Paisà (1946)

Paisà has stayed in my mind not because paisa florenceof the stories it tells, but because of the sheer power of its images: bombed cities, the familiar landmarks in ruins, as in this scene from the “Florence” segment of the film. In the stark afternoon light, the damage is laid bare. What does it matter, that an American nurse has fallen in love with a painter, now a partisan, Lupo, who is most likely dead? The destruction of the city with its precious art is the true subject. With every scene, I was peering past the actors, trying to catch another glimpse of the crumbling Duomo. Germans bombed the bridges and destroyed more than a third of Florence’s medieval monuments.

The Florence that we and successive generations of men since the days of the Medici knew and loved is no more,” wrote one of the American art historians sent to survey the damage. “Of all the world’s artistic losses in the war, this one is the saddest.

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The backgrounds stun, while the main action gets in the way. Caves in Naples where impoverished families lived among the rubble: Rossellini happened upon them and reworked the story to show the incredible squalor, after the Allied bombing and the booby-traps set by the retreating Germans. I’ve read accounts of these sites by soldiers of the liberating armies, but I couldn’t have imagined the reality until he showed it to me.

The haunting landscape of the Po Deltabody in boat in Italy’s north, where the final sequence of Paisà takes place, did not incorporate any documentary footage. A handful of American OSS operatives are working behind-the-lines with Italian partisans. The odds are against them, bleak weather complicating their efforts to get weapons and ammunition. Rossellini brought me there, paddling with them in long, flat boats through the reeds under overcast skies.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

What a sweet comedy.

Alec Guinness plays a self-effacing clerk, Henry Holland, who oversees the manufacturing of gold ingots for a London bank. Fastidious to a fault, unambitious, he seems destined to remain in his underpaid position. We see him coming home at night to the boardinghouse where he rents a room, reading crime stories to an elderly spinster in the drawing room while she knits. But then a new lodger arrives, a rather flamboyant character, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway): an artist who manufactures cheap souvenirs for the tourist trade.

Jot it down as a picture that you will find it best to see when your mood is mellow and your sense of righteousness is slightly askew. For here again is a frolic that, like “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” indulges a serene and casual tolerance for undisguised lawlessness in man.

Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review.

The chumminess between Holloway and Guinness as they plot to steal a truckload of gold from Holland’s employer and melt it down at Pendlebury’s foundry to produce miniature Eiffel Towers for export to Paris brought to mind the affectionate scheming of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. The humor is gentler here, but there’s a similar zaniness to the plot, and the caper ends in much the same way.

The Lavender Hill Mob was shot on location in postwar London, and you can still see the damage. Rationing was still in effect in 1951, and the smog hung heavy over the city. Escapist romps like this one were a specialty of Ealing Studios. The humor is not as black as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), but the charm is impossible to resist.

Two Women (1960)

Two Women is not quite as dark as the Alberto Moravia novel, La Ciociara (1957), on which Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini based this film. Part of the problem, I think, is Belmondo.loren and belmondo He’s miscast in the role of Michele, the coddled  intellectual with vaguely left-wing politics who mouths Communist slogans, rhapsodizes about “the peasants,” how the future belongs to them, and complains about privilege—this despite the fact that his family members are fascists who hoard food and consort with the German occupiers. Michele falls for Sophia Loren’s character, the widowed Cesira. She’s aware of his feelings, but she’s too full of life for him, too earthy.  A true woman of the people, although much more beautiful than most people.

“With my own memories to draw upon, you would think I would have had an easy time of it [making the film]. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman.”    Sophia Loren

Morally speaking, nobody comes off well in this picture. But that’s what makes it so powerful.  Cesira’s human weakness is apparent from the very beginning. War destroys the vulnerable, while pointing up the hollowness of ideals such as Michele’s. Death is random and undeserved; violence and brutality triumph, and who has sympathy to spare for his neighbor? Only grief unites those who have survived atrocities, and even so, the comfort of shared suffering is fleeting.

Moravia set his story in the countryside220px-TwoWomenPoster around Rome in the last months of World War II. He and his wife had fled there after the Germans occupied Rome, arriving in an impoverished village filled with widows (all the men had been drafted and sent to Russia, where they died). For nine months they lived among the peasant women, scavenging for food, watching dogfights in the sky and trying to avoid being strafed, while they waited for the Allies to liberate their country. But liberation arrived in the form of the Moroccan Goumiers, irregular colonial troops who were fighting with the Free French. In the aftermath of the Allied victory at Monte Cassino, thousands of Italian women and girls in the region were raped by the Goumiers. This is Moravia’s story, the central crisis of the novel, and De Sica shows it in brutal detail.

