THE FIRE WITHIN: DAY OF THE DEAD
When he shot The Fire Within in the spring of 1963, Louis Malle had already established a strong reputation. Incredibly precocious, he won a Palme d’Or at the age of twenty-four, at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, for the underwater documentary The Silent World, photographed and codirected with oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. One year later he anticipated the French New Wave with Elevator to the Gallows, scored by Miles Davis and starring a young Jeanne Moreau, who also starred in his next film, The Lovers, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1958 and created a scandal with its explicit eroticism. His follow-up, an audacious 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s farcical novel Zazie dans le métro, further proved his fondness for literary sources, and 1962’s Vie privée created a stir by featuring Brigitte Bardot in one of her more complex roles.
Yet despite his commercial and critical success, Malle felt dissatisfied with his career thus far. Probably his apprenticeship with Robert Bresson, for whom he was assistant director on A Man Escaped (1956), had instilled in him a high exigency for the practice of his art. He was also aware of the eclecticism of his style, as well as of his themes, while newcomers like Godard and Truffaut had imposed a stronger personality. Now thirty, Malle seemed to be hiding behind literary adaptations, which looked like aesthetic variations with no real focus. The son of a wealthy family of industrialists from the north of France, Malle felt ill at ease with his bourgeois upbringing, and unlike some of the directors coming from Cahiers du cinéma (Truffaut, Rohmer, et al.), with their right-wing inclinations, he was decidedly opposed to the war in Algeria and the Gaullist regime, even producing the overtly political first feature of his friend Alain Cavalier, Le combat dans l’île.