Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dir by Francois Truffaut

The French New Wave may seem like the very Frenchiest of Frenchness, stories of people trapped in existential angst, smoking cigarettes, and shrugging their shoulders. This is odd because to a large degree those French directors were importing American culture, and the shoulders aren’t shrugging, so much as spasming in agony after catching a bullet or knife-blade.

Tirez sur le Pianiste is Truffaut’s adaptation of a David Goodis novel, Shoot the Piano Player, which is what the American release is appropriately titled. The tale concerns Edward (Charles Aznavour), a concert pianist hiding out from his former life. Edward’s story is told in an extended flashback that relates his poor but happy life of wedded bliss (he’s studying piano, she’s a waitress), his rise to stardom, and the cruel collapse of it all. Without putting in too many plot spoilers, a man with great talent AND a beautiful wife might find that both play a part in his rise.

After losing it all to the cruel blows of fate, Edward hides out as a piano player in a shabby tavern. He provides for his younger brother Fido (yeah, they named him after the dog) and gets childcare from the neighborhood prostitute. Edward also has a couple of older brothers. They happen to be hillbilly criminals (I haven’t read Goodis’ novel, but somehow I picture the originals with a still) who have swindled a pair of hold-up men of their end of a bank robbery. The robbers decide to take Fido as an incentive to return their loot.

If that isn’t bad enough, Edward has found a new love with the waitress (he should know they are poison by now) at the tavern. In film noir this is never good. In particular Edward’s boss is senselessly envious and a violent explosion ensues. Edward, having clawed his way from the abyss to the brink of happiness, is drawn back to the pit.

Truffaut was a master filmmaker and he handles the material deftly. The problem is, there is too much of it, and some critical elements are slighted. Just what is Edward’s relationship with Fido? The hillbilly brothers pop into Edward’s life with a little too much ease, as if they never existed when he was famous. For all its flaws, Shoot the Piano Player is a fine film.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dir. by Jules Dassin

Rififi (aka Du Rififi Chez les Hommes) is a classic French heist film. While many French gangster movies paid hommage to the American genre, this is one that actually had an American director. Jules Dassin found himself blacklisted in Hollywood and emigrated to France. After a period where various projects came to naught due to American pressure, he was offered a job directing an adaptation of Auguste le Breton’s novel, Du Rififi Chez les Hommes. Dassin hated the book, but rather than starve, he took the job.

The tale is about Tony (Jean Servais), a hood just released from jail, and his young pal Jo, a regular family man and minor gangster. Tony’s only real concern is Mado (Marie Sabouret), his old girlfriend, who is now hooked up with Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) a slimy gang boss and dope dealer. After he closes any hope of reconciliation with some brutal humiliation, Tony is ready to get back to theiving. He has a plan to knock over Paris’ biggest jewelry store, if only they can get past the alarm.

The break-in is meticulously detailed in a half-hour set piece with no dialog and few sounds. Cesar, the safe-cracker (played by Dassin himself under the name Perlo Vita) wears ballet slippers so as not to make the slightest noise of a footfall. An accidental note from a piano is like a pistol shot as the thieves carry out their arduous and lucrative task.

The heist is only the beginning. Revenge and greed prove the gang’s undoing in the last third of the film. Tony’s old-fashioned code of honor is small comfort when he is confronted by Grutter’s ruthlessness.

Rififi is good, old-fashioned film noir that does the things film noir should. It delights the eye and makes the heart hunger for nobility in a corrupt and decadent world.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dir. by Julien Duvivier

Pepe le Moko is one of the prototypes of the gangster movie. Where Scarface and Little Caesar and Public Enemy lurked in the grim slums of America’s metropolises, Julien Duvivier went looking for his gangsters in the sun-drenched exoticism of the Kasbah. Pepe straddles the world of Public Enemy and Casablanca.

Pepe (Jean Gabin) is the most wanted man in Algeria (a French colony at the time). A detective from Paris has come to arrest him for his multitudinous crimes. Easier said than done. Pepe is vigilantly alert to the wiles of informers and the people of the Kasbah protect him. If the police come in force, Pepe is forewarned, he can shoot it out with les flics and then high tail it through the myriad hidden passages of the Kasbah. The one exception to Pepe’s no-cops rule is Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), a local detective who Pepe tolerates because he is either ineffective or paid off.

This would be a perfect set up until Pepe meets his one true kryptonite, a high-class Parisienne out slumming. Her name is Gaby (Mireille Balin) and she and Pepe are drawn like moths to each other’s flames. As his gang gets picked off, Pepe becomes increasingly vulnerable, and increasingly violent.

