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.

Breathless

This film hasn’t aged at all. The Paris exteriors, the cafésbelmondo along the Boulevard Saint-Germain: you feel as if you’re right there, having a drink at the next table. Or driving fast in a stolen cadillac, the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the wheel. He’s doing that sexy thing where he runs a thumb over his lips, not looking at you or the road, looking at himself in the rearview mirror. Talking to himself, posturing like Humphrey Bogart, pointing a gun out the window and pretending to shoot.

How did Godard get that intimate feel, and sustain it over an entire picture? You’re in Jean Seberg’s rather cramped hotel room, in bed with Belmondo. It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just hanging around, bored. One minute you’re watching him boxing in his underwear, the next he’s telling you his all-or-nothing philosophy of life, which is only half-cooked, or half-true—you don’t know which half—like everything he tells you.

But you keep watching anyhow, not because he’s Belmondo . . .  Okay, you keep watching because he’s Belmondo, but also because you’ve been let in on his character’s private thoughts. You and the rest of the audience, but it’s as if you alone are witnessing the day unfold as naturally as a day in your own life. That’s what makes Breathless so great. It feels fresh, original, even fifty years on, and after repeated viewings.

You’re watching Belmondo run from the cops. He’s been shot in the back and he’s zig-zagging down the street, clutching his wound.  He falls just as he reaches the crosswalk.  Jean Seberg’s trailing behind and she’s there in time to hear his last words:  “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”

She didn’t catch them, or she doesn’t understand what he meant.  Isn’t life like that?

Two Women

The pairing of Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo doesn’t work; their scenes together don’t simmer the way you want them to, and the fault is Belmondo’s.  His character, a coddled only son with vaguely left-wing politics (Belmondo wearing glasses and pretending to be an intellectual?  Talk about playing against type!), falls in love with Loren’s character.  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.

“Two Women” is set in the countryside around Rome in the last months of World War II. Loren’s character, Cesira, escaped the impoverished village in Ciociaria, the region of central Italy where she was born, by marrying an older man.  Now widowed, she owns a grocery in Rome and is raising her teenage daughter alone.  With the city under bombardment by the Allies, mother and daughter flee the city and return to Ciociaria, where they encounter Belmondo’s character, Michele.  He 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.

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.

Loren conveys all of this in a way that is so genuine!  Credit also goes to Alberto Moravia, the famous Italian writer whose novels spawned many fine films.  His own experiences living near Ciociaria in Central Italy after he and his wife fled the bombing in Rome inspired the book, which Vittorio de Sica faithfully adapted for the screen.  All around, a tour de force that doesn’t glamorize an ugly time.

(31 March 2011)

Banana Peel

You never know who’s double-crossingbanana peel whom in this picture, and that’s what makes a great caper movie.  I won’t even attempt to summarize the plot.  Suffice it to say that the fat cat villain gets his due, the thugs are beautifully outsmarted, and Jeanne Moreau (who has never been lovelier) gets Belmondo.

Remember the bad guy in “Goldfinger”?  He’s the villain in this picture too, a swindler named Lacrosse, and he plays the part with far more finesse.  Here he is, smitten by Moreau’s character, Cathy, doing a little bossa nova in the hotel corridor after an evening out.

Such style!  And the double entendres, mon dieu!  When Lacrosse invites Cathy to go for a spin in his BMW, he entices her by describing the car’s, shall we say, horsepower.  “It doesn’t just keep to the road.  It grabs you like a ribbon between your legs.”  Later, Cathy checks back with her admirer.  “Your suspension’s holding up?” she wants to know.

Marcel Ophüls proved himself to be a worthy successor to his father Max with this film.  Those who know him chiefly for his scorching documentary, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” may be surprised to see his lighter side. Ten years later, George Roy Hill would direct “The Sting,” a similar story, also involving fixed races and much double-crossing.  Paul Newman and Robert Redford give fine performances, but without the zing of the pairing of Belmondo and Moreau, the movie feels flat, a bit plodding, even with the Scott Joplin soundtrack.

From the acting to the delightful musical score, not to mention the fantastic shots of Paris and the French Riviera, “Banana Peel” will have you smiling from start to finish.

(12 June 2011)