Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Vengeance Trilogy

Although not a trilogy in the tradition sense – the three films share none of the same characters nor offer any narrative continuity – Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy is as thematically focused and finely nuanced a set of films as, say, Ingmar Bergman’s trilogy on faith. Not that there’s any black market organ transplants, octopus eating, wrongful imprisonment, misuse of hammers or general artery ventilation in ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, ‘Winter Light’ or ‘The Silence’. Although the revelations at the end of ‘Oldboy’ will probably leave you feeling as brain-fucked as ‘The Silence’ leaves you depressed.

‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ gets the trilogy off to a visceral and convention-defying start, even if the English language title does present a stumbling block. The whole ‘Mr Vengeance’ thing suggests that there is one character seeking revenge and that our sympathies will automatically lie with him. The indigenous Korean title translates more accurately as the biblical ‘Vengeance is Mine’. A much more apposite handle, as the film happily weaves itself into a web of ever more mind-boggling contrivances (and I use the word without any sense of pejorative) while cheerfully teasing the audience as to whose vengeance is being perpetrated at any given moment.

As briefly as possible: Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf-mute working at a foundry whose angelic sister (Ji-eun Lim) is likely to die unless she receives a kidney transplant. Ryu tries to donate his own kidney, but he’s the wrong blood type. With no guarantees when a suitable donor might be found, Ryu approaches a shady group who deal organs on the black market. He accepts a redundancy pay-off from his job and pays the full amount, as well as agreeing that the group can take one of his kidneys; in return they’ll perform the life-saving operation on his sister. Inevitably they rip him off, leaving him sans cash, sans kidney and sans any hope for his sister. The kicker is when her consultant contacts Ryu to inform him a donor has been located and he just needs to stump up the moolah for the operation.

If Ryu’s upset at himself, it’s nothing compared to how pissed off at him Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) is. Yeong-mi is Ryu’s activist girlfriend and, after giving him a good slapping for his stupidity, posits a perhaps even more stupid solution to his predicament: kidnap the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, demand a ransom and spend it on the medical bill. Which they do. Only the kidnapping takes an unexpected turn, leaving a bereaved and very pissed off Dong-jin Park (Kang-ho Song) on their trail.

Ostensibly, it would seem that Dong-jin is the Mr Vengeance of the bastardized title, and entirely justified with it. But the film also deals with Ryu’s vengeance against the organ dealers, as well as an eleventh-hour act of vengeance against – … ah, but that would be telling. In essence, ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ delineates how an act of violence – be it intended, accidental, gratuitous or justified – is merely the catalyst for further violence. There’s a novella by Tolstoy called ‘The Counterfeit Note’ where the passing of the forged currency of the title instigates a chain of events for the various characters involved, none of whom come out of it well. Park’s film follows a similar course, except with massive head trauma, electrocution, severed tendons and drowning.

For a work so thematically steeped in violence, the actual quota of onscreen viscera doesn’t add up to that many minutes. It’s just that Park delivers the red stuff unflinching when he does go for it. He uses humour, too; sometimes it softens the blow, sometimes it’s plain inappropriate. He finds quirkiness and absurdity in the darkest recesses of the human condition. The film is visually striking, with Park using overhead shots to bravura effect, and he uses imagery and symbolism in often subversive ways. Most notably in the juxtaposition of fire and water. The sulphurous depiction of the foundry seems to promise a Hadean backdrop, but actually represents the last vestige of normalcy that Ryu walks away from as he makes his ill-advised decision. Likewise, when Ryu goes down to the river (and I use the phrase in deliberate evocation of the old spiritual) for the first time it’s to expiate the grief he has caused his sister; to salve himself of his sins. Thereafter, that same stretch of the river is the scene of three (increasingly horrific) incidents. Never mind going down to the river to pray; Park frogmarches his characters there to pay.

‘Oldboy’ doesn’t, in its immediate set-up, present as a revenge movie; more as a twisted mystery or oblique thriller. Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is picked up by the police for public drunkenness one rainy evening. Subsequently released, he’s snatched off the street. He’s held captive in a blandly decorated room in an undisclosed location for 15 years. Just as randomly, he’s release. With the caveat that he has five days to track down his captor.

