Jean-Paul Belmondo: Up To His Ears, Le Magnifique, The Professional

Because of his meteoric ascension in Breathless, patterning his insouciant hoodlum on the Hollywood image of Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo is easily identified with his predecessor. He was a tough guy — gladly so — and he offered up a long line of memorable performances over a stellar career.

Pierrot Le Fou (Godard) and Le Doulos (Melville) quickly spring to mind, but then you only have to look at something like Leon Morin, Priest, where he plays the eponymous clergyman, to recognize the range he was capable of.

In honor of his career, we wanted to highlight three of his later action films. They are not his most acclaimed pictures, but they are defined by his legacy so it seems fitting to acknowledge them.

Up To His Ears (1965)

Up to His Ears is cut out of the same cloth as Philippe de Broca’s prior film with Belmondo from the year before: That Man from Rio. It’s a globetrotting picture all across the orient with madcap chase sequences and quite a few attempts at Bond-like intrigue.

Overall, it bends more toward dated gags and goofy antics than out-and-out thrills, and it seems mostly content with this. When they flee an onslaught of Chinese gangsters, Belmondo and company sneak down into a pillbox, down to an underground tunnel, and on and on. There always seems to be a fortuitous out for them.

If their good fortune and the fact they aren’t completely annihilated seems farfetched, then you don’t understand the ambitions of the film. It’s all sendup. Belmondo seems to be enjoying himself, and his adventures lead to a desert island with Ursula Andress. He can’t believe his luck.

Obviously, the movie cannot quite muster the same glory as That Man from Rio, but Belmondo is still a great action hero able to play the crazy comedic moments and still move through space with vim and vigor. It ain’t Godard, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3/5 Stars

Le Magnifique (1973)

Also known as Our Man in Acapulco, and its dashing hero, Bob Saint-Clar (Jean-Paul Belmondo) feels like an amalgamation of ’70s era Bond (Moore and Connery) with a lot of Get Smart thrown in for taste.

Philippe de Broca’s at the helm again offering up some of the most self-reflexive parodies of the hypermasculine, suave international spy genre. It pulls out all the comic book scenarios — with dastardly villains et al. — and the resolutions, seeing our hero always prevail. He must live to fight another day.

Broca himself readily contributed to this spy phenomenon during the ’60s with Belmondo to boot. However, it’s so over-the-top to the point of being offputting. Then, we realize our secret agent is being dreamed up by a hack writer, named Francois (also Belmondo) on a strict deadline!

Suddenly it breathes new life into the premise with a renewed perspective, and these long-trod pulp-bound conventions become only part of the gimmick and, hence, only part of its appeal. Not to be outdone, he’s taken the English sociology student (Jacqueline Bisset), who lives across the way and dreamt her into his story as the beautiful Tatiana. His supervillain is none other than his own pompous editor (Vittorio Caprioli).

We’ve followed his story umpteen times before. Although he writes pulp trash for a rapt audience of many, his active imagination all but compensates for a fairly nondescript private life. He’s got a bit of Walter Mitty in him. In the most fated of meet-cutes, Christine (Bisset) accidentally picks up one of his works and finds herself instantly inspired for her college thesis.

Soon she’s dropping by to blow through whole shelves of his novels. And then the idealized man dreamed up on the page, must take a stand in his own life. For what it is — plagued by many of the shortcomings of its genre and the era — I can’t help but appreciate Le Magnifique.

It mostly comes down to Belmondo’s dual role and his rapport with Bisset. Again, they’re having palpable fun taking it over the top, and like any great screen icon, Belmondo gets the girl — twice.

3.5/5 Stars

The Professional (1981)

It feels like your prototypical dated ’80s blockbuster replete with gratuitous violence, a rogue’s gallery of heavies with all the other corny ingredients mixed in together. Belmondo is an agent, undercover in an African country, prepared to assassinate their leader only to be drugged and sent to a labor camp.

He escapes and ultimately returns to France as a kind of rogue operative on the lam. His former superiors want to do away with him, but he’s always one step ahead. He’s not going to be eliminated that easily.

Although it’s not a Bond movie, there are pretty girls, and he seems to know them all intimately all while slinking around to preserve his own skin and complete his objective. Belmondo is undeniable, handling everything from fisticuffs, stunts, and seduction with his usual roguish charisma. He never takes himself too seriously. It’s as if he’s in on the joke of it all and enjoying himself in each individual moment.

The final car chase changes my whole verdict of the picture because it really does take my breath away. It’s yet another showcase for Belmondo the consummate action hero, effectively taking the film by the horns and really living and breathing the part.

While the score isn’t prototypical Ennio Morricone, it gained a new life and legacy in The Professional. He receives what might be termed the briefest of homages as the film’s main leitmotif comes to life between crosscut closeups of its hero and villain a la Leone. It’s like a mini showdown transposed to the world of French secret agents.

There is so much of Bourne here beyond the car chase, and it comes down to the inexplicable predicament of the protagonist. He is thrown into a world that is not right-side-up, and his only choice is holding fast to what he knows. He’s smart and cunning, making a real go of it.

But sometimes the world in all its order and pragmatism doesn’t make a shred of sense. At least, to the very last minute, Belmondo looks cool doing his job. In a movie like this, surely that’s all that matters. Adieu, Jean-Paul. Thank you for what you gave us.

3.5/5 Stars

Pale Flower (1964): A Stylish Japanese Noir

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The images aren’t unfamiliar to those acquainted with Japan’s metropolis. A voice surmises over images of the bustling train station. “Back in Tokyo. 3 years. It makes my head spin. Why are so many people crammed into cage-like boxes?”

I couldn’t agree more with our narrator. The sentiments aren’t lost on me from my time living abroad and riding those very same trains with some of those same people. However, he goes further still.

They are strange animals, their faces lifeless — even dead. Later on, he equates step-fathers with pigs and young lovers in a darkened movie theater are much the same. His is quite the high view of humanity. If all of this feels detached and unequivocally unfeeling, then you’ve caught on to the despondency at the core of Pale Flower.

We realize we are in the presence of some sort of present-day philosopher. Of course, Muraki ((Ryō Ikebe) just happens to be a member of one of the local Yakuza gangs. This is his turf. Someone has died since then — someone he killed — but otherwise, nothing has changed. It’s the same place he left during his stint in prison. He returns to the gambling dens to seek out the former crowd.

