Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Tuesday, 6pm
Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Tuesday, 6pm
A continuation of the list of essential pre-Nouvelle Vague French sound era movie titles that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1946 – 1959.
La Belle et la Bete (Cocteau, 1946)
Jean Cocteau, with an uncredited assist from Rene Clement, directed this beautiful and poetic adaptation of the well-known fairy tale about a young woman, Belle, who sacrifices herself to a grotesque half-man/half-beast creature in order to save her father’s life. But the more she gets to know the beast, the more she realizes his hideous exterior conceals a sensitive soul . . . This was a belated follow-up to Cocteau’s Surrealist classic debut, The Blood of a Poet, and it was worth the wait. A million miles from the Disney-fication of such material, Cocteau’s film begins with the unforgettable title card “…and now, we begin our story with a phrase that is like a time machine for children: Once Upon a Time…” and then proceeds to capture the true essence of fairy tales, with all of the darkness that implies.
Jour de Fete (Tati, 1949)
Jacques Tati’s underrated first feature is a delightful slapstick comedy about Francois (Tati himself as a forerunner to his beloved M. Hulot character), a rural postman who becomes obsessed with delivering mail efficiently after viewing a documentary on the high-tech U.S. Postal Service. Although there is dialogue in the film, it remains secondary to Tati’s incredible sight gags, which rival the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their sheer ingenuity (the runaway bicycle scene is a standout). This was shot in a primitive color process known as Thomson Color though not seen that way until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. A revelation.
Le Silence de la Mer (Melville, 1949)
Jean-Pierre Melville was a spiritual godfather to the Nouvelle Vague not only because his work expressed such an obvious love of cinema but also due to the fierce independence evidenced by the low-budget/shot-on-location/documentary-style aesthetic of his early films. This self-financed World War II drama concerns a German soldier (Howard Vernon) who takes up residence with an elderly Frenchman and his niece while convalescing from a wound. Neither of the French characters speak a word as the German regales them with verbose monologues but the niece eventually falls in love with the soldier, a feeling on which she will never be able to act. This austere and intimate chamber drama is played out as a series of carefully orchestrated glances aided by a use of voice-over narration that would clearly influence not just the New Wave but Robert Bresson as well.
Casque d’Or (Becker, 1952)
Jacques Becker’s magnificent recreation of La Belle Epoque is an exquisite romantic melodrama about a gangster’s moll (a terrific Simone Signoret) who also becomes the object of affection of two other men – with predictably tragic results. But Casque d’Or (the film takes its title from the nickname of Signoret’s character) is less about plot than atmosphere. All of the period details feel correct but it is the beautiful cinematography of Robert Lefebvre that elevates this to the front rank of the best French movies ever; the almost overly-bright, poetic, Impressionistic images lend the movie a nostalgic tone even when, or perhaps especially when, the story is at its darkest.
The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, 1953)
Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find their perfect complement in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, 1953)
Jacques Tati’s classic comedy, the first outing for his legendary M. Hulot character, opens with a sly title card asking the viewer not to expect a plot since the movie is about a holiday and holidays are meant to be fun. From there we follow the bumbling title character as he arrives at a beach-side resort hotel and, in a series of plotless and near wordless scenes, proceeds to comically wreak havoc everywhere he goes. (Especially memorable is Hulot’s riotous visit to the tennis court.) Not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well.
The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of machismo details the harrowing adventures of four down-on-their-luck European expatriates in Venezuela who agree to the extremely dangerous job of transporting truckloads of nitroglycerine across South American mountain roads in exchange for a large sum of money. This is a gritty, tense, brutal and undeniably exciting adventure movie that also offers, in the character of an anti-union American oil company boss, an intriguing critique of capitalism besides. The Wages of Fear deservedly made Yves Montand an international star and went on to exert a big influence on Sam Peckinpah who tipped his hat to the opening of this film with a similar children-torturing-insects scene at the beginning of The Wild Bunch many years later.
French Cancan (Renoir, 1954)
After a 15 year exile, in part due to the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Renoir’s homecoming saw him reunite with actor Jean Gabin to create the most distinctly Gallic film of his famed career. French Cancan tells the story of Henri Danglard (Gabin at his most charismatic), the womanizing impresario who founds the Moulin Rouge and helps to inaugurate the Cancan dance craze while staying just a half-step ahead of his creditors. Françoise Arnoul and Maria Felix play Danglard’s rival romantic interests, both of whom realize that they will have to take a back seat to the scoundrel’s true love: his career. Renoir’s gorgeous visual style takes its cues from the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, most impressively in the Cancan climax, which I’ve described elsewhere on this site as a “near orgiastic riot of form and color.”
Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Becker, 1954)
Jacques Becker segues from the underworld of La Belle Epoque in Casque d’Or to the gangsters of the modern world in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a massively influential crime/noir film that laid down a template for Jean-Pierre Melville and many others to follow. The plot centers on Max (Gabin again, this time in world-weary mode), an aging gangster whose retirement after a last big score proves short-lived when his former partner is kidnapped and he is asked to put up their loot as ransom. Marvelous black and white cinematography compliments what is essentially a love story between two men, plus Gabin gets to slap a lot of people around. Look sharp for future stars Lino Ventura and Jeanne Moreau in minor roles.
Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955)
The true story of the infamous slut of the title (Martine Carol) whose sexual appetite was so voracious that she wound up becoming a 19th century circus attraction. As Rafael Nadal once said, “How crazy is the life?” Max Ophuls’ great final film features an ambitiously non-chronological structure, a la Citizen Kane, that alternates between present day scenes where the circus ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) recounts Lola’s exploits with flashback scenes to her youth, beginning with a tryst with Franz Liszt and continuing through many other men. Ophuls’ trademark bravura visual style is taken to an almost freakish extreme with the addition of Eastmancolor but Carol’s performance is the key here; she and Ophuls conspire to make Lola a figure of intense sympathy and identification throughout. Unfortunately, Lola Montes was a commercial disaster upon release and was soon heavily recut from its original 140 minute version. The recent restoration, which can be seen on Criterion’s magnificent 115 minute blu-ray, is the most complete the film is ever likely to be.
Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1956)
The film where Melville became Melville. With a tip of his fedora to The Asphalt Jungle, the brilliant French writer/director tells an irresistible shaggy dog heist story about one Bob Montagne, an aging gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak. Eventually, Bob’s bad luck causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. Melville’s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it and his mise-en-scene, with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black and white checkerboard patterns, set a new standard for cinematic cool.
A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)
Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French Lieutenant’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearably intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.
Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)
Robert Bresson’s loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment transposes Dostoevsky’s novel to contemporary Paris, replacing Raskolnikov’s senseless murder of an old woman with the story of a young man who drifts into a life of crime for which he was not made. What remains the same are the hero’s confused Nietzschean beliefs, the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the local police inspector and the hint of spiritual rehabilitation that is triggered by the love of a young woman. The actual pickpocketing sequences are virtuoso pieces of camera choreography but, as in all of Bresson’s movies, the sum is greater than its individual parts, resulting in a deeply moving, spiritually exultant work of art.
Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).
The Top Ten (preferential order):
10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray
This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!
9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray
Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.
8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray
Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.
7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray
Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.
6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray
French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.
5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray
The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.
4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray
Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.
3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray
Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.
2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD
If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.
1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray
F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.
Runners Up (alphabetical order):
11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)
“The Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle, saying: ‘When men, though unaware of it, must meet again someday, they may follow diverging paths to the given day when, ineluctably, they will be reunited within the red circle.'” — Rama Krishna
“All men are guilty.” — L’inspecteur général de la police
While watching Studio Canal’s newly released Blu-ray of Le Cercle Rouge, it struck me that Jean-Pierre Melville is to the French crime film what Sergio Leone is to the Spaghetti western: Melville, like Leone, made outrageously entertaining films that reflected a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, the conventions of which he inflated to a near-operatic scale after refracting them through his own unique cultural sensibility. And there is evidence that Melville wanted Le Cercle Rouge to be his magnum opus, as Once Upon a Time in the West was for Leone; it was his penultimate film and is permeated by a mood of fatalism even more pronounced than usual for this master of film noir. At times it feels like an epic, self-conscious attempt to outdo every heist picture ever made, including The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi and Melville’s own Le Doulos. As a series of bravura set pieces and a statement of existential despair, it just might succeed.
The quote that begins Le Cercle Rouge is a bit of nonsense attributed to Rama Krishna but apparently invented by Melville himself to justify the chief narrative contrivance of his plot: Vogel (Gian Maria Volante), a murderer who has just escaped police custody, seeks refuge in the car trunk of Corey (Alain Delon – to Melville what Clint Eastwood was to Leone), a man he has never met but who happens to be a master criminal just released from prison. The two form a fast friendship and immediately conspire to rob a jewelry store with the aid of one of Vogel’s acquaintances, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (French icon Yves Montand).