Pepe le Moko is a compelling film. In truth it is a film noir before there was a film noir. Pepe is a film perhaps most often viewed as an artifact, a stage in the development of film noir. I can say you should watch it, just because it is so very good to watch.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dir. by Jacques Deray

I think when they need to liquify nitrogen at a super-low temperature in France they just put it next to Alain Delon. He has the ability to switch from un chic type to un grand thug with great ease. The magnetism that Delon exerts is matched by that of Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays a paranoid sociopath with savage style.

In Flic Story Delon plays the titular flic (French slang for a cop), Roger Borniche. He has been tasked with taking down Buisson (Trintignant), a homicidal lunatic on a violent crime spree. Borniche methodically stalks Buisson through a France still reeling in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation. The only drawback is that Buisson is a paranoid killer whose sudden shifts of plan and frequent executions of informers (real and suspected) make him unpredictable prey. Political pressures from France’s left-wing press and inter-departmental rivalries complicate Borniche’s job further.

Flic Story is gritty. It is nearly as violent as Bonnie and Clyde. The settings are as likely to be swanky nightclubs as seedy apartments. Sometimes the cops are hard to tell from the hoods. In Paris the favored method of interrogating a suspect is repeated punches to the face. Borniche struggles to retain his integrity while doing all in his power to stop Buisson’s rampage. He is less likely to break a man’s face, but can still break his spirit. The ultimate irony is that when all is said and done, the hunter and the hunted find themselves sharing a bond, albeit a forced one.

The film is based on the true story written by Borniche. It is reasonably faithful to the facts. I do recall Borniche was forthright about the queasy facts of serving in the police in the waning days of WWII, something the film cleans up a bit. Look for excellent work by the supporting cast as well, in particular Claudine Auger as Mrs. Borniche.

I recommend Flic Story for fans of police procedurals and hard-boiled crime drama generally.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dir. by Jean Pierre Melville

Buddha drew a circle with red chalk and said, “When men are destined to meet, no matter what paths they must take, they will meet here, in the red circle.”

So runs the quote at the opening of Le Circle Rouge, Jean Pierre Melville’s next-to-last film. Melville wasn’t always Melville, he was originally Grumbach, and picked Melville as a nom de guerre while he was in the Resistance and later the Free French army. Melville, something of an odd case, a European Jew who survived the Nazis’ mechanized genocide and remained in Europe, became odder still, an Americanophile French filmmaker.

Le Cercle Rouge follows the fortunes of Corey (Alain Delon), a parolee who has been recruited to carry out a heist by a prison warder, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), an escapee from police custody, Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil), who Vogel escaped from, and Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-police sharpshooter. By torturous paths they come together, despite, or perhaps because of such distractions as gangland revenge and delirium tremens. There is indeed a heist to be pulled, in stylish silence. And there is a final reckoning.

Le Cercle Rouge is a stylish and even stylized film. Melville’s heroes are crooks who hew to a code of loyalty and, yes, honesty. In this world, Vogel, a “suspect” (of what we never learn, though he may be a terrorist of some kind) is far more unpredictable and violent than Corey, the professional thief. Even Mattei, though a dedicated cop, seems sleazy in comparison to Santi, the Corsican “nightclub owner” he wants to force into becoming an informer. Melville doesn’t give us back-stories to say why these men are the way they are, they just are themselves.

For fans used to John Woo or Quentin Tarantino’s style of hyper-kinetic violence, Le Cercle Rouge may seem slow. Melville was a master of creating style and tone. He builds tension with the chess moves of a police investigation and a meticulous robbery, rather than with shootouts (though a few apaches get sent to la colline des bottes). The DVD is re-mastered into beautiful pastel colors that still convey the gritty reality of criminals on the run.

While some might criticize Le Cercle Rouge for its slow pace and the minimalist interpretation of the characters, Melville had a distinctive vision. He created a world of honest thieves and hard-shell cops on an inevitable collision course. He lets us see just enough of what is under the cold exteriors of his outlaw heroes and durs flics to let us sympathize with their self-destruction. When Alain Delon swaggers across the screen in his trench coat and gets the pistol and the money just ahead of the gang boss, you’ll understand what makes this film a classic.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dir. by Jean Pierre Melville

Before the nouvelle vague, there was Jean Pierre Melville. Heck, that was before Tarantino! Melville didn’t set out to be a guerilla filmmaker, he just wanted to make movies, but he had to build his own studio first. The result is perhaps slow and old fashioned to our eyes, but it laid the groundwork for what was to come in gangster films.