Fittingly, the imagery of ‘Oldboy’ is that of claustrophobic interiors: the tiny room Dae-su’s held in; the pillars that define his nemesis’s apartment the way bars define a prison cell; the long, narrow corridor in which Dae-su battles a gang of assailants in an eye-popping scene, shot to resemble a 1980s video game, that pretty much guaranteed ‘Oldboy’ cult classic status from the off.

When Park uses wide shots, it’s usually at critical points of the film, saving the most effective of his trademark overhead shots to symbolize the shattering aftermath of the final, almost unpalatable, revelation. I’m wary of discussing ‘Oldboy’ in too much detail, purely for the benefit of anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it. Suffice it to say, ‘Oldboy’ is the kind of film for which the expression “head-fuck” was invented.

The vengeance theme gets its proper exposition only in the last 20 minutes of ‘Oldboy’. In the hands of a lesser director, it would be a rug-pull; a sleight of hand. Park delivers it with a sense of terrible inevitability, even as he blindsides you with the full implications of exactly who is revenging themselves on who, and why. If ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ is about a series of events which spin off from one bad decision in a whirlwind of brutal but often ill-thought-out action, then ‘Oldboy’ is about damage done that has festered for years; that has grown cancerously into a considered and unhurried plan, its brutality (more psychological than physical) all the deeper for the thought that has gone into it.

Mercifully, a small but thankful glimmer of redemption is offered in ‘Lady Vengeance’. Again, the title – so obviously keyed into the English language release of the first film – isn’t quite representative of Park’s aesthetic design. Indigenously known as ‘The Kind-Hearted Ms Geum-Ja’, the titular protagonist (Yeong-ae Lee) is introduced having been released from jail after serving 13 years (shades of Dae-su’s “sentence”) for the kidnap and murder of a child. Whilst inside, she earns a reputation as an almost saintly figure (shades of Ryu’s sister), caring for her fellow inmates. And so what if she administered the odd bit of poisoning or committed murder against a fellow prisoner – it was there own fault; they shouldn’t have victimized Geum-Ja’s friends.

Once on the outside, it quickly becomes apparent that Geum-Ja was coerced into pleading guilty when the real killer, sociopathic schoolteacher Mr Baek (Min-sik Choi), threatened to kill Geum-Ja’s infant daughter. Once on the outside, Geum-Ja sets about (a) reintegrating into society, (b) making sure her daughter’s okay, and (c) perpetrating violent revenge on Baek. Park has fun playing with overlapping timelines and structuring an hilariously inappropriate melange of religious imagery around Geum-Ja’s acts of penal charity. He even goes as far, in Geum-Ja’s most saintly moments, as having soft light radiate around her like a halo.

There’s nothing angelic about what happens when she gets her hands on Baek, though. But just when the scene is set for a bit of cathartic Geum-Ja-on-Baek nastiness, Park pulls a narrative development as effective – if even it isn’t as much of an emotional sucker-punch – as that of ‘Oldboy’. Thus far in the trilogy, we’ve had several acts of vengeance as a result of one bad decision, and a single act of vengeance planned over time and orchestrated like a puppeteer pulling the strings, but with the one constant that in each instance the act of vengeance has been specific and personal. In ‘Lady Vengeance’, the revenge necessarily becomes a collective matter when Geum-Ja discovers the extent of Baek’s activities and realizes that she alone does not have the exclusive right to deal with him.

The last third of the film develops into a debate on the nature of revenge, individual vs collective responsibility, and the moral quandaries that ensue. That the final outcome is inevitable is less a point of contention than a setting of the scene for a final quarter of an hour that is frankly astounding. Remember that scene towards the end of ‘The Straight Story’: Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) has almost reached the end of his journey, and stops off at a bar; he hasn’t drunk in ages, but now he orders a beer; it’s a crucial point for him, yet David Lynch’s camera follows the doddery old barman as he breaks off conversation with Alvin and wanders off to the opposite end of the bar to perform some utterly mundane task. It’s a moment where the camera, the director, the film itself and by extension the audience veer away from the enormity of what has gone before – in the case of ‘The Straight Story’, an octogenarian in ailing health travelling several hundred miles across America in all weathers on a ride-on lawnmower – and are presented with a small, still moment, almost pointless in its narrative and thematic insignificance, by which the preceding is thrown into even sharper relief. At a pinch, you could describe it as the cinematic equivalent of the via negative. Now imagine that scene, reconfigured as a borderline religious metaphor, coming after an extended sequence of largely offscreen but still obviously brutal violence, and ending on a snowy image that intermingles grief, loss, reunion and redemption.