Vogel and Corey aren’t the only two characters fated to meet within the “red circle.” Joining them is Mattei (Bourvil), a police detective hot on the trail of Vogel who appears to be the opposite number of our criminal protagonists while being simultaneously cut from the same cloth as them. Mattei describes himself as a “hunter” and Vogel as “intelligent prey”; in other words, while on opposite sides of the law, he considers Vogel a worthy adversary. (Mattei is also visually linked to Corey through his steely blue eyes, trench coat and fedora.) At first, Mattei balks at his superior’s claim that men are born innocent but, without exception, become guilty during the course of their lives. By the end of the film, however, he seems to recognize the tragic kinship he has with the men he is hunting. They are all “guilty”; it’s just a question of to what degree.
The highlight of Le Cercle Rouge is the film’s climactic heist sequence, which is sustained for an exhilarating twenty five minutes (about 20% of the film’s two hour and twenty minute running time) and contains no dialogue. We watch, hypnotized, as the trio of robbers break into the building, take a security guard hostage, disable a series of alarms and clear the joint out of $20 million dollars worth of merchandise. The surgical precision with which they pull off the operation is mirrored by the rigorousness of Melville’s elegant camera movements and deft cutting. This sequence, from the muted colors to the balletic choreography of the performers, is the epitome of cool. How cool is it? It’s so cool that you can’t help but feel cool just by watching it.
Because the film’s drama has its origins in Melville’s movie memories, it is arguable that the most prominent quality of Le Cercle Rouge is its cinephilia. In the age of Quentin Tarantino (who has repeatedly cited Melville as someone who proved you could make a movie if you simply loved movies enough), this may not sound like a big deal. But Melville was the prototypical cinephile-filmmaker, pre-dating the Nouvelle Vague by more than a decade and always examining genre conventions in a way that was both critical and playful. For instance, in Le Cercle Rouge you know who the characters are not because of what they say but because of their trench coats, fedoras and the fact that they smoke a lot. This iconic “costume,” based on the look of American movie gangsters, had been employed by Melville since the mid-1950s but by 1970, the sense of disconnect between the “real” France and Melville’s iconographic images was pronounced to the point of abstraction. The Paris of Le Cercle Rouge is a Paris that only existed in Melville’s imagination: a jazz-inflected, nocturnal world populated by professional, well-dressed and taciturn criminals, all of whom drive classic American cars. This is a Paris in which rock and roll and the Nouvelle Vague do not exist and the events of May 1968 never happened.
I hasten to add that Melville’s lack of engagement with contemporary society does not mean Le Cercle Rouge lacks a moral dimension. On the contrary, Melville’s morality is precisely the difference between him and most of his imitators and I would argue that the film’s theological inquiry into the nature of evil is its raison d’etre. Melville was deeply concerned with the concepts of right and wrong and there’s a sense in each of his films that he believed in the importance of conducting oneself the “right” way, especially in the face of certain death. Melville’s concept of the right way to live (and die) has to do with old fashioned values such as honor, loyalty to one’s friends and chivalry, all of which are exemplified by Delon’s Corey. Melville may even have had Corey in mind when he delivered one of my favorite of his many memorable quotes: “Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my ‘heroes’ – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I’m only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself.” (Film Dope, 42, October 1989 p.16)
To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, Melville must have been some kind of a man.
Studio Canal’s new high definition transfer of Le Cercle Rouge is unquestionably the best presentation the film has ever received on home video. It corrects every flaw in the standard definition Criterion release from several years ago. Most notably, it restores the film’s original deep-blue color scheme, which perversely skewed more towards green on the Criterion. It also sports a healthy amount of film grain; there were times when I felt like I was seeing a 35mm print being projected onto my television screen. Finally, it should be noted that this is a dark, dark movie. The interiors are illuminated by low-key lighting and the exteriors seem to always take place at night or during the day when everything is bathed in the indirect light of a dusky sunset. Because darkness has always been the enemy of compression, this Blu-ray represents a more substantial leap in quality than the typical HD upgrade.
Although Studio Canal has tended to be hit or miss in terms of Blu-ray image and sound quality thus far, Le Cercle Rouge is one of their most impressive releases, alongside of Belle de Jour. It is a very welcome addition to my library.
25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)
A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.
24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)
21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)
20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)
19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)
18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)
17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)
16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)
Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.
15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)
14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)
13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)
Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.
12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.
11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)
Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.
10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)
My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.
9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”
8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)
Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.
7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)
6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)
A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.
5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)
The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.
4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)
3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)
Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”
2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a boy oversee the arduous process of casting a giant bell. The boy saves himself from execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that comes off as a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to go on and create his greatest works.
1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)
Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique qualities of stillness, slowness and whiteness are perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.