A Tribute to Ennio Morricone

We lost a brilliant composer today. Of course I’m thinking of the scores Morricone wrote for Spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. But today it seems most fitting to listen to the haunting soundtrack to Fateless, Lajos Koltai’s 2005 adaptation of Imre Kertész’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Fatelessness. I reviewed the film on 3 Quarks Daily in 2014. Much has changed in the world since then, but the basic message seems all the more urgent in these troubled times. I’m reposting it here.

I could not swallow that idiotic bitterness that I should merely be innocent.

—Imre Kertész, Fatelessness

Something akin to survivor’s guilt is at the core of Imre Kertész’s novel, Fatelessness (1975), a fictionalized account of the year he spent while still a teenager interned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Published during the so-called “soft dictatorship” of the communist leader János Kádár, the book did not sell many copies in Hungary, and no wonder: György Köves, its young narrator, does not want us to feel sorry for him. “I was aware that I was about to start writing a novel that might easily turn into a tearjerker, not least because the novel’s protagonist is a boy,” Kertész said in a recent interview.

He needn’t have worried. György insists that he was complicit in his fate. “Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home.” This comes perilously close to admitting the charge that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter, that through their passivity, they colluded in their own destruction. As if anticipating the objection, Kertész voices it through one of his minor characters. Old Fleischmann, György’s former neighbor, was not deported, escaped being murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross, and endured the siege of Budapest. He lived while others (including György’s father) died, and yet he cannot hold himself to blame for his survival. “So it’s us who’re the guilty ones, is it? Us, the victims!” But György refuses to back down. Even though he recognizes the futility of explaining his views to those like old Fleischmann, who urge him to put the horrors of Auschwitz behind him in order to live, “it was not quite true,” he maintains stubbornly, “that the thing ‘came about’; we had gone along with it too.”

Blaming the Victim

The most famous—or perhaps I should say notorious—articulation of this argument is Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the Judenräte. Jewish councils set up by the Nazis in the ghettos of cities in occupied countries containing large Jewish populations (and in smaller Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe) helped implement the Final Solution, surrendering their members for deportation in the misguided hope that by cooperating with the Germans they might save at least some from extermination. In fact, the Nazis counted on this cooperation. Without it, Arendt claimed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.” The Nazi functionary who was “just following orders” was no more and no less a monster than the Jewish leader who distributed Yellow Star badges, organized the relocation of Jews to the ghettos, put together transport lists and raised money from the deportees themselves to defray the expenses of their travel to the death camps. Each refused to accept moral responsibility for his actions, yet each could have chosen otherwise.

Arendt further blurred the distinction between Nazi perpetrators and victims in the essay “Personal Responsibility and Dictatorship” (1964), her response to those critics of the Eichmann book, including her friend Gershom Scholem, who said that we should not judge the Judenräte because we were not there. Not only the Jewish leadership, but even ordinary Jewish citizens in Hitler’s Europe enabled genocide to take place, she contended:

The extermination of the Jews was preceded by a very gradual sequence of anti-Jewish measures, each of which was accepted with the argument that refusal to cooperate would make things worse—until a stage was reached when nothing worse could possibly have happened.

György’s response to old Fleischmann is very much along these lines, and decades later, Kertész continues to assert that he brought his fate upon himself. “I behaved in a way that made me a member of the tacit, looming conspiracy against my life.” But he allows his protagonist a measure of peace at the book’s end. “I am here,” György thinks, looking around his old neighborhood, “weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises.” He will accept any rationale as the price for being able to live; it is only human, after all, to want to live.

Such generosity comes as a surprise after the bleak and bitter chronicle leading up to it, especially since it follows the heated exchange with old Fleischmann, the only time György loses his cool. In the space of a page, Kertész abandons his detachment, the accusatory tone of his narrative voice, forgiving himself as well as his audience. Reading Fatelessness as a work of Holocaust testimony, this redemptive turn feels forced, unearned. And yet the 2005 film version, Fateless, for which Kertész wrote the screenplay, ends in exactly the same way. Further complicating matters, the author resists the label of “Holocaust writer.” Kertész used the ordeal of the death camps to talk about something more universal, and more timely: daily life under under a totalitarian dictatorship. He wrote about Auschwitz in the extended present, he said in a speech he delivered in Berlin in 2000.