What’s immediately apparent about Pale Flower, at least from a visual perspective, is the texture of the images. They are pristine and drop-dead gorgeous if generally detached. They come off as silky smooth as their protagonist, who sits down with the other gamblers just like old times catching the eye of a lucky young woman (Mariko Kaga) with quite a winning streak.

Already, it gives off the smoky, self-assured vibes of an old Paul Newman or Steve McQueen movie — something like The Hustler or the Cincinnati Kid — films that had atmosphere and residual cool in spades.

It starts with our hero Muraki. If he’s a little of Newman, he might be a bit of Robert Mitchum too with a cigarette perched between his lips. Or he’s casually walking the streets in his shades like a mature Alain Delon. In a word, it’s the kind of confidence you don’t teach. It feels like it’s been inbred.

As a filmmaker, Masahiro Shinoda displays a few of the same characteristics. Some of his shot selections are awesome feats quickly garnering appreciation. I would be remiss not to mention an overhead shot of all the players gathered around the gambling table, a bold portrait of visual symmetry. It requires a resolute confidence in what your frames have to offer on their own merit.

Recently, I watched Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of The Beast, and it showcases a very different kind of artistry. He willfully blows through all the rules with a blatant disregard and bombastic energy verging on the absurd. This is his calling card throughout his most well-received offerings like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.

Shinoda’s film takes an entirely different approach, sliding casually through conventions without ever losing their sense of cool. Both give us defining portraits of yakuza cinema, but there’s a seriousness even a solemnity present that carries through, down to the black & white imagery. Suzuki would rarely be caught dead with such dourness. Here it works.

It’s also totally reinforced and enhanced by its use of sound, whether clocks, flowing water, clacking tiles, whatever it may be — there’s something about the cadence adding a pace and an innate rhythm to the beats of the story. They’re not always fast, but there is a purposeful confidence in them as they move from one to another. And sometimes, there’s silence — just street noise or feet clopping — other times the bold screeches and scrapes of the score.

If we’ve skimped on plot, it’s because Pale Flower doesn’t necessarily need much to remain effective. Aside from gambling houses, Muraki can be found at the racetrack or paying a visit to his old boss — an unassuming, aging man who takes frequent trips to the dentist.

Coming back, the faithful mobster has come to realize some things have changed in his absence. The two-sided gang war serving as the bulwark of the underworld now has a third party from Osaka complicating the works as they gain ground.

He’s also got a girl waiting for him — a girl who loves him — even as a sensible salaryman asks for her hand in marriage, and Muraki gets distracted by so many things. There’s his work and then other women. For one, Saeko the doe-eyed baby-faced beauty leaves quite an impression wherever she goes. Maybe that’s what happens in an entirely paternalistic society. Regardless, Muraki takes particular interest in her.

She, for one, is young and totally bored with life, riding the highs of gambling, although they can never get quite high enough. One is reminded of the compulsive steadily rising addiction and gambler’s fallacy at the center of Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels.

Still, Saeko needs something else. She’s insatiable. When she can’t gamble anymore, she lets herself get carried away racing down the highways — drunk on adrenaline — and when that still doesn’t satisfy, she needs something more to get off on. She and Muraki in some ways are alike. Up to a point.

He scoffs at the ghostly-faced gangster Yoh. He’s a sleazy dope addict, who always sits in the corner like a gaunt specter. His brand of small-time criminal is a far cry from what Muraki knows. Saeko is drawn to him because he is a concrete gateway to drugs, her latest hobby.

Then, one day Muraki’s ambushed by a young punk at a bowling alley, and he proceeds to beat him to a pulp as other thugs drag him off to the tranquil melody of “Mona Lisa” playing the loudspeakers. It means very little to him even as he considers the cause of the pitiful retribution.

He opens up to the girl. I killed a man I had no reason to kill. It was just a business matter; his number came up. He felt the same exhilaration in the act of violence. It made him feel alive. Now he plays cards because what else is there to do? It’s as defeatist as it is depressing.

At the same time, Muraki’s not the most charismatic figure. He’s not about to be a PR man or make amends for past grievances. It’s not his style even as he’s called on to fill in for the boss in their latest business proposition.

However, this is not all that unnerves him. There’s an eery confrontation in a back alleyway showcasing the apogee of the film’s style. He has nightmares about Saeko, feeling more protective of her than ever. Worst yet, their cohort Tamaki is knifed.

The boss calls out his men. Someone needs to avenge the death of their own and everyone’s hesitant to take on the job. It falls on the shoulders of the one man who is a traditionalist — unswerving in his devotion to duty, honor, and all those unflinching codes.

Very rarely does it feel like the plot is imposing its will on the movie. Much of what Shinoda is doing is not only an exhibition in style but totally invested in creating a tactile world. This allows the pervasive worldview and the characters to dictate what we spend our time seeing and doing.

Gambling, driving fast cars, smoking, and throwing around a bit of shop talk in bars and backrooms. There’s not much to it on paper, but you have to witness it to really appreciate what’s being accomplished.

Even in the lingering moments, we begin to realize we’ve very rarely seen Muraki do anything. Instead, it’s his reputation that proceeds him, including his three-year jail sentence. And yet to watch him in his natural habitat, there is a certain dignity and undoubtedly a kind of code dictating his life. He feels beholden to something.

His final actions are as dutiful as they are fated. He knows what he is going to do, and the scene gives way to what feels like a choreographed dance, playing to the music as only a Yakuza film could pull it off. It’s gut-busting and shocking as a solemn final coda to the film. In some perverse way, it’s his final passionate offering to Saeko. And there is obviously a consequence.

He pays for his crime with another stretch. While he’s on the inside he hears the news. Saeko is dead. His pale flower gone. Muraki’s nightmare proves more prophetic than he’d ever wish to acknowledge. And why should it matter now? It doesn’t. It makes no difference who she was. Life cannot be redeemed by a few all-encompassing words. Not “Rosebud” nor “Pale Flower.”

After all, life is, in the words of the characters, “pointless.” For those folks lifeless on the train. For the young women deadened by drugs. For the gangsters beholden to a code and a lifestyle that feels so senseless. It’s noir sentiments laid bare in the heart of Japan.

4/5 Stars

Drive a Crooked Road (1954): A Malibu Sunshine Noir

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“On a clear day, you can see Catalina.”

