Criterion Sunday 448: Le Deuxième souffle (1966)

The year before Le Samouraï and Melville’s last film in black-and-white. They may all be wearing trenchcoats and being laconic in both films, but it’s incredible the way this feels like another era, a holdover from the 40s. There’s something almost Bressonian in the way that the early scenes unfold (though that’s perhaps no surprise given it’s a prison break): no music, just people going through the motions, wordlessly and almost like a dream. Gu (short for Gustave, and played by Lino Ventura, a stocky stand-by of the gangster film since Touchez pas au grisbi) has just broken out of jail and is now looking to retire, but — as is the way — is sucked back into one last job. How badly could it go? Have you ever watched a movie? You know how badly it could go. For all that, Melville is clearly starting to strip back his style, such that the trenchcoats and the hats, the Gallic sangfroid, the guns and the gangsters, the deep expressionist shadows of the film noir genre, all of these things seem to hold more depth in them than the plot itself, though it’s all very well done, and by this point in his career Ventura has an iconic energy that is perfectly channelled here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by José Giovanni); Cinematographer Marcel Combes; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 447: Le Doulos (aka The Finger Man, 1962)

I do love a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster flick, but you get to see enough of them that sometimes they just don’t make much of an impact. Sure, there are the trenchcoats, the hats, the moody expressionist lighting picking out figures from the darkness, the sense of noirish desperation amongst these small-time gangsters, and then there’s Belmondo, still fairly fresh off Breathless, still just a little too pretty to be a tough guy (though he can be pretty nasty). Then again I think he grew into his minimalist gangster films, and this one still has one foot in that old world tradition, the one that informed Bob le flambeur, of guys in rooms and shady dealings and an interest in the relationships between them rather than just the brute fact of a gun, a girl, a double-cross, a murder: the elements that Godard stripped his first film down to. Already there’s this sense of these generic trappings, the guys in coats passing across the frame, and I think it’s something that Melville hones in on, and perhaps I’m just being unfair here, but it’s the kind of piece that I can’t genuinely remember if I’ve seen it before, but it feels like the kind of thing I might have watched once.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by Pierre Lesou); Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 6 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 398: Les Enfants terribles (1950)

Watching this film having become familiar with director Jean-Pierre Melville’s later works — stripped-back, laconic Parisian films for the most part, often genre flicks about gangsters — makes this early film of his come as quite a surprise. However, given its basis in a Jean Cocteau novel, and the latter’s collaboration on this script and involvement as the film’s narrator, it does feel a lot more like a Cocteau film than what would be Melville’s signature, which is helped along by some of the poetic effects (some backwards looped film at one point reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, and hints of sexual ambiguity suggestive of Orpheus, which Cocteau directed the same year). Certainly there’s a melodramatic tension to the central couple, a brother and sister, whose toxic relationship is a danger to all around them; they are very much terrible children (even if the actors are in their 20s), both to their deceased parents and to the audience. The tropes are familiar from any number of modern teen movies, and their antics would be unbearable except for the stylishness of the filming and the musical score. There are hints here of some of the archness of the Nouvelle Vague, which makes sense given their positive reception of this film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean-Pierre Melville; Writers Melville and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel by Cocteau); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Nicole Stéphane, Édouard Dermit, Jacques Bernard, Renée Cosima, Jean Cocteau; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 385: L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969)

Melville was always a stylist and that much has been clear in the films so far featured in the Criterion Collection, titles with Alain Delon such as the remarkable Le Samouraï from a few years earlier, or Le Cercle rouge from the following year. These films, along with his 1956 classic Bob le flambeur, are crime dramas in which laconic men don hats and heavy coats, look cool and carry out their crimes like elegant statesmen. Here our protagonists are also criminals, but only in the eyes of the Nazi-controlled Vichy government they are resisting; it’s set during World War II, with solid, stocky Lino Ventura playing Philippe Gerbier, head of the Marseille resistance. From the very start there’s a sense of the danger, as he’s picked up by the police and sent for questioning (involving certain torture and death), from which predicament he escapes this time, but throughout the film that heavy sense of impending death hangs over everyone. The film is thus a series of setpieces of characters just buying a little more time from their fate as they try to organise resistance to Nazi occupation. When one of their group is picked up, Simone Signoret’s Mathilde steps in, while meanwhile Gerbier has taken a submarine to London to meet the head of the resistance, a philosopher called Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), and coordinate strategies. At no point is there any particular glory (aside from the unseen hand of de Gaulle awarding Jardie a medal in London), just constant attempts to outwit the bad guys and put death off for one more day, all in Melville’s usual steely blue set design, noirish shadows hanging as heavy as the coats and impeccable suits his leads always wear. The cumulative effect is deeply emotional, just for knowing how impossible the situation is that they are all in, and how little they could know about what might happen after their inevitable deaths, but that we can watch knowing they didn’t ultimately die in vain.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a series of extras dealing with the work of the Resistance, among them Le Journal de la Résistance (1945), an anonymously directed and shot wartime documentary. At just over half an hour, this is narrated by Noël Coward (at least, the English version) and shows footage shot by Parisian cameramen of the battles that led up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944. We see fragments snatched from windows and hiding places of tanks rolling up the Champs Elysées, of dead French bodies piled in a courtyard as evidence that the Germans have fled, as shots ring out and barricades are lifted by Parisians quickly becoming aware that things have taken a turn. The Allied tanks aren’t far away as the citizens take up arms to drive back the Germans ahead of the final victory. It’s all very spiriting and narrated with a sense of pomp and idealism, but you’d expect that as a document made to strengthen morale in the dying days of the war.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the book by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographers Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel; Length 145 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 306: Le Samouraï (1967)

That this film is now a world cinema classic is of course indisputable and I shan’t pretend to post a deep analysis of it. However, living in the times that we do, there’s something strangely comforting in the laconic rituals of this far-off culture — though to be fair, three weeks ago feels like an impossibly distant past right now. The film sets itself up with a fake Bushido quote, and Jarmusch would do likewise with his own pseudo-samurai film (Ghost Dog) many decades later, though unlike some recent Criterion films it’s set in 1960s Paris rather than feudal Japan. Our antihero Jef (Alain Delon, never more expressively inexpressive) moves through the motions of his job, from its start (or very near to it, as he lies on his bed contemplating things to come) to its rather final end. Every frame is a masterclass, every composition a blank slate waiting to be filled in with the ever-present threat of violence (albeit rarely actually witnessed). Melville understands space and time better than most filmmakers, and in the sequence of gangster films he made (many with Delon) he really finds something special in all those otherwise unpreposessing 60s Parisian interiors and street scenes. There’s something about the lighting, the performance, the frame and the movement that all come together perfectly, with a little Gallic shrug as everything softly trails off. What makes it a classic is the balance Melville attains, something that is very suggestive of its Japanese roots perhaps, something almost Zen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 March 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Criterion Sunday 218: Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at the Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018).

Criterion Sunday 150: Bob le flambeur (1956)

There’s style here undoubtedly: its tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last big score by staging a heist has been cribbed for so many subsequent films that it can’t help but feeling like cliché. The plot’s not all that later filmmakers (not least early Godard and all his fanboy imitators) would take — the use of music, the laid-back style, the pop culture references (all those film posters; Breathless really did owe a lot to Melville). The problem is — and I concede this may just be because I’ve seen all its imitators first — I wasn’t grabbed by it. It looks great but these guys all feel like empty archetypes, and the young woman’s ​characterisation appears to be undressing in various men’s apartments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017.