That’s ‘Lady Vengeance’ for you. A beautiful, poignant, masterfully realized conclusion to the trilogy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


It’s amazing how indifferent some people can be in the face of total, unapologetic, non-PC, old-school cool.

‘Grindhouse’ was a cineaste’s wet dream – and I say that as someone who has yet to see ‘Grindhouse’ in its intended cut (watching the DVDs of ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’ with a quick sprint to the computer at the half-way mark to watch the fake trailers as downloads is about as close as I’ve come to the proper ‘Grindhouse’ experience). Two exploitationers back-to-back: dirty, cheesy and full-on retro, one directed by Robert Rodriguez, the other by Quentin Tarantino – who could say no to that?

Depressingly, as it turned out, plenty of people. Maybe the fact that Rob and Quent wanted them to spend – shock, horror – over three and a half hours in a movie theatre was too gruelling. Maybe the concept of getting to watch two movies for the price of one seemed too good to be true and they stayed away out of sheer suspicion. Maybe the prospect of Rose MacGowan with a machinegun leg, Vanessa Ferlito lap-dancing and Kurt Russell being all kinds of badass was rather déclassé. Whatever reason, the fact remains: the underperformance of ‘Grindhouse’ at the US box office meant that a movie I’d been getting excited about in a way I normally reserve for Mrs F limped out onto UK screens as two separate releases, in the wrong order, with about three months between them.

Four years down the line, I remain slightly peeved by this.

One of the chief in-jokey pleasures of ‘Grindhouse’ was the spoof trailers. Eli Roth’s ‘Thanksgiving’ managed, in three minutes, to be the best thing he’s ever made; Rob Zombie’s ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ was madness in miniature, all Ilsa references, swastika armbands, Nic Cage going apeshit and Beethoven’s Ninth on the soundtrack; and Edgar Wright’s ‘Don’t’ nailed an entire subgenre of the Video Nasties list. But best of all was Rodriguez’s ‘Machete’, a masterpiece in miniature featuring Danny Trejo being a bad muthafucka in authentically grainy footage and kissing off the audience with greatest tag line ever.

“They just fucked with the wrong Mexican.”

Speculation was immediate: would Rodriguez extrapolate ‘Machete’ into a full feature? I prayed like no atheist, en-fox-holed or not, has ever prayed. Like Baron von Frankenstein raising his fists to heaven as the thunderstorm crashes, screaming, “Liiiiiiiiiiive! LIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE!”, I sent the unyielding force of sheer will across the miles and the oceans in the general direction of Troublemaker Studios: “Make it,” I cried; “maaaaaaaaaaaaake iiiiiiiiiiiiit!!!”

Eventually, word trickled out. ‘Machete’ was casting. Danny Trejo was on board, natch. Robert de Niro. Steven Seagal. Jessica Alba. Michelle Rodriguez. Cheech Marin. Lindsay Lohan. Holy Mary mother of a made up character!!! Danny fuckin’ Trejo, Robert fuckin’ de Niro, Cheech fuckin’ Marin and Lindsay fuckin’ Lohan in the same fuckin’ movie!!! (Yes, I know that’s a lot of profanity, but danged if it isn’t an accurate representation of how stoked I was getting for ‘Machete’.)

Then – finally – it opened. It opened in the UK freakin’ ages after it opened in America. (Oh, my fellow bloggers Stateside, how I cursed as I read review after review on your blogs, knowing that I still had a couple of months till the Trej-meister fucked up shit my side of the pond. There’s your dictionary definition of frustration: right there!)

A funny thing happened during all of this. While the faithful (ie. my aforementioned fellow bloggers) were giving ‘Machete’ its dues, the get cinema-going unwashed collectively went “meh” and didn’t really give a shit. ‘Machete’ kind of came and went, not boding well for the Bond-style post-credits that “Machete will return in ‘Machete Kills’ … and ‘Machete Kills Again’.”

