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.

The Killers (1964)

I had to watch the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. After all, it was in the same DVD set. I didn’t have great expectations, but this powerful film captivated me.

Starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, with Ronald Reagan in a smaller role, The Killers begins at a school for the blind. Two hit men enter looking for Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The rough up the blind secretary and plow their way into North’s class for mechanics. They shoot North dead and make their escape. The contrast between a school for the blind and ruthless criminals is powerful.

After killing North, Charlie Storm (Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are on a training Charlie can’t help ruminating over why Johnny didn’t try to evade his murder. He completely accepted it. Johnny was so unlike every other victim. Why?

Another question is Who? Who paid Charlie and Lee $25K when they’d never been paid more than $10K for a hit. Again, why? Why so much?

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So Charlie and Lee switch trains in Chicago and go down to Miami and begin to find out all they can about Johnny North. They soon learn that Johnny was a race car driver, that he fell head over heels for Sheila (Dickinson), a beauty who loves racing and Johnny. She keeps her sugar daddy Micky Farmer. Wining and dining Sheila leaves Johnny ill prepared for the big race. Not only that Micky is in the stands and is not pleased with what he sees with his binoculars. Disaster strikes when Johnny loses control of his car and winds up losing.

It’s clear that Johnny should avoid Sheila at all costs, but he just can’t and she winds up entangling him in Micky’s plan to rob a mail truck that’s carrying a million bucks.

Though the story’s been told before and it’s all done in flashback, The Killer’s kept my attention. The characters are cold blooded, yet passionate. Not one is able to walk away from danger. They have to play the game out to the bloody end. This film has 1960’s cool and a gripping plot. I do recommend seeing both the 1946 and 1964 versions. While you’re at it check on the Tarkovsky short.

Fun Facts

  • The Killers (1964) was supposed to be a TV film, but it had too much violence and sex so it was released in theaters.
  • It was the only film with Ronald Reagan as a bad guy and he hated the film.
  • The director Don Siegel was supposed to direct the 1946 one.
  • Siegel wanted to call the film Johnny North, but the bean counters at Universal said no film with a direction like “North” ever made much money.
  • They shot the last scene first as was usual for a Universal film. Lee Marvin was dead drunk and came 5 hours late. Despite his state, he nailed the scene.
  • This version doesn’t contain a single line of dialog from the short story.

 

The Killers – Tarkovsky (1956)

As a student, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky collaborated on a short film based on Hemingway’s The Killers, which I found on YouTube. At 19 minutes long it packs a punch just as the 1946 version does.

Tarkovsky directed the first and third scenes. He also plays a customer who whistles a tune while he’s in the diner. According to a Criterion Collection essay that tune was common on Voice of America and in Russia came to represent freedom.The Killers is a good introduction to Tarkovsky whose masterpiece Andrei Rublev is over 3 hours long.

The Killers (1946)

Based on the 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is straight up film noir. Directed by Robert Siodmak, he film begins with two hit men entering a sleepy small town and terrorizing the staff at the dinner. When they find out where the “Old Swede” (Burt Lancaster) lives, they complete their job. The odd thing is the Old Swede expects and accepts his fate.”

Reardon, An insurance investigator, is called in to find the Swede’s beneficiary. As the investigation progresses we learn about the Swede’s life and how he went from a failing boxer, to a robber, and how his love for a femme fatal named Kitty (Ava Gardner) was his downfall.

The insurance company doesn’t see the worth of pursuing the Swede’s decline or the big heist of $250,000 as it will minimally impact the ledger balance, but Reardon persuades his boss for a few days leeway. The story mainly consists of flashbacks, which are taboo in Hollywood, at least according to most screenwriting books, but they work. Each old acquaintance or lady friend has insight into the Swede.

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The Criterion Collection DVD comes with bonus commentaries and I recommend watching the one with award winning master writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky who explains the birth of film noir, which was brought over to the US from German directors who emigrated here and how the films got darker and darker with time. Then the New Wave French became enamored of the style and coined the term Film Noir. Kaminsky offers his insights into the success of the story and both the 1946 and 1964 film versions. The DVD set has both of these versions and next I’ll watch the 1964 film with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.

Sepia Saturday

200422 : Sepia Saturday 519 Header, 9 May 2020

Another week of inspiration from Sepia Saturday, my source of inspiration for nostalgia or history. The photo above reminded me of the two young criminals Leopold and Loeb. Note the boys above look like fine, upstanding citizens. But so did the pair of wealthy boys from Chicago, who schemed to commit murder.

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While in their 20s partners in crime Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb carried out their plot to kidnap and murder 14 year old Bobby Frank. They requested $10,000 ransom from their victim’s parents.

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Loeb (l) and Leopold (r)

Clarence Darrow defended the pair in court and convinced the judge to give them life in prison rather than the death sentence. Many books and some films have told their story.

To see other interpretations of this week’s prompt, click here.

