For the last two years, I have spent the months of October and November viewing movies through a theme. In October, I’ve naturally watched as many horror movies as I could, and in November, I’ve been a part of #Noirvember (November + Film Noir). Like most people, I suppose I typically watched movies randomly. I turn on various streaming services, or look through my DVD collection and watch whatever looks interesting at that moment. It has been really fun to watch movies through a theme.
At the end of both of these months, I’ve thought of ways of extending this idea. Two years ago, I tried to create themes for the other months of the year - December was Christmas movies, January foreign films, and February would be for Oscar winners. But that almost immediately failed as I didn’t do the prep work. If you are going to watch films with a theme, you need to find movies that fit into that theme via an available service.
This past year I thought it would be fun to have an artist of the month. I’d choose a director, or actor, or perhaps a producer or writer and watch as many movies from them in a given month. December was meant to be Martin Scorsese month. He’d just released The Irishman and had bad-mouthed Marvel movies so that seemed appropriate. Then a huge pile of review material landed on my doorstep and I didn’t have any time for Marty.
By January, I had forgotten all about this concept and was flipping through my streaming services for something interesting. I landed on Le Cercle Rouge by director Jean-Pierre Melville. I’d been meaning to watch some films from him and I’d heard good things about this one. Plus it was a crime story and I’m a sucker for those. The movie was quite good so I watched another one by Melville - Le Deuxième Souffle. Before I knew it, I was watching Le Samourai and suddenly, I realized I was watching a bunch of films by one director. My theme was born by accident.
With luck and some work, I’ll continue each month with new artists. It could be another director, but it might be an actor, writer, or producer. Or I might just go back to randomly watching things. Only time will tell.
Le Cercle Rouge
This was the first Melville film I watched but it was the second to last film he made. By this point, he had honed his skills within an inch of their life. To watch Le Circle Rouge is to watch a master at work. Like many of Melville’s films, this one involves crooks and cops, mobsters and the law. All of them have a code. All of them are as cool as ice. All of them dress and act as they belong in a 1930s film noir, not on the streets of 1960s Paris.
The plot involves Corey (Alain Delon), who has just been released from prison, and Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), who has just broken out of prison. When Corey stops at a cafe for sustenance, Vogel slips into the trunk of his car unnoticed (or so he thinks). Corey drives off into a secluded spot in the country then tells Vogel to get out of the car. The two size each other up then Corey tells Vogel to get back in the trunk for Paris is his best chance at survival. Vogel does what he says. A little later, some gunmen are looking for Corey (who took some money from a mob boss). They pull the car over only to discover Vogel in the trunk with a gun pointed straight at them.
Scene after scene has the same cool, understated sensibilities. There is a plot, but it's in service to Melville’s ultra-hip style. There is an excellent heist scene that runs nearly 30 minutes without any dialogue, but that too is not the point. Melville is the point. The characters and their code is the point. Style is the point. I don’t really know what the point is but dang if I didn’t love watching it to find out.
Le Deuxième Souffle
Another crook escapes another prison. Here, the crook is named Gu (Lino Ventura) and the escape involves a thrilling scene on a train. In Paris, he goes to the house of his lover Manouche (Christine Fabréga) only to find two goons trying to rob her. He dispatches them quickly and efficiently. He is yet another cool, detached criminal who lives by a code (mainly, don’t rat on anybody no matter the personal cost). He’s followed by police inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) and the film follows them on parallel tracks playing cat and mouse. Gu needs to do one last score before he can leave the country and live a quiet life.
Made in 1966, Le Deuxième Souffle was Melville’s third noirish crime drama and by this point, he had completely developed his themes and style. He’d perfected it. Melville loved the look and feel of classic noir. His characters dress like Bogart and speak in stylized tones. They drive big American cars and behave in a manner that only makes sense on film. Nobody in real life would live that type of code perfectly, but on film it makes sense and looks totally cool.
My wife and I lived in Strasbourg, France for about 10 months in 2004. We lived in a tiny studio apartment. We didn't have a TV. I brought with me a couple of dozen DVDs which we watched on my laptop. We ran through them pretty quickly. Then watched them again because there was nothing else to watch.
About halfway into our stay there, we discovered the public library. It had a very large collection of DVDs, but almost all of them were rented out at any given time. They had this small carousel at the front full of what DVDs were available on any given day. The selection changed quickly as people brought back what they had loaned out and got something else. But you never knew what you were going to get.
One day, we checked out Le Samourai. I knew nothing about it and had never seen a film by Melville. But I liked samurai movies so that the title had me sold. From the cover, I knew it wasn't going to be a real samurai movie, but figured it would be something like Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai (which is a film about a modern contract killer who follows the samurai code). It was nothing like that film, at least not in tone or execution (though watching Le Samourai now I realize that Ghost Dog is a definite homage to it). I was very disappointed. I was surprised to learn it was so well regarded.
