French Film Noir #1

A Bout de Souffle (1960)

A Bout de Souffle (1960) (Breathless) is a classic of something, but not everybody can agree what exactly it is a classic example of.

It is New Wave for sure, and although is too postmodern by far to be a genuine film noir, the French (and in this case Jean-Luc Godard, a Suisse) appropriated film noir for their own, and made a virtue of its every trope.

And film noir's every trope is stated in A Bout de Souffle. Trouble is that to appreciate Breathless, and see what is going on, a viewer has to see the picture from a historical context, which requires studying the French New Wave, film theory as a whole, and the lives and attitudes of its contemporaries.
Film enthusiasts loved Godard in the 1960, however. He was revolutionary in his approach, which is why MovieMaker magazine called him the 4th most influential director of all time - only behind Welles, Griffith, and Hitchcock! 

Breathless is all style, and while the story may be interesting, it's Godard's aesthetics, production modes, subject matters, and storytelling methods that are what we come for. The whole movie was shot on a hand-held camera, like many other New Wave pictures, and it was shot by two people (Godard and his cinematographer, Rouald) on a budget that did not top $50,000, a fraction of what most pictures cost at the time.

Breathless was  also shot completely on location in Paris, and used new film-making techniques that would be used by film-making students and then professionals for decades to come, an example being putting the camera in a mail cart on the Champs Elysees and following Belmondo and Seberg. Like it or not, Breathless is a pit stop on the world historic tour of not just film noir, but of cinema soi-meme!


Les Anges du Péché (1943)

Les Anges du Péché (1943) (Angels from the Street) was the first full-length feature by the self-described Christian-atheist Robert Bresson, and was made in occupied France after Bresson had done a year in a prison camp.

The movie has a sparse look, and features no flashy camera-acrobatics or editing tricks.

The story is set in a convent, Sisters of Bethany, which has the purpose of helping women in prison rehabilitate. The hero is Anne-Marie, a proud and respectable middle class woman who comes to grief in conflict with the Mother Superior. There are characters who come to the convent for different reasons and overall, as well as the social, we have an exploration into spiritual matters. 

It may not sound it, but Les Anges du Peche is fast, intense and gripping.

The writing, by a Dominican priest, Raymond Bruckberger, is terrific and nearly every line of dialogue is a clustered fist of moral and emotional insights. 

On top of that, are other themes, such as conformity selfishness and the powers of redemption, love, jealousy and resentment and shame.


Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1957)

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud is known in English as Lift to the Scaffold but is more commonly found these days as Elevator to the Gallows, which is not such a great rendering  of the French, especially when you consider that the guillotine was still in use in France at the time, and in fact right up until 1977.

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as criminal lovers who conceive of a perfect crime which unfortunately starts to seem less perfect, when Ronet is trapped in an elevator. 

Of note is the film's score, by Miles Davis, and the interaction between the music and the images is also quite novel, as are the repeated suggestions of the city as an alienating influence, with its neon, and constant reference to fashion. This is what the French bring to film noir, a pure cultural and existential sense of loss and alienation - perfect for the immoral foils and foibles of the genre.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Elevator to the Gallows / Lift to the Scaffold / Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958)
This thriller, which was the directorial debut of Louis Malle, took a film noir style story, and added realistic lighting and location shooting and presented the characters in a totally soulless fashion that points to an overall failure in relationships, technology and in romance.  

Despite all this coldness, Elevator to the Gallows  is one of these occasions where you find yourself completely rooting for the villains. This is achieved through the sympathetic portrayal of the adulterous and passionate relationship at the heart of the film and the way the camera focuses closely on Jeanne Moreau's face, which is shown without any cosmetics, a view which was unusual to say the least at the time.

There is a peculair sense throughout Ascenseur pour l'échafaud that technology is also an aspect of the film noir fatality, in the form of the elevator itself, as well as telephones, cameras and automobiles, none of which are likewise to be trusted, and all of which combine to everyone's undoing. On top of this, we see much of the intial action take place in a modern office block, which seems a huge contrast to the dark corners and seedy dives we'd normally associate with the noir canon.


Au-delà des Grilles (1949)

Le mura di Malapaga (1949) is a Italian / French movie directed by René Clément which stars Jean Gabin as Pierre Arrignon, a French criminal who escapes to Genoa.

René Clément is sometimes called the father of French New Wave Cinema, although the directors in the New Wave were younger than Clément, and as it happened, the New Wave had quite a few fathers, and precious few mothers as it was.

