Archive for Jean-Pierre Melville

Great Brain Robbery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2021 by dcairns

RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo.

We had just watched Michael Crichton’s best film, THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, which I’d been surprised to find on DVD in a charity shop (movies from 1978 or earlier are rare, except the very obvious ones), and then Belmondo’s passing prompted me to dig out THE BRAIN/LE CERVEAU (1969), a big-budget splashy caper comedy by Gerard Oury (who had just scored a massive hit in his homeland with LE GRAND VADROUILLE). And since the Brain, international master-criminal extraordinaire, is played by David Niven, it tied in with our weekend viewing of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

So, Crichton first. his Victorian heist movie was called simply THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in America, heedless of Edwin S. Porter, but had a FIRST interpolated in the UK to avoid confusion with the 1963 robbery of the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train, which was still a legendary job here. And, funnily enough, that real-life robbery is credited to the Brain in Oury’s film, even though several of the actual thieves had been nabbed by ’69.

Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie-Anne Down are Crichton’s conspirators, briefly aided by Wayne Sleep, master of parkour (in reality a dancer who enjoyed a burst of fame just after this movie). The target is gold bullion used to pay the British troops in the Crimea. the The gimmick is that nobody at this this time had robbed a moving train.

With Geoffrey Unsworth shooting it, the film looks dandy, with Irish locations (Dublin mainly) augmented by skillful matte paintings and the whole thing is elevated hugely by Jerry Goldsmith’s jaunty score — the man understood the romance of steam trains and put that romance into musical form very purely. And the climactic sequence, with Connery doing a lot of his own stunts on top of a locomotive, is everything it needs to be.

It’s interesting to reflect that Crichton’s odd career — medical doctor, novelist, film director, then back to novels (which regularly became films by other people) — culminated in an even odder spree as climate change denier, in which Crichton tried to parlay his medical experience into some kind of expertise in a field he knew nothing about. (The only thing that could have made Crichton’s life odder is if Nic Roeg had followed up his first impulse to cast the very tall 6″ 9 non-actor as Thomas Jerome Newton in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Crichton also created the TV show E.R., an early example of prestige television which it seems nobody now talks about.) This is vaguely relevant here solely because T(F)GTR is a very mercenary film, and I recall Crichton being asked by an interviewer about the consequences for our children if he was wrong, and global termperatures WERE being forced up. He replied, strangely, by asking in turn what if he were right, and we lost a lot of money by trying to tackle climate change? Which struck my as a really strange thing to put in the balance, as if greater wealth were as important as survival.

“All you care about is money,” says Leslie-Anne Down.

“All anyone cares about is money,” says Connery.

There’s a thesis to be written about the popularity of the heist movie in the swinging sixties — the genre slowly gathered steam from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING and RIFIFI, but became almost ubiquitous in the flower power era, even though the unrestrained capitalist impulse would seem incompatible at first glance with free love and all that. Evidently it was VERY compatible. I guess you have the demise of the Hays Code, so “crime must not pay” goes out the window; you have a generation questioning authority; and law and order thrown into disrepute by a second prohibition, that of recreational drugs. And the hippies were not indifferent to money, just hostile to the rat race. And so now we have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the muppets.

Anyway, Oury’s THE BRAIN posits two rival gangs after the same target, the secret wealth of NATO. France had temporarily dropped out of NATO, it seems, so Belmondo, energetic and optimistic as ever, sees nothing wrong in pilfering from the remaining nations, and his dour compatriot Bourvil is persuaded to join him.

(If you want a triple-bill, the third entry should be Melville’s THE RED CIRCLE, with Bourvil as a cat-loving detective and yet another train heist, this time staged with Thunderbirds-style miniatures.)

Meanwhile Niven’s Brain is secretly the officer in charge of security and is planning to filch the sacks of cash himself. This being the sixties, he lives in an opulent mod apartment and keeps a pet leopard. He briefs his team with an animatic showing how the robbery will work. Fiona: “I love that he’s gone to the trouble of making an animated film!” Me: “It’s rotoscoped, so he’s gone to the trouble of shooting it all in live action and then animating on top of it!”

