The narrow streets illuminated only by the light spilling from various dives, the shadowed doorways and the variously exhausted and embittered faces strongly recall the photographs of Brassaï in the same era; but the film also looks forward to the high style of film noir a decade later. Valray keeps his camera on certain people for such a long time that you may be fooled into thinking, for instance, that a darkly attractive prostitute with an unusual black-strapped dress is surely a character; she is not. Claude is instead fated to encounter Maïthé, another sex worker and an uncanny double for the faithless Maryse (Maïthé is played also by Korene). But rather than plunge into an affair, Claude hires the cynical, fatalistic Maïthé to wreak revenge on Jean. More than a third into the movie, Valray thus introduces us to the most complex and emotionally involving character; Maïthé’s fate is the one that resonates most.
“Escale” (literally, a stopover) eliminates Paris and heads straight for Marseille. Naval officer Jean (Pierre Nay) falls in love with Eva (Colette Darfeuil) one night at a cafe, even though she’s the mistress of Dario, a gangster and bootlegger (Samson Fainsilber, who recalls the look and manner of pre-Code Ricardo Cortez). Eva runs away with Jean to a tropical island but is unable to keep from resuming her old ways, and her affair with Dario, when Jean goes back to sea.
The intense feel of sunlight, shadow, and wind that so entranced Vecchiali is much in evidence; the characters in “Escale” meet with trouble almost as soon as they step indoors. Inside there’s a world of restless boredom and double-crosses at best, and drugs and degradation at worst, most memorably in a climactic traveling shot as Jean searches for Eva through the dives of Marseille.
Jean’s servant Zama is played by the Senegal-born Francois “Féral” Benga, a renowned and strikingly beautiful dancer at the Folies-Bergère (where he sometimes partnered Josephine Baker) as well as a frequent model for the artists of the Harlem Renaissance; a nude statue of Benga by Richmond Barthé recent sold for a record price. Zama’s childlike affect and devotion to his employer are distasteful colonial tropes, though the character’s final action is not one an American movie would have been likely to permit at the time. “However demeaned, [Benga’s] presence gives the movie added historical import,” J. Hoberman wrote recently; “Escale,” a part as the “Black Angel” in Jean Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” (1930), and “Quand Minuit Sonnera” (Leo Joannon, 1936) appear to be the only films Benga made.