Who was Nino Frank?
A Life in the Shadow of Noir
The writer and critic Nino Frank was born in 1904 in Barletta, Puglia, in the far south of Italy, moving to Paris in the 1920s. He and his contemporaries across Europe grew up in what they would see as an increasingly mad world – corrupt, unfair, disorganised. Many young intellectuals would rail against authority, laugh hollowly, and seek out older writers also expressing their disgust through what would come to be called ‘humour noir’.
This humour went way beyond a joke, its purpose was deadly serious: Frank later described it as concerned with “les entités suprêmes que sont l’amour, la terreur, le désespoir et surtout la mort” [‘the driving forces of life: love, terror, despair and especially death’]. As a very young man he was drawn to such writers: to Alfred Jarry and his iconoclastic play Ubu Roi; to Pierre Mac Orlan and his writings, among them Le Rire jaune, about a deadly laughing plague; to Dada and Surrealism; and to the ‘magic realism’ of Massimo Bontempelli.
And he lived with another shadow at the back of his mind. There was hardly a decade of his life when he did not suffer a life-threatening illness: aged 6, he almost died of typhoid fever; at 14, he only just survived Spanish flu; at 15 (perhaps a lingering after-effect of the flu) a dose of pleurisy which knocked him unconscious for three weeks. Minor lung troubles throughout his twenties, culminating at 30 in hospitalization in a Swiss TB sanatorium, for three years. At 44, a major lung operation from which he barely pulled through; at 51, a kidney stone removal which went wrong. As a radio interviewer said to him, “Vous avez côtoyé la mort” [‘You have walked with death’].
As the frivolity of the later 1920s receded and the disastrous direction of the 1930s became clear, French film directors joined the warning voices, in films which would be labelled ‘noir’ by official bodies wishing to minimise any sense of French weakness. In fact, this term was applied to the whole serious movement of ‘social’ or ‘poetic’ realism in French film. Even the highly esteemed Jean Renoir was lambasted in 1939 for the anti-war film La Règle du jeu. Feeling betrayed, he left France.
Thus in 1946 the new seriousness French critics saw in certain Hollywood crime dramas was not new to them: the only surprise was to see it in American films. And it was Nino Frank, immersed as he was, through his life and his reading and his friendships, in the whole sensibility of noir, who articulated the realisation that these films were made in the tradition of ‘films noirs’.
This website is the fruit of several years' research in libraries in Paris, London and Rome, and of conversations with people who still remember Nino Frank. I hope you find it of interest.
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Nino Frank and:
Aged 19, Nino Frank travels from southern Italy to France, meeting Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau and Pierre Mac Orlan. He publishes articles on French avant-garde writers in Il Mondo, and on Massimo Bontempelli and ‘magic realism’ in Paris-Journal.
1926, Nino Frank is appointed Paris correspondent of the Corriere della Sera. Massimo Bontempelli also recruits him to help launch and run his new international journal, “900”. The first issue is a success, with an impressive list of contributors.
Nino Frank tries to smooth over problems with “900” caused by the antagonism of Giuseppe Ungaretti. Bontempelli’s co-editor, Curzio Malaparte, objects to the journal’s anti-fascist tone and content, and contrives Frank’s expulsion from Italy.
4. The magazine Nouvelles litteraires
Desperate for work, Frank is helped by Pierre Mac Orlan, who introduces him to Georges Charensol at Les Nouvelles littéraires. There he develops his pen-portraits of literary celebrities, among them Jean Cocteau, François Mauriac and Scott Fitzgerald.
Frank becomes assistant editor of Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ new modernist French journal Bifur, which features important international contributors: in the first issue, among others Gottfried Benn, Blaise Cendrars, Tristan Tzara, Ilya Ehrenberg.
Frank works for the key film magazine Pour Vous from its launch, and is editor-in-chief at its forced closure in 1940. As a junior, he interviews directors like Jacques Feyder and René Clair during heated debates in France on the new talking cinema.
In 1931, as editor of the cinema page of L’Intransigeant itself, Frank expresses his views on the role and responsibilities of film-makers. He is deeply shocked by a visit to Berlin in 1933, and points to warnings in films like Fritz Lang’s Dr.Mabuse series.
After a forced absence with tuberculosis, Frank returns full-time in 1936 to Pour Vous and L’Intransigeant, resuming his trenchant reviews. A central theme is how to show the reality of Paris, often a sentimentalised “star” of French and foreign films.
In 1936, an impressive batch of French films leads critics to hail a new realism and concern for social issues. Films of Renoir, Duvivier and Carné are complemented by the acting of Jean Gabin and the poetic inspiration of writer Jacques Prévert.
After the forced closure of Pour Vous, Frank writes on films at Les Nouveaux Temps; French production is constrained by censorship, but he continues campaigning for quality. In 1942 he is forbidden to write in the French press and turns to scriptwriting.
1n 1946, French critics debate American crime films dubbed ‘films noirs’ by Frank. As well as ‘hard-boiled’ source books, influences recognised come from German emigré directors, and from a French tradition of uncompromising literature, taken forward in films by Renoir and Carné. In more recent analysis, James Naremore sees a close link between Frank’s insight and his modernist background.
Pierre Mac Orlan s’enthousiasme pour le cinéma, avec sa capacité de concrétiser les peurs urbaines, le “fantastique social”. Ce concept est une influence-clé sur Nino Frank lorsqu’il reconnaît des éléments “noirs” dans des films criminels américains.
Nino Frank, born in Barletta, was famous for his translations of Italian masterpieces into French. As one of Barletta's foremost literary figures, his birth in Palazzo Tresca featured prominently in recent campaigns to prevent the demolition of this important historic building, and ensure its survival.
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Nino Frank et Pierre Mac Orlan
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Short stories featured, original texts:
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Frank's Translations of major Italian novels into French
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My Translations from French Originals:
Séraphine the Obscure
(on Séraphine de Senlis) by Nino Frank