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Thread: JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE retrospective

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    JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE retrospective

    A retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville.

    ................ June 8–August 12, 2017


    Illustration by Malika Favre [New Yorker]

    Melville 100

    There was a Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective at Film Forum earlier this month (April 28 - May 11, 2017). It's being repeated at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley June 8–August 12, 2017. [The PFA/BAM program is thanks to Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum; Eric di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures; Amélie Gavin-Davet, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; the Consulate General of France, San Francisco; and Institut Français, Paris.]
    Père of the Nouvelle Vague, interpreter of Cocteau, master of the crime/gangster genre, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) remained always separate and himself. After serving in the French army and then the Resistance during WWII (when J-P Grumbach took his favorite author’s name for his own nom de guerre), he redefined "independent" with his self-financed outside-the-industry adaptations, moving gradually to those austere, if star-studded, evocations of a fantasy underworld that his surname evokes. [Film Forum]
    Anthony Lane provided an introduction in The New Yorker. Prepare this way, he said:
    This is how you should attend the forthcoming retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville movies at Film Forum: Tell nobody what you are doing. Even your loved ones—especially your loved ones—must be kept in the dark. If it comes to a choice between smoking and talking, smoke. Dress well but without ostentation. Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless of whether there is rain. Any revolver should be kept, until you need it, in the pocket of the coat. Finally, before you leave home, put your hat on. If you don’t have a hat, you can’t go.[The New Yorker]
    Film buffs ought to know most of the following. I'm going to provide a few reminders and fill in some gaps or dust off some shelves.

    Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Samouraï and Un Flic long ago entered at least my noir canon. Léon Morin, Priest and The Army of Shadows are justifiably considered classics by historians, and Le deuxième soufle and The Red Circle seem to be highly regarded and have been copied. Le Silence de la Mer, by the war writer Vercors and about a wordless resistance to German occupation, and Les Enfants Terrible by Cocteau have special political and literary significance, respectively, for the French. In short, he's one of the great ones. A lasting influence and one of the masters of the cool.

    Many are available online or in excellent remastered or Criterion editions. But Magnet of Doom, while on DVD in France, doesn't seem to be ready at hand in the US. Too bad, since it's from a novel by Simenon, stars Belmondo, and was shot by Henri Decaë. Which kind of says it all. Quintessential Melville: the doomed, lithe hit man (Delon, a master of mime, as we learn in Le Samouraï); or Lino Ventura as the stony soldier of Resistance in Army of Shadows; or Belmondo as the enigmatic crook in Le Doulos; the young priest Léon Morin.

    1917 (Paris, France) - 1973 (Paris, France)
    1946 24 heures de la vie d'un clown (Short)*
    1949 Le Silence de la Mer
    1950 Les Enfants Terribles
    1953 When You Read This Letter*
    1956 Bob le Flambeur
    1959 Deux hommes dans Manhattan/Two Men in Manhattan
    1961 Léon Morin, prêtre/Léon Morin, Priest
    1963 Le Doulos
    1963 L'aîné des Ferchaux/Magnet of Doom*
    1966 Le Deuxieme Souffle
    1969 L'armée des ombres/Army of Shadows
    1967 Le Samouraï/The Samourai
    1970 Le Cercle Rouge/The Red Circle
    1972 Un Flic/Dirty Money
    *Hard to find in the US. Letter will be shown in the retrospective.


    Alain Delon in Le Samouraï
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-11-2017 at 11:47 PM.

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    1949 Le Silence de la Mer



    Conscientious objectors

    Le Silence de la Mer, Melville's first feature, is based on a text written by Vercors. It's a haunting story even if this seems somewhat a false start. Vercors is the pseudonym of illustrator, writer, and resistance fighter Jean Bruller, who co-founded the publishing house Éditions de Minuit. Like Vercors, who took the name from a region he was in during the war, Melville himself fought in the Resistance and took a pseudonym, as a filmmaker. His given name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. Vercors' text was first published clandestinely in 1941 under the Occupation (translated into English by Cyril Connolly, author of The Unquiet Grave).

    The short novel recounts the silent "resistance" of an elderly man and his young niece forced to house a German officer for six months. The officer is a former composer, a knowledgeable admirer of French culture and literature, fluent in French. No matter. Vercors' point is, a German must be resisted on principle, no matter how pleasing his facade. Since he's so well-meaning, one may feel a little sorry for him, both for his relentlessly chilly treatment by the man and his niece, who meet him with "the silence of the sea," never once addressing a word to him - and for his cruel disillusionment toward the end. Half the French audience in the thick of the Occupation found a "nice" Nazi an unacceptable idea. But Vercors' conception is subtle and insidious. It's a thought-provoking work.

    Readers from the start noted the text's "theatrical" quality, so staging it for a film comes naturally. Nonetheless it feels static this way, despite the "opening up" scenes. It might work better as a stage play. Melville's staging feels stiff. Jean-Marie Robain, playing the uncle, was only 36, and his fake white hair looks self-evidently stagey. Some things are better read (or heard) than seen. Vercors' text works best, for me, in the audio tape version my French prof gave me, which has a kind of lulling, haunting quality as the listener takes in the "nice" and so very cultured officer's long useless effort, in meticulously correct French, to woo his forced hosts - and then, after his trip to Paris, his disillusionment when he has realized his dream of cultural union was a fantasy. What he learns in Paris is that the Nazis plan to destroy France, not merge with her; and, unwilling to see the French civilization he has so loved wrecked by his own countrymen, he chooses to go off to "Hell," the Russian front, and to die.

