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Perhaps my favorite thing about the Criterion Collection, amongst many things, is how brilliant their noir restorations are. Since it's my favorite film genre (or "style," whatever exactly noir is), I purchase them heavily. This is my collection thus far; obviously, I have a preference for the French way of doing it, though I'm beginning to get to a lot of the Japanese noirs, especially Kurosawa. More will be added to this list as they come along. (I still have yet to finish the Basil Dearden box set, so those will be included soon.)
This is my first Criterion, and I fell in love just by looking at the box art. So spare, so brutal, and pure noir. Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed when I actually watched the film. To be honest, I didn't really understand it at first; I read an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he said he didn't understand the movie until the last twenty minutes, and truth be told that's how this plays out. The dictum of the film ("One must lie... or die") is for all intents and purposes the philosophical basis of noir. You don't know who to trust at all during any part of this movie; even during acts of horrific violence (the scene where Belmondo ties a woman to a radiator and beats her is just brutal), you don't know if the motive is good or bad. This has a lot to do with the excellence of the script, but it has mostly to do with two key factors: the performances and the direction. In regards to the latter, Melville drapes everything in impossibly angled shadows; there's very little light to be found here. As to the former, you'll find some of the best performances of the nouvelle vague in Le Doulos. Jean-Paul Belmondo is cinematic cool, giving his most memorable screen performance, and Serge Reggiani does a convincing job of straddling innocence and guilt. The final shot, which I won't reveal here, is one of cinema's best. All in all, I would argue to the bitter end that this is Melville's truest accomplishment, topping even the richness of Army of Shadows, the depth of the characters in Le Cercle Rouge, and the inimitable style of Le Samourai.
It's easy to level the "all style, no substance" against this, but in reality Alain Delon's Jef is one of the most intriguing characters in noir's history. The stark, chilly minimalism makes him seem like a shade of a person, but there are always hints that he's something greater than a run-of-the-mill contract killer. His final words, delivered beautifully, ring with a weakness that reveals how trapped he feels in his life: "Because I was paid to." He wants to love the jazz singer, but he knows he can't. What's even more unique about this film, not just amongst Melville but noir in general, is how almost everything happens in either bright or highly populated places. There are no back alleys or shadowy rooms here; Le Samourai shows what happens when the noir (anti)hero comes out into the light. Even when Jef at the club, a place very common to the genre, he feels out of his element, rather than amongst his kind. Most of the modern lone killer films find their genesis here, and with good reason: it's a masterpiece of crime cinema.
The heist of Le Cercle Rouge, owing much to Rififi in its wordless execution, is perfectly shot. But what makes this unique amongst Melville's oeuvre is the depth of the characters involved; each man has a backstory, each a reason to pull of the job. Whereas many heist films revolve mostly around the robbery itself, leaving the people behind it all to feel like cogs in a machine, everyone here is fully sketched, which only makes the ending that more devastating. Plus, while Melville excelled in black and white, Le Cercle Rouge shows that the darkness of noir can be retained with a color camera.
Though technically a noir, this one is an oddity if you include it amongst all of Melville's other noirs. (Or really, to any of his other works.) There's a light-heartedness to this affair, and the nighttime cityscape of the Montmartre district, while an ideal setting for a noir, is shot here with an elegance and grandeur that's unlike, say, the seedy club of Le Doulos. Still, this is a very impressive early film for Melville; what's interesting is that the character of Bob serves as a commentary on how "old blood" gets replaced by new people and new techniques. One would expect such subject matter to be good for later films in a director's career, but Melville started off with an old dog and went to younger and prettier faces with each successive movie. (Belmondo may be the coolest, but Delon is the prettiest.) The funniest thing about Bob le Flambeur isn't anything that happens in the movie: in the interview book Melville on Melville, essential reading for fans of the director, Melville says that Duchesne ended up selling cars in France not too long after the movie's release. Damn shame.. he was pretty good here.
This one doesn't leave as lasting an impression as Melville's other work, but it's pretty excellent nonetheless. The heist sequence gets a lot of (rightful) love, but what stays the most in my memory is the opening scene, where Gu (Lino Ventura) escapes from prison. It's shot in near pitch-black, and it's all the more thrilling for it. This would be the last of Melville's black and white noirs; given that he followed with two top-grade productions, it's likely the case it was just the right move.
Sometimes a plot just grabs you, even before you've seen all the events unfold. Such was the case with me and Youth of the Beast, a film that after only one viewing I knew would be a favorite. This double and triple cross heavy yakuza thriller involves a former cop trying to have his cake and eat it too, in that he joins two mobs and takes them for millions of yen. There are multiple motives revealed, but in order to do this film justice I won't ruin anything. Suffice it to say, this is a brilliant movie, and I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the yakuza genre. I'm going to be loading up on Suzuki come the next Criterion sale at Barnes and Noble.
Few writers have captured the art of the con as well as David Mamet has, and House of Games is more or less his treatise on the subject. For all of the crap people give Mamet about being sexist (side note: lazy accusation), Lindsay Crouse's performance here is pitch-perfect; she centers the film's exploration of the con on the psychological aspects, not on the thrill of the hoodwinks. Meanwhile Joe Mantegna, a Mamet regular, is the ideal teacher; you trust him, but at the same time you know you can't insofar you know what his skill set is. And, as an added bonus to the depth of the confidence game here, you get some of Mamet's best zingers ("I told you a squirt gun wouldn't work") as well as his trademark matter-of-factness (After being accused of rape, Mantegna's character says, "Golly, Margaret. well that's just what 'happened,' then, isn't it?").
