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 434: Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk, 1960)

If there’s one thing I can credit the Criterion Collection with introducing me to, it’s the whole gamut of French policiers and gangster films of the 1950s and 60s especially. Sure, I’d seen maybe a Melville, but now I feel like I’m starting to get through a lot of them, and this early feature by Claude Sautet, which has become somewhat overshadowed in film history by the contemporary work by the Nouvelle Vague, very much fits into the Melvillean tradition, if not being itself a source of influence for Melville as he went more abstractly noirish throughout the decade. It has the laconic soul of a western in the way this big guy gangster Abel (Lino Ventura) communicates through body language and scowls. He’s on the run for a heist that’s netted far less than expected, and the trail of cops leads to death, which is particularly difficult for Abel as he has two small kids to protect. There’s a whole world between these characters that we already have a sense of, even before they speak, and when a young kid helps Abel out (Belmondo, fresh from Breathless), there’s an extra frisson of concern because Abel doesn’t know him and worries he’s being set up. Of course there’s paranoia and fear, but mostly there’s just an easy sense of being amongst shifty guys all of whose futures are looking pretty bleak.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Sautet; Writers Sautet, Pascal Jardin and José Giovanni (based on Giovanni’s novel); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Claude Cerval, Michel Ardan; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 28 May 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 335: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, aka Lift to the Scaffold, 1958)

Perhaps this is just a stylish crime film with a sort of lovers-on-the-run theme (even if one pair of lovers are very much stuck), but it seems to be a pure expression of its historical moment. It’s channelling the cool of bebop jazz via its Miles Davis score, looking forward to the nouvelle vague with its location shooting and expressive camerawork, and it is just so indelibly French — there’s something about that extreme close-up of Jeanne Moreau saying “Je t’aime, je t’aime” over the phone that is almost camp in its essential Frenchness, the core of how that entire culture would be refracted through anglophone media for decades to come. It may not excavate any deeper psychological truths, but it expertly captures the nerves of people trying to pull off a plot and getting a bit waylaid, along with the fatalistic comedy that seems to unfold as our protagonist, in his perfectionist desire to ensure that one murder is untraceable, unwittingly gets on the hook for another he’s not responsible for. In the end, it relies on our shared (genre-rooted perhaps) understanding about the efficacy of the police, something I don’t think can be relied upon in the years since, but it looks and sounds amazing even after so many years.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Roger Nimier (based on the novel by Noël Calef); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronel, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Lino Ventura; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 17 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 271: Touchez pas au grisbi (aka Honour Among Thieves, 1954)

Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or a couple years earlier already feels like a generation away from this film (and admittedly does have a period setting), but where that may have been a tight narrative that set up every sequence and followed through with resolve, this somehow feels more like a meandering atmosphere piece. At length the plot does come out, and it revolves around the “loot” (grisbi) of the title, but more than being about a swindle gone wrong, it’s about ageing gangsters reckoning with their mortality. Chief among these is Jean Gabin, who made something of a comeback with this film after years in the wilderness. As Mr Max, he knows he’s getting old — and as if to emphasise this, director Becker has him getting ready for bed, in silk pyjamas brushing his teeth, or looking balefully into a mirror while pinching his chin fat. He surrounds himself with much younger and more glamorous women, as all of his compatriots seem to do (one of them is Jeanne Moreau), almost as if to stave off the effects of age, but they all know they’re headed into obsolescence, and they lash out with regularity against the women and the younger thugs (like the well-built Lino Ventura, the chief antagonist). There’s a brutishness to it, stylishly evoked with all kinds of looming dark shadows around every corner, but it all seems pathetic more than anything else: few of them really seem in control, though Max is more effective at projecting this than some of the others. It’s a film about feelings and sadness, couched in a gangster form, and has more than a hint of The Godfather (not least in the repeated musical motif, very redolent of Nino Rota’s work on that film).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s another five minutes or so of the Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray) documentary about the director, with the excerpt focusing on this film, naturally. We hear a little bit from Lino Ventura as well as the screenwriter and the original author Albert Simonin, plus a brief appearance from Truffaut to speak about Becker’s influential style.
  • There’s are a few brief interviews with the stars, including one from 20 years later with Lino Ventura (Grisbi was his debut, but by this point he’s an established star), with the composer Jean Wiener focusing on the brief snippet of score that Becker preferred to use (though he’d written much more), and with actor Daniel Cauchy who has a small role as a young thug.
  • The only other extra is a trailer, four minutes of punchy action from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Maurice Griffe (based on the novel by Albert Simonin); Cinematographer Pierre Montazel; Starring Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.