    Le Silence de la Mer isn't a triumphant beginning, but it's a statement, one step away from the War that had dominated everything and whose suspicions, asceticism, and gloom (as well as nighttime amusements) continued to set Melville's style. It's a reminder of the War and of Resistance and a unique piece, if a somewhat one-note one, yet in its way haunting and memorable.

    Melville 100 Berkeley
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    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2017 at 12:01 AM.

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    1950 Les Enfants Terribles



    Cocteau's iconic inbred siblings

    Jean Cocteau liked Melville's Silence de la mer and asked him to film his short novel published by Grasset in 1929. It was written when he was on a cure for opium addiction. It blends personal mythology, including his admiration for the "Poète maudit" Raymond Radiguet and schoolboy crushes, with Greek mythology. It obviously plays with incest, focusing on a brother and sister who live together shut in a room.

    Action starts with the crowded, disorderly atmosphere of a lycée with boys' crushes on boys. Gérard loves Paul (Edouard Dermithe), who loves Dargelos, the latter a kind of legendary bad boy whose original Cocteau fantasized about all his life. In winter, in a snowball fight, Dargelos throws a snowball (with a stone in it) at Paul's chest, and he collapses. Gérard takes him home, where he stays, abandoning his studies, living with his sister Elizabeth. Nicole Stéphane (née Nicole de Rothschild), who played the niece in Le silence de la mer, is Elizabeth but here, like her brother, is blonde. She grows jealous when Paul falls for Agathe, a girl brought in by Gérard. Gérard and Agathe fall under a kind of sickly, evil spell in the claustrophobic but strangely attractive - defiant, antisocial - hothouse atmosphere of the room occupied by Paul and Elizabeth, whose life is a succession of idiosyncratic personal games. The defiant unnaturalness of this world, and its incestuous jealousies, with a misaddressed love letter, leads toward tragedy.

    Things happen. They go on a trip to the seaside with Gérard and his father. Their mother dies. Elizabeth gets a job as a model and brings a colleague, Agathe. Agathe resembles Dargelos strikingly (both were played by Renée Cosima). So of course Paul falls for Agathe - and the jealousy begins. Elizabeth marries Michael, rich American Jew (Melvyn Martin, who sings his own song, "Were you smiling at me"), who dies, and leaves them his big house.

    Despite Melville's refusal to yield control of the direction, this film is perhaps more Cocteau's than Melville's, and of course Cocteau was a filmmaker himself who had already made his idiosyncratic surreal masterpieces Blood of a Poet and Beauty and the Beast. Cocteau was responsible for casting the much too old Dermithe in the role of Paul, who's only 14 when he's wounded by Dargelos, in the book. Truffaut admired this film, claiming it was Melville's best (an idea unique to him), and imitated its use of classical music and elegant voiceover (here, by Cocteau himself).

    The atmosphere Cocteau creates, staged and filmed by Melville, is cloying and artificial. Like its predecessor, this film has value as a unique literary adaptation, but it may be for most of us an alienating work that has nothing in common with the rest of Melville. But it's powerful and original in its way, and remains so. Cocteau's story may awaken memories we have of the incestuousness of family life, or the temptation we may sometimes have of retreating into our own world.

    Melville 100 Berkeley
    Sunday, June 18, 2017 - 7 PM (105 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2017 at 12:09 AM.

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    1956 Bob le Flambeur


    Roger Duchesne in the raincoat as Bob Montagné ("Bob le flambeur")*

    The good thief

    This shows Melville at last in gangster mode, and Bob (Roger Duchesne), the "flambeur," or passionate, lavish gambler, is also charismatic crook (he has done some jail time decades ago for a failed heist) whose innate class, elegance, and decency, along with his weaknesses, engender the viewer's sympathy.

    This is "film noir," alright: Bob Montagné lives in the "noir," Paris by night, in clubs and gambling dens; contrasty black-and-white photography is essential to this look. As the film opens he's returning, nicely dressed as always, to his nice flat in Montmartre, with its huge widown looking out on after a long night of gambling and making the rounds. He's well liked, even by a Inspector Ledru, a local cop whose life he once saved. As his nickname "Flambeur" implies, Bob's a high roller who burns up money with his gambling. He seems well off, but he keeps losing, and major losses are going to lead him to plan with some old confederates a raid on the Deauville casino, rumored to have lavish stores of cash on hand after the big races. He draws various collaborators into his planned operation, including his sporty but foolish young protégé, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy). He has a young woman he's just rescued off the street more or less, who lives in, most of the time, Anne (Isabelle Corey). She runs off with Paolo, whose desire to impress her will lead to fatal bragging.

