24 Heures de la Vie d’un Clown

Molière’s “terrible métier”. The act, Maïss et Beby (l’Admirable), home to the wife with Swing, “bon chrétien”, memories, histoires. Morning routine, sidewalk café, birth of a joke and a gag. To the “factory” for the performance.


Le Silence de la Mer

The very simplest thing is to consider it in the light of Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The Nazi mission in France is to obliterate France, body, soul and spirit. “Technical manuals, no literature.” A Nazi officer billeted on an old man and his niece discovers this while sojourning in Paris. There is nothing to compare it to, it is the reservoir most films on the subject empty into, before or since. He comes as an angel of light, the Avis of a Bekanntmachung, bidding the union of opposite minds take place. He falls into combat, disabused, enlightened.


Les Enfants Terribles

“Melville’s best film” (Truffaut, and we shall see what he makes of it), that seems to set everything off, dated 1950 not 1960. The drôle de ménage is defined peculiarly by Dargelos (hence Truffaut’s “hospital poetry”), who throws a snowball with an Agathe inside it. The defense of the realm is everywhere, Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Hutton’s X Y & Zee, the American Jew in Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini, of course there is Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and Tony Richardson. To speak about another film, Truffaut asks his readers to consider Cocteau’s realism, perfectly evident here.

Finally, a perfect understanding of Bach’s speaking drollery (the Weihnachts-Oratorium begins with a knock on the door and a giggle).


Quand tu liras cette lettre...

Thérèse and Max, the novice and the voyou.

The parallel structure has Thérèse and her younger sister Denise mirroring Max and his bellboy chum Robiquet, there are three movements.

Thérèse in the convent before her final vows, Max and the Hotel Carlton lady.

In the great central portion, on s’occupent de Denise.

Thérèse and Max unite at the last, l’amour c’est la mort.

The scene is Cannes, principally.

Excellent score by Bernard Peiffer, cinematography by Henri Alekan, screenplay by the author of Tovarich and Marie Galante.

Yvonne de Bray pops in from Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles for a memorable cameo in a railway carriage.


Bob le flambeur

The incomparable Melville opens with a skyline of bare trees and three lights, before panning left onto Montmartre and following a cable car down to the nighttown of Pigalle at sunup.

Pig Alley! A hot dog stand out of America, a nexus of charms in neon signs (“Les Naturistes, Sphinx, Narcisse”) amidst a world of suckers and the curious figure of M. Bob, attired like Fred MacMurray or Humphrey Bogart in trenchcoat and hat, as capable in the casino as Bond, a failure with a code to follow and a slot machine in his closet (also featured in The Twilight Zone).

Toujours l’audace, he cites, this robber of the Rimbaud Bank, habitué of Le Carpeaux, who must have seen Boetticher’s The Magnificent Matador (or vice versa), and certainly Casablanca, in this very recherché modulation of Pépé le Moko.

The central and pivotal work, yielding L’Ainé des Ferchaux by rearrangement of its elements, maintaining the birthplace and death scene, other material elsewhere, including Un Flic.

“There are several good ways to make French films. Italian style, like Renoir. Viennese, like Ophuls. New York, like Melville.” (Godard)


Deux hommes dans Manhattan

How can the French act on the world’s stage, Godard asks, when they can’t act?

Disappearance of the UN delegate.

Great performance by Melville as a rédacteur for Agence France-Presse, Guitry of the film noir. Last lamp burning... “it may not be too late, there may still be time.”

With a colleague and a camera, the title. “Cops? Dicks?”

The delegate’s mistresses.

Godard, Ten Best Films of the Year (with Bresson, Tazieff, Rouch, Franju, Renoir, Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol, Varda).

Daughter of Nelson, Capitol recording artist, Brooklyn burlesque beauty.

Chez E.D.D.I.E., “a French-Chinese atmosphere... forms of prostitution are a measure of civilization” (cp. L’Ainé des Ferchaux). Not since Murnau, Melville in America...

“Those Frenchies make me meshuggah.” The delegate, life and works. Relict.

The true story, Pike Slip Inn. Le vrai New York, with reference to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (cp. L’Armée des ombres).

A film strangely misunderstood by reviewers, Eleanor Mannikka (All Movie Guide) speaks of “foul play”, Time Out “a well-sustained, cheeky joke.”


Léon Morin

The domain of the Church. A very foolish young woman, partly educated by a parish priest. This is a sterling portrait by Belmondo, Riva has her reserves of femininity to back up the facile ninny. It is a flawless composition, a noli me tangere.

Reviewers have always been taken with this, carping ever so slightly. “Not an unqualified success,” says Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) speaking for them all, without qualification. Manohla Dargis (New York Times) has reference to “a muscular tease with a flattened nose.”