“Isn’t there some safe place in the world?” Cesira asked Michele at one point. Apparently not.

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The Crime of Monsieur Lange

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) was likeposter the holy grail, one of those films I’d heard about but never managed to see. Before its recent restoration, this Renoir gem was impossible to find. But I lucked out: they were screening it at Holyoke Community College for free as part of their annual French film series. There’s always one near-forgotten classic in the bunch, and this year it was Monsieur Lange. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be.

In the 1930s, before noir was noir (the term “film noir” was only coined—by the French—in 1946), Europeans were making gritty, downbeat films with adult subject matter, storylines involving adultery and crime that usually culminated in death. American gangster movies covered some of this territory, and there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization between this genre, the German Expressionism of the 1920s, and what the French were calling poetic realism. Renoir hung out with the poetic realist crowd and some of his early pictures were gritty, with the deep shadows we associate with the German Expressionist style, but even when they end in murder, Renoir’s films don’t leave you in despair. You come out of them smiling, your faith in humanity restored.

I don’t believe there are such things as absolute truth, but I do believe in absolute human qualities — generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones. 

– Jean Renoir

Renoir feels tenderly toward his characters, every last one of them.The villain of The Crime of Monsieur Lange is a rogue, no doubt about it. He impregnates one of his employees, cheats on his mistress, borrows money from the janitor, never intending to pay it back, exploits the film’s hero, bilks his creditors and then fakes his death when the police catch onto his schemes. When he reappears toward the end of the picture disguised as a priest, a twinkle in his eye, prepared to resume his malign activities, you can’t hate him.

As in his better known ensemble pictures, Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), the printing company where Monsieur Lange is set is a world unto itself,Lange workers “where all types of humanity mingle and clash: bosses and workers, misers and dreamers, innocents and scoundrels, the impassioned and the foolish.” Renoir directs all of these characters with such a light touch that their interactions appear fresh and spontaneous. Work, in this world, as in the best Marxist fantasy, is a source of joy and fulfillment, once the workers own the means of production and the evil boss gets his due.

Renoir claimed that he was not a director, he was a storyteller. This one is something of a fairytale, but I’m not complaining.

How to be a French Gangster

First off, you need the fedora. The gangster accessory de rigueur, Muni Scarfaceit was already iconic by the time Paul Muni popularized the look in Scarface (1932). Al Capone, Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly were all photographed wearing one. Baby Face Nelson was astute enough to recognize the souvenir value of his trademark fedora, bartering it for food and a place to hide after a botched bank job.

By the time Bogey donned one to play‘Bugs’ Fenner alongside Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or Ballots (1936), it was a bit passé. Robinson, you will note, sports a derby, signaling his authority over his fedora-wearing lackeys. (That’s Bogey on the right, with the gun.) Bullets Fedoras

Leave it to the French to reinvent the gangster look and give it panache. In Pépé le Moko (1937), Jean Gabin wears the hat, but he adds a gallic touch: a silk scarf. Le Moko 2Gabin’s character has style—something his American counterparts lacked—but more importantly, he’s got heart. Love will be his undoing, and we’re not talking about a fling with some cheap, two-timing dame. We’re talking epic love, the kind of love that inspires poetry and songs. Ah, l’amour.

Director Julien Duvivier gives us a tragic hero in the classical tradition who is the victim of fate. Pépé is wanted in France for various crimes. He’s been hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers for two years, sheltered by the local inhabitants who will take any opportunity to defy the colonial authorities. He may be king of the Algerian underworld, but exile has turned bitter for Pépé, whose longing for Paris recalls Ovid’s lament in the Tristia: “Say that I died when I lost my native land.”

After Pépé, Gabin would go on to play his greatest role, the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal, in Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937). gabin and dalioHe got to wear a fedora in that picture too, alongside Marcel Dalio. In much the same way that John Wayne seemed to embody the fiercely independent American spirit, Gabin “epitomized the values French people like to think of as their own: cool intelligence, open-hearted love of life, courage, moral rectitude,” as one critic put it after the actor’s death.