    There is a gentle wishfulness and a touch of class about Bob and all he does. He's a Good Crook, an amiable loser with style. Lucky for him he has a good friend, because he once saved his life, in a top cop, the cigarette-puffing Commissaire Ledru (Guy Decomble). Despite getting generous funding from a rich British crook called McKimmie (Howard Vernon), an insider with technical details, and a safe-cracking expert, due to several leks Bob's big robbery project will fail- but not brutally. The ironic twist is that at the Deauville casino, while waiting for the operation to begin, he gambles, and begins, for the first time in his life, winning enormous amounts of money. These winnings almost make him forget the heist altogether. If only he could have done, it would have gone so much better for him. But as he's cuffed and taken off, out come uniformed employees, looking like old-fashioned bellhops, carrying stacks and stacks of big old franc notes and as he and the friendly Ledru joke, with an expensive enough lawyer he can get a much reduced sentence. With a very, very expensive one, he may sue for damages!

    Back in the day, this movie seemed to be on hand in many West Coast video stores. It was properly reissued in the US by Rialto 2001, and did well with the critics (Metacritic 80; Rotton Tomatoes 96). Bob le flambeur influenced the two versions of the American film Ocean's Eleven (1960 and 2001) as well as Paul Thomas Anderson's debut film Hard Eight, and was remade by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief in 2002 (Wikipedia, "Bob le flambeur"). It may remind you also in some ways of Jules Dassin's heavily process-oriented Rififi.

    Bob le flambeur is best watched on your VCR, late at night, while sipping whisky. It is not a masterpiece, but it is a piece of style. It's mood is cheerful and bemused. Featuring Bob's big creamy new Chrysler convertible, it already reflects Melville's love of all things American that was to come out further in his next picture, Deux hommes dans Manhattan/Two Men in Manhattan, in which he himself costarred, and which finally became available to Yanks in 2013. (See below.)

    *This still with its garish walls strongly reminds me of the photography of William Klein, who liked garish, contrasty backgrounds, as in the image below, one of his best known.

    Photo by William Klein

    Melville 100 Berkeley
    Saturday, June 24 - 6:30 PM (98 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-22-2017 at 01:35 PM.

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    1959 Deux hommes dans Manhattan/Two Men in Manhattan


    Delmas and Moreau pace along Broadway

    Covering for a lothario

    In this film Melville took a beating at the box office. He noted the mistakes he'd made in it, which he vowed never to repeat. Number one was having two main characters "se balader," wandering around a city more or less at random. Mind you, Two Men in Manhattan, which we haven't been able to see till recently (2013; you can watch it on Amazon now) is full of lovely noir images of the Big Apple at Christmas. But it lacks energy and atmosphere . To begin with, it is not a story of crime but of scandal and of moral issues of the press. Melville roams NYC in signature bow tie, checked overcoat, and hat, as Moreau, a French journalist working for Agence France Presse, sent by his boss to look for the French delegate to the United Nations, who has disappeared. With him is a tippling and cynical French photographer, Delmas (Pierre Grasset).

    At first the pair go round visiting ladies associated with Fevre-Berthier, the delegate. He is married with a grown daughter, but he has had a string of mistresses, all pretty, mostly blonde, showgirls, actresses, or something more x-rated. Chosen for looks, they're not always the best thespians. One is seen topless - Delmas snaps her twice with his eternal flash camera, and she has sensational breasts. One of the ladies encountered, by the way, turns out to be lesbian. One is an excellent jazz singer, and we see her sing a whole song - about Manhattan.

    The early section is like a tour by night, starting with the Upper East Side; midtown, Radio City (and the glittering Christmas tree); Greenwich Village; even Brooklyn where the tough club receives the "Frenchies" roughtly. The jazz and show tune background music is a bit relentless. Henri Decaë's images are superb, and we enjoy period shots of Times Square, a diner, early morning in a jazz club. The visuals are classic, brilliant in the restored print. But the action is a bit pedestrian. There's not much excitement. It's just one dead lead after another.

    The pulse rate goes up, though, when a radio news report leads the pair back to one of the girl, an actress, Miss Nelson (Ginger Hall) - in the hospital, after a suicide attempt. They sneak into her room, and learn Feevre-Berthier lies dead at her flat, from "a coronary, or something." Delmas steals her keys and they go to the flat. Even though the cause of death is nothing homicidal things become more exciting when a corpse appears - and the two newsmen start fighting over what to do. Moreau wants to protect the man's honor and his widow's peace of mind. Delmas is all for posing a racier shot, and selling the story to Life for thousands. He rushes off, with Moreau in hot pursuit, in the rather vain effort to stop him from developing his film. A surprise comes from the dead man's daughter, and another one from Delmas himself in the final scene, featuring him alone, after a final drink at a music bar called the Pike Slip Inn on a deserted street - a perfect place to end. If only the action had been more twisted and suspenseful.

    At home in Paris Melville famously drove a Cadillac and wore a cowboy hat. This movie is a homage to the actual New York that clearly inspired him. It can't compete with his great gangster films set in France. But its cinematography is iconic and it's fun to observe Melville's rapid-fire, deadpan delivery as an actor. We can see how both show their influence on his more famous French-located noir films. But for all his enthusiasm, he is not in his element here - nor, needless to say, has he the charisma of Belmondo or the glamour of Delon! This is a minor peripheral noir, but with an album of memorable French nighttime postcards of New York.