Drive a Crooked Road might best be labeled as a So-Cal sunshine noir, and it easily has a place at the counter next to Shack Out on 101 and equally grubby fare.

Because under the right circumstances, it’s easy to see how Mickey Rooney could make a darn good noir protagonist. Like one of the genre stalwarts — Elisha Cook Jr. — he’s small in stature. Visually, he’s a bit of a pipsqueak and if you strip away his typical magnetism, the confidence, and charisma of a lifelong entertainer, there’s something quite fragile and forlorn there.

Rooney, for all his successes and the serpentine nature of his career, does himself credit here, reinventing his image once more. Eddie Shannon is the kind of guy who gets stepped on his entire life and takes it. He’s a lowly mechanic with far-off dreams of racing a European job at Le Mans. His other prominent feature is the scar on his forehead as if to mark him as a kind of social outcast.

Admittedly, his life is nothing more than fixing cars by day and going back home at night to a mantle lined with childhood trophies. It’s as if they’re compensation, a way of telling himself he is a big deal after all as he kicks back on his bed.

I won’t make any claims that the actor-turned-director Richard Quine is a virtuoso hand, but I do enjoy a handful of his films with varying themes. What draws together some of the better ones are his collaborators. Kim Novak made a startling debut in another sordid noir of the same year Pushover. Then, he had a good many collaborations with both Bill Holden and Jack Lemmon, just to name a few.

What Drive The Crooked Road shows off is his substantial collaborations with future mainstream directing giant Blake Edwards. Rooney, a fellow youth actor, was a holdover from their days together working on the screen as some of the industry’s promising talent. The greatest joy is how it shuns the prevailing song-and-dance, happy-go-lucky entertainment they normally stuck their name to and gladly takes a divergent path.

As good a place as any to start is with a femme fatale (Dianne Foster). She comes by the repair shop one day to get her car fixed up. That could be the end of it, but she has other plans. So Eddie pays the good-looking dame Matthews a house call.

It’s immediately apparent she’s shamelessly flaunting herself. First, on the lawn then, hanging over the side of her convertible, and finally, right next to him as he digs under the hood. Barbara makes her presence known, as it were, and she has total command of the scene.

This perceptible dynamic is so crucial as is Rooney’s diffident performance if the story’s to come off. How visibly uncomfortable he feels being around her — making eye contact with her flirtations — as she chats him up on the way to sunbathing above Malibu. It implicitly coaxes him out to the water’s edge.

Because even as his whole existence is uncomfortable in her very presence, he desperately wants someone as beautiful as her to give him the time of day. The fact she actually paid him notice gives him hope.

If it’s not obvious already, this bit of come-hither interplay devolves into a not so unfamiliar ploy used most definitively in Scarlet Street. Edward G. Robinson’s Christopher Cross was a suffocating nobody as well with nothing but his art. Kitty (Joan Bennet) exploits him for all he’s worth on the behest of her boyfriend (Dan Duryea).

In Barbara Matthews’s case, she’s operating on behalf of her major love interest, the dashing and charismatic, if generally despicable cad, Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). He and his smart-aleck buddy (Jack Kelly), don’t immediately strike one as a criminal types. And yet their high-living, bon vivant ways, and impatience with the normal tenets of capitalism cause them to buck the system.

They’re looking to rob a bank, a handy joint they scoped out while spending their summer vacation in Palm Springs. You could say the crime fits the criminals. The only problem is a driver. They need someone to navigate the windy backroads from Palm Springs to San Diego. Someone with handles who can help them make a quick getaway since time is of the essence. That’s why they called on Barbara to reel Eddie in.

However, she’s the only one to realize what is really happening. They label him like all the rest as an ugly little guy, a lonesome little animal; and it’s true by the world’s prognostications. But Matthews sees more being around him. There’s an earnestness, a candor in how he interacts with her.

She calls it devotion, a terrible kind of worship because he’s fallen for her irrevocably hook, line, and sinker. It’s pretty much instantaneous since the first moment she ever gave him the time of day. He’s not a normal mark; he’s completely given himself over to him, totally vulnerable. One can only imagine what he might do if he finds out he’s just a sucker.

Of course, her conspirators fail to heed her warnings. After all, what could a born loser do to them? So Eddie comes aboard, brought into their confidence, initially hesitant until Barbara leverages everything so he thinks he’s doing this for her. 15,000 smackers could do a lot for them. He studies their home movies religiously in an effort to gain a lay of the land in preparation for game day. Once more, he’s devoted because he thinks she wants this. It’s not for himself but to earn her affections.

Again, Barbara is overcome by misgivings about the entire operation. In her own way, she tries to give him a way out — knowing where they are headed listening to Eddie’s big talk about driving better than he ever has, doing the job so he can get the money she wants. He couldn’t see he’s being played unless he was hit in the head with it. That’s what it takes.

One of the greatest investments of the film really comes with Foster’s performance. Because at first, she feels like a prototypical noir vamp, merciless in how she uses her feminine wiles, and yet, if we can coin the phrase, she is a tender femme fatale.

Take, for instance, one scene where Eddie makes an impromptu house call to see her. They’re supposed to stay apart for the good of the mission and still, he cannot bear to be away from her. She comes out into the living room, closing the bedroom door to meet him.

At first, I thought she closed her door behind her to cover up something — maybe a male visitor lurking behind. But it’s simpler than that, even more innocent. Finally, Eddie leaves and she goes into her bedroom and cries. Whereas Kitty’s laughter was mistaken for tears in Scarlet Street, here the tears are real, there’s this conflicted tenderness present.

But of course, all this must be put on hold as the day of the bank robbery arrives. They make their best-laid plans, intercepting the route of the usual bank employee. In another quality creative decision a la Gun Crazy, we are forced to wait out the job from the getaway car with Eddie and Steve. It comes off without a hitch because it’s not primarily a heist film at all.

If that were the case, everything would need to go awry at this point. The question remains, Why do we hold off? Because the true pearl in the oyster is how the story is not solely about the tension of the bank robbery and whether they will succeed, though that becomes of great interest. Encompassing all of these genre elements is really the underlying character piece.

What will Eddie do? What will happen to him at the end of said crooked road when reality sets in and he finds out he’s been used. Because it’s not a question of if but when it will happen; eventually it does.

