Sunday, March 11, 2007

Recent Screenings

Le Cercle Rouge (1970) - Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, starring Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian-Maria Volonte, and Bourvil.

I've been revising my list of 100 Favorite Films, and I was somewhat shocked the other day when I realized that I now had more films by Jean-Pierre Melville (4) than I did by Bergman, Fellini or Godard (3 each). How did this happen, I wondered?

Known in this country for his cool, stylish, and visually stunning noir films, Melville has never been taken as seriously as a director as some of his French compatriots. Last summer, however, his 1969 masterpiece about the French Resistance, L'Armée des ombres [Army of Shadows], was finally released theatrically in the United States - 37 years after its French premiere. I was lucky enough to catch it at Film Forum in New York, and it was a revelation. Like a lot of other people, I suddenly found myself re-evaluating Melville's overall career. We all knew he was a technically brilliant director, with some of the best set pieces ever filmed, but now we had to factor in an emotional weight that had been overlooked or under-appreciated before. Part of this was due to the fact that his films about World War II are different from his gangster movies, and they were almost completely unknown in this country. A couple of years ago, I happened to come across a video of Leon Morin, Priest (1961), with Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a priest in a small village during World War II. It was an excellent and interesting work, but it seemed like an odd duck when compared to his gangster flicks. After Army of Shadows, it made perfect sense. There is a richness of tone in his war films that seem to flesh out the rest of his work. And now, upon re-watching some of his noir films, I'm suddenly aware of an emotional layer in them that had once been elusive to me. You are so taken by his technique and the wonderful atmosphere of his world, that you can miss some of the subtleties.

Le Cercle Rouge was the film Melville made after Army of Shadows, and many fans and critics consider it one of his best, along with Le Samouraï (1967). Alain Delon plays Corey, a cool, elegant thief who's just been released from prison. One of the guards has tipped him off about a jewel heist possibility. After visiting a gangster boss who may have had something to do with Corey going to prison, he runs into an escaped convict named Vogel, and the two begin to work out the details of the robbery. Meanwhile, Commissaire Mattei is slowly but systematically tracking down Vogel. Played wonderfully by Bourvil, who had been known as a comic actor before this film, the Commisaire is a dedicated policeman but a lonely figure who comes home late at night to an apartment full of cats.

Corey and Vogel need a marksman for the jewel heist, which leads them to an alcoholic ex-policeman named Jansen, who gets involved in the heist plan more to escape his delerium tremens demons than for any money. Yves Montand does a marvellous job as Jansen, who has turned into a drunk after the harsh nature of his life as a policeman. His performance, and that of Bourvil, gives the film its emotional core.

As usual in a Melville film, there isn't so much a line between the law and the criminals as there is a zone of honor in which men from both sides exist in relationship to one another. In his hunt for Vogel, the Commisaire puts pressure on a nightclub owner, which leads to a personal disaster with serious moral implications.

The tension builds up to the long heist sequence, a masterpiece of suspense. It's a Melville show piece, beautifully choreographed and done almost entirelly without sound. In fact, Le Cercle Rouge, like several of Melville's films, doesn't rely on a lot of dialogue (a keyword phrase for the film on IMDB is "Very Little Dialogue"). Melville's camera does a lot of the talking, moving gracefully, following these professionals on both sides of the law as they go about their work. In the end, the robbery is really secondary to the exploration of these men, the codes they live by, and their intersecting lives.

The Criterion DVD, besides offering a beautiful new print of the film, also includes a second DVD of interesting interviews with Melville and people who worked with him, as well as some documentaries on the movie itself.

Though Le Cercle Rouge is not one of the Melville films on my list of 100 Favorite Films, it's a great movie and may be the best place to start if you're interested in his work. DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED.

In addition to the films listed above, I also highly recommend Bob le flambeur (1955) and Le Doulos (1962).

The Croupier
(1998) - Directed by Mike Hodges, starring Clive Owen.

Jack Manfred (Owen) is a struggling writer who takes a job as a croupier at a London casino after a tip from his father, a gambler who lives in South Africa. Jack never gambles, but he does know his way around a casino, partly because of his father, and also because he's worked as a croupier before. His girlfriend is a store detective, and she's not happy with his decision, telling him she wanted to be with a writer, not a croupier. Their relationship, already somewhat stifling, begins to disintegrate.

Jack is a cool customer, observing all around him very carefully. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, likens him to Alain Delon's assassin-for-hire in Melville's Le Samourai, but though Owen plays Jack quite restrained, he exudes more physicality and sexual tension under the surface than Delon's character. It's an excellent acting job by Owen.