    The late night jazz club, the Pike Slip Inn


    Vintage image of Times Square

    Melville 100 Berkeley
    Sunday, July 30 - 7 PM (84 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-11-2017 at 11:08 PM.

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    1961 Léon Morin, prêtre/Léon Morin, Priest


    Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Paul Belmondo in Léon Morin, Priest

    One's own private war

    This begins a beneficial collaboration with the young and charismatic Jean-Pierre Belmondo, who had popped off the screen in Godard's debut Breathless, which made him famous. It's quite a shift for the actor from the young hoodlum to the priest. He makes a great priest, young, sexy, muscular, and chaste at the same time. It is one of his most memorable roles. What a costar he has: Emmanuelle Riva of Hiroshima mon amour (and recently of Haneke's Amour). And after the "cassage de guelle" Melville declared he took with his misfired Two Men in Manhattan, with its thin story and meandering action, it's got plenty of rich complex elements: politics and love, passionate religious debate and the intensity of wartime danger and the horrors of the Occupation. Melville, a veteran of the army and of the Resistance, had been preparing to make it for years and searching for a suitable Léon Morin, whom he found when he met Belmondo. Still, the subject might seem old-fashioned and static with all its theological debating, but by casting Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Riva, associated with the exciting New Wave, Melville set the stage to transform the material into something exciting and sexy.

    Jean-Pierre Melville, by the way, had appeared in Breathless as the novelist in the press conference asked by Jean Seberg for his greatest ambition in life, who replies, "Devenir immortel, et puis. . . morir," "To become immortal, and then to die." (You can watch the scene on YouTube here.)

    In this film Melville is adapting the frankly autobiographical Fifties novel by Béatrix (or Béatrice) Beck, which won France's highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Melville thought it was the best picture of the time, the German occupation, that humiliating period, and of the French Resistance. In its core also the book was hot stuff, and the film, a decade later, was hot stuff too: it presents the forbidden love of a communist woman and a chaste priest who engage in intense intellectual and religious debates in a village in the French Alps in the tough time of the German occupation. Melville used location shooting and the lively methods of his dp Henri Decaeë, who he discovered with his first film and had become a key Nouvelle Vague cinematographer. This was also the first time Melville had a large budget enabling him to make good use of studio filmmaking possibilities so he could merge his personal style with more mainstream technique, and the film was a huge commercial success and a critical success in France.

    Melville downplayed the Jewish and resistance content of the story in his final edit, though there are many little specific details of the time. He had originally used the book to craft "a great fresco of the Occupation." But, Melville explained later, "suddenly, the only aspect that continued to interest me was this story of an unfulfilled love affair between Morin and Barny," and he cut an hour out of the film and focused what was left on that. It was a wise decision that makes this an emotionally powerful and universal film. It draws on Melville's economy and austerity of style, the brutal efficiency of his crime films, but applies them to intellectual debate and affairs of the human heart.

    Barny (Riva), a Communist, starts the religious debates with Léon Morin as a lark. She has a half-Jewish child, and like others, gets her baptized to protect her from discovery by the Nazis. This leads her to declare her rationalism, and decide to discuss religion with the local priest, first approaching him challengingly in the confessional. He disarms her by agreeing to her objections and showing sympathy to her social ideas: he himself is one of the people and aware of social needs. He challenges her to further discussion. Then he gives her books, and she becomes excited - both by the debate, and by him. And the discussions go on. She is wrestling with her bitterness as a war widow, with all the feelings of the war and occupation, and with her growing attraction both to the priest and to the idea he makes attractive too, of a Catholic God.

    There's a marvelous tension between the roles of Riva and Belmondo here and what the public then knew them for, the bold hoodlum Belmondo of Breathless and Riva the actress of Hiroshima mon amour who has an affair with a Japanese man and remembers a forbidden affair with a German in rural France in the War. For Barny, Léon Morin is a forbidden love. It becomes clear when we see her erotic dream. She asks him if he were a Protestant priest, if he would marry her. In the novel he says yes, but here he says nothing, only smashes down a hatchet on a wood block, showing he is aware of her attraction. We can appreciate this film without being Catholic as Melville could make it so brilliantly, though an atheist Jew. Now, times are very different. But the film holds up as a powerful and unusual love story that still grabs you. It's a work of technical mastery and a living classic.

    It also looks great in the Criterion Collection edition, which includes selected scene commentary by a French film historian, Ginette Vincendeau, that clarifies the whole context of the film's creation. Riva is touching and beautiful, and Belmondo still astonishes with his delicate mixture of machismo and sensitivity. If one can't understand Barny's spiritual confusion, one can certainly feel her emotional devastation at having to give up this man.

    Melville's most touching film.

    Extended showing through May 30, 2017 at Film Forum Melville 100 retrospective, NYC

    Melville 100 Berkeley
    Wednesday, June 28, 2017 - 7:00 (130 mins) BAM/PFA
    Sunday, July 16 - 7:00 (130 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-11-2017 at 11:28 PM.