My lords, ladies and gentlemen, guys and gals, dudes and dudesses, cats and chicks, blokes and birds, let me state this once and for all. For the record. Let me tell it on the mountain, shout it from the rooftops, write in the sky and piss it in big yellow letters in the snow:

I did not go “meh” over ‘Machete’. Quite the contrary, oh my brothers.

I. Goddamn. Bloody. Love. ‘Machete’.

I love ‘Machete’ because it gives Danny Trejo an honest-to-God leading role and the man goes for it in fine style; because it’s got a Jessica Alba performance that’s not entirely insufferable; because Robert de Niro seems to be enjoying himself onscreen for only the second time in the last decade (the other occasion being ‘Stardust’); because Cheech Marin as a shotgun wielding priest quite simply redefines iconography; because Michelle Rodriguez looks tough and sexy in equal measures to their point where you’d probably be too scared to buy her a pint let alone spill it; because Lindsay Lohan’s first scene depicts her as a coked up socialite and her last as a gun-toting nun; because pudgy, whispering action start has-been Steven Seagal redeems himself for decades’ worth of unadulterated crap; and because the Crazy Babysitter Twins turn up in ridiculously skimpy nurses uniforms and fire off Uzis.

I love ‘Machete’ because it’s a 100-minute rollercoaster showcase for Danny Trejo fucking up the shit of all who cross him in a variety of gratuitous, capillary-siphoning and – most importantly of all – imaginative ways. This is a film where the hero utilizes knives, guns, swords, strimmers, surgical equipment, pimped-up cars that bounce a lot, and a motorbike with a gatling gun welded to the handlebars in his fight for truth, justice and rights of the downtrodden Mexican working class.

I love ‘Machete’ because it exists in a movie movie universe of unrestrained over-the-topness that makes ‘Kill Bill’ look like a Mike Leigh production*; because it looks more authentically like a 70’s exploitation than either part of ‘Grindhouse’; and because the contemporary touchstones are witheringly subverted (“Machete don’t text”).

I love ‘Machete’, in other words, because it manages to be batshit crazy and utterly true to itself at one and the same time. I love it because Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Manquis obviously didn’t have a single imperative – commercial or aesthetic – beyond having a good time and making the kind of movie they wanted to make. Gracias, dudes.

*Which, granted, would be interesting. Imagine: Imelda Staunton as The Bride and Jim Broadbent as Bill. Scene: a suburban kitchen. Bill is sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and reading the Racing Post. Enter The Bride, laden down with shopping. The Bride: “You’re a right bloody sod you are, Bill. I ask you to do the pots and put the oven on and what do you do? You sit there smoking! I bet you put money on the horses again and lost it, didn’t yer? Didn’t yer?” Bill says nothing. The Bride starts crying histrionically. “I wish I’d never bloody married you, Bill.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Un Flic

‘Un Flic’ is a film that I want to like more than I actually do. And it’s infuriating that I don’t have the big love for it that I do for Melville’s other crime dramas. That, in fact, it leaves me a little bit cold.

All things considered, it ought to be the ultimate Melville movie: a perfect distillation of his thematic and aesthetic preoccupations. After all, it blends the iconic tropes of the strand of American crime cinema so beloved of Melville with an existential inquiry into loneliness and fatalism that could only be the work of a French director. The casting reinforces the point: Melville’s ice-cool alter ego Alain Delon shares the screen with one of American cinema’s quintessential tough guys, Richard Crenna.

The opening sequence, as Simon (Crenna) and his cohorts execute a bank robbery in a rainy coastal town only for one of their number to be wounded in the ensuing shoot-out, is terrific. Its juxtaposition with Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Delon)’s world-weary film noir style voiceover as he cruises neon-lit city streets, sets up the antagonists effectively. The establishment of Simon and Edouard as unlikely friends recalls the relationship between Bob and Ledru in ‘Bob le Flambeur’. Their rivalry over the same woman – Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) – promises to ramp up the tension.