Complications, as they say, ensue: Sicilian money-launderer Eli Wallach wants a bigger cut, and his virginal young sister Silvia Monti wants Niven. This film is silly. There’s a lot of very broad slapstick. The train robbery is mostly covered via process shots, so Belmondo doesn’t perform many of the incredible Keatonesque/Jackie Chan stunts you can see in THE MAN FROM RIO, LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOIS EN CHINE, FEAR OVER THE CITY, LE CASSE, but it’s all very lavish and undemanding. The opening title sequence drops every sixties special effect on the cutting room floor and tramples them into a fine paste.

THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY stars James Bond; Klute; Dr. Eileen Flax; Master Shallow; Lord Hibbott – Wedding Two; Night Porter; Miss Moneypenny; Esther Waters; Drogue; Lady Felicity: The Palace; Professor Bernard Quatermass; and Mr. Sugden.

THE BRAIN stars Louis-Dominique Bourguignon alias Cartouche; Sir James Bond; Un drogué; Tuco Juan Maria Ramirez, known as The Rat; Miss Milbanke; Lord Henry Wotton; and Le Sergent Mac Fish.

Red Detour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 14, 2020 by dcairns

A choice of viewing for my students and anyone else interested: DETOUR, directed by Edgar Ulmer and written by Martins Goldsmith and Mooney, available on YouTube, and LE CERCLE ROUGE, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

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I’ll probably discontinue these shortly — keeping the students engaged long-distance with anything other than the central coursework the need to pass — which they’re all doing fine with — is proving impossible, and I don’t feel I should be guilt-tripping them on top of everything else that’s going on. So it may be up to you, the Shadowplayers, to fill my comments section.

Run and Gun

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2019 by dcairns

Humm, thought I’d already published this…

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THIS GUN FOR HIRE is, on the one hand, the first version of Melville’s LE SAMOURAI. It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (retitled This Gun for Hire in America: the credits seek to reinforce this literary connection even as the screenplay departs from the book in key ways). And a star-making turn for Alan Ladd, who is very, very good in it, in a seriously unusual leading man/villain role. Unusual when Delon did it, pretty well unique when Laddie took it on.

Greene was always rather snooty about the film, criticising the decision to make Veronica Lake’s character a singing magician, as if that was too ridiculous for words. But he’s the one who had the girlfriend of the detective hunting a killer happen to get on a train with the killer and end up kidnapped by him. Screenwriters W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar source novels) and Albert Maltz do try to iron that wrinkle out by making Lake also a secret agent, so that both she and Ladd are trailing the same man (lovely Laird Cregar).

But the first ten minutes of the film are worth concentrating on, I think. Director Frank Tuttle, assisted by ace noirmeister John F. Seitz as cameraman, creates a whole succession of iconic images —

Ladd is supposed to have a childhood injury, a badly-healed broken wrist, a good, ugly makeup effect by Wally Westmore. Ladd and Tuttle do everything they possibly can to make you notice the affected limb in this sequence — and none of it works.

It’s very strangely. I think it’s because it’s simply too soon for us to be interested in this man’s wrist. In a wide shot, we notice that Ladd carries his arm oddly, but we don’t perceive the jutting bone. In close-ups of hand action, we notice what his hands are DOING, not what they or their attendant arms are like. Later, a newspaper prints a picture of his arm and we go UGH! And next time we see him, we notice it.

I think the boxy low angles, emphasizing the ceiling, feed directly into Melville’s rather jerky trombone shot which opens LE SAMOURAI, in which Delon’s basement apartment seems to expand and contract. This happens because (a) Melville had decided that his protagonist, “Jeff Costello,” is schizophrenic, and (b) he hasn’t done any actual research about what that means.

Alan Ladd’s character is at least as schizophrenic as Delon’s. In the conventional, incorrect sense of having a divided personality. We’re about to see Delon carry out a hit, and here we see him going over the paperwork and preparing his handgun — and we know he’s a hood because cops don’t live in apartments like this in movies, and who else carries a gun?

Then he tenderly feeds a kitten.

The San Francisco newspaper is a nice scene-setting detail, but do we really notice it in the midst of our “Awwwlookadakitty!”* moment? Doesn’t matter, detail is both good and necessary. Anyway, whenever I use the Pauline Kael “we,” to talk about what does or doesn’t get noticed, remember that on the big screen, “we” would notice a lot more.