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    Fabulous Chris.
    Much Thanks for these reviews!
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    My pleasure Johann, and a review and learning experience for me to go over them. It's striking to see them in sequence and observe the variety. Le Silence de la mer, Les enfants terribles, and Bob le flambeur, to begin with, are each so different. It would have been fun to be him, and live these different lives. I had never seen Two Men in Manhattan before. It can be rented here streaming on Amazon for $3.99, and that's how I watched it, as can Le Samouraï, starring Alain Delon. Checking now, I see that nine of Melville's films are available in Criterion editions: Le Silence de la Mer, Les enfants terribles, Bob le flambeur, Léon Morin, prêtre, Le Doulos, Le Deuxième souffle, Le Samouraï, Army of Shadows, and Le cercle rouge. Les Enfants terribles is found in a good copy free on YouTube currently. However, some of the Criterion editions are out of print, namely Le Doulos, which makes it pricey now on Amazon, $79 used and $100 new. (Check eBay.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-26-2017 at 07:37 PM.

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    1963 Le Doulos


    Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le doulos

    Choice. Harder to follow. Harder to find.

    The introductory intertitles inform us that "doulos" is gangster slang for "hat," but also means "a person who wears one," meaning "a police informer." Though this is film number seven for Melville, and earlier ones had been excellent, arguably this is the first in the manner for which he is most remembered: cool, stoical, mysterious. The Criterion thumbnail description:
    The backstabbing criminals in the shadowy underworld of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le doulos have only one guiding principle: "Lie or die." A stone-faced Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as enigmatic gangster Silien, who may or may not be responsible for squealing on Faugel (Serge Reggiani), just released from the slammer and already involved in what should have been a simple heist. By the end of this brutal, twisting, and multilayered policier, who will be left to trust? Shot and edited with Melville’s trademark cool and featuring masterfully stylized dialogue and performances, Le doulos (slang for "informant") is one of the filmmaker’s most gripping crime dramas.
    But that introductory explanation of the word "doulos" may be the last thing about the film that's really clear, because the plot (as noted by Roger Ebert in his appreciative review - he was a Melville fan) becomes impossible to dissect as you get deep into it. Perhaps that sometimes is a kind of virtue: the better to observe a kind of film that ultimately is pure style, starting with the suits and raincoats, cigarettes and pistols in the pocket Anthony Lane noted in his Film Forum series introduction.

    Read Roger Ebert's 2008 review of Le doulos which provides an excellent introduction. Unfortunately this film doesn't seem to be available for rental online at the moment. The Criterion edition is listed as out of print and so it's expensive to buy through Amazon. You can find it badly formatted, without subtitles, on YouTube. I'm watching it on a bad videotape copy I made a long time ago; my good VCRs aren't hooked up, and I'm watching it on a bad tape on a built-in VCR in an old TV. So if you can get to the Pacific Film Archives Melville100 anniversary series (he was born in 1917), it's coming August 3 and 5, 2017 on the big screen.

    In the wonderfully austere opening, Faugel (Serge Reggiani) walks by a railroad along an grim, wide, open tract of land to a house, goes upstairs, and talks to Varnove (René Lefèvre), a receiver, working on jewelry with a loupe. Faugel has just emerged after four years in prison, and is scheduled to participate in a job. Varnove suggests he may not be ready yet, but Faugel sas he is, only asks for a revolver. Varnove doesn't like this idea, but directs to it, in a drawer. He was right not to like the idea, because Faugel kills him with the revolver, wipes his fingerprints, takes the jewelry and a packet of bills, and leaves, burying the jewels in shallow dirt nearby with his hands. We don't know why he does this. So the movie begins. This is the kind of opening you don't forget. Simply Fougel walking, walking, in his belted up raincoat, with his hat. The only Melville startup better than this is the wordless opening of Le samouraï with Delon waking up in his austere room, with the chirping bird in the cage.

    Melville 100, Berkeley
    Thursday, August 3, 2017 - 7 PM (108 mins) BAMPFA
    Saturday, August - 6 PM (108 mins) BAMPFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-11-2017 at 11:37 PM.

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    Note: I have not seen L'aîné des Ferchaux/Magnet of Doom (1963), based on a Georges Simenon novel and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, is not included in the Melville100 retrospectives. It's unavailable for rental but Amazon has a 2012 DVD for sale.

    1966 Le Deuxième souffle



    Lino Venturi (right) in Le deuxième souffle

    Nowhere to run

    This is the story of Gu (Lino Venturi), a criminal escaped from prison and roped into one last big robbery, while Melville follows in parallel a police detective Blot (Paul Meurisse) relentlessly seeking him. Blot gets to show off his wit after a night club shooting early on, showing sympathy for the cops this time. Past half way as the platinum heist involving Gu is under way, the movie starts spending a lot of time with the police effort to track them. Gu is the noble but doomed beast, Blot destined to triumph.

    Le deuxième souffle ("Second Breath") is based on Un Reglement de Comptes ("A Settling of Scores) by Jose Giovanni, with whom Melville collaborated in writing the script. In 2007 Alain Corneau made a colorful (excessively colorful) and elaborate adaptation of the same book starring Daniel Auteuil, Monica Bellucci, and many others. I saw it in Paris. It's impressive. But as IMDb citizen commentator "cashiersducinemart" noted then, Corneau's "rejection of all things black and white" is "garish" and "an exercise in redundancy," not a bad remake, "just not necessary." I reviewed it on IMDb too. Really, though, don't waste your time.

