Landru (1962), the infamous wife- poisoner, killing off such vieille vague stars as Danielle Darrieux and Michele Morgan: this was one of Chabrol's early studies of murder and adultery among the bourgeoisie, the whole expected to be a winning combination (Francoise Sagan worked on the screenplay) - which Chabrol needed, after some undeserved flops, but it was perhaps too full-frontal for public acceptance and certainly too misogynist.

Denner had another whale of a role in Alain Jessua's witty and stylish La Vie a l'envers (1964), as a seemingly cheerful clerk in a Paris estate agent's office who turns his back on the world. It was easily Jessua's best film and certainly there is no film in which Denner delves into himself so deeply - but it is not necessarily his best film, for there were many very good ones to come. Taking them chronologically and with regard to those seen outside France, there are Constantin Costa-Gavras's first feature, Compartiment Tueurs (1964), an all-star (Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Trintignant) murder mystery, with Denner as the dead girl's lover, a sarcastic cop-hater; Chabrol's Marie-Chantal contre le Dr Kah (1965), one of the "commercial" films this director made to restore his bankability; Claude Berri's first feature, the autobiographical Le Vieil homme et l'enfant (1966), as the father of the small Jewish boy who makes a friend of a gruff country gentile (Michel Simon); and Malle's turn-of- the-century Le Voleur (1967), with Belmondo as the inevitably dreamy French crook and Denner as an ageing crime tsar.

La Mariee etait en noir was one of Truffaut's efforts to imitate Hitchcock, with Denner as one of Jeanne Moreau's victims, an artist whom she shoots with an arrow while posing as Diana. Infinitely more worthwhile, real and riveting was Costa-Gavras's Z (1969), a fictionalised reconstruction of the killing of a left-wing Greek deputy; it reunited most of the cast of Compartiment Tueurs, including Montand as the deputy; Denner was passionate as a Jewish partisan.

Denner and Daniel Gelin were crooks in the country in Claude Guillemot's comedy of manners La Treve (1969), while Trintignant was on the wrong side of the law in Claude Lelouch's Le Voyou (1970), in which Denner was a frantic bank employee, stunned and stuttering, whose child Trintignant had kidnapped. Denner was a republican returning from the US with Belmondo in Jean-Paul Rappenau's comic swashbuckler Les Maries de l'an deux (1971) and a rat exterminator in Truffaut's Une Belle fille comme moi (1972), fixated on his profession, utterly without humour and fearful of pornography. The girl was Bernadette Lafont.

Denner was Belmondo's side-kick in two of the amiable action-adventures this actor was now making, L'Heritier (1973) and Peur sur la ville (1975), and then in two more for Lelouch, Toute une vie and Ci S'etait a refaire (1976). In the first, a panoramic survey of the century, he had a double- role, as a cameraman of early movies and a Jew returning from a concentration camp, while in the second he is the lawyer of Catherine Deneuve, playing an ex-con trying to adjust to the son she conceived in prison. More than most of Lelouch's films they insult the intelligence while astonishing with their sheer technical brilliance. La Premiere fois (1976) was a sequel to Le Vieil homme et l'enfant, with the young hero now a girl-chasing adolescent, while Denner himself was similarly afflicted during Truffaut's po-faced plod through one man's sex-life, L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (1978).

The ill-health which was to dog Denner for the rest of his life curtailed his work from 1983 as can be seen in his drawn expression in his last film, Golden Eighties (1986), in which he was Delphine Seyrig's husband. Chantal Akerman's highly stylised Demy-influenced musical was set in a Brussels shopping mall.

Denner was not a great actor in the tradition of Harry Baur, Raimu, Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet. Gerard Depardieu brings the same weight that they did, which Denner did not: but Denner was always a pleasure to see, for he had mercilessly tooled his character to the requirements of the screenplay and the direction, whether in those films he carried or in which he supported others.

Charles Denner, actor: born Tarnow, Poland 29 May 1926; married (two children); died Dreux, France 10 September 1995.

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