Jean Gabin was the leading French male actor of his day and what we have in the Walls of Malapage is a mixture of film noir and neorealism. There are film noir touches everywhere in the form of deep shadows, steel bars, and of course, crimes.

The neorealism must have on the other hand been easy to find in 1949 Genoa. The rubble left behind by WW II was everywhere and people speak of "living in the rubble" or "playing in the rubble" is if this was just part of everyday life, which it doubtless was.

The movie also stars Isa Miranda as Marta, the Italian woman who falls in love with Pierre, but acting honors also go to Vera Talchi, as Cecchina, Marta's daughter.

This film won the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film in 1950, and was highly praised in its day, although some still argue it hasn't worn well. The screenplay borrows ideas from Pépé le Moko (1937) and despite flaws, captures both Italian neo-realis, and French film noir.


Bob le Flambeur (1955)

For the lover of film noir and the dedicatee of American cinema, there is Jean-Pierre Melville's 1956 movie Bob le flambeur.

Mai oui, Bob le flambeur is a French film, but in many ways it could barely be more American.

Bob le Flambeur (1955) (Bob the Gambler) has nothing especially original to commend it, but at the same time all these elements were maybe never put together so well.

It's dry, it's slick and it is strangely moral on top of it all, cause Bob is just everyone's daddy, almost. That even includes the viewer, as Bob is hard not ot like, as is his certain Godardian unrealistic comedy.

For many who care about these things, Bob le Flambeur is the movie that genuinely introduced the French Nouvelle Vague three years before Truffaut's 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless.

The cinematic style is new, but not in any unpleasant and obvious way. Yet it's less academic, more detached, features jump cuts and hand-held camera shots, has long tracking-shots and the introspective narration that is so key to film noir.

So despite its advanced age, Bob still feels like a breath of fresh air and holds a strange bit of greatness, floating somewhere between comedy and film noir, and doing both very well. Finally, all of this is innate to Jean-Pierre Melville's vision of cinema, art and men, as well as how he wants to tell more of the exciting crime stories that inspired him, stories that cinema has always sought to tell, and which are focal to all-things-noir.


Casque d'Or (1952)

Casque d'Or (1952)
The 'golden helmet' of Signoret's hair.
Casque d'Or (1952), which you could translate as 'Golden Helmet' if you were desperate to call it something in English, is a film noir tragedy depicting an ill-fated love affair, loosely based on an infamous love triangle between the prostitute Amélie Élie and the gang leaders Manda and Leca, which was the subject of much excited newspaper reporting in France during 1902.

It stars  Simone Signoret as Marie 'Casque d'Or', Serge Reggiani as Georges Manda and Claude Dauphin as Félix Leca and tells of obsession, jealousy and desires that cannot be contained.

The criminals have names like Guillaume the Ferret, Pretty Boy Roland, and Ponsard the Headache, as befits this wild underworld romance.

Signoret plays Marie, the moll of an Apache gangster, who meets Manda, an ex-con gone straight, and it's love at first sight for both of them. The pair soon set off a chain-reaction of jealousy, murder, double-crosses, and revenge and yet there is a strange love that shines and shines when Signoret is acting. She's tough and tender and is often bathed in an ethereal light as she plays the ne plus ultra femme fatale who proves bad luck to any man who wants her.
In 1902 the story of 'Casque d'Or' made the headlines throughout Paris, as two enemy bands of Apaches Mohicans de Paris, with their customary insignia of caps, bell-bottom trousers and polka-dotted scarves, took to the streets that lay between Belleville and Charonne. The object of their dispute was not territory but a girl called Amélie Hélie, nicknamed 'Casque d'Or', with a stunning, golden-reddish mane. The confrontation turned into a fullscale pitched battle on Rue des Haies, in which neither knife blades nor guns were spared.

To the inquisitive public prosecutors Manda stated during his trial:

"We fought each other, the Corsican and myself, because we love the same girl. We are crazy about her. Don't you know what it is to love a girl?"

Condemned to deportation and hard labour, Manda for life, and Leca for eight years, the two men met on the island of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, while 'Casque d'Or' turned for solace to the world of entertainment and the company of wealthier men. However, one of Leca's faithful followers had been thinking hard about revenge and stabbed her one night in the establishment where she sang.

Although she survived, she could no longer perform as a singer and it is only thanks to her portrayal here by the legendary Simone Signoret that she has not fallen into oblivion.

The real Amélie Hélie ended by marrying an ordinary workman and died forgotten on 16 April 1933. She was buried in the cemetery of Bagnolet.

No comments:

Post a Comment