Culture Bytes: Return of the Samurai

Culture Bytes: David Freeman's Notebook

(19 September 2007)

Los Angeles -- Jean-Pierre Melville, the French film director is having something of a career revival, unusual for one who has been dead since 1973. He was associated with the new wave in the French cinema of the late 1950s and 60s, which was made up of a group of critics some of whom became directors. Melville was no theorist and followed only a school of one - himself. His gangster movies used Hollywood tropes but were unmistakably French.

Le Samourai (1967) with Alain Delon is a stylized story of an icy assassin. Delon doesn't say much in this movie, but when he says, "I never lose. Not really." you know he'll come to a bad end. His character is called Jeff Costello, a name that must have sounded typically American to Melville. Whatever the name, the character is the apotheosis of the cool gun-for-hire.

Such a man may exist only in the movies, but he exists best in this one. You can't take your eyes off him. He's handsome past all understanding but he has a weird, unsettling feminine delicacy too. And he's a snappy dresser who pays close attention to his hat and trench coat.

Delon has a "contract" - an agreement to kill just as in countless films noir. He runs into a little trouble and soon enough the police and the guys who hired him are after him. He's on the run, much of it in the Metro. And there's a woman. Two of them, in fact.

The story could be an opera or even a ballet. Motivation is minimal. There are no significant back-stories for anyone. People exist and do what they do, driven to their death by the necessity to live. It's very French and quite delicious.

At one point the police superintendent tries to squeeze information out of Delon's girlfriend (Nathalie Delon - Alain's ex-wife). The action stops while they debate the nature of truth. He's wearing a suit. She's in her nightie. It practically makes you want to light up a Gitanes.

Later, the cops bug Delon's room - they pound a nail in a window frame and hang a fist-sized transmitter behind the curtain. Technology dates in movies faster than hem lines. Le Samourai isn't "real" by traditional cinema standards, though the events are real to the characters.

Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) (1955) is an underworld drama with a realistic tone and style. Like Le Samouri, the more it imitates American movies, the more French it becomes. There's a fabulous exchange of dialogue in which a couple of Parisian tough guys debate who was the first of their number to assume the style of American gangsters, which of course means American movie gangsters. Various opinions are considered.

The plot, which is more of an annoyance than a necessity, is about a plan to rob the casino at Deauville. The heart of the movie, though, is Bob of the title. He's getting older. He's had his ups and downs. His life is cards and dice. He thrives at night.

He picks up a pretty young thing, more to protect her than anything else. When he seems to be considering a more intimate arrangement with her -- she's certainly willing -- he puts his young protégé in her path. When the young people become lovers, Bob remains stoic. Stoicism is one of his main traits.

Bob has his standards. He's a nighthawk of Montmartre and Pigalle, both of which are filled with rascals. Pigalle is especially thick with pimps and Bob won't countenance them. The neighborhood exteriors are real -- fascinating location shots from the period.

Bob seems cut from a bolt of cloth woven by Raymond Chandler. Despite often being on the wrong side of the law, Bob maintains an unbreakable personal moral code. It's a measure of the strength of this picture that within moments of first seeing this taciturn, white-haired paladin, we know him and accept his conflicted standards.

The story and characters turn on irony. It doesn't give too much away to say that as the robbery scheme is about to get underway, Bob finds himself at the tables in Deauville having a good night.

Because the new wave was so taken with American genre movies and because Melville all but worshipped what he thought was the American style -- he wore a Stetson and occasionally drove around Paris in a Cadillac, it's easy to underestimate him.

Melville's American influences are clear. He has said The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was on his mind when he was working on Bob. In an American movie of the period and genre, the robbery would play out in full. The French have always had movies that turned on elaborate crimes. In Bob le Flambeur, the characters make plans and then talk about their lives and their unhappiness. Consideration and contemplation are as important as action in this movie.

Melville was hardly the first European to be enchanted with an idea of America that was more imagined than an actual place in which Americans might be found. The Brecht and Weill of Mahaggony is an example that comes immediately to mind.

Melville's new prominence started with the recent DVD release of Army of Shadows (1969), his drama of the Resistance, which had been unavailable in the US. Melville was in the French army during the war and may have worked with the Resistance.

He spent 25 years trying to make Army of Shadows. It was worth the wait. It's based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote the novel Belle de Jour, the source of the Bunuel film. Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret are in the cast. Ventura, who was Italian but starred in French movies, is rock solid. Hollywood actors say, "Don't act, just stand there." Of course that requires a face that can tell a story without seeming to do anything. Lino Ventura's face tells the story of France at a dark hour. His character is based partly on Jean Moulin the Resistance hero who was tortured and murdered by Klaus Barbie, the infamous butcher of Lyon.

Melville was a man of his time in regard to the women in his movies -- they take off their clothes and they get kicked around. An exception is Simone Signoret in this movie. She's "Mathilde"- her nom d'espion. Dressed as a German nurse, she goes into a Gestapo prison to rescue or kill a colleague who is being tortured. Not even the Gestapo breaks her cool stare. Mathilde is a patriot to her end and Signoret's performance is so complete that you never catch her acting.

Army of Shadows doesn't glamorize or exaggerate the Resistance. No suspension of disbelief is required. Melville demonstrates a historical awareness that is unexpected from one who made a specialty of gangsters. At 140 minutes, the pace might be occasionally slow to contemporary eyes, though I found it thrilling. The Resistance is one of the great stories of the war. This is a view of it from one who was there.

Le Doulos (1963) is a Paris gangster story with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The title refers to a style of hat and by extension a man who wears it, often a police informer. This bit of French underworld slang is explained in a title card at the start of the movie. The success of Army of Shadows last year is the reason this one is back. The critics have been enthusiastic. I saw it in a new 35mm print at the Nuart in Los Angeles, one of the last of the great old art houses. A run at the Nuart is usually a signal that a DVD will be along.

It's well made -- there's a spectacular tracking shot of some nine minutes duration, made long before Stedicam made such shots a commonplace. Everyone smokes and a nightclub looks like it came from RKO in the 1930s. Betrayal begets betrayal and the movie is almost entirely shot at night. It's always amusing to see Belmondo, but I found Le Doulos a disappointment, often lost in its own impenetrable plot.

Melville was a cinema poet. He made fashion rather than following it. Cinéastes have written widely about him though the larger public doesn't seem to know him. He makes a cameo appearance in the iconic new wave movie, Breathless (1959), as a talkative novelist. Melville on Melville, by Rui Noguera is widely quoted in most of what's been written about him, though the book itself is out of print and used copies are hard to come by.

Melville was born in Paris in 1917 and died there at 55. He wanted to see the world through American eyes though what he wound up seeing was France as no one had ever quite seen her before or since.