And yet … and yet …

My main issue with ‘Un Flic’ is how “by rote” it feels. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Delon or Deneuve give such lacklustre performances. There is very little chemistry between the leads. The procedural elements of the narrative are by the numbers. The supporting characters are one-dimensional, particularly Edouard’s transvestite informant – a touch of misogyny permeates their scenes.

The other main problem is Melville’s decision to use model work for the film’s major set piece, a twenty-minute heist that plays out in real time involving an express train, a helicopter, some daring business with a winch and a pared-down-the-nails window of opportunity in which to carry out the operation before the train reaches an open stretch of track and reaches full speed, at which point winching the heist man off becomes too perilous. Granted, this is the kind of thing that adds a lot of zeroes to a film’s budget, and a certain degree of back projection could be expected for a movie made in the early 70s (certainly Melville was no stranger to splicing howlingly unconvincing back projection into his movies – check out the cops’ drive around the nocturnal streets of Paris in ‘Le Doulos’; it makes freakin’ ‘Genevieve’ look like an exercise in documentary realism), but – sacre bleu! – surely we should expect something better from one of the masters of the crime movie than this:

And it’s not just the Gerry Anderson-style model work (“Uh, m’lady, there appears to be a robbery in progress in the next couchet.” “Very good, Parker. Now refresh my G&T.” “Yes, m’lady”) that tips the whole sequence into artifice. There’s nonsensical stuff like Simon’s use of a magnet to draw back a door chain. Never mind how he can manipulative the movement of the chain so accurately when he’s on the opposite side of the door and can’t even see it, take a look at the magnet itself. WTF? Have we wandered into an episode of ‘Inspector Gadget’ by mistake?

This sequence just kills the film for me. I can’t settle back into its melancholic portrayal of Edouard’s life, or the aftermath of Simon’s heist. I can’t get involved with the eternal triangle shenanigans, even though the luminescent Catherine Deneuve is at the centre of it. I can’t latch on to any emotional nuances in the final scene, a non-showdown that simply brings the film to an end rather than a conclusion.

And the devil of it is, I really want to.

(ADDENDUM: there’s an excellent piece on ‘Un Flic’ by Lawrence Russell on the Culture Court website.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Le Cercle Rouge

‘Le Cercle Rouge’, like ‘Le Samourai’, opens with a portentous quote: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle’.” Like ‘Le Samourai’, it lends an ice cool crime flick a quasi-mystical subtext. Like ‘Le Samourai’, the attribution is total bollocks; Melville made it up.

It defines the film as a study in fatalism and the grimly inevitable, though; no question about that.

The two narrative strands that set things in motion occur pretty much simultaneously: Corey (Alain Delon) is released from prison; Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) escapes from custody. The release/flight contrast is further emphasized by the authority figures who prove their nemeses: just prior to release, Corey is coerced into executing a jewellery heist by a crooked prison guard (Pierre Collet); Vogel goes on the run after getting the jump on Mattei (the mononymous Bourvil), the doggedly by-the-book copper assigned to escorting him across country to stand trial. Another point of comparison is their ages: Corey is the older, aloof, old-school professional criminal; Vogel is the edgy, unpredictable younger man. Their relationship is shadowed by that between Mattei and his boss, the cynically pragmatic Chief of Police (Paul Amiot) who believes that all men are corruptible. ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ is a film of parallels, contracts and corrosive ironies.

At two and a quarter hours (one of the longest works in Melville’s canon – only ‘Army of Shadows’, his Resistance epic, is marginally longer), it’s slow-burn and then some, the pace even more stately than the glacially iconic ‘Le Samourai’. But it exerts a grip like a python with a spine of tungsten carbide. Vogel’s escape from the train, despite Mattei having him handcuffed, is an object lesson in how to set up, develop tension from and excitingly resolve a major set-piece – and it’s just for starters.

Corey’s post-release settling of scores with those responsible for his incarceration recalls Maurice at the start of ‘Le Doulos’; the way he moves through a dangerous underworld with a ruthless lack of emotion is comparable to Jeff Costello in ‘Le Samourai’. No doubt about it, Alain Delon was Melville’s alter ego: enigmatic, relentless, icily cool.