    Though overlong and in parts humorless, Melville's Deuxième souffle is so well constructed your jaw will drop even when you see what is contained in the first twenty minutes - including the initial prison escape, and the simple brutality of the three fleeing prisoners' jumps. One dies; Ventura's character barely makes it onto the freight train. Everyone enjoys Meurisse's showy, cynical speech to the club when there's been a walk-by shooting (scene right after the train) and Jacques, the owner, an admirer of Manouche, Gu's sister, has been shot dead. Meurisse springs the news that Gu has just escaped from a life sentence after serving ten years.

    At the time of an earlier revival Richard Brody of The New Yorker referred to a book-length interview with Melville where he relates this film to the resistance too, like Le Silence de la Mer, Léon Morin, Priest, and Army of Shadows - because Giovanni's novel was "an absolutely authentic document on the Marseillais milieu [underworld] which gave birth to the rue Villejust Gestapo" (which, he explains, 'was the Parisian section of the Corsica/Marseilles Gestapo'). Melville adds, "The seven Paris Gestapos were all formed in the same way." Brody notes that Melville was Jewish; and on the side of the train the escaped prisoners jump onto at the outset of Deuxième souffle there are Stars of David, recalling the that French national railway trains were used to transport prisoners to concentration camps.

    Overriding such rich details in the film is what Nick Schager in Slant calls calls Melville's "masterful command of cinematic grammar," especially in the central heist set piece (but in that bleak opening escape too). Schager points to a masterfully controlled blend of the natural and the self-consciously synthetic environments out of which Melville creates his world. Schager is evaluating the Criterion Collection issue (which can be watched via Amazon, as I have just done) and its bonus material (which cannot). Schager's conclusion: "Le Deuxième Souffle may be second-tier Melville, but in terms of noir, that still makes it virtually second to none." If itt comes in below Le Doulos and Le Samouraï, (we'll come to Le Cercle rouge later), this is because of the conventionality and excess of its gangster/robbery/escape/revenge action tropes.


    A "gif" file clip shows the action

    Melville 100, Berkeley:
    Friday, July 7, 2017 7 PM (145 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-26-2017 at 11:31 PM.

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    1969 L'Armée des ombres/Army of Shadows

    ​​
    Lino Ventura in The Army of Shadows/L'Armée des ombres

    This was reviewed in the Filmleaf Classic Films section H E R E.


    Internment camp scene in restoration


    French blu-ray of restored version, May 2015

    Melville100 Berkeley
    Saturday, June 10 6 PM (145 mins) BAM/PFA
    Sunday, June 25 7 PM (145 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2017 at 12:16 AM.

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    Alain Delon in Le Samouraï

    1967 Le Samouraï

    Alain Delon in cool gangster style

    Le Samouraï shows off the impeccable elegance and cool of Alain Delon. He plays Jef Costello, a hired assassin who's rigorously professional - and ascetic, symbolized by the most monk-like pad in movies: a single large unpainted room whose only decoration is a cage containing a chirping sparrow. Which of course symbolizes his own rigid restrictions, and the fact that he will never escape. The first sequence of the camera in the middle distance focused symmetrically on this room is one of the best and most memorable openings in movies. Roger Ebert rightly remarks that it's an example of "how a filmmaker can suggest complete mastery with just a few strokes."

    As he is paid to do Jef kills the director of a nightclub, at which there performs a pretty black keyboardist (Caty Rosier), with whom he later has a fling, inspired to by the way she has kept mum after seeing him.

    But his employers are displeased because after the killing he is rounded up as a suspect by the Commissioner (François Périer). There are dozens of others, but though he has a double alibi, a girlfriend Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon, Delon's wife, who gives her own display of elegance and fatalism) and a group of men he's gambling with late at night, he remains the chief suspect.

    And that's all there is to it. The film exists for Delon/Jef's displays of slipperiness and cool. When a listening device is planted in his flat, he finds and neatly removes it, like a large beetle. Twice he steals a classic Citroën DS 19's, using a raft of keys, then takes it to tiny suburban garage. It's as rough and austere as his flat. There, the same ritual happens, and Delon is still, or moves gracefully like a mime or a dancer. A man changes the license plates and gives him fake papers, then, in response to the click of the fingers, a pistol, in exchange for a big wad of cash. The second time he's told is the last and he agrees. Likewise when he goes back to the nightclub to settle scores, he leaves his coat check at the cloak room: he seems to know he will not come back to get it, that he will never leave. When he goes back to see Jane before this, he barely touches her. There is more emotion in his elaborate dodging of a laborious surveillance operation by the commissioner to follow him around in circles in the Metro. It's the last thing he does. What is the point of it but to show that he's quicker than they are, even dozens of them? We watch him with admiration. it's an exercise and style, like the rest. The Metro is a simple, elegant medium for him to work with.

    The point of all this is Delon's impeccable clothes and implacable expression and the icy blue of his eyes. And the fatalism. There will be a certain fatalism again later in Melville's career when Delon returns to play a jaded cop in his last movie, Un Flic ("A Cop"). There he is pursuing some bank robbers who are equally jaded, the film following the classic model of a heist gone wrong. Everyone is a bit hangdog, beaten down, this time - but even, perhaps particularly, in his exhaustion, Delon is elegant and beautiful.