All these years later I have finally returned to Le Samourai. Seeing it within the context of all the other Melville films I've watched this week and having grown as a cinephile in the decade-plus since my first viewing, I've come to see how wrong my first impression was. Le Samourai is a great film.
I love the idea of a modern killer living by this ancient code. I love that he bases his decisions without any apparent emotion. I love the way Melville keeps the action calm and cool. I freaking love Alan Delon's performance in it. I love that the piano player at the club has a much nicer apartment than the contract killer.
Bob le Flambeur
This was my fourth Melville film watched in just over a week. It was also my least favorite. Melville made more than just gangster films and crime dramas, but that's all I've watched of his films thus far. I don't know if it was that four films with similar aesthetics and themes was one film too much. Or if watching Le Samurai literally in the middle of Bob le Flambeur (my wife and I started Bob one night but became too tired to finish it. The next night she was busy so I watched Le Samouri, and then we finished Bob the following evening) confused the plot lines. Or maybe it was that the protagonists of the other films are super cool and Bob is kind of a sad-sack. Whatever the reasons, this one definitely felt like a lesser film.
Bob used to be cool. He was a criminal but after he got caught and spent time in prison, he's been on the straight and narrow - well, as straight and narrow as one can be if one is a compulsive gambler. He's clearly had better days, but of late he's been on a long losing streak. Enough of a losing streak that he hatches a plan to rob a casino. He plans it well, but there are several moments in which he should back away from the entire thing and doesn't. It is a film in which you know is not going to end well for our hero, and not to spoil it but many things go wrong.
It is a good film, just not as stylish and endlessly cool as the others. It is a film I should watch again in a few years to see how it plays when I'm not in the midst of a Melville marathon.
This is where I admit that after watching five crime films from the same director they are all starting to blend together. While writing this piece, I’ve had to go back and read the plot synopsis of each film because I could no longer remember which piece of action took place in which film.
Le Doulos was the last film I watched this week. Due to various circumstances, I had to split my viewing up over a couple of nights and I had trouble following the plot in the second half. My wife and I kept pausing it to hash out who had done what to whom (or was that in the other movie?)
I was pleased to find that in the last act one of the characters has an Agatha Christie type moment where he sits down with another character and explains just what he’s been up to this whole time. You see it wasn’t just my sleep-deprived mind that was having trouble understanding what was happening, but a trick by Melville to fool the audience. In that scene, we are treated to flashbacks which fill in the missing parts so that everything makes sense. Or at least makes more sense. I’m not sure I could explain what happened to you right now, or even five minutes after the credits rolled.
It is perhaps his most noir-filled of his noir-inspired movies. That’s a genre which wasn’t exactly known for sensible plots and as I’ve already admitted this one doesn’t. Every character dresses in similar trench coats and hats. They all smoke cigarettes at every moment. There are slinky dames and cocktail bars. Crooked cops and double-crosses. Shadows dart across the screen and light only illuminates what Melville wants it to.
Of all the Melville films I’ve watched this week, this is the one I want to watch again. Not only because my sleepy brain had such trouble following along with the story, but because this is the cinematic world I love to live in. I love all this stuff Melville had put into this film and I want to return to it over and over again.
RIP Neil Peart (1952-2020)
[This is the part where I say I'm not a huge Rush fan, but I realize Neil Peart was a huge part of rock and roll so I've asked Gordon S. Miller to say a couple of words]
The summer of 2015, Rush (Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Neil Peart) went out on 35-date tour of North America to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Peart's joining the band. Though it was never confirmed at the time, there were suggestions that this was their farewell tour. In interviews, it was noted that Lifeson and Peart were experiencing aches and pains in their bodies that made it difficult performing up to their standards, and Peart wanted to spend more time with his wife and young daughter. The band wasn't ending, but a tour of this size likely wouldn't happen again. After the tour, Peart announced he had retired followed by a clarification by Lee that the band was taking a break. As the years passed, Rush fans hoped there was a ghost of a chance the trio would create new music and/or perform again in some capacity. On January 10, fans gave up their collective dream as news broke of Peart dying on Jan 7 from glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
Peart was beloved by fans for his intricate drumming and also as a lyricist who told a variety of stories from the struggles of the individual, such as "Freewill"; the sci-fi suite "2112," which tells about a protaganist living under an oppressive regime"; and "Subdivisions" about young people conforming to society's expectations, to Peart's struggles as an individual, such as "Limelight" where he talks about his dealing with fame and the audience.
Neil Peart Drum Solo
The Sessions: Neil Peart Tribute