film

Old School Review: “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Le Cercle Rouge” is a return to the criminal underworld he momentarily left behind to film “Army of Shadows”. This may be my favorite Melville film (of the assortment of his films that I have seen), it’s got the most tightly packed story with a superb cast of characters, all of which are dynamic, engaging, and memorable. The film opens similarly to “Le Samouraï” with another invented epigraph by Melville, “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.” While the whole cast is excellent overall, there are three characters that brought a bit of cinematic magic to the whole affair. First there’s Corey (Alain Delon, of “Le Samouraï” fame) an expert thief who begins the film by being released from prison early for good behavior. Just before his release, a prison guard tips him off about a major jewelry store that’s rumored to be ripe for the picking. The other two are Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) a notorious criminal who got caught in Marseille and was being personally transported by train with Le Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil), a tough as nails comissioner who stops at nothing to get the job done. Naturally, after Vogel unexpectedly crashes out of the train’s window and starts an impromptu manhunt through the French countryside, Commissaire Mattei uses every asset in his power to track down the criminal.

While Vogel was running through the woods from the cops, Corey made his way to Rico’s (André Ekyan) apartment, a former colleague of his. Rico’s been making power moves since Corey’s jailhouse detour, one of which involved dating Corey’s former girlfriend. So, Corey makes a power move of his own by robbing Rico of his guns and money right there in his home. After this, Corey buys a car with Rico’s money, and heads out to a diner for lunch. While eating there, Vogel crawls out of the woods nearby and sneaks into Corey’s trunk. Corey drives out to the middle of an empty field, gets out of the car, and sits nearby on some farming equipment before telling Vogel that he knows he’s in the trunk and to come out as he has nothing to fear (Corey had stashed his two guns in the trunk anyways, so he knew Vogel would have them). What follows is a crucial scene, two like-minded criminals with an attitude of stoic nonchalance that suggests that beyond their sparse dialogue, the potential of a lucrative partnership, goes without saying. What begins as a confrontational beat turns towards cooperation with relative ease once each man sizes up the other. Shortly after this newfound agreement, Vogel hides back in the trunk to avoid any prying eyes of the law, and they’re off to Paris. Further down the road, two of Rico’s henchmen force Corey off the road and walk him off the side of the road. Just before they kill Corey for stealing from and humiliating their boss, Vogel climbs out of the trunk, takes their guns, and shoots each man with the other’s gun while holding the pistols with a hankerchief. No fingerprints here, only a newly cemented friendship in crime.

The rest of the film is devoted to the preparation, and execution, of that jewelry heist mentioned earlier. Corey and Vogel make it back to Paris to prepare for the logistics of the heist, but Commissaire Mattei is tracking any and all movements that could be attributed to Vogel. The Comissioner turns up at the scene of Rico’s murdered men and turns over every rock, clue, and hint of Vogel’s involvement. Meanwhile, Corey and Vogel agree that they will need at least two more people to adequately complete the job. First they need an expert marksman, one that knows everything there is to know about guns and ballistics for a very precise shot. Corey has a contact he used to know, though he doesn’t know if the old man is still up for the task, but phones him anyways. That just so happens to be Jansen (Yves Montand), a down-on-his-luck ex-cop with a heavy drinking problem. He answers the call despite a horrifying hangover, but agrees to help. The last piece of the puzzle is a fence to sell the jewelry to afterwards. They go to a farm outside of Paris and convince the fence (Paul Crauchet) that their product will be worth the risk, he agrees. While the three criminals are out haggling with their newfound fence, Commissaire Mattei is back in Paris hounding Santi (François Périer), the owner of a well established nightclub, known for its connections to the Parisian underworld. After everything is in order, they attempt the heist in a scene that’s both wordless and yet excruxiatingly full of a taught anxiety knowing that they could be discovered or caught at any moment. It’s a highly memorable heist sequence that both calls back to cinema’s criminal capers of the past, and yet foreshadows how some heist films are oriented in the decades that followed.

In the end, the fence denies their haul citing that it’s far more risky than he had anticipated with Vogel’s escape raising the awareness of local law enforcement. Though in reality, he had been given orders from Rico not to pursue the product, and to direct Corey towards Santi, suggesting that he may know of a fence willing to take the jewels. Of course, the fence that Santi knows is Commissaire Mattei in disguise. Corey sets up a time and place to make the tradeoff and, as with all of Melville’s Tough Guy crime films, it doesn’t go well for our anti-heroes. This was an excellent neo-noir from Jean-Pierre Melville, and it completes my short dive into his filmography. If I come across some of his other films from earlier in his career, or find a copy of “Un Flic”, I’ll probably give it a watch and let you know what I thought. Check out Jean-Pierre Melville’s work sometime, his films influenced leagues of filmmakers, genres of filmmaking, and are generally a good time.