    Jef Costello is a singularly charismatic killer. He appears to follow a strict code; that's why he's called "Le Samouraï" - and the film opens with a quotation from The Bushido, "There is no more profound solitude than that of the samurai, if it is not that of the tiger in the jungle." This is the way the movie wants us to regard Jef. But as he is alone, he is also doomed. What he does is cool, perhaps in some weird way noble, but is it wise? Hardly. When he barely escapes one of his employers with his life, he should get out of town, shouldn't he?

    This is the paradox: Jef/Delon is impeccable in manner and style, but he is totally flawed and doomed. Not only is he an empty shell as a person, but he seems incapable of acting in his own interest.

    Ebert also quotes Melville's saying that he was "incapable of anything but rough drafts," and this supports the assertion that Le Samouraï makes no sense and should not. It is not about the plot but the loneliness of its hero. The action provides Delon with opportunities to dance out his role and display his style. It's essential to his character as of tragic heroes and certain cowboys in movies that he will die. He dies on the stage in the glittering nightclub in front of the pretty keyboardist with the police in the distance, a fitting end, and we find out he was not intending to do anything. But it's better to dwell on the numerous satisfying and detailed sequences when he does do things, with flair.

    Le Samouraï is in color, delicate color, grays, blacks and whites with a delicate touch of pastels. The Gitanes Disque Bleu are blue and so are Delon's eyes. This is in a Criterion Collection version and in it the delicate color shows well. You can watch it on Amazon for $3.99.

    Melville 100, Berkeley
    Thursday, June 8, 2017 7 PM BAM/PFA
    Friday, June 16 8:30 PM BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-17-2017 at 12:15 AM.

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    1970 Le Cercle Rouge/The Red Circle


    Yves Montand, Gian-Maria Volonté and Alain Delon in Le Cercle Rouge

    Who are the good guys?

    Le Cercle Rouge, which some may think Melville's most impressive gangster movie, has an audacious and almost ridiculously coincidental opening. A prisoner just released that day, Corey (Alain Delon) runs into another prisoner, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté) who only hours later has escaped from a train while being transported by a cop, Mattei (Bourvil). The two cons meet when Vogel hides in the trunk of the car, a snappy black Plymouth, that Corey has just bought with money he ripped off from a gang boss who double-crossed him. After five years in prison, Corey has hit the ground running.

    Vogel is the subject of a country-wide manhunt, while the gang boss' goons are looking for Corey. The two men (who don't look unalike, though Vogel's cross-country run has left him bedraggled) are collaborating even before Vogel is done hiding in Corey's trunk, to off the goons and make it look like they shot each other. And the manhunt and the goons don't keep the two sudden allies from immediately planning to rob a lavish jewelry store in the Place Vendôme, in Paris, that Corey has learned about from another inmate - and calling in an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) with technical skills to help them crack the store's elaborate security. One becomes two becomes three - and the circle is closed by Mattei, who links cops and criminals in his frantic effort first to find the prisoner he lost, Vogel, then to track down the robbers. In the effort Mattei, whose name may link him with Corsican Mafia despite his blonde-blue eyed look, will seem to sink down morally more than the crooks, using one betrayal and devious trick after another.

    The encounter of Delon's and Volonté's characters, while moving back and forth between gangsters and cops, is impressive for its muscularity and clarity. There's no unnecessary camera trickery, special effects, or music, and the pace keeps you on the edge of your seat.This action is a marvel of pace and efficiency. In retrospect mightn't Jansen's transition from sweaty alcoholic cowering with DT's to immaculately turned out front man casing Paris' most elegant jewelry store have gone a little fast? Likewise with the manhunt, the escape, the planning, and most of all, the working out of the heist, whose physical aspects seem as challenging as those in Jules Dassin's 1955 Rififi. But this does not keep the robbery from being tense and suspenseful.

    And the economy of his construction allows Melville to develop the cop side of the story. While in Le deuxième souffle's Inspector Blot (the great Paul Meurisse) is a sly and confident snake of a cop, Mattei, relatively cold and repellant, is also more complex, being tainted because Vogel escaped while in his care on the sleeper train, and told by the Internal Affairs boss that "everyone is guilty." Mattei enters into a relationship with Santi ( François Périer, Jef/Delon's police nemesis in Le Samouraï), owner of a nightclub (with dazzling girl chorus shows) that has Mob regulars, but protesting he himself is innocent, and knows not what transpires on his premises.

    Santi/Mattei is an essential thread that highlights the movie's theme of moral ambiguity. Perhaps Santi is the decent, honest one. Ironically when his schoolboy son is brought in to the station for marijuana to cover for Santi's interchanges, he turns out to be guilty, showing the official to be right: "everyone" is. While Vogel and Corey play fair, and Jansen is so upright he refuses to accept his cut of the jewelry heist. Being forced to clean up his act was enough.

    But it seems in Le Cercle Rouge it was performing well that mattered, and not profit. Only this would explain what a failure is the men's effort to cash out the jewels with a fence. They have nabbed a treasure trove of fabulous gems, and yet seem likely to wind up with very little cash. Anyway, Matei has succeeded in penetrating into the gangster world, and our heroic robbers are doomed. All Melville's gangster tales are fatalistic. And all feature big American cars (though he also likes to show classic Citroen DS's, the only other vehicles he seems to deem worthy of sharing the frame with Cadillacs, Fords, Chryslers, and Plymouths).

