For Reel

Le cercle rouge (1970)
May 25, 2011, 4:44 am
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

The centerpiece of Le cercle rouge – a silent, thirty minute heist sequence – exemplifies Melville’s familiar God-like objectivity in dealing with crime. In a series of long takes, the audience is led to admire the precision of the gangster craft. To Melville, this is dance.

Using familiar elements from all of his earlier gangster pictures, Le cercle rouge is again a film about the gangster code of ethics. Corey protects the intruding escaped convict Jansen – who has hidden in his trunk – from an investigator, feeling a kinship and perhaps admiration for someone who not only served a sentence in prison, but has daringly escaped from it. Later, the character of Santi expresses an unwillingness to snitch, which is, from as early as Bob le flambeur, the biggest sin a Melvillian gangster can commit. Ironically, only in a few occasions do they actually inform, despite such anxieties contributing to much of the suspense in each of the pictures.

If the film has one shortcoming, it is in the character of Jansen. Played by the legendary Yves Montand, his introduction into the film is an absurd hallucinatory sequence involving a series of tormenting creatures who crawl on him as he suffers in a drunken stupor. While Montand’s performance in the latter part of the film is effectively conceived, this sequence – which ultimately serves to contrast with Jansen’s redemption near the end of the picture – is a baffling tangent in an otherwise wholly understated effort.

Le samouraï (1967)
May 24, 2011, 9:58 pm
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

A deliberate craftsman, Jef’s detached composure serves the film in a way that contradicts one’s expectations. Rather than divorcing the audience emotionally from the proceedings, he earns our respect and admiration – an element perhaps only possible with a lead as charismatic as Alain Delon.

Although Jef is regularly discussed in criticism as being systematic, the film also parallels Jef’s craft with the police force’s sophisticated, almost mechanical operation. The witness selection process is calibrated to perfection, and the slightest fault with a testimony is not forgiven until thoroughly investigated. Perhaps, then, one could surmise that Jef has an admiration for the law – in the end of the picture, his final decision is one which shows that he hasn’t underestimated his enemy. Melville argues, however, that despite their efficiency, they lack Jef’s honor (his code), as the superintendent is characterized as manipulative and purely perfunctory, whereas Jef eventually shows humanity if only in the situations in which he is compromised by a stronger foe.

It is unclear whether or not Jef is content. Though he lives with dignity, Melville parallels his own seclusion with a bird in a cage – one of the few decorative elements of his empty apartment (later revealed to serve a purpose as a security system). His sex life is non-descript – his one female companion seems to serve more regularly as an alibi than as a partner. Perhaps the interest he takes in the pianist can be seen as his Achilles heel, just as Bob of Bob le flambeur was ultimately undone by his own vice. Though his final action is depicted as being honorable, one must question whether or not Jef did ultimately neglect his code, effectively castrating him and leaving him with one option left.

Le deuxième souffle (1966)
May 20, 2011, 9:53 pm
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Perhaps no film is better suited for examining the influence of the American gangster genre on Jean-Pierre Melville than Le deuxième souffle. Like Bob of Bob le flambeur or Maurice of Le doulos, Gu is an aged gangster exiting prison and forced to interact with a “new” society in which criminal etiquette is a thing of the past.

Using Gu’s subjectivity to draw us into the world – from the very beginning of the film, we see the detailed account of his prison break and the death of his two accomplices – Melville’s vision of gangsterdom is one of paranoia and uncertainty. Watch, for example, the way that Gu quickly wakes from his sleep and, without hesitation, arms himself with a pistol. While little is revealed about Gu (it is suggested that he was committed for a “gold train” heist ten years prior to the beginning of the film), it is in these actions that the audience gets a sense of not only Gu’s professionalism, but the way in which he never allows his guard to drop.

The centerpiece of the film – the heist – is thoroughly planned and shot in real time. Melville as the observer shoots such sequences with a detached objectivity – just as Jef of Le samouraï is a meticulous craftsman, Melville seems to similarly admire the precision of these characters. In fact, at the beginning of the heist, a long stretch of film is given to the gangsters simply waiting for the arrival of the truck. This matter-of-fact, unromanticized account of crime reminded me of last year’s Police, Adjective, wherein the life of a cop is presented as being monotonous and uneventful. The violence in this film is also ugly, stressing the consequences of each bullet fired.

Le doulos (1962)
May 20, 2011, 9:49 pm
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Embracing the genre conventions of the American film noir, Le doulos is a convoluted B-grade policier too satisfied with its own twists. Melville’s technique of withholding information is successfully disorienting, though all ambiguities are extinguished in a baffling sequence late in the film in which the characters sit down and discuss exactly what has transpired scene-by-scene through a utilization of flashbacks.

Though the plot might be laborious, the performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani elevate the material. Reggiani, like the titular character of Bob le flambeur, is an aged, weary gangster just having served a prison sentence. Like the films that precede it, the film glorifies the criminals through a romanticization of their loyalty to one another (which is somewhat ironic, given that the central anxiety of the film is betrayal). Belmondo, who had become an international star only two years earlier in Breathless, is well suited to play the film’s most unpredictable character. Initially appearing as little more than a common thug, his intelligence is key to the latter half of the picture.

Melville himself emerges as an unreliable narrator in his misleading telling of the narrative. In withholding information to the audience, however, the plot becomes consciously driven by his own devices rather than by the actions of the characters themselves. Given a more satisfying reveal, perhaps his gimmickry would have been better justified.

Bob le flambeur (1956)
May 20, 2011, 9:44 pm
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

A precursor to the French New Wave, Melville’s Bob le flambeur anticipates many of the stylistic innovations that French cinema would offer in the 1960s. A love-letter to American gangster pictures, the film involves a disembodied, all-seeing narrator and even a sequence in which we see a planned heist as imagined by the titular gambler.

Beyond the fun that it has with its narrative structure, Bob le flambeur successfully adapts the gangster genre’s traditions and invents a wholly original protagonist. Described as an “old young man, a legend of recent past”, Bob’s characterization suggests the gangsters of the 1930s. He’s loyal, honest, and, most important to the narrative purposes of the plot, undistracted by women. His protege, on the other hand, is reckless – just as The Godfather would juxtapose two generations of crime, we can perhaps view Bob le flambeur as evoking a nostalgia of the gangsters of the past.

In the end, Bob’s Achilles heel reveals itself to no surprise. The narrator often discusses fate – “Now Bob is about to play his final hand and fate will have its way.” – and throughout the film Bob challenges his ever-unreliable lucky streaks through his simple need to roll the die. Although the film suggests Christian symbolism in a few places – notably in the roulette wheel at the end of the film – Bob’s fate appears to not be dictated by himself or by any God, rather by his only true muse: lady luck herself. Such is the life of a gambler.