Final Score: Four Fat Cats

film

Old School Review: “Army of Shadows” (1969)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Army of Shadows” is adapted from a book with the same title by Joseph Kessel which details some of Kessel’s involvement in the French Resistance during World War Two. Though some characters in both the book and this film adaption are fictionalized versions of real life resistance fighters, the film is meant to be be less of a realized adaption of real life events and more of an expression of the mindset of those living a life of resistance under Nazi controlled France. Which, I feel, is crucial information for any analysis of this film. Interestingly, the film wasn’t well received in France during it’s release as the public view of Charles de Gaulle had shifted dramatically since the second World War. It was also denied an American distribution due to the rather grisly content of the film (for the time anyway), and wasn’t released in the United States in any form for thirty-seven years until 2006.

“Army of Shadows” deals in the suspense of terror in every day encounters. The film follows a small group of resistance members as they attempt to send and receive pertinent information, supplies, and logistics between themselves and a few trusted individuals in the allied forces. However, while the stakes for the characters is always high, the film does not encourage larger than life displays of defiance, but rather playing out small moments in which decisions are made or abandoned that carry the weight of survival or death. A perfect example of this is when Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier (a major contributor to the cause during the resistance) escapes a Gestapo prison in France in the first half of the film, Gerbier convinces another captive to rush a German guard, and they both make a break for it, parting ways once hitting the street. Gerbier darts into a barbershop late at night and asks to have his moustache shaved off- the barber mutely acknowledges Gerbier’s suspect request and after he’s done, he denies Gerbier’s money and instead offers him a remarketedly different overcoat instead. It’s a tense, terse, and quiet scene, one that effectively captures the mood of the film as a whole. The minimalism that was so effective in “Le Samouraï” is expanded upon in this film, and used to emphasize the airy, spacious, nightmare that occupies the locations and sets used in the film, but its also, ironically, the claustrophobic inverse for the headspace of the characters that we’re following.

Speaking of the cast, it’s an excellent mixture of returning Melville favorites like Lino Ventura as the lead, Philippe Gerbier, or Paul Meurisse as Luc Jardie, secretly the true leader of the French resistance. Which is a fun turn of events as the actors were enemies last time around in “Le Deuxième Souffle” with Meurisse portraying ‘Inspector Blot’. The other notable standout is Simone Signoret as Mathilde, a wife and mother whose family knows nothing of her involvement in the resistance. Mathilde not only specializes in elaborate costumes, but helped to design intricate operations for the resistance. Memorably, she organized an effort to rescue fellow resistance member Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) from a maximum security prison in Lyon. Mathilde, along with ‘Le Masque’ (Claude Mann) and ‘Le Bison’ (Christian Barbier), dressed as a German nurse and her two bodyguards accompanying her to attempt to transport Lepercq to a different facility due to his extremely poor condition. Though when a German doctor denies him passage and labels him ‘unfit for transport’, Mathilde must stay in character in that moment and accept the decision, comitting to ‘file a report about that’ and then leaving on the spot. To push the subject or to let her face betray her mission at this news would threaten not just her life, but those of ‘Le Masque’ and ‘Le Bison’ as well. What shocked me in the film was the level of commitment that the resistance members swore to- its definitely a situation where hard decisions had to be made, but the atmosphere and casual tone among resistance members who agreed to kill any informers from the inside out was… in truth, very in line with Melville’s cold and analytical nature in previous films. I suppose it was the more intimate nature of the way they had to kill their informer that got me, they had secured an abandoned house to do the deed in- but neighbors had noisily moved in the night before, so no guns. They decide to use a knife, but no one has a knife. What to do? Strangulation it is! The camera does not cut away from the informer, in fact, the frame focuses on the young man as we watch the life leave his eyes. It cements the fact that this is not an easy life, it’s a hard, depressing, and violent one.

While this isn’t my favorite Melville film so far, it’s a unique one that should be seen if you’re a student of film or history, or both. Melville’s ‘tough guy’ noirs will always capture my imagination more than this film did- but the imagery and atmosphere is one I will remember for a long time. If you’ve run out of conventional World War Two films, I highly suggest checking this one out, because while it focuses on people and events that took place during the war, it’s not really a war film. Expand your horizons, and give this one a watch!