There’s the confrontation, the reveal, the turn of events. You’ll have to witness them for yourself. The images resonate most deeply with me. A car overturned on the beach, the tide lapping up against the shore in the background. There’s not a more fitting summation of the film’s juxtaposition of elements — that is sun-soaked, Malibu beachfront noir.

The final interludes bring to mind another paranoia piece of the atomic age, Kiss Me Deadly, and far from jumping off the deep end, Quine’s picture has its own misanthropic edge. Where the beach, shrouded in shadows, provides the perfect landscape for a devastating capitulation. It’s a testament to his core players, Rooney and Foster in particular. I’ll never look at Mickey Rooney the same way again.

3.5/5 Stars

Down By Law (1986): An Offbeat Jarmusch Noir

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A raspy vocal emanates from the screen verging on spoken word as it sings to a mambo-infused rhythm. Casual tracking shots lead us by the local architecture at the pace of a car ambling along on a Sunday afternoon. I only confirmed after the fact this is Tom Waits singing his tune “Jockey Full of Bourbon” from an earlier album.

These are the streets of Louisana, and the man helping to capture these glorious, sweeping shots is none other than Robby Muller (probably most famous for his work with Wim Wenders). His partnership with Jim Jarmusch was just being established and it would continue well into the ’90s.

This is the opening prelude of Down by Law if you will. Because the real intimate stretches of humanity — at least the ones dwelling in this story — can be found in the dirty, dilapidated interiors and on the sketchy street corners. It’s these bombed-out, grungy aesthetics giving the film its layers of instant character.

Muller’s cinematography is an immediate asset and no matter the subject matter within the frame, he makes it feel captivating and strikingly beautiful, whether it’s a street corner, a jail cell, or a boggy bayou. We’re drawn to keep watching and relishing his images.

John Lurie is a pimp who feels like a nobody. He tries to act big only to get sucked into the shadiest of business deals. Tom Waits isn’t much better off as a disgraced disc jockey. His girl walks out of him in a fit of rage, and he proceeds to go drown his sorrows.

However, first, he must gather up his shoes from the street below where they have been unceremoniously tossed. The inhumanity of Gene Pitney’s record (I think that’s him) cast out into the street says it all — both the mood and the crispness of the photography.

I’m not sure if Tom Waits is an actor as much as he’s an enigmatic personality exuding something we can latch onto as an audience. Lurie’s not altogether intriguing to me, but with Waits there’s something different — something we want to find out more about.

The manner of this off-beat noir is now fully established because the mood is the key when plot feels almost secondary even tertiary in importance. The dialogue is laughable, but somehow it fits into this world gladly mixing both style and sendup of the past. And yet it’s only the most affectionate homage to bygone years with its chiaroscuro, smoky street corners, and fedoras to fill out a modern underworld.

It’s the kind of movie where a guy will just walk up to you on a deserted street corner and offer you keys to a Jaguar and a wad of Franklins to do his dirty work for him. Sometimes the dirty work has strings attached.

Pretty soon Zack’s in the can and Jack’s with him. What a sorry pair they turn out to be. But there is eventually a saving grace. Enter Bob. Aside from being another tribute to Jarmusch’s wildly diverse casting tendencies, Roberto Benigni holds the film together with his charming personality.

He single-handedly redefines the tone of the movie making it into a kind of reluctant buddy movie. Because his instant good nature, loquaciousness, and limitations with the English language give him the powers to add something radically different to the film’s cocktail.

If he’s ever the butt of the jokes as the foreigner, more often he’s the movie’s champion, a force of joy and goodwill bringing together two bunkmates of the most cynical and standoffish sort. When they start their giddy tirade — yelling at the top of their lungs — You scream, we scream, we all scream for ice cream, it feels like “Moses Suposes” antics taking over the jailhouse.

Even with the introduction of Benigni, there is this sense Jarmusch is once more working in these near-stagnant scenes involving shooting the bull or playing cards much like Stranger Than Paradise. It’s once more observational and altogether content in the idiosyncratic. The elliptical sense of filling the spaces in between is also surprisingly prevalent. The biggest example being, of course, the prison escape.

Tarantino would choose to not show the heist 6 years later in Reservoir Dogs. To some degree, Jarmusch beat him to the punch as far as genre deconstruction with a jailbreak movie missing its most crucial lynchpin. But for what he’s going for, it works wonders. It works far better by throwing away convention because he never rested on it, to begin with.

Soon they are fleeing through the bayou, then canoeing, then getting left adrift without any inclination where they are going. Thankfully, they find a bunkhouse in which to recalibrate (though it looks eerily similar to their cell). However, the real prize is when they happen upon Luigi’s Tin Top. In its own way, the restaurant is an oasis.

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We had been through so much already, it completely slipped my mind that this moment was coming. It feels like a slice of serendipity. Here we have Roberto Benigni playing opposite Nicoletta Braschi as two Italians madly in love in the middle of nowhere. Again, they somehow operate outside the pervasive tone — the underlying stench — of the movie and its other characters.

However, what makes it feel fortuitous comes with context. They would wind up getting married 5 years later and remain so to this day as far as I know. Over a decade later, they would star in their most renowned foray Life is Beautiful, which pretty much bottled up everything disarming and magical about Benigni and enchanted the world over with its abundant good cheer and tenderness.

For now, they dance cheek to cheek in a lonely restaurant out in the boonies. It’s inauspicious while signifying something so much more. We leave them knowing they have a rewarding life ahead.

In the final moments as Lurie and Waits walk down the path, trees on either side, I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest, most atmospheric noirs: The Third Man. Except as Jack and Zack split off at the fork in the road to forge their own paths, we can’t help but be reminded of Robert Frost.

Because Jim Jarmusch might as well be summed up as such. A noir aficionado with the sentiments of a poet. Down By Law is not quite bombastic pop culture pulp in the mode of Tarantino. There’s a distinct artfulness there that still never quite loses its idiosyncratic yearnings and inclinations.

4/5 Stars

Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Max and the Junkmen (1971): Un Flic With a French Connection

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I couldn’t help being reminded of Melville’s Un Flic catching the opening of Claude Sautet’s movie. There’s a policeman, 80 grand missing, and two dead after a heist. It’s not the events that are the same, but the initial sensibilities, the palette, even the world they exist in.

Because Sautet’s hero of choice is Michel Piccoli and not a dashing, virile specimen like Alain Delon. More fallible, morose, and passionate in both his failures and his underlining convictions. In fact, Piccoli’s Max, ironically, shares more in common with Popeye Doyle from The French Connection, exhibiting an unassailable nose for catching criminals under any circumstance.