The martyred Resistance leader Jean Moulin (below, right) favored the scarf-and-fedora style of the French gangster. Perhaps he was fashioning himself as a romantic outlaw. Moulin photoOver time, Moulin’s image became even more Pépé-like. Here (below, left) is how Claude Berri imagined him in Lucie Aubrac, his 1997 picture about the Lyon Resistance heroine.Aubrac Moulin

Alas, something happened to the French gangster after World War II. You notice it right away in Bob le flambeur (1956). The gambler played by Roger Duchesne is a natty dresser. He’s got the fedora and a trench coat, opting for the full American look (i.e., no scarf) in keeping with his American nickname. He’s got a classy apartment too, complete with his own personal slot machine in the closet, drives a big American convertible, and lives by a code of honor that sets him apart from the riffraff he consorts with in Montmartre. So why the jaded expression?

Bob’s on a losing streak. It’s more than bad luck; bobthe malaise seems existential, maybe not full-blown angst, but Bob is listless, out of sorts. We watch him wandering the city streets, proceeding aimlessly from one back-room card game to another, catching a few hours of sleep before heading off to the races where he actually wins, only to gamble it away in a matter of hours. He doesn’t care, either way, and nor do we.

Don’t get me wrong. Bob le flambeur is a delightful movie. You’ve got Paris, enchantingly shot with a hand-held camera in the rough-edged, documentary manner that would become the hallmark of New Wave cinema. You’ve got your low-life criminals, a heist, and a couple of double-crossing dames. Then there’s the pleasure in hearing the French pronounce the name Bob, which comes out sounding more like “Bub” than “Bahb,” which is how we Americans say it. Try it: purse your lips first, so the word forms in the front of your mouth, then say “Bob” very fast, allowing the syllable to resonate inside your nose.

Jean-Pierre Melville, who directedMelville Bob le flambeur, loved all things American. “Melville” was his nom de guerre in the French Resistance, which he continued to use professionally for the rest of his life. He drove a convertible like Bob’s, although sartorially speaking, he went for the Western look—cowboy boots and a Stetson—and liked cruising around Paris late at night with the top down.

The tough-guy persona was more than a pose. Melville was a man of few words. He didn’t speak of his time in the Resistance, for example, but his film of Joseph Kessel’s wartime novel, Army of Shadows (1943), punctured the myths that the French still cherished in 1969, when the film was released. Not many people resisted the nazis, and those who joined the underground did so out of a variety of motives, not all of them admirable. Yes, there was courage, and sacrifice for the sake of others, but the small, quiet acts of decency were no less stunning than the grandiose gestures. Melville’s heroes were complicated people, as befits a time when choices were not black and white, but gray.

Which brings us back to Bob. There’s no place for him in postwar France, and he knows it. The style, the conventions, are all that’s left of a vanished world, and yet Bob takes perverse satisfaction in playing by the old rules, keeping up appearances. Coolness has its consolations. He can’t pull off the heist, but he can pull off the look.

By the time we get to Breathless (1959), even the lookBelmondo bogart is degraded. Here’s Belmondo practicing his cool in the mirror, posing with a gun, trying to convince everybody he’s a gangster, starting with himself. We see him imitating Bogey. He’s got the gesture down, has trained himself to talk with a cigarette dangling from his lips. And check out that fedora!

Jean-Luc Godard layers on the clichés. Soon the cops are on Belmondo’s tail. He’s a wanted man, forced to go underground. He even gets himself tangled up with a double-crossing dame, an American, no less.

Pépé gave the American gangster a dash of French flair. Bob (Bub) wore his American name, along with his fedora, like a true Frenchman. Belmondo’s character is just a punk, but he’s a French punk and, wouldn’t you know it, the guy’s style has endured.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again doesn’t take itself too seriously. Destry posterThat’s got a lot to do with the director, George Marshall, who went from making traditional Westerns during the Silent era to making comedies with Laurel and Hardy (among others) in the 1930s. Here he assembles a quirky cast, actors you wouldn’t expect to see in the same picture.

Jimmy Stewart plays himself, as always: sweet, uncomplicated, as decent as they come. You’d expect Marlene Dietrich to eat him for breakfast. The character she plays, Frenchy (those naughty Frenchwomen, even one with a German accent!), chews up the little Russian (Mischa Auer) in the first ten minutes of the film. He’s highly susceptible to her charms, and she convinces him to gamble away his pants, just for yuks. His wife is not too pleased about it, when he comes home.

Lily Belle : Hey you! Give me those pants. And from now on, leave my husband alone.

Frenchy : I don’t want your husband, Mrs. Callahan – all I want is his money. . . and his pants.

Lily Belle : And how’d you get ’em? By making eyes at him while you cheated, you gilded lily!

Frenchy : But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you.