Final Score: 1 Submarine

*Below is Roger Ebert’s review of the film and a deeper dive into Melville’s work as a whole, I encourage you to check it out!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-army-of-shadows-1969

film

Old School Review: “Le Samouraï” (1967)

Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.

After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.

Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.

Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).

So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!

Final Score: 1 Bird

film

Old School Review: “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review*

Title translation: “Second Wind”

Written by José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Deuxième Souffle” is a crime thriller adapted from a novel also written by Giovanni. Of the three films I’ve seen from Melville at this point, this is my new favorite from him. While the cinematography isn’t as showy as previous films, the story and characters are far more engaging and rapturous. The story is mainly focused on recently escaped and infamous Parisian criminal Gustave Minda (Lino Ventura), or “Gu” for short, and the expert Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) who relentlessly pursues him. Now, the plot and story at hand may seem familiar, but it is Melville’s stage direction, camera framing, and restrained performances that he pulls from his actors that make this noir film stand out from the crowd. So, after “Gu” breaks out of prison with two others (one unfortunate prisoner missed his jump, the second was eventually chased off a cliff by the police), he heads to Paris to see his loyal sister Simone (Christine Fabréga), who goes by her nickname ‘Manouche’ throughout the film. She and her bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin), work various aspects of a bar called “Ricci’s”. Manouche and Alban get caught in the crossfire of an orchaestrated attack on the bar before “Gu” arrives in Paris, but Alban fends them off from behind the bar while Jacques (Raymond Loyer), Manouche’s admirer, is found to be the only casualty. When “Gu” does arrive back in town he takes his sister’s blackmail problems into his own hands. “Gu” catches two more men sent to Manouche’s house after the attack and kills them with his trademark technique. With the blackmail settled, the three of them, Manouche, Alban, and “Gu” plan to smuggle the infamous criminal to Italy by way of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Inspector Blot is all over every possible trace of evidence connected to the infamous Gustave Minda’s recent escape from prison, and in fact, he’s the first person on the scene of the attack at Ricci’s. Though no one there will give Blot any verifiable accounts of the attack, he knows their game all too well and makes his presence well known, for while the attack didn’t resemble “Gu”s handiwork- Blot knew the old gangster would be heavily invested in the safety of his sister. Blot, for his part, is a damn crafty Inspector and knows all the ins and outs of the criminal underworld- he calculates his risks seriously, and his deductive reasoning is unparalled in the world of this film. To fund the escape to Italy, “Gu” decides to join up with a crew for a heist with a gigantic payout, much to Manouche’s objection. “Gu” finds this opportunity through another old friend of his, Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), who was originally asked to be a part of the heist, but declined due to the risk associated. “Gu” finds himself in familiar company with the crew assembled as Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin), brother of Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) who owns the bar Ricci’s, is the lead organizer of the operation. Gustave doesn’t find out until later that it was Jo Ricci who blackmailed Manouche at the beginning of the film, though when he does, he lets Paul know that his brother ‘isn’t on the up and up‘ and decides to let it go due to their friendship. The heist is pretty simple as far as heists go, an armored truck carrying one million francs worth of platinum in its cargo has a long route out through the country with two armed police motorcyles escorting it. Once the armored truck and police motorcade enter the mountainous terrain where the gangsters lay in wait, the heist goes surprisingly well. The motorcade is dispatched effectively as planned and the truck drivers are stowed in a nearby shed. The only diversion is a passerby who stopped because he thought he heard shots- but “Gu” solves the issue and tosses the onlooker into the shed with the others. The crew returns and hides the platinum until they can find an approrpriate seller.

Unfortunately for “Gu”, he’s kidnapped in broad daylight and tricked into revealing that Paul Ricci was involved in the heist as Blot’s team impersonated local gangsters from Marseille with insider information. Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) of the Marseille Police department receives the two gangsters, they’re heavily tortured as they attempt to break both “Gu” and Paul, though eventually “Gu” escapes. Jo Ricci wants revenge for his jailed brother, and to get “Gu”s portion of the platinum’s revenue. Jo Ricci works the other two members of the crew in the heist and convinces them to side with him, fearing that “Gu” could give up their names to the cops as well. After escaping the Marseille Police Department, “Gu” tracks down Inspector Fardiano and kills him after obtaining a written confession that Gustave Minda did not inform on anyone, and the details of the torture techniques they used in their “information gathering”. The film comes down to a shootout between “Gu”, the two remaining heist members, and Jo Ricci as he takes Orloff’s place in a meeting and shows up with two pistols and a whole lot of righteous criminal honor to uphold. All are killed in the commotion, with Blot arriving just as “Gu” dies on the staircase. Blot heads out of the crime scene and into the crowd, as he does, he purposefully leaves Fardiano’s confession at the feet of a journalist- Blot played by the rules, and Fardiano was just another bad cop to be swept under the rug.