However, because he hails from across the pond, Max never seems so abrasive and thuggish — there’s a cunning restraint to all the tricks he pulls. In a former life, we learn he used to be a judge but after letting up on a would-be-murderer, he turned his back on the career. Now he catches the criminals where they lie — obsessed with “cast-iron proof” as the chief inspector (Georges Wilson) ruefully observes. He fits somewhere elusively in-between those prior reference points.

For some, Max and the Junkmen might give off the pretension of a talky picture. We get news of this opening heist that ruins Max’s reputation — his informant gave him misinformation — and yet we never see anything. Instead, we are met with the aftermath, in the patrol car, getting word from his superiors, having a meal where he broods over his failures and what he plans to do about them.

Finally, something happens. Max runs into an old acquaintance who deals in scrap. It’s what he’s been waiting for — a spark — and an idea has been conceived in his mind. He’s all but inscrutable as he readies his plans.

All we can do is wait and in the meantime, Sautet explores more of this cinematic space; it’s livelier and more organic as exemplified by Saidani’s Cafe — the people, even the colors are more vibrant.  And while they’re no doubt constructed in some fashion, there’s not the same singular sense of a world being totally sculpted to a vision like Melville’s, even down to the sartorial touches and the bushido-like ethics.

Still, to his credit, Sautet tackles the heist film in a way I’ve never seen and that deserves some recognition. Of course, we’re on the side of the cops instead of the robbers, not an altogether revolutionary perspective on its own. However, as time progress, we realize how cunning the cops are and how foolishly naive the criminals play opposite them. Each of these men is given an introduction of sorts as a policeman relates who they are. It’s not a lot, but it seamlessly tells their stories and bonds them to the audience.

They’re strictly no-name hustlers caught in the pincers of a calculating beast, men barely deserving the title of criminals at all. It’s this element teasing out the almost comic connotation in Max and The Junkmen. Under slightly different circumstances, it could play as some sort of farcical caper.

It’s not merely a contrivance of a story, it’s a totally contrived crime on the inside just so a cop will have an excuse to bring some two-bit, low caliber nobodies in. This is the anatomy of a heist where he’s planning how to nab them even before the idea has ever entered their simple heads to attempt robbing a bank.

This is how far Max will go because we realize soon enough he’s going through his elaborate setup just so he can nab someone — just so he can regain some semblance of justice  to right his reputation. He does it through the means of a woman.

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All these plans begin rather deliberately, setting their course and biding their time. However, once Piccoli and Romy Schneider get together the film alights on a compelling relational path. We want to see how they will interact with one another, how their curious relationship will be resolved because hanging in the balance are romance, crime, and justice. Any number of things.

However, we must acknowledge something. Romy Schneider is a cinema icon even outside of the bounds of any of her pictures. Her mere presence feels ubiquitous somehow. It’s easy to liken her to a bit of Dietrich or Betty Bacall, but instead of a husky voice and mid-century roots, she’s all 1970s, liberated woman. And yet with the generational difference, under the surface, human beings are still very much the same. Sautet seems most enamored with this reality. Her voice is softer though defiant when necessary. Independent and still trusting and vulnerable at its core.

Because Max sets up a scenario to totally exploit her. He’s a banker searching out female company, knowing full-well Lily’s boyfriend, Abel (Bernard Fresson), is one of the junkmen he’s gotten a line on. They build trust. He pays her well. They don’t do anything. She finds him peculiar and yet they keep on meeting. Then the hints start coming out slowly. He starts dropping information to make its way down the line. And finally, she takes the bait innocently, as the willing mechanism with which Max looks to nab these crooks. And what’s worse is that they also take to it so easily.

He’s got everything he wants. The police in the precinct have been notified. They’ll block off the streets. There’s an inside man at the bank. They’ve closed it off. It’s the epitome of overkill. The dumb fools haven’t got a prayer.

It’s around this time the shades of Notorious come into sharper focus. The so-called villains feel like the victims. The woman of ill-repute is the betrayed stooge. Our proposed hero somehow feels like the most antagonistic character of them all, and he’s so blinded by his task, when he feels twinges of love for someone, even as he’s manipulating her, there’s this inner crisis of conscience.

Hitchcock lets his protagonists walk out the front door in a harrowing bit of showmanship. Max and the Junkmen has its own devastating finale, which proves wrenching, if not altogether unexpected. Romance has a way of complicating any methodical situation we devise as human beings. Max is tripped up in the same manner. He cannot be a cold-blooded pragmatist even if he wants to; he chooses tragedy instead.

One almost forgets that the whole course of the movie was a flashback because, when it started, we hardly knew who Max was nor that his life would involve a woman who would touch him so.

By the end, getting all the answers doesn’t matter anymore; we’ve been shaken to our core with lives capitulated to unceremonious ends. Like Un Flic or The French Connection, Max and The Junkmen has no space for a happy ending.

4/5 Stars

The Gazebo (1959): The Other Hitchcock Movie Hitchcock Didn’t Make

If there’s any revelation from The Gazebo, it has to be the comic talents of Glenn Ford. Between his constant hypertension and exacerbated nerves, there’s a high-strung comic eccentricity present all but flying in the face of the persona Ford built his career on. The mind will quickly flash to a plethora of embittered noir and hardened westerns. Here he’s the epitome of a spineless worry-wort. He’s Average Joe incarnated, and it’s incessantly funny.

But to show how subjective performance (and comedy) is to this day, let me go ahead and cite the NY Times’ eminent Bosley Crowther who said of Ford, “Perhaps if Mr. Ford were a better or, at least, less wooden comedian than he is, some of this blundering and blathering would seem a little brighter than it does.” Do with it what you will.

Although she isn’t allotted too much to do, Debbie Reynolds scintilates in all her absolutely plucky, lovely delightfulness, with a devotion for her high-strung husband that remains irrepressible. It plays as a bit of a sad irony as she had recently been left by her husband Eddie Fisher for Liz Taylor. Ford had also divorced his longtime wife Eleanor Powell. The relational context cannot be totally lost on the audience.

The story itself throws us right into the action, stealing a trick from syndicated television with an opening murder! In fact, it is a television episode because our protagonist, Elliot Nash, is an overworked writer-director who’s at his wits end nearly every night as he tries to steady the ship behind the monitor. It seems like a curious occupation — a terribly high anxiety job — for someone of his temperament. From a narrative perspective, it all fits together impeccably.

