Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jean-Pierre Melville Spotlight

Jean-Pierre Melville films
The 6 films part of the spotlight on Jean-Pierre Melville:

Bob The Gambler (1956)
Léon Morin, prêtre (1961)
Le doulos (1962)
Le deuxième souffle (1966)
Le samouraï (1967)
Un Flic (1972)

In Melville’s films, like in mine, characters are caught between good and evil; and sometimes, even the worst gangsters can behave in the noblest fashion...

Melville is God to me

-- John Woo, The Melville Style, Cahiers du Cinema, Nov 2006

Jean-Pierre Melville is famous for his gangster films which have plenty of admirers, including John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. However, Melville ventured off in other directions as well, most notably World War II French resistance (Army of Shadows), religious debate (Léon Morin, prêtre) and an incestuous relationship tale sprinkled with a dreamy Cocteau Orphée narrative style (Les enfants terribles).

Criminal vs Cops, chess matches

Rain coats. Hats. Criminals. Cops. Heists. Robbery. Gambling. Loyalty. Jazz.

A lot of the same elements appear in various Melville gangster films but each film still has a distinct character because of the effort spent in crafting unique criminals and cops whose behaviors and actions linger long in the memory after the final credits. Bob (Roger Duchesne, Bob the Gambler) is an experienced calculative criminal who is completely different from the rash impulsive Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani, Le doulos) or the heist mastermind Simon (Richard Crenna, Un Flic) or the principled yet emotional Gu (Lino Ventura, Le deuxième souffle). Then there is the much younger hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon, Le samouraï) whose cold style is rivaled only by the police informer Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Le Doulos). Each criminal character adds a completely different flavour to each film and their interaction with the cops makes for an intriguing intellectual battle.
The only criminal who appears to be untroubled by law is Bob because his extensive network of contacts allows him to be in the know and have a few cops in his back pocket. For example, only Bob can have such a conversation after getting arrested:

Cop 1: Criminal intent will get you five years but with a good lawyer, you could get it down three years.

Cop 2: With a better one, no criminal intent! You could be acquitted.

Bob: With a really top lawyer, I could sue for damages.

While criminal characters take center stage in Melville's films, police characters also get worthy camera time. The films present hurdles police face in order to solve cases and portray cops as intelligent and honest men, who are aware of the limitations of their jobs. In both Le deuxième souffle and Un Flic the cops talk about requiring some luck or clue to proceed forward in their investigations. In Un Flic, the importance of public help is emphasized in order to crack a case and fight off the public's ridicule of police.

In Le deuxième souffle, Commissaire Blot (played by Paul Meurisse) utters truth rarely seen in crime films:

We’re policemen, not magicians.
If some little thing doesn’t come along to help us, Gu will escape. End of story.
That leaves just luck..or chance. Call it whatever you like. We just need one tiny lead and we’ll work it to the very end.

The job of police officers is always tougher than criminals as cops have to work within a constrained law & ethical framework in order to solve their cases. Whereas, by definition criminals are those who break the law, so they are free to use whatever means possible to achieve their goals. But both Le deuxième souffle and Un Flic show that police have to push the boundaries of that framework as much as possible, even carve a few holes, to get a step closer to the criminals. For example, in Le deuxième souffle Blot uses a small time crook to trick Gu into spilling the beans and then records Gu’s confession, a tactic that enrages Gu as being unethical and a betrayal of the old times when cops and gangsters never mingled with each other.

Despite their tactics, both opposing sides of cops and gangsters understand each other and this understanding allows each to guess the other’s moves and not waste time. At the start of Le deuxième souffle, after Blot arrives at a crime scene in a restaurant, he knows there is no point in getting a confession from anyone at the restaurant because no one will provide any information. So Blot goes about narrating everyone’s alibi/confession and naturally he is proven right. No one indeed saw or heard a thing, even though gunshots were fired in plain view of everyone.

The films also manage to provide valuable screen presence for fringe characters hovering around the criminals and cops thereby painting a more complete picture of the criminal universe. However, some of the most delicious scenes in these films, especially in Un Flic and Le deuxième souffle, involve face to face encounters between the criminals and cops. These encounters allow the two opponents to assess each other and detect any sign of weakness which can be exploited later on.

The hierarchy

In Un Flic, three different roles of a heist are defined:

The holy trinity: the criminal, thief and the runner

The criminal occupies the top spot in the heist hierarchy and is the mastermind behind the plan. A thief is a rung lower than the criminal so naturally the police are more interested in catching the criminal than a petty thief. The runner/driver/look-out occupies the lowest rung and his capture is next to meaningless as most often he is not aware of the heist details.

However, a heist needs money. A fact illustrated in Bob the Gambler when Bob identifies the need for a financier willing to put up a money for their heist plan. A financial backer could potentially share the top hierarchy with a criminal, depending on the relationship and history between the two.

If a criminal cannot make do without a money man, then the police cannot do without an informer required to keep tabs on the criminals. Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Le Doulos) plays such a useful informer and in Un Flic, it is due to an informer that Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is able to come close to nabbing Simon.

Planning, Execution & Analysis

The five gangster films are meticulous in either the planning of the heist (Bob the Gambler) or in execution of the crime (a magnificent 20 minute dialogue free helicopter/train robbery in Un Flic and a house robbery in Le doulos).

When it comes to analyzing the crimes, the police are shown to be equally competent in determining how the crime was committed (Un Flic, Le Doulos and Le deuxième souffle). Such attention to detail enriches all the films and ensures no plot holes will tarnish the films.

Out of the 6, I had seen Le samouraï previously, a film that I admire a lot. Overall, all the films are highly engrossing and a pleasure to watch.  However, I was absolutely amazed by Le deuxième souffle which is going to rank as my #2 Melville film behind Army of Shadows. Le deuxième souffle is a perfect depiction of the cop vs criminal mind games and also shows the value of loyalty in the criminal world. It also appears to be an underrated film that needs to be seen more and talked about in the same spirit as Army of Shadows & Le samouraï.

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