Thursday, October 30, 2008


The Criterion Collection has recently released two outstanding gangster films by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Doulos (1963) and Le Deuxième Souffle (1966).

Le Doulos stars Jean-Paul Belmondo (below) as Silien, a gangster who may or may not be a police informer – a “hat”, or "doulos" in French argot. He may or may not have squealed on fellow gangster Maurice, played by Serge Reggiani. Betrayal and suspicion (along with trench coats, fedoras and Melvillian noir cool) abound.

In the second film, Le Deuxième Souffle, master criminal Gu Minda, played by Lino Ventura, breaks out of prison and joins a successful platinum heist organized by Paul Ricci. Afterwards, Police Inspector Blot (the cynical Paul Maurisse) tricks Gu into betraying his accomplices. Paul and Gu are taken in and tortured by the police. Gu breaks out. He sets out to clear his name and expose police corruption, which he does with surprising ease. Then he settles the score with Jo Ricci, Paul’s brother, who’s been shooting and threatening Gu’s accomplices since the start of the film and who, we are led to believe – although it’s not really clear - has turned on Jo as well. Mayhem ensues.

Both films are good but Le Doulos is the better of the two. It’s tighter and more engaging. Once the story begins it moves inexorably to its tragic end. Le Deuxième Souffle, as you can tell even from the summary above, is more cluttered; the story doesn’t flow naturally. Additionally, in Le Doulos we care about the characters. Reggiani, for instance, has the sad face of the two-time (no, make that three-time) loser. You just know anything he does will end in disaster. Despite all his toughness he seems to be very vulnerable, not least of all to his own stupidity – rather like Harvey Keitel in Resevoir Dogs (Tarantino, not surprisingly, is big Melville fan). One has no such reservations, though, about Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle. He is as hard and tough as the Hollywood film gangsters whom Melville adored. One senses that being roughed up by the police would scarcely faze him.

The shootouts in these films have an interesting rhythm. In traditional Hollywood gangster films the shooting occurs in the course of the dramatic action. Characters face off but will often be moving at the same time; and the shooting is spontaneous, like an emotional outburst. “I said get away from that door! you rotten, double-crossing..!!” BANG! BANG! BANG! Hunch and drop. But Melville’s shootouts are quite different. They are quiet and static. A character pulls a gun, everyone freezes and stasis reigns. Characters talk or even whisper, plot ends are tied together. Then a gun goes off and chaos erupts, leaving most of the characters dead on the floor. It’s almost as though Melville has taken the rhythm of the Hollywood western (the slow ritualized shootout in the center of town) and transferred it to the gangster film. That just about every film-maker follows Melville’s lead is a sign of his influence.

For instance, there's a great moment in the shootout that ends Le Deuxième Souffle. I could not, unfortunately, find a clip on-line so stills and description will have to do. In the picture below Gu, (the one with the guns) has cornered Jo and his henchmen. He shoots Jo (the guy closest to us). Then Antoine (in the white fedora in the back) drops down, pulls out a gun and shoots Gu in the hip. Gu falls to the ground but not before shooting Pascal (the guy at the back in the dark fedora).

Then the camera follows Antoine as he runs across the table to keep shooting the fallen Gu.

From Antoine's point of view the camera follows Gu as he rolls onto his back, raises both guns and fires them directly into the camera...

...sending Antoine (now seen from Gu's point of view) against the back wall, dead.

It's pure John Woo. ("Melville is my God" - John Woo)

With the rerelease of Melville’s films as well as the republication of the tough roman dur crime novels by the Belgian Georges Simenon, we Americans are finally getting a sense of how well the French have taken to the gangster genre, especially in its noir form. It's intriguing that the Americans and the French have developed a noir style of mystery whereas the British have not. They are still wedded to the traditional Agatha-Christie-style whodunit. I think the reason for this is class and the nature of crime. Criminals, after all, are very much like businessmen. They both like to accumulate money. They both take risks and will stake all they have on a single venture. They need to be cunning and energetic to succeed. They’re willing to lie and cheat and steal to accomplish their goals.  The psychological toll for people living in that kind of society can be pathological; they can wind up distrustful, scheming, violent, depressed, paranoid, suicidal, etc., in other words, the perfect noir hero. There is a natural sympathy between the criminal and the businessmen which noir reveals. Here, for instance, is a passage from Gil Brewer’s classic pulp novel The Vengeful Virgin (1958 - and recently reissued from HardCase Crime) in which the narrator, a TV repairman in Florida, ruminates on the prospects that even a small job (legitimate) can present:
You’ve got to whittle every stick you get your hands on, if you expect to be big. Your business has to be the biggest and the best, if you expect it to pay off. That’s how it was going to be with me…I was plenty in debt. But if you’re smart enough to find all the angles and ride them down, you won’t drown. In the beginning, you’ve got to scramble and you’ve got to ride those angles hard, every damned one of them. You don’t let any of them throw you, not even the measliest, because every buck adds up. Either that, or you make it big and fast some way, and quit cold. I had learned the hard way, misfiring across a lot of lousy years, that I would have to slug for it – slug everybody in sight.
Somehow, I can’t picture Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot saying that. But I can imagine Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart saying it. And on the Gallic side of things, Melville’s characters may not say it but they live it - as, too, do the businessmen and criminals of Balzac and Zola and even the peasants of de Maupassant.

Americans have always loved their merchants and after the Civil War the industrial powers completely took over and haven’t let up since. In France the rising business class broke the power of the aristocracy in 1789 but not without massive bloodshed. However, in Britain the newly arrived entrepreneurial class didn’t guillotine the aristocracy; they married into them. Or they bought peerages. Or in some way accommodated themselves to the existing aristocracy, who were not destroyed as in France, but rather domesticated. The newly risen English businessman imagined that with enough money he could buy a country house, join the right clubs and maybe even get a seat in Parliament; they had the expectation (not entirely unfounded) that they could become little aristocrats themselves and leave the grubby and shameful world of the tradesman behind.

In the US and France such Trollopian illusions could never take ground. The businessmen run the show; and there’s no aristocratic refuge, no point at which you can let your guard down. Even if you make it to the top you still have to watch your back. There is no escape, as the trapped heros of noir will tell you. You always have to be ready to “slug everybody in sight.”

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