The chance of fate that throws Corey and Vogel together in their jewellery-heisting enterprise is effect by the mobsters who come after Corey following his vengeful exploits. In a squirmily unhurried set-piece that prefigures ‘Miller’s Crossing’, two heavies take Corey into the words with the express intention of leaving him there, riddled with lead. Vogel, hidden in the trunk of Corey’s (obligatorily) flash American car, puts in a surprise appearance: a new element, in effect, is introduced into an already volatile situation.

This scene is a good metaphor for the film entire. Corey and Vogel recruit Jansen (Yves Montand), a former police sniper with a narcotics habit, a monkey on his back and a tendency to hallucinatory episodes of the DTs. A new element; an unpredictable set of variables. (Jansen’s memorable target practice scene – again set in the leafy silence of the woods – prefigures Edward Fox’s bullet-in-the-melon moment in ‘Day of the Jackal’.)

Mattei, pressured by his boss into getting a result, leans on Corey’s associate, nightclub owner Santi (François Périer). A new element; an unpredictable set of variables. Melville’s line-up of criminals, be they world-weary or rigorously disciplined, function with as decisive a sense of purpose as ever, but the difference this time round is how defining a part the vagaries of chance play in the way things resolve.

The colloquial principle Sod’s Law states that if a thing can go wrong it will. If ‘Bob le Flambeur’ functions, in its visual aesthetic, as a metaphor for the cosmic chequerboard on which fate moves us like chess pieces, then ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ demonstrates that fate is also capable of considerably less elegance on occasion; that it can swipe the pieces off the board with all the spiteful vehemence of a moody child. That fate can do such a thing to an ensemble of French cinema’s finest makes it all the more galling.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


‘Le Samourai’ isn’t the first Jean-Pierre Melville film to open with a quote – ‘Le Doulous’ sets out its stall with the grim homily “your choice … lie or die” – but it’s the first to suggest something quasi-mystical bubbling away just below the surface.

‘Le Samourai’ opens with this bit of prose, hovering above the prone figure of its anti-hero in the top right hand corner of the screen: “Il n'y a pas de plus profonde solitude que celle de samouraï si ce n'est celle d'un tigre dans la jungle ... peut-être …”, attributed to the ‘Bushido’ (the book of the samurai) but most likely of Melville’s own composition. It means “there is no more profound solitude than that of the samurai expect, perhaps, that of the tiger in the jungle”.

It’s a terrific attention-grabber, particularly as Jeff Costello (Alain Delon) spends the credit sequence lying on a grubby mattress in an equally grubby apartment, smoking with an almost existential determination. Is he the samurai or the tiger? As he straightens up, puts on his hat and overcoat and heads out, he seems to embody the formalism of the samurai. The milieu he moves through – one of clinically ruthless underworld types and coldly professional coppers – is certainly a jungle. Drab, steely-grey and coloured by nary a tinge of exoticism, but a jungle for all that.

Or maybe the title and the quote mean absolutely sod all, and it’s simply a story about a hitman setting up an alibi and a cop trying to break it. That’s the beauty of ‘Le Samourai’: it actually responds to a reductive aesthetic. Anonymous interiors, grim exteriors, characterless offices, and the claustrophobic tunnels of the Metro – all present and correct. A main character who betrays barely a trace of emotion – yup, he’s here. (Seriously, Costello is double-crossed and a hint of mild annoyance crosses his face; he painfully sluices a wound with antiseptic and he barely grunts.) A police superintendent (François Périer) who’s referred to in the credits as simply “the superintendent”. This is a film so characterless that it ought to be hollow. Empty. Bland. A bore.

What it is, however, is cool.

‘Le Samourai’ is cool the way an effortless complex jazz solo is cool. The way dirt-track rider walking away from buckled bike with a shrug and not even bothering that there’s blood on his leathers is cool. The way a snooker player pulling off a 147 is cool. The kind of cool that’s cool purely because us mere mortal know we’ll never achieve it and there’s no point trying.

And it’s cool because of Alain Delon.

Delon plays Costello as a blank canvas. He wears a suit more convincingly than any other bad mutha in any other crime movie ever made. People probably stopped wearing hats after ‘Le Samourai’ came out because they knew they’d never make them look as good as Delon. Or even put them on so iconically. This, if nothing else, is a measure of the iconography of ‘Le Samourai’: Alain Delon puts on a hat - he puts on a fucking hat – and makes it look like the coolest act ever captured by a movie camera.