As the story unfolds, Jack begins to narrate the events as though they were chapters of a book. In other films, this technique might have felt like a gimmick, but Owen's delivery and Mike Hodges' direction make it work. Jack gets involved with a fellow croupier and becomes intrigued by an older woman who is a regular at the casino. Slowly but surely, he gets drawn into a complex scheme to rob the casino.

Then, of course, thing go wrong. Jack's emotional entanglements get messy, people involved in the robbery make mistakes, plans go awry. Jack's store-detective girlfriend plays the role of The Law, adding another dynamic to their shaky relationship. There are several surprises, and though the ending might resolve itself a little too cleanly, it has a sly sense of humor. Paul Mayersberg, who actually worked as a crew member on Melville's great Le Doulos and also wrote Nicolas Roeg's science-fiction classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth delivers an excellent screenplay. It's a moody noir that spends a lot of time developing its characters - as well as being a dark twist on the writing/publishing process. RECOMMENDED.

The Conversation (1974) - Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest.

In between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974), Francis Ford Coppola directed this little gem of a motion picture that garnered him one of his two Oscar nominations for Best Picture the following year. (It lost out to Godfather II). Released four months before Richard Nixon's resignation, The Conversation perfectly captures the paranoia and isolation at the heart of the Watergate scandal. Gene Hackman delivers what may be his best performance ever as Harry Caul, "the best wiretapper on the West Coast," who is hired to conduct surveillance on a young couple talking at lunchtime in a crowded downtown plaza in San Francisco. Harry becomes obsessed with their conversation, piecing it together from his various surveillance sources. He's convinced that they are in danger from the mysterious "Director" who's hired him (a cameo appearance by Robert Duvall). After Harry encounters the suspicious assistant to the Director - a creepy and menacing Harrison Ford - he finds himself becoming personally involved in the situation, against his own better advice.

The suspense builds slowly at first, then starts to spin out of control, like the situation itself, culminating in a terrifying sequence in a hotel room (La Reina said it reminded her of The Shining), followed by a shocking discovery, and a devastating final scene in which Harry becomes the one under surveillance.

The real mystery of the film, however, is Harry himself. While he spends all of his time listening in on other peoples' lives, his own life is a void. He has a relationship with a young woman - played by Terri Garr - but can't connect with her emotionally because he refuses to divulge anything about himself. He's an Everyman for the modern-day, alienated individual. Roger Ebert calls him "one of the most affecting and tragic characters in the movies" and likens him to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. At one point, he goes to confession, frightened that his work may have gotten people killed, and Coppola does a wonderful job of showing how Harry's G-d is like the Ultimate Wiretapper. At the end of the film, after a frantic search for a bugging device, Harry is literally left with nothing, his apartment stripped as bare as his own interior landscape. He contemplates the last object left to him, a statuette of the Virgin Mary. It's a powerful moment as his paranoia and isolation lead him to destroy the one last sacred symbol in his life.

The Conversation is a quiet film, with Coppola making extraordinary use of sound (the film also received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound), and with the cinematography and the pacing, it almost feels like a European movie, albeit, one with a creepy, paranoid edge. The slower rhythm allows the surveillance mystery to unfold alongside the mystery of Harry Caul's character.

Coppola has had his ups and downs over the last few decades, but I was reminded of what a great director he was in the 1970s, making The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now. I'm not sure any American director has done better since then. RECOMMENDED


Liam said...

Wow, three movies and only one of them is French! Of course, "Croupier" is a French word.

I saw Le Cercle Rouge at Film Forum a couple of years ago. Yves is very cool in it.

cowboyangel said...

Wow, three movies and only one of them is French!

To offer a proper response, I looked in my French dictionary for incredibly vulgar phrases involving hairy animals, body deformities, and sex acts I was going to suggest you perform on yourself. Alas, this is a family blog (i.e. my dictionary is disappointing in certain areas of speech.)

Did you like Le Cercle Rouge? Have you seen other Melville films besides that and Le Samourai?

cowboyangel said...

Wait now I remember some French!

Taunting French Solider: "I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"

I knew that year of French in college would come in handy one day.

crystal said...

The Conversation is great ... a classic. Interestingly, it's kind of like a movie I just posted about - The Lives of Others.

cowboyangel said...


I had the exact same thought when I read your post. I definitely want to see The Lives of Others. Have heard good things about it.