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a hood, but not a nasty one. He did time for a bank robbery, but he also saved a cop’s life (and saved himself a date with Mme. Guillotine). Bob is also a gambling addict (flambeur is French for “high roller”) who loses a lot more than he wins. Bob also has a protégé, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eerie mini-Bob, who mimics the older man’s mannerisms. While Bob likes him some games ‘o chance, he purely hates a pimp. When he sees scumbag mack Marc (Gerard Buhr) chatting up the ingenue/sex kitten Anne (Isabel Corey, who really was 15 at the time, so look out pervs!), Bob does himself… that is Anne a favor and takes her in.

Of course picking up a gorgeous young girl doesn’t usually solve a man’s money problems (unless he really is a pimp). When Bob drops a bundle at the Deauville casino, he picks up a hot tip on how many millions of francs are in the safe (yes, a million francs was a lot of money, albeit oddly colored). The best cure for a gambling problem is more money, so Bob and his crew swing into action as they plan to clean out the house for a change.

Naturally it doesn’t go all that well. Dames and heists don’t mix (not in Melville’s world, though Bonnie Parker might disagree). And that whole gambling addiction thing turns out to be a bigger stumbling block than one might expect.

Melville did create a minor masterpiece in Bob le Flambeur. It is neither a bloody shoot-‘em-up like The Asphalt Jungle nor an overly sophisticated comedy like Ocean’s Eleven, though the former certainly influenced Melville as surely as Bob influenced the latter. There is a gritty feel to the milieu that Bob inhabits, underage prostitutes and greasy pimps rub shoulders with violent hoods. But Melville also infuses his world with a suave urbanity, beginning with Roger Duchesne’s silver-haired good looks (Duchesne had been a movie star in the ‘30s, but had fallen in with real gangsters later). Bob is Melville’s conception of the old French Underworld, where there was honor among thieves, before WWII turned gangland into a murderous extension of the brutality and betrayal of the straight world. In the background of Bob are the streets of Montmartre, nightclubs sit beside cathedrals, under the glitzy lights hookers ply their trade and grim little tenements aren’t that far from posh pieds a terre. Bob is in its own way what Melville called it, a comedy of manners, a love letter to Montmarte and a nostalgic elegy for lost honor.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dir. by Jean Luc Godard

Au Bout de Souffle, better known as Breathless, is where classic film noir and le nouvelle vague part company. Jean-Luc Godard established a trend that endures to this day. His minimalist approach to film and unique sense of style, or perhaps anti-style defined a generation of filmmaking.

The story is simple, Michel (Jena-Paul Belmondo) is a car thief. He sponges off various women when he’s not stealing cars. But one theft goes badly wrong, and Michel shoots a gendarme. He knows that time is running out on him, but he needs money. He wants an American expat named Patricia (Jean Seberg) to accompany him to Italy, perhaps as much for her monetary support as for the consuming lust he has for her. All Michel has to do is get enough cash together to make his run before les flics close in.

What makes this film so compelling is less the mechanics of the plot, than the amazing performances of Belmondo and Seberg. Belmondo plays Michel with an aggressive vulnerability that occasionally descends into pleading, but with a core of ruthlessness. Michel is not so much a conscienceless sociopath, as a self-centered jerk. True, he wastes little time regretting the policeman he shot in cold blood, and he is a brutal and efficient mugger. He just doesn’t seem to think too much about what he does, he’s too dumb to understand consequences. Michel is a beautiful animal who wants to sate his desire with Patricia. But underneath his pushy lust, there is a core of love (albeit a bit warped) for Patricia, that almost, but not quite redeems him. It’s this willingness to make Michel so unappealing, neither gloriously awful or truly redeemed, that shows just how daring Godard and Belmondo were.

Seberg’s portrayal of Patricia is scintillating. She is a wide-eyed innocent with a streak of selfishness. She is a young woman who isn’t entirely sure who or what she is. Just as we never really know why Michel shoots the cop, we can’t be quite sure why Patricia makes her final, fateful choice about Michel. But her last gesture on screen leaves us in no doubt that she is paying the price for her choices.

Godard’s guerilla approach to film uses the streets of Paris as his sets giving the movie a feel of a newsreel at times (did Pres. Eisenhower really visit Paris during the filming?). Godard also makes more “conventional” set-pieces (if satirizing Romanian playwrights is conventional), in one scene Jean-Pierre Melville plays a celebrity who pontificates on the nature of women.

Au Bout de Souffle may seems like an odd-ball on Fire & Sword, it is a long way from the hard-boiled heist films like Asphalt Jungle or Le Cercle Rouge. What Godard did was to pick up the noir style of James Cain and Cornell Woolrich and give it a new lease on life. Au Bout de Souffle is a classic crime movie, a minimalist grandfather of masterpieces like Straight Time and True Romance. But don’t watch it for film history, watch it to enjoy some of the finest acting ever seen.

-Dave Hardy