Because he gets himself involved in murder; he even commits murder. But that’s a long story. In order for any of that to take, there must be the comic flourishes to disrupt the normal beats. One starting place is their home life. Elliot wants mightily to leave the home behind, going so far as to renovate his house to make it less appealing to his wife. It provides this Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or Green Acres kind of sensibility that’s just innately silly.

We must also mention Elliot’s pet pigeon, Herman, highlighting even more of his master’s kooky eccentricities. The other asset in the picture is the supporting cast including the wisecracking best friend Harlow (Carl Reiner), who always seems to find himself over after another day at the law firm so he can try and steal a kiss from Nell. He also proves useful as Elliot tries to formulate how one exactly goes about getting away with murder. It’s important to have a talking partner to bounce ideas off of.

Their housekeeper Matilda (Doro Merande) holds up her part of the bargain by yelling every line of dialogue with the sensitivity of a foghorn, partially because she takes care of her deaf mother by night. Then, there’s the always stately, if slightly oddball, John McGiver, who has the most delightful diction. How he says “Gaze-bo” just kills me. More on that subject momentarily.

Many folks consider Charade the greatest Hitchock picture that Hitchock didn’t make and rightfully so. You have the supernal acting talents and the main conceit about innocents on the run. There’s a suave comic elegance to go with genuine spy thrills. This plot is one side of the Hitchcockian coin if you will.

The other side is obsessed with the perfect murder and how to go about it. You need look no further than Rope or Strangers on a Train or even the more comic proclivities of The Trouble with Harry to see these prevailing themes at work.  Another element he becomes increasingly obsessed with is murder in the home. The famed director once quipped that this was its rightful place (Hence the success of his TV program). To this lineage, we might easily include Shadow of a Doubt or Dial M for Murder.

Here is where The Gazebo actually does do quite well to highlight an aspect of the genre that infatuated the director though we could probably stop short of calling this picture Hitchcockian in wit. It is anything but, and there is individual charm in that. It never quite sheds its out-and-out goofiness.

At this time, it seems important to note the film was based on a play. Apart from using this as an excuse to dismiss some of the more stagy moments, which feel relatively few, the play was actually written by Alec Coppel. He, coincidentally, penned a little doozy called Vertigo. You probably have heard about it. And subsequently, his hero winds up getting on the phone with Hitch on more than one occasion. Here is the hint of the autobiographical.

Otherwise, the movie leaves all of the Master’s sensibilities behind, and while I would never quite compare Ford to Cary Grant, he gives that kind of virtuoso performance, which feels simultaneously all over the place and perfectly suited for what the movie requires. Everything falls back on Ford’s continuously scattered protagonist as he flounders around every which way. It’s a black comedy but not in the usual way.

It works because of its hero’s complete bumbling collapse. He’s the perfect magic bullet for the film because in a send-up of a genre that requires premeditation, cunning, and nerves of steel, he lacks all of these things. He’s a generally sympathetic guy. But working in television, he obviously has an active imagination and he gets ideas.

Also, he’s being heftily blackmailed. Not from any dark secret from his past. On the contrary, his wife, an up-and-coming broadway talent, once modeled nude and now the cheesecake shots have gotten into some opportunistic hands. Martin Landau makes a late cameo as a heavy who looks to kidnap Mrs. Nash for leverage. No, he’s not the blackmailer, but he’s tied in with a different man, a man Elliot may have accidentally killed…

Soon the police are involved, a missing bullet, Herman the pigeon, and of course, the Gazebo. Particulars like these mean everything and at the same time nothing at all as we sit back and enjoy the ride. If the movie loses a bit of steam leading up to its pat ending, then it’s more than forgiven.

Otherwise, it’s thoroughly delightful — crazy and cockeyed in the most agreeable of ways. Nothing more, nothing less. Contrary to Mr. Crowther, Glenn Ford does the audience a service by lightening up. One wonders how Hitchcock might have used him.

3.5/5 Stars

Cover Up (1949): A Christmas Crime B Film

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Cover Up is one of the dime a dozen noir titles you have to really dig around for. It’s actually not really a prototypical film noir at all. However, if you’re a fan of forgotten unadorned small-town whodunits, it might just grab you.

Its main assets are in the script department and the presence of a couple old pros like Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix. They practically eat crime for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so to see them in another one hardly stretches the imagination. Still, they’re as capable as ever and though the context might be pedestrian — a small Midwestern town with a murder mystery — it’s how we get to the reveal that matters most.

Take, for instance, the first time they meet at the sheriff’s office. O’Keefe is trying to file his report, and the sheriff keeps on getting distracted, telling him he should smoke less, get a pipe, etc. Meanwhile, he fumbles around wrapping Christmas presents. The quirks make the scene that much enjoyable, though we’ve doubtlessly seen the exposition umpteen times before.

One feather in its cap as far as fleshing out an atmosphere starts with a simple detail like setting the action during Christmas. Shane Black is one to use this technique, but it immediately adds another layer to any story because it’s instantly recognizable, instantly relatable to almost every one of us. It also makes a fine contrast with any of the criminal elements.

Because it’s safe to say two of the things most diametrically opposed to murder are the Midwest and Christmas. At least until now. The out of town bus arrives at the local depot and we have our meet-cute over a towering stack of tumbling presents.

Sam Donovan (Dennis O’keefe) offers his services to the radiant Anita Weatherby and she reluctantly concedes. Barbara Britton is only one effulgent face among the plethora of post-war beauties, perfectly epitomizing the traditional values of the time, but she fits this role capably.

In fact, it cannot be summed up better than the moment Donovan comes a calling on the girl at her parents’ home. There’s nothing more quaint and somehow innocent than courting culture involving the entire family in cozy drawing rooms.

Donovan remains an insurance investigator by day poking around about a purported suicide based on an insurance claim. He has other ideas about the cause of death, but seeing as the gun has disappeared and all the locals are quite reticent, little progress can be made. Not unlike Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) in The Killers, he’s trying to get to the bottom of it for his company.

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Soon it becomes obvious to him this was not simply a suicide as marked in the books, even a passing mention of a double indemnity clause suggests some form of foul play. But again, this is more The Thin Man Goes Home than it is any pernicious strain of crime flick. The token example is the sheriff’s office, which seems more in line with Barney Fife than Sam Spade.