Fresh from playing a Russian ballet master opposite Jimmy Stewart in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Auer delivers a delightful performance here. What’s a Russian doing in the old West, alongside a “French” dance hall chanteuse? Who cares! auer stewart dietrichMarshall makes this ensemble piece sparkle. I like Jimmy Stewart’s folksy sheriff’s deputy better than the congressman he went on to play that same year in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s less uptight, succumbing to Frenchy, surprising himself, and you like him better for it. Supposedly the two stars had a brief romance on the set. Nobody could resist Dietrich.

Marshall directed a remake with Audie Murphy in the title role in 1954. Skip it and watch one of the eleven episodes of “I Love Lucy” he directed instead.

Blonde Venus (1932)

You can watch this film to White tuxedo and grant close-upsee naughty Marlene Dietrich and you can also watch it to see how the studio tried—and failed—to rein her in. The cabaret singer we met in The Blue Angel, the cold-hearted seductress who wears a man’s top hat, reappears here in a glittering white tuxedo. Marlene swings both ways in Blonde Venus (as the actress did in real life). Sauntering onstage in the Paris nightclub where she’s become the star attraction, she frankly admires another showgirl, giving her a fleeting caress in passing, as if to say, I’ll catch you later, sweetie. And yet she also manages to convey an aloofness. It’s part of her allure. Nobody steals her heart, but she dares you to try. (According to her biographer, Donald Spoto, French actor Jean Gabin was the only one to succeed.)

Admiring Dietrich’s performance is the millionaire playboy (a very young Cary Grant) with whom she’d had a brief liaison a couple of years earlier. He fell for her opening number, “Hot Voodoo,” you know, the one where Dietrich comes out in a gorilla suit?

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I probably should have included a warning: some viewers may find the staging of this number disturbing. And get a load of those lyrics!

That beat gives me a wicked sensation. My conscience wants to take a vacation. Got voodoo, head to toes. Hot voodoo, burn my clothes. I want to start dancing, just wearing a smile. Hot voodoo, I’m aflame. I’m really not to blame. That African tempo, is meaner than mean. Hot voodoo, make me brave. I want to misbehave.

So, there they are, in the Paris nightclub, the seductress and the millionaire. He’s still smitten. Dietrich blows smoke in his face and, the next thing you know, they’re engaged. Yep, he’s a decent guy. So decent that he brings her back to New York so she can reunite with her husband (Herbert Marshall) and young son (Dickie Moore). We’re supposed to believe that beneath the sultry exterior, Dietrich is a devoted mother (as the actress was not, in real life).

Blonde Venus was pre-code, but Dietrich was problematic.english poster Married and the mother of a young daughter, she’d been sexually entangled with her director, Josef von Sternberg, during the filming of the three previous films they’d made together, and was romantically linked to various actors and actresses, carrying on with two or three lovers at a time. With the proceeds from her Hollywood career, she supported her husband and his mistress back in Berlin; the three of them traveled together in the summers, with the daughter in tow. All this was known, and disapproved of, and von Sternberg may have been trying to rehabilitate his protégé’s image with this film, but nobody was buying it. They wanted the seductress. Just look at the poster. Dickie Moore is nowhere in sight. Then there’s the tagline: From the lips of one man to the arms of another.

You know what I love most about Marlene Dietrich? She got away with it.

Grand Hotel

Garbo got me into the building, but she’s not the reasongarbo I stayed. Her tired Russian ballerina falls for the same kind of man she would fall for as a humorless Russian revolutionary in Ninotchka. Can I help it if I found the revolutionary more enchanting?

Fortunately, the ballerina’s story is just one of many that weave through this picture. That man she falls for, a dissolute aristocrat (John Barrymore), also flirts with the stenographer (Joan Crawford) who was hired by the swindling businessman (Wallace Beery) to take dictation and possibly provide other services . . .  There’s also a wounded veteran of World War I (Lewis Stone) and a little bookkeeper (Lionel Barrymore), who recently received a terminal diagnosis and has determined to spend his final days in style. John Barrymore may have had the looks in the family, but Lionel’s quiet charm won me over.

Such goings on, before the Hayes Code went into effect! The ballerina and the aristocrat spend the night together. The stenographer contemplates selling her body to the businessman for the price of a few nice outfits and a junket to London. The bookkeeper wins big at poker, helped along by the aristocrat, and goes off to Paris with the stenographer in the hope of finding a cure.

Did Grand Hotel deserve to beat out Shanghai Express for Best Picture in 1932? I wouldn’t say so, but it’s an enjoyable enough romp through Berlin in its heyday.

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