Archive for Jean-Pierre Melville

Running on Empty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by dcairns


Both of John Frankenheimer’s last cinema features, RONIN (1998) and REINDEER GAMES (2000), are set at yuletide, though the latter, with its heaps of bloodstained Santas lying dead in the snow, is certainly the more festive. Most of the best Christmas films are the work of Jewish filmmakers anyway.

RONIN, which I saw at the cinema when it was new, for DeNiro’s sake, and which I just showed to Fiona, seems the better film, which is interesting — RG has a twisty-turny plot with a killer set-up and an escalating menace and a truly ludicrous volte-face at the end which makes perfect narrative sense, in its demented way, but simply can’t be believed for an instant. RONIN is just about a bunch of guys (and Natasha McElhone) trying to get their hands on a shiny box (well, it IS Christmas). There are double-crosses and there are action sequences and there is, essentially, nothing else.


David Mamet wrote pretty much all the dialogue and then they wouldn’t give him sole credit so he used a pseudonym. His terse, hardboiled stuff is quite effective here, sparser than usual because everybody is trying to make this movie be like a Jean-Pierre Melville heist flick — the title clearly references LE SAMOURAI. What ultimately elevates the tone into something approaching Melville’s oddly serious pastiche style, is the music of Elia Cmiral, which imposes a palpable melancholy over the quieter scenes.

Frankenheimer and DoP Robert Fraisse frame gorgeously. While the all-real car chases attract most of the attention, with the camera scudding just above the tarmac as we rocket through Paris and Nice (is that fapping sound a burst tire or Claude Lelouch furiously masturbating?), the scenes of plotting and confronting and staring down are so beautifully framed and cut, every frame seething with dynamic tension, with a chilly blue metallic tinge, that I could cheerfully watch a version of this movie without any of the searing mayhem.



I recently contributed an essay on Frankenheimer to Masters of Cinema’s essential Blu-ray edition of SECONDS. This was subject to oversight by Paramount’s lawyers, who are strangely fussy creatures — they objected to my harsher words about some of Frankenheimer’s lesser works. To my surprise and wicked pleasure, though, the overall gist of the piece escaped their notice — in comparing Frankenheimer to the protagonist of SECONDS, I suggested that he had cut him off from his authentic self and become a hollow shell, making empty films whose most compelling subject matter is their own emptiness. In this regard, RONIN is a brilliant summation.

The whole plot revolves around this shiny box, a pure MacGuffin whose contents are never revealed (doubtless they glow when the box is opened, but it never is). By the end, it even transpires that the box is itself irrelevant, a decoy for an assassin, not what the plot was revolving around at all. And the title, meaning masterless samurai, patiently explained by Michael Lonsdale (yay! Michael Lonsdale!), turns out not to be an honest description of the protagonist. An empty film about emptiness, with Frankenheimer even reprising his shots of boxes and corpses montage from THE TRAIN, which he would re-reprise in his very next film.


The jarring note is the end, where some idiot has decided the film SHOULD, after all, be about something, and has dubbed in a radio broadcast alleging that the plot had something to do with the Northern Ireland peace process. So all that carnage was in a good cause. This is completely unacceptable — I kind of respected the movie’s ruthlessness in staging shoot-outs and car chases on the streets in which innocents are casually mown down and blown up. I accepted that this was a dog-eat-dog, amoral world we were being shown. To now try to argue that all this collateral damage is somehow JUSTIFIED in a HIGHER CAUSE is the work of a moral imbecile. It feels like a studio afterthought. On this second viewing I’m able to disregard the nonsense, but it throws Fiona for a loop, as does Jean Reno’s sudden internal monologue, which ends the picture. “He never had a voiceover before! What happened?”

“Somebody panicked,” I suggest. To make a truly hollow movie takes guts, something Frankenheimer had.

Hamburger Hill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by dcairns


When I first began to read film reviews regularly, back in the eighties (gasp), a puzzlement was the high regard that (male) British critics had for figures like Clint Eastwood, John Milius and Walter Hill. A puzzlement because (a) the films didn’t seem to me to be that good and (b) the macho, what we would now call libertarian ethos (Hill & Milius I think called themselves right-wing anarchists) seemed like it would probably contrast fairly strongly with the politics and personalities of newsprint critics writing for The Guardian or The Independent or even The Sunday Times.