Tired by the dead ends and the seeming evasiveness of the local authorities, Donovan nevertheless, spends his evenings in the company of the beautiful girl. They go to the movie house where they get gawked at by an inquisitive little boy who’s already seen the picture multiple times.

The next dramatic development is the death of a beloved member of the community, Dr. Giroux, and this year, the Christmas tree lighting normally carried out by him is a little dimmer. The murder weapon also looks to be a German Luger — with at least two different owners having one of the guns in their possession. The town’s own sheriff and Anita’s own father Mr. Weatherby. It starts to make her spine shiver because she’s deathly afraid Donovan’s digging will lead directly to her loved ones. She is split between protecting her family and her new man.

Thematically, Cover Up plays a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life except the two men dueling for the soul of the town are off-screen enigmas. We never know them intimately and of course, murder is at the seat of it all. The fact this humble movie would attempt such themes is to its credit, but since these characters are never witnessed in the flesh, we have little interest in them.

It is the characters in front of us with the most relevance. So while it can’t quite manage to keep up the steam, for what it is, Cover Up is a minor Christmas delight, especially for the Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix faithful.

3/5 Stars

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947): Drizzly British Noir

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“Lovely weather for a manhunt.”

Childhood vacations to England have given me a lifelong cache of fond memories of the British Isles. Tea and scones conjure up only good things as do Cathedrals and cobblestone streets. Somehow even the daily drizzle, when it feels quintessentially English, is something I don’t altogether mind. It has to do with it being novel as I always came from sunny California. We romanticize it.

However, It Always Rains on Sunday is nothing like that. It is a film generally for people who have lived in these locales all their lives. The novelty quickly dissipates; it’s always dreary, dismal, and damp. They have their slickers turned up and their Wellington boots on, if they have any. Of course, in a cinematic sense, rain functions as instant atmosphere. It sets a very specific tone while being an evocation of England through and through. It proves to be an ongoing theme.

Furthermore, the picture was produced by Ealing Studios, that British film institution, known for their Alec Guinness comedies of the 1950s and, subsequently, directed by Robert Hamer, most well-remembered for helming one of those Guinness’ comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets.

But with It Always Rains on Sunday (the title fits the weather and therefore the environs), they found themselves crafting a proto-kitchen sink, day in the life drama that really dug into a community of post-war Britain. We get everything from the daily grind, the mundane activities, and the dodgy dealings playing court with everyday life.

As the rain pours outside, perpetually, men have their papers open. The front pages are plastered with the biggest headline: Dartmoor Escape. Escaped criminal Tommy Swann (John McCallum) is on the run! Coincidentally, three cronies are milling about. Could it be they have something to do with this man or maybe a load of rollerskates that were nicked?

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A typical British family becomes our anchor and Hamer is constantly drawing the story back to them. The husband is a generally benevolent chap content with his morning newspaper and the breakfast at the kitchen table. He’s remarried to Rose (Googie Weathers), a former bar hostess, who is not altogether horrid, but there’s an undercurrent of this being a marriage of convenience — at least for her. It becomes most transparent in her sometimes callous dealing with the step-children.

Two daughters, one dutiful the other blonde and bodacious, when it comes to the boys, and a young son bent on getting some extra spending money to buy a new mouth organ. She doesn’t seem to have any maternal concern for them even as she dutifully runs the house.

The question remains how these seemingly disparate strands might possibly be tied together. But this is a day in the life long before the Beatles ever cornered the market. We come to understand It Always Rains on Sunday is this type of story. It readily covers the beats of the city with all its shadings. This is the joy of the picture, especially all these decades later. It envelopes us in the highly colorful world of the East End, with its smells, markets, fish shops, and pubs.

The local policeman, Inspector Fothergill, goes about his usual business, making his rounds, followed by a cheeky journalist ready to pounce on a scoop. He’s looking for any news on Swann that might be of interest to him.

The best human interest story of the movie is actually behind the scenes romance. Because, upon meeting one another on the set of this picture, Googie Weathers and John McCallum would fall in love and get married soon thereafter. Their union lasted over 60 years, well into the 21st century.

The crucial reveal is that the current Mrs. Sandigate knew Thomas Swann in her previous life. Now he comes calling for a favor since he has nowhere else to turn, setting up a chilling reunion. For now, all we have is in front of the camera. It certainly heightens the available stakes as she harbors the wanted man, and he looks to coax her to remember the former life they had together. It’s obvious the situation can only end in some form of tragedy.

Simultaneously, one of the local gangsters, the angular-faced Mr. Hyams, checks in on one of his game parlors and offers a job then flowers to Doris Sandigate — claiming there are no strings attached though she unsure — he’s just feeling charitable.

Coincidentally, he also catches wind of some roller skates on the market, but he’s already had his hand in fixing the local fights. The dirty money is already being siphoned off from somewhere else. His generosity continues when he donates a large sum of money to the local gymnasium to counteract his shady dealings. One questions the state of affairs when we must turn to criminals as a primary source of charity.

In another vignette, a record store shopkeeper is caught kissing with one of his pretty clients, this time Vi Sandigate, who can’t stay away from any handsome face. He dishes out a pair of mouth organs to keep the blackmailing tykes quiet — including Vi’s baby brother Alfie. They proceed to stomp around town to the tune of “Colonel Bogey’s March.”

The music store owner’s wife Sadie is not stupid. She arrives at the local bar one day to let him know definitively, she’s walking out on him. In response, her weak-willed philandering husband goes scampering after her. Far from feeling like a sordid love triangle, it’s a pointless mess with at least two out of the three lives ruined for good (if not all of them).

Implicit to the movie is this context of a Godless nation. At least no one goes to church or has the normal Christian view of the world you half expect in mid-century Britain. However, given the context of the hell they went through during the war (and even after), I’m not sure the change is unwarranted.

One resident yells at the boys to pipe down with their infernal racket because they are desecrating the sabbath. Then, we see the priest running the orphanage in another scene. But these are isolated almost unimportant moments in a broader narrative.

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Otherwise, this world feels devoid of such religiosity. Maybe it’s simply from coming from an American perspective, but in films of the 40s and 50s, there’s a commonplace aspect to God in some way, shape, or form. Here such ritualism feels almost absent, if not done away with altogether. If nothing else, it does speak to something about our characters and the lives they lead.