The Tastes of Auschwitz

Kertész gained a perspective on the brutality he accommodated himself to as a boy in the Lagers by recognizing the degradation he continued to tolerate as a man during the Kádár era. The Stalinist regime under which he came of age, with its torturers, its secret prisons and work camps, its network of informers and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, mirrored the world into which he was thrust at age fourteen. In Dossier K (2006), the memoir he published after receiving the Nobel Prize, he claimed that he would never have understood his ordeals had he grown up in a democracy. The regime “revived the tastes of Auschwitz,” he said, in much the same way that Proust’s memories were awakened by dipping a madeleine in a cup of tea.

Here too, I find parallels with Arendt. The key feature that united both Nazism and Stalinism, she noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was how both systems reduced people to the condition of children in order to manipulate them, persuading them to sacrifice their principles and beliefs, to degrade themselves, in return for not having to take responsibility for their immoral acts. Kertész chose to make his narrator a boy not simply because he himself was a child at the time he was deported. “I invented the boy precisely because anyone in a dictatorship is kept in a childlike state of ignorance and helplessness.” But ultimately he refuses to condemn his protagonist or himself. Looking back on his younger self after he returned from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész sees only “a fundamentally cheerful young man, who is greedy for life and will not allow anyone or anything to put him off.” Naturally he collaborated with the regime, naturally he took steps; “there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally,” György says at the end of the novel.

What Kertész cannot accept are the artistic renderings of the destruction of Europe’s Jews that employ euphemisms—including the word “Holocaust”—that obscure the reality of the death camps. Or voyeurs like Steven Spielberg “who integrate the Holocaust into the aeons of suffering in the history of the Jewish people and, ignoring the mountains of corpses, the rubble heap of Europe, the breakdown of all values,” as Kertész sees it, “celebrate the eternal story of survival to the accompaniment of triumphal music and color photography.” Equally offensive are accounts that focus on the gruesome details, the “ugly literature of horrors.”

When he wrote the screenplay for Fateless, Kertész struggled to translate the stark, matter-of-fact language of his book into scenes and images that would not betray its essence. The film has a terrible beauty, a power to unsettle even as it draws viewers in through a combination of stunning cinematography (the director, Lajos Koltai, is first and foremost a cinematographer) and Ennio Morricone’s moving score. The fact that the film was made after the fall of communism makes it less universal, perhaps, more of a witness testimony, but one that continues to speak to the point Kertész made in Dossier K, that even after Auschwitz, the world order has not changed. The mass movements of the twentieth century, the nationalism and fundamentalisms of today: how is is that the lessons of the death camps have not been absorbed? In the end, I believe he would say, it still comes down to simple decency, or the lack thereof, among leaders and those who, through their action or inaction, enable them to stay in power.

Cronaca di un Amore (1950)

Today I learned of the death of the Italian actresslucia-bosé Lucia Bosè from complications of Coronavirus. She was 89 years old. The winner of the 1947 Miss Italia beauty pageant, she was discovered by the neorealist director Guiseppe De Santis and then became the “muse” of Michelangelo Antonioni, who directed her in Cronaca di un Amore [Story of a Love Affair] a remake of his friend Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione — an adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice that came out several years before Tay Gannett’s bowdlerized American version. 

With regard to Lucia Bosè, I had to direct her almost with a sense of violence. Before every scene, I had to put her in a state of mind appropriate to that particular scene. If it was a sad scene, I had to make her cry; if it was a happy scene, I had to make her laugh. — From a 1962 interview with Antonioni in Film Culture

Cronaca di un Amore mercilessly exposes the moral rotScreen Shot 2020-03-26 at 7.55.09 AM that accompanied the economic miracle of Northern Italy’s rebirth in the postwar era. Massimo Girotti again plays a luckless drifter, Guido, although he is middle-class in this film. Seven years earlier, during the war, he’d had an affair with Paola (Lucia Bosè), the best friend of his fiancée, who died under mysterious circumstances. Now Paola is married and her husband, Enrico, a wealthy Milan industrialist, hires a private detective to uncover the truth about his wife’s past, bringing Guido back into Paola’s life. The two attempt to rekindle their romance, but the passion is gone, replaced by a soul-killing materialism. “Money is everything in love,” Paola tells Guido, who reluctantly agrees to murder Enrico, but it’s hard to see what difference getting him out of the way would make in their listless romance. Cain’s one-sentence characterization of The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly applies here: “A couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret.”

