Le Doulos

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 classic noir gangster film Le Doulous blew me away. Beinning simply with ex-con Maurice walking though a squalid neighborhood, it soon delivered its first of several completely surprising murders. Maurice visits his friend Gilbert, who gives him information and offers cash to tide him over with the promise of more. After Maurice asks Gilbert to borrow a gun, he turns the gun on his old friend. It’s the first of several betrayals and murders.

Maurice then grabs Gilbert’s cash and all the jewel’s he’s reworking and was going to fence. Before he’s out of the house, Maurice hears a car drive up and he scrambles to escape and stash the jewels and money. Nuttheccio and Armand, big time gangsters, were to get the jewels from Gilbert and when they see he’s dead. Maurice manages to flee and bury the loot.

Next thing we see is Maurice is at his girlfriend Thérèse’s apartment preparing to meet his crony Rémy to carry out their heist. Maurice and Rémy’s jewel heist fails with both Rémy and the victim killed and Maurice is shot and passes out. Selien visits Thérèse and brutally beats her to find out Maurice’s whereabouts. Somehow Maurice winds up at a friends home where a doctor is tending to his wound, while Selein appears to be double crossing him with the police.

Melville treats us to a well lit, dark gangster film that pays homage to American gangster films while exploring friendship, loyalty and betrayal. The plot is loaded with shocks and surprises till the last scenes. There isn’t one point that didn’t hold my attention.

The Criterion Collection DVD is now unavailable, but many libraries probably have it. Mine did. Besides the masterful film there are bonus items like two interviews with directors who began as Melville’s apprentices and an analysis of three pivotal scenes.

From these extrasI learned that Melville always had to be at war with some one on the set. He built an apartment cum studio and his apartment was decorated in a New York rather than Parisian style. He tried to make this film look as American as possible. On the first day of filming he’d say “Good Morning” to everyone working on the film then he’d announce that he would not be wasting time with these greetings in the days ahead. He had no time for that!

Memories of Melville’s Army of Shadows led me to find another film of his and I’m glad I did.

All Through the Night

If you’re looking for a fun gangster movie with a message, pick up All Through the Night (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart, Conrad Veldt, who played Major Strasser in Casablanca, and Peter Lorre, who was also in Casablanca, William Demerast (of My Three Sons), Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. Bogart plays Gloves Donnahue, head of a minor gang of gamblers in New York. Devoted to his dear old mother, when she calls Gloves because she’s got a weird feeling about the disappearance of the baker who lives below her, Gloves comes running. Soon the baker’s body’s found and Gloves gets wrongly implicated in the man’s murder.

To get the police off his case, Gloves must get to the bottom of this mystery and he soon encounters a group of Nazi spies operating under the U.S. government’s nose, planning all sorts of evil. Some romance is added to the story through a pretty German singer Gloves meets. Whether she should be trusted remains to be seen.

The film moves briskly and there are plenty of quips in every scene, as you’d expect in a Bogart film. By the end, the jaded gamblers are protecting their country and offering examples to the audience on how we should all band together. All through the night entertains, despite its occasional hokey joke.

Casque D’or

casque d'or

I didn’t know what to expect when I borrowed Casque D’or from the library. One surprise was that the heroine, Marie, was played by Simone Signoret, who gave a forceful performance in Army of Shadows. Marie is a a gangster’s moll and outshines her friends, not only with her cascading blonde hair, but with her vivacious spirit. The film opens with scenes that come right out of a Renoir painting. A party of young lovers rowing along a river followed by a lively dance hall scene. Marie stands out as she is the only woman who’s rowing a boat and she stands up to her boorish, abusive boyfriend.

(It was hard to believe that Marie, who’s so self-assured, would give such a churl the time of day, but the plot requires that.)

In the dance hall we first see a dozen or so upper class men and women enter to take a good look at their “inferiors.” From their comments it’s clear that they’re hear for the entertainment of watching how people who aren’t dripping in diamonds behave.

Soon the attention turns to Marie’s friends, the gangsters and their girls. Ever petulant, Marie’s boyfriend Roland takes an immediate dislike to Manda a carpenter who catches Marie’s eye. Manda is a friend of one of the gangsters and introduces himself to Marie’s set and holds his head high as they mock him because he’s a carpenter. He is confident enough to let their jokes roll of his back and he accepts Marie’s offer of a dance.

Hothead, Roland is furious and a fight with Manda ensues. Overseen by the gang’s boss, Felix, who also has a thing for Marie, Roland and Manda fight in a way I’ve never seen in a film. First both men are searched and any weapons are confiscated. The two men are spit far apart and Felix tosses a knife to the ground and the first man to get it,can use it on his opponent. Roland gets the knife. The fight is deftly shot with many close ups and felt realer than any I’ve seen. In the end Manda kills Roland, which sets up the story.

Banda must flee, but Marie pursues him and while Manda hides out Marie is with him and their romance grows. Smitten with spunky Marie, Felix plots to get Felix arrested and sacrifices one of his own men to lure Manda into captivity. The ending is bold and theme of loyalty and Marie’s life-giving spirit make this a must-see.

Dragnet Girl by Ozu

tokiko

Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

dragnet girl

Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.