It’s based on currencies of love and money. But everyone seems dissatisfied and always longing for something better. And to be completely clear, there is reason to gripe with the world set before them. America, more than possibly any nation, could recoup from the war without a physical need to regroup. Britain did not have such a luxury.

And while the police chase after a fugitive across brick-paved streets, train tracks, and train yards, not unlike the pursuit of Harry Lime, it all feels indicative of a broader problem. I’m not sure if we ever get to it. We are left with a climax and a conclusion that’s stirring enough. But the tale nevertheless leaves so many of its narratives in a state of indefinite suspension.

A lot like life, we do not know how or where they will fully resolve themselves. This illusion is powerful. Not only that, the stories extend outside the confines of a film, but also a happy ending, as it were, is not going to be handed to us blithely.

In short, It Always Rains on Sunday deserves to be named among the best of British noir alongside titles like Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock. The key comes with integrating the everyday occurrences with the criminal element. It makes us aware of how closely related they are. It’s pointless to try and pull them apart.

4/5 Stars

Bob Le Flambeur (1956): Melville’s Noir Heist

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“Montmartre is both heaven and…hell.” 

While Melville would continue to cultivate his own unique canvass and pulp sensibilities, Bob Le Flambeur, as a slightly earlier work, shows its deep abiding debt to the American noir cycle. Because it was at this juncture in time where analogous crime pictures like Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing were still being churned out in the States.

Bob The Gambler must fit into this same conversation with how it instantly calls on voiceover and submerges itself in the throes of darkness as its constant palette of choice. Melville’s yet to have a Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon to hang his hat on, as it were (the latter actor was turned down for an early role). Still, he does have Bob (Roger Duchesne), more than meeting the prerequisites of a noirish hero.

He’s silver-haired with piercing eyes. His dress is nice, impressive, but not altogether flashy. Someone says of him, “Both young and old and already a legend.” Even as the voiceover draws us into the world — and the landscape in itself becomes not only a metaphor but a character — we meet a dame too, all before getting to the focus of our story.

Exteriors at times feel harsh and dilapidated. Trash collects in the gutters of the streets, and no one’s doing the city any favors, dumping their refuse wherever they please. At times, interiors, like a gambling joint or a kitchen, are so spare they play as a unique aesthetic all their own. Bob’s home is full of paintings and paisley wallpaper designs. The eye strays to the tiling, which along with the wallpaper, aid in creating this satisfying geometry of checkerboards, shapes, and patterns filling out the film.

Bob is forever the focal point guiding the movie’s progressions. In one scene he’s ready to shell out money to those in need, but he has his own code — he’s no fan of pimps — and since the cops are looking to run one in, he’ll willingly leave Marc to the police dogs.

For someone with such enterprises and acquaintances, Bob still manages an oddly amicable relationship with the police chief. He’s gone straight for 20 years, after a famed bank job he was forced to pay penance for. He’s done his time and reformed. His noble side has come out on more than one occasion.

But this is Bob The Gambler and so a bit of card play, roulette, and chance should be a part of it. Certainly, Bob more than lives up his name, always winning big on the horses only to lose it the same evening on something else. The capricious nature of it all somehow entices him.

When he hears from a buddy that the local gambling house is full up on cash, he makes a near-instantaneous decision. He’s going to rob it. It seems such a drastic way to end 20 years living under the law, and there’s no real inclination of why he decides this. It’s somewhere in between the lines there, and Melville has left us to figure it out. All we know is he is resolved to do it.

Simultaneously, he moves on with the planning measures. All the paces. The inside man. The financier. Layouts, schematics, gathering the crew together. Each is a single step in this methodical process. Bob proves himself to be no slouch when it comes to the details.  An abandoned junkyard becomes his chessboard to lay out all the pieces in real-time, helping all his crew visualize their parts.

However, despite such intricate planning, it only takes one chink in the armor to ruin it. She’s a young woman — only a girl really — and Bob feels somehow responsible for her. He doesn’t want to see her get harmed and, subsequently, hardened by a life walking the streets.

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He treats her well, gives her money, even lodging in his apartment, and he expects no favors in return. After all, it is his young colleague Paulo who is madly in love with her. It’s this that causes him to run off his mouth. He wants to impress her and keep her for his own. Little does he know there are others. She’s not tied down by any stretch of the imagination, and her feminine wiles find her moving up the totem pole, from cigarette girl to hostess to a floor show main attraction.

Meanwhile, the squirrely croupier who has vowed to be their ticket on the inside has a prying wife who catches wind of the scheme. At first, it appears she might be one of the moralistic types, but it becomes apparent she’s even more of an opportunist than him. She wants more of the cut and so if we can go out on a slight limb, she is our second femme fatale.

The police commissioner receives his tip and readies his men, that is if the information is in fact true. Bob seems all but oblivious to these details. True enough, he learns the girl let the word slip, and he gives her a going over. And yet, according to plan, he gets into his tux and heads to the casino. There are only two options: either it works or it doesn’t.

There’s not a gunshot until well into an hour of the picture. When it comes is not important; simply knowing it does is something. No question there’s a weight to the action because when you’re waiting for a gun to go off, instead of having them blasting every few minutes, the impact is more apparent. It punctuates the action.

Fully cognizant of the tension wrapped up in the heist, Melville cuts between faces waiting in cars or sitting in bedrooms — all a part of this plot in some way, shape, or form — and Bob still keeps on gambling at the roulette wheel.  Gambling becomes not just a distraction for us but for Bob as well. Surely, he cannot have forgotten? Is it possible? I’m not sure. One could hazard a guess; it becomes his undoing, but hardly in the way that you might initially expect.

The tragedy in the final moments of Bob Le Flambeur is a different strain verging on the height of comic irony. It might easily elicit a chuckle from a few for the sheer chance of it all. It’s a textbook example of how a heist can go utterly wrong and somehow come out right in another way. When I say textbook example, it might actually be the only one just like this, and this is the film’s final trick. It’s indelible in its own right.

Melville came into the gangster genre with deep reservoirs of understanding and his own applied sense of understated style. Just as he stole and borrowed from others, he would, in turn, become the influence for the generations to come — not least among them the Godards and Truffauts of the world. For the time being, he lived with minor acclaim, but the film community would learn his name soon enough. Although, even that, he borrowed from another man.

4/5 Stars