The alienation that would become the hallmark of Antonioni’s films in the sixties is already in evidence in Cronaca di un Amore. Antonioni plays with the conventions of Italian cinema, showing Paola in her boudoir, toying with the telephone, awaiting her lover’s call. The actress is ravishing, but she is cold. Empty. Her “interior landscape,” in the director’s words, as arid as the Po Valley, where Visconti shot Ossessione. Nothing remained of the intense, serious events that Italy had come through, he said in a lecture he delivered at the film school attached to Cinecittà in 1961, following a retrospective screening of his films. The hope of building a new and more just Italy that came through at the end of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City was gone. And yet we cannot turn away from this bleak portrait of bourgeois society. The vulnerability of the young Lucia Bosè in this film is what stays with me. May her memory be a blessing.

cropped bose

Ossessione (1943)

Lucino Visconti’s 1943 adaptation of James Cain’s Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is truer to the novelist’s vision than the 1946 Hollywood film of the same name. For one thing, the Frank character, Gino (Massimo Girotti), is more convincing as a drifter. undershirtWearing a threadbare undershirt beneath his tattered jacket, he is drawn by hunger to the kitchen of the roadside tavern, where Giovanna (Clara Calamai) sits on a table, dangling her legs while unselfconsciously singing and polishing her nails, oblivious to the newcomer who has come to stand in the doorway. Visconti places the camera behind Gino, obscuring our view of the woman. We observe them falling into sin, but from a safe distance.

Gino and Giovanna are victims weighed down by social and economic forces beyond their control, and it is these forces that corrupt and ultimately destroy them. Only one character in Ossessione appears to have any choice, a Spanish gypsy who takes Gino under his wing and tries to show him how to live as a free man, beholden to nobody. Generous, carefree, with soulful brown eyes, there is nobody remotely like the Spaniard in the book. Every scene in which he appears brims with life and hope, but when he shows up at the tavern after the murder of Giovanna’s husband and urges Gino to leave, to take to the open road, Gino drives him away. The next thing we know, the Spaniard is being questioned by the police, setting into motion the film’s tragic denouement.

with gypsy

Ossessione opened to popular acclaim but was quickly banned by the Mussolini regime, all copies ordered destroyed. The movie was considered subversive, not only on account of its immorality but because of the political statement it made, a statement at odds with fascist values. “The film is just imitating the French kind of realism that must not be imported to Italy,” complained a critic in the Bologna newspaper, Avenire d’Italia, who then proceeded to disparage it as “a concoction of repulsive passions, humiliation, and decay, [and] an offense to the Italian people.” In fact, Visconti and the circle of young filmmakers who assisted him in bringing Cain’s story to the screen sought to liberate the Italian people by showing them the truth, for once.

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Ossessione cast light on poverty and despair, exposing the lies of nationalism. In place of the regime’s insistence on family, church, and country, the film showed women turning to prostitution because they had no other means of supporting themselves. Men defeated by their inability to find dignified work. Dirty streets, abandoned children, domestic squalor. This was life as the majority of Italians experienced it under fascism, and as was the case in life, the story of Gino and Giovanna did not resolve cleanly. As screenwriter Cesare Zagattini wrote in “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” his famous essay on neorealism, “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot, I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.”

Bitter Rice (1949)

Bitter Rice is a hopeful film, as rousing a myth of national unitybitter rice poster as Roberto Rossellini’s  Rome, Open City (1945). Its young director, Guiseppe De Santis, was a member of the Italian Communist Party who had fought with the Roman Resistance, putting him in a strong position at the liberation. His first feature film, The Tragic Hunt (1947), received funding from the National Association of Italian Partisans and won the award for Best Italian Film at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.