 

Lost Girls

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Lost Girls resembles a made-for-TV-movie more than a feature film. Working class single mom, Mari Gilbert, played by Amy Ryan of The Office, tries to reach out to her estranged daughter. The girl goes missing and  when numerous bodies are discovered in Long Island, Mari presses the police to find her daughter. The first officer in charge sees Gilbert as an annoyance. He’s got a smarmy demeanor and seems fishy. Gilbert’s only help is the Police Captain played by Gabriel Byrne, yet Gilbert doesn’t trust anyone.

Based on a true story, Lost Girls is a moving story, but there’s nothing that distinguishes it from say a Law and Order: SVU. 

Seen at Sundance

The Suspect

suspectWhen two high school graduates, Alex and Rosie head to Thailand for a gap year, they’re looking for fun, for escape from the pressures their suburban parents put on them. Yet they land in a seedy guesthouse. The girls go missing and British journalist Kate Waters is assigned to get the scoop on what happened.

Kate’s your average intrepid reporter and is gung ho about getting the story right and first. She’s married with two sons, one of whom dropped out of university and went off to Thailand to save the turtles. When the two teens disappeared, Kate volunteers to do the reporting hoping to make a side trip to the Thai island where her son is volunteering.

Alex and Rosie are found dead in the cold storage of a sleazy guest house. Kate’s world is further rocked when it turns out her son isn’t volunteering and never did. He’s implicated in the girls’ murders. He’s been floating around Bangkok doing drugs and working at the same guest house where these girls stayed.

While this was a quick read and I enjoy stories set in locales the world over, The Suspect’s characters didn’t appeal to me. Alex was rather whiny and should have parted ways with her travel companion early on. Kate’s son was a wimp and a waster, who was good at manipulating his mother. Mama, who owned the guest house was the stereotypical “Me speak English good” dodgy foreigner.

I pity anyone who hasn’t been to Thailand who reads this book. In my book club today a few people fell into that group and they were repelled by the idea of going there. Thailand has its seedy side like many countries, but that’s not all there is.

The Upturned Glass (1947)

Part of a DVD set with three great British thrillers, The Upturned Glass stars James Mason as an ultra serious neurosurgeon who tells a college class about a case of a sane man murdering in cold blood. We soon figure out that Mason’s Dr. Michael Young is the “sane” murderer he believes exists. Dr. Michael Young meets Emma Wright whose daughter has a condition that will lead to blindness unless this talented surgeon can operate right away. As the case progresses and the girl improves, Michael and Emma grow close. Both have spouses far away and they continue seeing each other after the girl’s treatment ends. Of course, they fall in love.

So why the need for murder?

Emma is found dead and Michael attends the inquest. He can’t believe it’s an accident. He notices some strange glances between Emma’s daughter and her jealous, greedy sister-in-law, who learns that Emma has cheated on her brother. The two were never close and this was the sister-in-law’s reason to get even.

This superstar surgeon is soon taking matters into his own hands.

The film had lots of unpredictable turns and kept my attention from the first scene. Hitchcock drew upon it for some of his later films. It’s sure to entertain.

Glass Houses

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I enjoyed my first taste of Louise Penny’s work, Glass Houses. Set in a small Canadian town, this police/detective with hero Chief Inspector Gamanche break the most basic rules o policing in hopes of combatting two drug cartels, one Canadian and one US. Woven into this story is a spooky storyline with a mysterious character shrouded in black robes. Gamache soon learns about the legend of the Cobrador, the dark figure who stalks and scares those with guilty consciences. In Spain a Cobrador was a dramatic means of scaring people who were guilty of something or who owed a debt, i.e. a way to shame someone.

While Gamanche is trying to catch the drug runners in his questionable way, a Cobrador comes to his small town and is soon found dead.

Penny crafted characters I enjoyed. Her plot was daring and well-paced. I listened to the audiobook and the narrator was superb. I can’t imagine reading the paper version and having a better experience.

There were portions where I wish the style was tighter, but all-in-all I recommend Glass Houses for any mystery fan.

A Beautiful Blue Death

bluedeathI learned about Charles Finch’s A Beautiful Blue Death at Citizen Reader’s blog. Again her recommendation was spot on. Finch’s first novel, a mystery introduced me to amateur detective Charles Lennox. Lennox’s friend Lady Jane asks him to look into the death of her former maid Prudence Smith.

Lennox is very much cut from the same cloth as Sherlock Holmes, though he’s polished his social skill more than Benedict Cumberbach’s Sherlock. His right hand man is Dr. Mitchell, these amateur detectives are shrewd to have a close friend who can analyze poison, dead bodies and such. Graham is Lennox’s butler who’s willing to go to the ends of the earth for his boss.

Strong, fascinating female characters include

“Pru” is an interesting victim. She entrances me and as Lennox investigates he keeps learning of yet another lover. She appears to have been a strong woman who spoke up for herself and for what’s right, which is how she wound dead.

Following the Holmesian path, Lennox must deal with an inept Scotland Yard and that’s lead by Exeter, who’s about 5 steps behind Lennox vis-a-vis science and logic.

A Beautiful Blue Death has a smooth style and kept surprising me till the very last pages. Though Finch is American, his tone and style were very British. I’ll read more in this smart, delightful series.