At its most reductive, ‘Le Samourai’ is about Alain Delon wearing a hat and walking around looking cool for huge swathes of the running time. And, friends, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Le Doulos

Whereas ‘Bob le Flambeur’, for all its undertone of melancholy, is a wry and often playful homage to American film noir, ‘Le Doulos’ – made six years later – is noir to the nines and grimly ironic with it. Maybe it was the relative failure of ‘Two Men in Manhattan’, his most literal attempt to fuse his native aesthetic with that of the American crime movies he loved so much, that knocked the playfulness for six: Melville’s next film was the guilt-ridden war drama ‘Leon Marin, prêtre’ (his Resistance films are as essential as his work in the crime genre), and he followed that with ‘Le Doulos’.

‘Le Doulos’ certainly doesn’t contain any traces of humour. An adaptation of Pierre Lesou’s novel, it is at once a brutally focused and aesthetically stripped-down crime thriller, a meditation on honour and dishonour among the criminal underworld, an exercise in narrative trickery (the mid-film shift in protagonist is brilliantly effected, the lacunae neatly explained towards the end), and as shattering a statement on what William Ernest Henley called “the bludgeonings of chance” as anything by H.G. Clouzot. It’s not hard to see the seeds of ‘No Country for Old Men’ in the kick-in-the-guts finale, while a coldly observational shot of a car being pushed over the rim of a quarry was explicitly homaged in Umberto Lenzi’s terrific giallo ‘Spasmo’.

Things kick off with haggard thief Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) paying a visit to Gilbert Varnove (René Lefèvre), a receiver of stolen goods. Gilbert is currently separating the diamonds from the precious metals, the better to fence them, of a large quantity of jewellery stolen from an establishment on Avenue Mozart. Maurice and Gilbert discuss a job Maurice is planning. Gilbert mentions his association with club-owner and gang boss Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). Maurice is suspicious of Nuttheccio. Gilbert is equally suspicious of Maurice’s old friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), suggesting that he’s a police informer. ‘Le Doulos’, a pre-title card informs us, is slang for both a hat and, in certain circles, an informer.

When Maurice leaves, it is with seconds to spare as Nuttheccio arrives. Nuttheccio discovers Gilbert’s lifeless body. Maurice heads home, where he talks with Jean (Aimé de Marche) and Silien. We learn that Gilbert was responsible for the death of Maurice’s wife while Maurice was serving a prison sentence. The current woman in Maurice’s life, Thérèse (Monique Hennessy), arrives just as Jean and Silien are taking their leave. Maurice and Thérèse discuss a robbery Maurice is planning. Thérèse has reconnoitred the property; Silien has lent Maurice the safecracking tools.

Later, Silien calls on Thérèse and beats the information out of her: the location of Maurice’s job. Cut to: Maurice and his accomplice surprised by the arrival of Inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem), recently the recipient of a phone call from Silien. Shots are exchanged. Maurice’s accomplice is killed. So is the inspector. Maurice, aggrieved and injured, sets out to settle the score; however, Commissaire Clain (Jean Desailly) is out to finger him for Salignari’s murder. And Clain is nothing if not persistent.

With Maurice detained while Clain voraciously builds the case against him, the focus shifts to Silien, his involvement with Nuttheccio and their rivalry over bouffant-haired temptress Fabienne (Fabienne Dali). The nature of Silien’s duplicity comes under the microscope, and it gradually becomes evident that his agenda is complex and personal.

‘Le Doulos’ is a study in ambiguity; appropriately, it is a film of shadows and blunt imagery.

Like ‘Bob le Flambeur’, it has its fair share of flash cars, bad dudes and sultry dames …

… but whereas ‘Bob le Flambeur’ was, to quote my last review, “a black valentine to Montmartre and a smashmouth love-letter to film noir USA”, ‘Le Doulos’ is a poison-pen letter falling from the hand of an anti-hero as he stumbles forward and collapses, a bullet in his back. It sets the tone for the stark, haunted filmscapes of ‘Le Samourai’, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ and ‘Un Flic’.