This was another really solid noir film from Melville and it only encourages me to seek out more from the Godfather of the French New Wave film movement. Classic genre tropes with tough guy gangsters, prison escapes, heists, shootouts, this film cleverly includes all the usual ingredients of a typical noir film, but the genius here is in the execution. Yes, the film is two-and-a-half hours, but for me at least, the pacing was very manageable and I was engaged for the whole film’s runtime. If you’re looking for a great rivalry between an unflappable Detective and an infamous Gangster then look no further, you’ve found it! Enjoy!

Final Score: 200 Million Francs

film

Old School Review: “Le Doulos” (1962)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.

So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.

This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.

Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity

film

Old School Review: “Bob le Flambeur” (1955)

Written by Auguste Le Breton, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed by Melville, “Bob le Flambeur” is a French noir film from the oft described Godfather of the infamous New Wave filmmakers who would burst onto the scene with radical new filmmaking techniques in just a few short years. Most of the French films I have seen at this point haven’t quite connected with me as much as I had expected, or even hoped for. That changes with this film however. Recently I noticed that a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville movies were set to leave the Criterion Collection’s streaming service at the end of February, and I had been meaning to check them out. There’s nothing like a fast approaching deadline to give you a sense of focus. I must say that I loved this film, and I cannot wait to run through more of Melville’s filmography. “Bob le Flambeur” follows Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a former Parisian gangster before the war, and now a well known gambler among the many nightclubs and bars of the night life in Paris. Even the cops know Bob, a man of honor and luck, he once saved the life of the local inspector (Guy Decomble) and they forged a long friendship. The owner of the corner bar, Yvonne (Simone Paris), bought the place with a loan from Bob, and with it her loyalty to him. And then there’s Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eager young man who hangs around, as his father was a great friend of Bob’s. We get most of our information about Bob by the way people greet and react to his presence and how they speak about Bob when he’s around and when he’s not.

We follow Bob as he moves from room to room throughout the latest hours of the night and the earliest of the morning, as the narration by Melville informs us “in those moments, between night and day … between heaven and hell.” He ends up losing most of his remaining funds, in fact throughout the whole first act Bob never seems to win at all. It isn’t until he hears about a potential heist with a score big enough to offset the risks that he begins to win at games of chance. It is here that a refresher on French vocabularly might be worthwhile; The word being “Flamber” (verb): To wager not only the money you have, but the money you don’t have. This is the epitome of who Bob is at his core. He is a gambler through and through, always rolling dice, flipping coins, and pulling the levers on a slot machine. Risk and chance are the fuel of his existence. Which is why the old gangster perks up when a friend mentions that the safe in the Casino in Deauville occasionally holds extraordinary amounts of money. They quickly begin to assess the situation and start gathering a crew of people with the essential skills and connections that could allow them to pull off this feat. It’s here that movies involving heists over the next fifty plus years have looked back upon for inspiration in the examination of a heist’s plan. Melville was aware enough of the conventions of the genre and chose to have his criminals forgo the usual charts and blueprints used to elaborate on the specifics of the plan. Instead, Melville had his crew go to detailed lengths to plan out their heist by spraying the outlines of the casino’s floorplans on an empty field and having his men walk through the steps. They also get some reconnaissance by driving around the Casino’s walls and having one of the crew accurately sketch the outlines and specific features of the building. They hire an expert safe cracker and acquire an exact replica of the safe they have to crack for practice. Which is all well and good, but I must direct your attention to the side characters who are all given adequate background information and motivations for their choices within the film. First, there’s Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman on the verge of falling into the clutches of the many pimps on the streets of Paris. Bob hates pimps, and he goes out of his way to make it known to Marc (Gérard Buhr), a down on his luck former gangster-turned-pimp early in the film. Unfortunately for Bob, Marc’s also dogged by the cops who will let him slide on smaller infractions if he gets them some good insider information from the criminal underworld of Paris. Anne floats around from Bob’s place (he allows her to stay if she has nowhere else to go), to several career paths, into and out of the lovesick arms of poor Paulo, and eventually back to Marc- who is denied her business as a prostitute, but given all too valuable information by accident.