Allowing for simple variations in taste and that maybe I was just missing something, there could wel be a sort of nostalgia for the man’s-man drectors of the forties and fifties, who made some really excellent films, on which those critics were weaned. So maybe, if you’re starved on Ford and Hawks in the current releases, you would be more inclined to embrace Milius and Hill as the best available substitutes. But if the films are RED DAWN and EXTREME PREJUDICE, isn’t it a rather unsatisfying feast?

But having recently been blown away by DILLINGER, I get a better sense of the redeeming qualities of these gruff, cigar-chomping sociopath types. And Hill’s HARD TIMES, though not in the same league, is not bad. Handsome damn film, in fact.


Maybe there’s a weakness in the ending – basically bare-knuckle fighter Charles Bronson never loses a fight in the whole movie, which does eat away at the sense of jeopardy. Still, I felt undeniable tension at times. Maybe it’s not a question of jeopardy, so much as a feeling that if the good guys win, it neutralizes the title and robs the film of a sense of purpose. The all-round happy ending says “Everything’s fine!” in a way that bothers me. It ain’t CHINATOWN.


Still, the Coburn/Bronson voluble/taciturn double act is fine, and Strother Martin as “Poe” — supposedly a relative and certainly a fellow spirit of the famed writer — is a joy. Maybe Coburn is too cool to convince as, basically, a loser, with great dreams but a weakness for cards. Coburn is always effective on screen but not always complex — Peckinpah could muster some confusion and inner conflict, but I didn’t buy him as self-destructive here, except for plot reasons.

But I was impressed by how Melvillian it all was – Bronson in his hideous apartment with his stray cat – it’s clear that Melville was inspired heavily by THIS GUN FOR HIRE in which Alan Ladd gives milk to a cat, leading to Alain Delon’s canary in LE SAMOURAI. I wondered if Hill & co were also thinking of the milk & kitten motif in Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD, and given that James Coburn’s character here is called Weed, I think they probably were. What a complex interlacing of influences is at work!


LOVE Bronson’s apartment.

The Late Show 2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by dcairns

It continues — here’s where I’ll post links to blog posts in The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon. This post will stay at the top, if I can figure out how to do that, with my own entries appearing — slowly — down beneath it.

Late Losey — M KLEIN, today.

Diarmid Mogg, author of my favourite movie speciality blog, The Unsung Joe, weighs in on one of Hollywood’s forgotten men, John Ince (brother of the more famous Thomas and Ralph), here. It’s an eye-opener!

For Shadowplay, David Melville continues his alphabetical survey of Mexican melodrama with LA GENERALA, the last film of Maria Felix.

Ben Alpers on MOONRISE, my favourite late Borzage — maybe my favourite Borzage.

Gareth comes up trumps with another Melville piece — UN FLIC stars Delon and is cool as ice.

Late Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? Are you sure? Wanna make something of it?

HUGO receives tender loving care from Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, who suggested the idea of this blogathon over dinner in Brooklyn. And HUGO is not only the latest film from a senior film artist, but a film about the Autumn years of a great filmmaker. Go here, at once.

At the ever-excellent Gareth’s Movie Diary, LE CERCLE ROUGE is the topic of the day — late Melville, late Bourvil, and a terrific piece.

I try to tackle one of the trickiest entries in Richard Lester’s career, his last fiction feature, whose modest virtues are forever overshadowed by an on-set tragedy — THE RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS.

Over at the excellent Robert Donat site, Gill Fraser Lee assesses THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, mid-period Mark Robson, but Donat’s last film, made when he was extremely ill. This is a thoughtful and deeply moving piece and I’m proud I nudged Gill towards writing it (but also a little guilty). Boy! This kind of piece makes this whole blogathon thing worthwhile.

It suddenly occurred to me, after watching and loving HUGO, to wonder about Georges Melies last film — the story of his career’s end was well known to me, but I hadn’t looked at anything from the very end of his career. So I did.

My own first entry approaches LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a late-ish George Cukor I really enjoyed, with fine late-ish performances by Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean looks at The Great Mastroianni’s last bow, in Manoel de Oliveira’s VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD (below).

David Ehrenstein proves that great minds think alike with THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW (above and here).

The ball got rolling with two late Ken Russells from the late Ken Russell, over at Brandon’s Movie Memory here and here.