Le Doulos

The Avenue Mozart jewels float through a dual perspective. Maurice kills a fence who murdered Arlette (she had to go), buries the loot, does a safecracking job in Neuilly, someone calls the cops. His partner is shot, Maurice kills a detective. He’s questioned and detained, suspects Silien of fingering him.

Silien has found the informant, seen to her murder, tried to intervene in Neuilly. He digs up the loot, kills both partners in the Cotton Club, plants the jewels in their office safe (they killed each other), returns a packet of cash to Maurice.

During his detention, Maurice has met a thug named Kern who takes a contract from him to kill Silien. The truth told, Maurice goes to Ponthierry in hopes of canceling the contract, Kern shoots Maurice on Silien’s doorstep. Silien is warned in time, shoots Kern, who falls and fires once, hitting Silien square in the back. Silien adjusts his hat in a golden sunburst mirror and falls dead.

The dual line of thought gives rise to countless details that impinge one upon another to great effect. You have to decide. Die... or lie?” (“Il faut choisir. Mourir... ou mentir?”) Melville states the game early on by defining the fence’s house amid railroad scenery like Mrs. Lopsided’s in Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers.

Silien has only two close friends, a cop and a crook. He’s interrogated at police headquarters in a long take that follows the questioner’s line of thought around the room and always back to Silien.

Conventional phrases sound mysterious. “La totalité des bijoux” is buried next to a bec de gaz in a “terrain vague”.

Silien’s house is adorned with Frank Lloyd Wright wallpaper duplicating the ornamental bricks on square columns of the Ennis-Brown House, for example, in the Hollywood Hills. The disposition of the partners is repeated in Huston’s The Mackintosh Man.

The title signifies a hat and the wearer of it, “a police informant”, Melville explains in a prefatory note.

Transformation of the material (Bob le flambeur) toward L’Armée des ombres.


L’Ainé des Ferchaux

The idea is George Bellows to begin with. Simenon, Decae, Delerue. Die Millionen eines Gehetzten in the German version, which might be translated indulgently as Hectored Millions. “C’est un sale métier, tu sais?” Question of stock ownership, as later in Lumet’s Network, from Chayefsky.

A rotten line of country, you know. Hotel des Jumeaux. A Wellesian moment. Deux hommes, sans blague, dans Manhattan. Pilgrimage to Hoboken.

Points south. “Sheep, leopards, and jackals.” Pocketful of Miracles. Sinatra vs. Presley (Giant). Lolita. “A couple of traveling salesmen.” Long before Marcel Ophuls, “Pray for Peace” at Holiday Inn. George Washington National Forest.

Long before Louis Malle, Atlantic City. “Oh darling, don’t leave me! What’ll I do all alone?”

Eetch Ike.” Long before New Orleans, “the true South.” City of women, California champagne. Return bout.


Le Deuxième Souffle

The universe of Melville, the jailbreak (Le Cercle rouge), Bob le flambeur’s bar and nightclub, the caper (Un Flic). Marseilles hits Paris, Jacques le notaire, then a platinum shipment.

The beautiful camerawork tilts and pans and zooms in a constant flow where required (Le Doulos). Lino Ventura (L’Armée des ombres). Question of security (Le Samouraï). Blaze of glory.

“A solid gangster opus” (Variety). “One of the great eccentrics of the French cinema” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader). “Melville’s typical poetry” (Time Out), “his most elaborate and intricately plotted film noir.”


Le Samouraï

A professional hit man (Alain Delon) is wanted by his employers because he may have compromised them with the police. He is given a new contract to kill a witness, but when he goes to carry it out the police shoot and kill him. His gun is found to be empty.

Melville’s poetry is very long and tenuous strands of thought periodically cinched by logodædaly (when the payoff turns into a hit, the word CRUZ is visible on a sign—as the strands begin to hum, Delon enters a phone booth and the letters T É L É appear vertically on the screen) and tautened imperceptibly to the end.

The garage scenes are lighted to evoke Sekely’s Hollow Triumph. There is a tinge of He Walked by Night. Simple wipes are prevalent. A film plus-que-parfait, to prepare the perfection of L’Armée des ombres.

The girl in bed (Le Cercle rouge). Martey’s, later Santi’s.

Terrific film of Paris (Decae cameraman, exteriors), expanding on the notion of Bob le flambeur’s Montmartre.


L’Armée des ombres

Imprisoned in a camp intended for Germans, a room for German officers. “I appreciate that.”

Melville films the triumphal march. The cinematography is exquisite. A story so ridiculous it will not be repeated explains the digital restoration.

Danger de Mort”, a celebrated sign. The tricolore flag flies over the camp. One is betrayed, one is the police, one executes the traitor.

The asymmetrical opening shot recurs on another scene as the executioners part company, one to Free France in London and the other to German arrest at Lyons. Question of a return.

Transfini et Continu. Essai sur le problème du fondement des mathématiques. Remarques sur la formation de la théorie abstraite des ensembles (étude historique et critique). Sur la logique et la théorie de la science. Méthode axiomatique et formalisme.