    "Il n'est pas bavard," a cop observes of Corey watching a video of the robbery; "He doesn't talk much," and this may be an allusion to the famous 20-minute silence during the heist of Rififi. Corey, Vogel, and Jansen are indeed men of few words, and most of the talking seems to be done by the cops. Could this be a reason why Delon's, Volonté's and Montand's characters seem less colorful than their counterparts in Le Doulos, Le deuxième souffle and Le Samouraï had done? But Melville had worked up his skill at making crime movies to a brilliant pitch. He was to lay back a bit for Un Flic, his next movie, also a cops and robbers story, one that sadly turned out to be his last.

    Melville 100, Berkeley:
    Sunday, August 6 - 7 PM (140 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-26-2017 at 11:21 PM.

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    1972 Un Flic/Dirty Money


    Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve in Un Flic

    Middle aged thieves and a cynical cop

    The film begins with the cryptic saying - repeated later by Alain Delon's character - "the only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policeman are those of indifference or derision." They are attributed to François Eugène Vidocq, the pioneer criminal-turned criminologist. So Melville lines men up as doomed in the cop's jaded eyes, like hardened criminals. And Delon's cop is cold blooded, elegant, but though young, terminally disenchanted.

    Melville's four criminals are middle aged men in suits. While the film begins with them, at the same time, he introduces his "cop," Edouard Coleman (Delon), a "commissaire" (police captain) in Paris working a dogged beat by car, ritualistically phone-directed to crime calls. But the opening sequence is the four old guys' robbery of a rural branch of the BNP, Banque Nationale de Paris, by the sea in northwestern France, St.-Jean-de-Monts, in late December. A torrential rain begins. And the men hurry over from their car, a black Plymouth, to the bank, to rob it. It's an extraordinary setting - another of Melville's unforgettable opening sequences. The street of office buildings, right across from the water. It looks as if the bank would get flooded easily.

    The men shamble in and take up posts, then slip on big sunglasses, finally operating masks. They take out weapons, and begin loading cash into bags. Only a bank employee jumps on an alarm peddle, and for half the time a loud alarm throbs. Then someone pulls out a gun, and one of the robbers gets shot. They have to rush him out, but not before shooting back. An "innovation," as a news story says: They make use of the local train. They also stop, with the bleeding man, whom they must take to a hospital, to bury the cash (like Faugel does the jewels and pistol at the start of Le Doulos). Later we learn one of these men had worked at this bank, and been laid off a year ago; he is hiding this criminal act from his wife.

    Soon we are back in Paris, and the men try to get the wounded man out of the hospital posing as medical transporters; it won't wash: he's in too bad a way. By now we have had a scene in a nightclub, run by one of the robbers, Simon (American actor Richard Crenna) whose girlfriend is "Cathy," Catherine Deneuve, looking exquisite in black YSL gown and ravishing peach-pink oval earrings. (Her role is small; the only concession to her stardom is her magnificent attire.)

    Also in the room is Coleman, the cop, sitting at the piano improvising some cool jazz. He has to be interested in Cathy too; perhaps so much so he doesn't suspect Simon's criminality. Or Cathy's: she accompanies Simon and the other robbers to the hospital as a nurse and gives the wounded man a lethal injection. Problem solved. But the problems are just beginning. To describe these sequences is to realize they are interwoven so suavely the order in which they come seems natural and inevitable and so visual they could be part of a silent film.

    The bank robbery turns out to be just raising money for a more spectacular heist involving trains and helicopters - which Melville simplifies by using models instead of the real thing, but the elaborate robbery is shot almost in real time. Coleman knows about the drug shipment on the train the men are intercepting - tipped off by an elegant cross-dresser informer who has a reliable source. We see the whole operation, in precise detail, though it's marred by the artificiality of the externals.

    This becomes above all a portrait of the cold, cruel, cynical police captain, Coleman, the "flic," the cop, who doesn't hesitate to use physical brutality to get answers - but worse than that is his chilliness toward Cathy, and how quickly he dispatches Simon. He is abusive toward the transvestite, no human rights advocate. This is very noir noir. The film, in the available copy, has a sickly, blue look; it's hard to know how much was intended until it is restored. Jason Sanders in his PFA/MAM retrospective blurb calls this "Sartre by way of Simenon," and it is indeed bleakly nihilistic, and also a rich cops and robbers story with brilliant wordless set pieces and Melville's trademarks, the dead end suburban facades, big American cars and Citroen DS's, a night club with chorus girls, a grim fatalism and a distinctive hero. The presence of Catherine Deneuve adds an unusual touch of class, a counterpoint to Alain Delon's icy cynical cop. There's enough here to inspire a lifetime of gangster movies - and this is considered a minor Melville work. It also turned out, too soon, to be his last. He died of a heart attack at 55.

    Melville 100 Berkeley
    Saturday, August 12 - 6:30 PM (98 mins) BAM/PFA
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2017 at 11:40 PM.

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    Film Forum retrospective held over. Léon Morin, Priest will run till Tues., the 30th. The Pacific Film Archive repeat of "Melville100" will run June 8–August 12, 2017.

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