Anyway, having the tough, crooked anti-hero give milk/cream to a cat is a Sternberg moment — the Paramount thriller is still, in 1942, indebted to UNDERWORLD, whose screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by this sentimental detail. Sternberg claimed credit for the idea, saying he wanted to show his hero/villain had a good heart, and implying that such broad brushstrokes were essential if you wanted to get through to the mainstream audience. He was sort of contemptuous of the audience and the approach, but not of his own cleverness in manipulating both.

Enter the slattern! A memorable turn by Pamela Blake, later a wide-eyed B-western heroine. Would it be too much to ask for a whole movie about this vulgar bitch-goddess. She enters, is mean to the cat, and Ladd slaps her and tears her top (adding a sexual tinge to his violence which doesn’t mean seem to mean anything, it’s just for titillation).

So we learn that ordinary people are nasty, and that this killer is in a way more sensitive than regular civilians.

Ladd leaves, there’s a quick exterior of his rooming house, the movie resists the impulse to show us Those Damn Hills, and then Ladd has a disturbing encounter with a little disabled girl in the stair of his target.

She’s meant to remind us of him, because of his wrist, but the effect is subtler, pleasingly mysterious, because “we” haven’t noticed his damn wrist.

The target: initially suspicious, then quite friendly. He offers Ladd coffee and cookies. Ladd actually eats the cookie of the man he’s about to snuff! That’s a clear violation of the rules of hospitality. If you’re going to kill a man you have to refuse all cookies.

Unexpectedly, a woman is present: the target’s “secretary.” The headline will read CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED. Ladd is discomfited by this complication, but is able to complete his appointed task when the squeal of the kettle summons the “secretary” away.

*Copyright Glenn Kenny.

It’s another great room. Production design is by an uncredited Lynd Ward according to IMDb, who provide no other credits for this mystery man. Art direction is credited to the usual Hans Dreier & Robert Usher. This is a more salubrious joint than Ladd’s flophouse, but John Seitz’s low-key lighting makes all the settings a bit grubby. Even Veronica Lake’s eventual appearance can’t illuminate every shadow.

Look, the wrist! But I’m telling you, we don’t clock it yet. The blackmailing chemist target asks to be paid, and Ladd reaches in his briefcase, where we saw him put his gun.

This moment is extended for suspense purposes, and we get a little smile from Ladd. He’s enjoying, in a slightly sexy way, the feeling of power and the dramatic irony of this cookie-dispensing chemist smiling in anticipation of getting paid when in reality he’s going to get a slug in the ticker. It’s a VERY unsympathetic bit of characterisation, but of course it positions Ladd right alongside us, the audience, in pleasurable anticipation of a less attractive character’s demise at the hands of a leading man.

The inevitable occurs.

The “secretary” appears in the kitchen doorway.

“They said he’d be alone,” says Ladd. His tone is quite harsh, but the impulse to make such a remark is a sort of apologetic one. An attempt to explain why your regrettable death must now be implemented. It’s like in GROSSE POINTE BLANK. “Why are you doing this?” is answered with “It’s not me.” Which does nothing. It does not reassure. It’s more upsetting than anything else. But the impulse is apologetic, and so the audience notes that in the character’s favour.

The “secretary” retreats to the kitchen, presumably blocks the door with her body, and Ladd shoots her through the door. The fact that we don’t get a shot from inside the kitchen denies us a view of her terror and denies us a little bit of empathy with the “wrong” character.

Ladd forces the door open to check her (unseen) body, with a series of grisly nudges later borrowed by Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE (Mandrake/Ripper sequence).

Ladd’s mission also includes picking up the documents involved in the blackmail scheme he’s just Gordian-unknotted. Hilariously, David Buttolph’s score goes into a kind of Morse Code at this point, because there are dots and dashes in the nonsense chemical formulae.

Ladd leaves, and has another Disturbing Encounter with the little girl. She asks him to retrieve a dropped ball. (What kind of monster gives a disabled child a ball to play with?) He pauses, reaches for his briefcase, then retrieves the ball (religiose music).

So we learn that he has a conscience, or a weakness. He’s wicked enough to CONSIDER killing a little disabled girl, because he knows she’s a witness. But good enough to reject the idea AND give her her ball back. (She’s only going to lose it again.)

Net result: hey, we LIKE this cold-blooded assassin!

That’s how it works, folks.