In the end, Bob gets comepletely sidetracked by gambling at the casino. He almost forgets his schedule entirely, but runs out of the tables and into a gunfight. While he earned himself extraordinary wealth, he also missed the worst of the violence and gets there just in time to catch Paulo as he dies in his arms. Tragedy, sparked by an optimistic and oddly cynical note that by becoming so wealthy that he may avoid all jail time with the right lawyer for the right price. It’s one of those eternal ironies that comes through in the third act that adds just the right mix of cinematic magic to the whole affair, you see, Bob had promised his first partner in the scheme that he wouldn’t gamble until after the job had been done, but the allure of the casino was just too much for him. It’s just his nature, as the film likes to remind us. Beyond the plot, the cinematography caught me as something almost mythic in certain shots. That may seem strong, but the farther we get from the black and white films of the twentieth century, the closer that time feels to becoming as large and impenetrable in the cultural zeitgeist as say, the American West in the 1800’s. Maybe it’s just me, but I also love it when a film’s lead character travels through an environment and becomes dwarfed by the landscape, be it man-made skyscrapers or small towns, or natural like trees or mountains. Putting man on the scale of the world in your framing makes humanity seem small in comparison to the world around it- but it makes our acomplishments that much more powerful too.

If you’re looking for some good old school noir and are willing to read subtitles, I highly suggest checking this one out. For fun, try to spot all the people who aren’t smoking onscreen- once you notice it, it’s hard to miss the massive amount of people and time that smoking takes up onscreen. Otherwise, look forward to some more reviews on the films from Jean-Pierre Melville. ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: 800 Million Francs

film

Old School Review: “Breathless” (1960)

Written by François Truffaut and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Breathless” is a classic French crime film that helped to form the New Wave style of films coming from French filmmakers at that time. The story centers on Michel Poiccard, (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a petty thief in Paris who frequently steals cars for joyrides and pickpockets cash from unsuspecting pedestrians. He reunites with an American girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who’s studying to become a journalist after he impulsively murders a police officer on one of his more casual grand theft autos in the countryside just outside of Paris. Most of the film is spent following these two in the streets of Paris, in cafes and hotels, almost always smoking while they discuss many aspects of life with whimsy through their opinions and fluttery definitions about everything from the opposite sexes to how one should drive while behind the wheel.

BREATHLESS-web2050

Now, admittedly, I wasn’t a gigantic fan of this film after giving it a watch, but I had to know what made it so renowned and gilded among cinephiles. Given the year the film was made I was surprised at the speed and abrupt use of jump-cuts in the film’s editing. However that didn’t seem enough to make it supposedly legendary, so I did some reading on the movie. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s in France were a rebellious era of filmmaking characterized by a coup of sorts against the established narrative form in French cinema. These new French filmmakers broke away from any sense of a studio system and shot their independent features on shoestring budgets, often without permission on locations, and usually focusing on characters that weren’t natural protagonists by the standard definitions. As for “Breathless” itself, filming took place anywhere between 15 minutes to 12 hours depending on what Godard had come up with that day. They filmed in Paris in stores and cafes mostly without being granted access in order to secure the spontaneous feel in the film that Godard was going for. There was a considerable amount of improvisation and Godard reportedly kept his journal of dialogue close and only shared what he believed to be necessary.

itemsfs_6194

In today’s world, the film may not seem all that special, but it did a lot to give independent filmmakers an origin, somebody had to be the first to get their shots without the permission from the gatekeepers, right? Indie film cred aside, the film may harbor some resentment from modern audiences for its characters’ opinions. I suspect that many American audiences today could be triggered by the subjects that the characters discuss and how they go about discussing them. To be fair, the perspective is from an entirely different culture and from a generation and a half ago. As we’re still very much embroiled in the #MeToo movement here in America, everything is still tender. Simply talking about sexuality and the roles of women and men in life and the workplace can be a careful tap-dance of attempting to recognize and listen to every person’s point of view, let alone expressing the viewpoints that this film does. The French culture approaches these topics in a fairly different manner, but especially so in the 1960’s, in a post war Paris, and given that the New Wave movement was focused on morally ambiguous characters to stand aside from the greater film structures of the time- so there’s a lot to dissect given all of the variables in play.

A-Bout-de-Souffle-bts

The film does have it’s place in celluloid history, but I wouldn’t say that its the most entertaining film out there. Which is fine, not every story works for every audience. I’d have to see more from the New Wave directors before making a final opinion on the select era and group of filmmakers’ work, but the making of this film was more interesting to me than the final product. Surprised by the international praise of the film, Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t regret making the film because they defied the power structures of the filmmaking process and he was glad that they had thrown all that aside and opened the process up. In the end, I’m glad I gave it a watch, another film can be checked off my list and my perspective widens because of it.

Final Score: 100 cigarettes and 50 cups of coffee