Problem of the traitor and the arrested colleague. History of the section or group.

After nearly thirty years, it was shown in New York. “That rare work of art”, said Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, “that thrills the senses and the mind.” Shawn Levy (Portland Oregonian) spoke of “naïve idealism” (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone similarly found “moral confusion”). Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune), “a film masterpiece.” Anthony Lane (The New Yorker), “hands of a master.” Ty Burr (Boston Globe), “a personal work.” Stephen Hunter (Washington Post), “weirdly great.” J. Hoberman (Village Voice) put a flashlight to his face, “this really is an army of shadows. They are, all of them, dead men.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) quoted Kessel on Moulin.


Le Cercle rouge

A story ascribed to Rama Krishna (and actually outdoing Borges) has Gautama drawing a circle of red chalk where all men meet, whatever their destinies.

A unique formal device, borrowed from a gag in On the Town and again appropriated as an image in Shaft’s Big Score!, divides the film in three at Santi’s nightclub where chorus girls dance in blonde wigs, later as flappers, then as Africans (in their first avatar they resemble Alain Delon’s girlfriend, usurped while he took the rap).

The central shot of the Place Vendôme at night from a rooftop is very carefully achieved by preparing it with a long-lens insert of the Column, and by lengthily abstracting this film to the utmost, so that the robbers’ view acquires vast significance.

The heist has been described as meticulous. Yves Montand lets himself in by telling the concierge he is going to Plouvier, then must climb all the stairs to the top, remove his shoes, and walk back down again in his socks to complete the illusion. Melville films this verbatim.

Montand, playing a drunkard, is a police marksman who has to fire a specially-prepared bullet through an iron grille at a “wall key” activating the jewelry shop’s security system. He sets up his rifle on a tripod, carefully sights, and then in a swift homage to Cat Ballou snatches it up (startling his accomplices), aims and fires.

Bogart and Cagney are evoked early on, and in this latter scene Montand incarnates Bogart with trenchcoat and hat, filmed from a distance.

The opening scenes have their grandeur. A helicopter shot runs from a close-up of Bourvil at his train compartment window to a line across the landscape, the train. Gian Maria Volonté, crossing a stream ahead of a police line, strips to his underwear so as to be a Cézanne nude, if for no other reason.

In a defense of French justice, it is said and repeated that “all men are guilty,” because these American gangsters in their American cars are, after all, a translation.

Delon is released from prison and goes to see the man whose name he never divulged to the police, and who is sleeping with his girl. The fellow is glad to see him, regrets never having visited him in prison, offers a sizable sum “when the banks open, at nine.” Delon asks only for a few thousand, takes it forcibly and departs. The fellow places a call.

Delon now has torpedoes after him. Volonté is wanted by the police. Montand is saturated with guilt and booze so much that Melville films him in bed with snakes, lizards and rats, screaming.

Against them is Bourvil, who is seen at home feeding his three plump cats, and then again just before the trap is laid (it combines the various strands), to show he is a man of routine.

The austerities and delicacy employed are of the rarest, visibly. The formal problems are intricate and very refined, and the implication is that the level of formal variety advanced by Maté in D.O.A. (the “detached-center maze”) is fully appreciated by Melville, as also the characteristic progressions of Welles, among others (here, Volonté-Delon-Montand, but also and by extension Bourvil in the police hierarchy). The excellent side thrusts at Santi, pressured by the police and by the mob, are a development from Touch of Evil.

Nièpce is paid homage as a formal indicator. Sakyamuni whirls about in the opening shot like Edgar Wallace.

Red circle of chalk on the end of a billiard cue (two white balls, one red).

Again, the mirror or twin structure (the torpedoes “kill each other”, as at the Cotton Club in Le Doulos).

Un homme redoutable.”

Santi’s, from Bob le flambeur, Simon’s in Un Flic.

The “lever of love” (L’Armée des ombres).


Un Flic

Vidocq, “ambiguity” of the watering hole shared by the title character and a hoodlum, “derision” of the latter’s two-pronged perfect crime.

Then there is the transvestite police informer “cruising the streets,” not in the know.

The robbery of a beachfront bank at the height of winter for capital (construction payrolls) to heist a heroin shipment and sell it back.

Splendid Hotel. Arc de Triomphe.

Janet Maslin (New York Times) could not follow the plot (“will never be explained”) and so the acting went for “affectlessness” in her review of the belated New York run (as Dirty Money).

“Not among Melville’s classics,” writes Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times). Simon Abrams of the Village Voice hams it up per specifications, “Paris is purgatory; the city’s silvery-blue, halogen-lit miasma is a fact of life.” Keith Uhlich outstrips him, there is no other word for it, in Time Out, “a soul-shattering illusion.” Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader) underbids, “a murky disappointment.”