One of the film’s early chapters focusses on a journalist, Herbsaint Sazerac, played by Owen Wilson, who introduces viewers, during jaunts on his bicycle, to the history and culture of Ennui-sur-Blasé, the fictional city where The French Dispatch magazine is based. Partly modelled on the New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell, Sazerac is a master of the high-low style of reportage that The New Yorker helped pioneer, and which Anderson finds endlessly fascinating. Mitchell, with his profiles of figures across New York, originated a new approach to narrative literary journalism in a series of vivid portraits of the city. “I first read ‘Thirty-two Rats from Casablanca’ on the recommendation of a friend, a film critic from Texas. I’d never read any Joseph Mitchell at all,” Anderson said. “He wrote about the rats of New York, and people’s tales about rats, and where you find them, and how they move, and their habits. And it’s a story about the city, not about wildlife particularly.”
Mitchell, who began his career working at newspapers including the New York World-Telegram, was recruited to The New Yorker by St. Clair McKelway, then the managing editor, in 1938. Mitchell’s sketches of the city and its inhabitants, whether Mazie (the “queen of the Bowery”) or the rat population of Manhattan, helped invent the literary feature and profile as we know them today. Of the rodents in his “Casablanca” piece, he writes slyly, “The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety.” (He might just as easily have been writing about human residents of the Upper West Side.) In a letter to Mitchell after the publication of “Casablanca,” Ross, passing along a recommendation from a friend, mischievously suggests that Mitchell consider writing about New York pigeons next, as “it is as reasonable a subject as rats.” (Joe Gould, one of Mitchell’s most famous subjects, was, as it happened, an itinerant pigeon-feeder.) Mitchell’s great skill as a portraitist revolutionized mid-century reportage, and his intricate dioramas of New Yorkers and their customs cohered the magazine’s burgeoning style. There was also an unexpected tinge of upbeat nostalgia underlying many of his reports, a quality shared by Wilson’s chapter of “The French Dispatch” and many of Anderson’s earlier films. Whatever hardships the misfits and eccentrics are experiencing, they somehow persevere.