A story of crime and passion set in the rice fields west of Milan, Bitter Rice owes much to James Cain, as far as its story is concerned, and to Dorothea Lange’s images of sharecroppers in the American South for its cinematography. Indeed, De Santis was an assistant director on Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but as a doctrinaire Marxist, his ultimate objective was to glorify the working people of Italy while revealing the evils of capitalism.

In a famous sequence in Bitter Rice, the corrupting influence of American culture is juxtaposed against the class solidarity of the women rice workers: Silvana (Silvana Magnano), the bad girl who will betray her fellow laborers, is shown dancing the boogie-woogie, watched by a gum-chewing low-life, Frank (Vittorio Gassman), who abandons his lover Francesca (Doris Dowling) to join her.

Bitter Rice

Silvana is portrayed like a Hollywood pin-up girl, and no small part of Frank’s allure is his promise to take her to America, where “everything is electric.” The sexual attraction between these two is tangled up in a their shared passion for material things; where Francesca finds fulfillment in honest work, Silvana is a willing accessory to the crime, conceived by Frank, to flood the rice fields and steal the harvest, realizing only belatedly the error of her ways when she learns that the necklace he gave her is paste. Guilt-ridden, she kills her lover and jumps from a wooden tower to her death, but she is forgiven by the other workers, who file past her body at the end of the film, each scattering handful of rice over the fallen woman.

The message feels heavy-handed today, but Silvana Magnano’s mesmerizing performance and the brilliant camerawork make Bitter Rice well worth watching. American censors may have agreed with the Italian Marxist critic who complained, “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” but you can’t tell me that Kim Novak’s climb up the wooden steps of the bell tower in Vertigo (1958) wasn’t influenced by Silvana’s suicide.

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.

0009954-paisan-1946

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.

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.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ordinarily I steer clear of films that were intended as allegories. They go down like medicine and, let’s face it, most directors take themselves way too seriously when they embark on a mission. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an allegory in the form of a Western, too, a genre freighted with moral purpose. I confess, I was a little nervous going in, but I saddled up anyhow, put on my spurs, and set off for Sweetwater.

Henry Fonda disarmed me, right off the bat. Those baby blue eyes on the face of a cold-blooded killer. It took awhile to regain my bearings, after he blew away the McBain family, but when the dust settled, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There’s a message here, to be sure, but Sergio Leone has a light touch, an approach to lesson-giving that I can only describe as fatherly.

Affectionately, he drapes an arm around our shoulders. Us, the Americans: he loves us, we must understand that he is speaking as a friend. More than a friend, an admirer. As a boy growing up under fascism, watching Westerns (this was before World War II, when they would be banned), he believed all the clichés. Epic heroes, taming the frontier, armed not only with rifles but with integrity. Such a contrast, those virtuous cowboys and their G.I. brothers, the ones who liberated Italians from the Nazis, versus his defeated countrymen, who had embraced Mussolini’s nationalism and stood by while their leader formed a shameful alliance with Hitler.

Ah, but in the decades since the war ended, we lost our way. It pains him to say this, but he must be honest. First came the witch hunts of the McCarthy era (Mickey Knox, a blacklisted actor living in Italy, worked with Leone on the English dialogue for the picture), followed by the violence of the civil rights battle and capped off by the Vietnam war. No longer proud, our values tarnished, we turned away from our own epic myths. Sure, Bonanza was still running on TV, but the motion picture Western was languishing in America.

Once Upon the Time in the West revived the industry, which was already flourishing in Italy. Like Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this picture features charactersOUTITW_Jill1 of dubious integrity and marvelous Western vistas (mostly shot in Spain), a score by Ennio Morricone. In addition to Fonda, there are fine performances by Charles Bronson and Jason Robards.

But here’s the big difference: Once Upon a Time in the West has a woman at its center, a prostitute, Jill (played by the lovely Claudia Cardinale). She brings hope at the end of the picture. Redemption, even. John Boorman saw this film as “Leone’s gift to America of its lost fairy stories.”  I think he’s right.