Mamet loves twists; this much is known. But that love takes a left turn in Homicide his strangest script (counting both film and stage). Ostensibly a police procedural, Homicide becomes a large statement about Jewish self-hatred, a topic of considerable importance to the man. (He wrote a book on it called The Wicked Son.) The twist at the end is so utterly devastating that multiple viewings are required, as whatever this "is" is never, ever clear, even after the final reel has rolled. Mantenga's character, Bobby, is (by noir standards, at least) someone you can trust, but once he begins exploring the murder of an elderly Jewish woman, there seems very few who are who they say they are. An underrated '90's gem, Homicide is unique in emphasizing not the deception of others (though that becomes the undoing of all the events here), but the deception of ourselves.
One of the integral elements to noir is dialogue. You need smart and sharp talkers if you're going to want to make a classically-styled noir work, and it's one of the many things Sweet Smell of Success gets right. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster bounce off each other's words like pros, giving two of the best American performances of their kind. "You're a cookie full of arsenic" is perhaps the truest complimensult ever wrote. The score and the cinemaphotography here are also of note; despite being shot in Hollywood, the cinemaphotographer here got his external shots in Manhattan to give the film's stated location (New York) an authentic grounding.
The beauty of Shakespeare comes in how malleable his plays are; All Night Long, a noir-y take on Othello, is but one of many examples. For fans of traditional noir like myself, one ingredient I always keep an ear out for is the music. With my love for Melville a little more than obvious by now, I'll go ahead and say that I really like the union of noir and jazz. How Basil Dearden managed to score Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus for this picture is beyond me, but all I can say is one thing: a-freaking-mazing. This marks one of the best unions of film and music; the intermittent jams here are never out of place or forced. They feel essential to the plot, and to boot they're damn fun to listen to. Like any good noir should, All Night Long captures a crooked man (Patrick McGoohan's Johnny Cousin) as he twists and turns his way through people's emotions, exploiting all that he can to gain his advantage. This is the archetypal noir male at his most base, and it's crushing to see the effects of his doings here.
There are those moments when watching an older movie when you suddenly realize it's the source for an entire contemporary genre. Many heist films came before The League of Gentlemen, but none captured the structure that would later form the backbone for all modern capers. Everything is here: a big target, a well-connected, trustworthy leader, and, of course, a crew of various people all of whom each have expertise in one field. The smash-and-grab job that results from the meticulous planning by this League is pretty underwhelming, but all of the proceedings are marvellously fun to watch. If one is willing to take the time to read into all this, there's even a larger statement being made about British masculinity of the time. Stripped of their pride and regalia as a result of WWII's conclusion, these men felt like the commission of a crime was the only way to ensure their manhood. A lot of modern heist pictures are usually just about the thrill of the steal, but The League of Gentlemen says a lot about its robbers.
"Um... what?" That was more or less my reaction to the Cold war paranoia of Kiss Me Deadly. How this got made in the fifties is beyond me; I mean, I know we were all scared of Commie Ruskies coming to bomb us and our children, but this is absolutely crazy. Normally I don't like my movies turning randomly into bizarro sci-fi at the last second (cough, Indiana Jones 4, cough), but somehow this pulled it off. Mike Hammer is one of those noir standbys that's hard not to love if you're a fan of the genre, and Ralph Meeker's performance grounds all this in the conventions you'd expect, since everything else here is crazy weird (the backwards credits are noteworthy). In the end though, it's the eccentricities that make Kiss Me Deadly so unforgettable. One viewing and you'll learn to love the bomb.
Aside from the "classic" scenes (the run through the Louvre, the Madison dance), this is actually a fairly difficult film that wrestles with a lot of topics; a lot can be read into this. Since this is Godard, that's what you'd expect, but this isn't a triflingly "fun" film as it's sometimes marketed. The presence of Anna Karina's beautiful visage, though, is definitely excellent in terms of entertainment value. An unconventional noir for sure, but one worth checking out.
What The Friends of Eddie Coyle does so remarkably well is demonstrate how plain some criminals are. When one goes to see a noir, s/he usually expects suave, attractive, and of course malicious-looking people to populate the screen. In reality, criminals are usually fairly ordinary folk; Bob Mitchum looks like he could be my dad, for pete's sake. Compared to classic noirs, which are usually shot with sharp angles and cast in a certain dark mood, this is a pretty understated movie that nevertheless packs a serious punch.
I'm sure I'll invite much ire when I say that Rififi is grossly overrated. I enjoy it, I own it, but in my all-time noir top ten I wouldn't include it. But this film is a case where influence is undeniable, and boy is the influence big. Jules Dassin had already made a name for himself with works like Night and the City and Thieve's Highway, but naturally there's something about the French "touch," and with Rififi he got it. Though I don't find this as strong a film as some say (since I own it, I obviously think it's great), there is one undeniable feat here: the heist sequence. While the modern heist picture owes most of its structure to The League of Gentlemen, the execution of the heist here is in a class all its own.