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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.

The Maltese Falcon

In appreciation of Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre: I love those guys! Bogey playing the kind of hard-boiled-on-the-outside-but-with-a-tender-center detective that he was made for. 968full-the-maltese-falcon-posterJohn Huston directing his own screenplay of the great Dashiell Hammett novel. No wonder Roger Ebert called “The Maltese Falcon” one of the greatest films of all time.

Ebert also said that the plot of this picture is the last thing you think about. (And I thought it was only me who had difficulty following the story…) What matters, what makes “The Maltese Falcon” worth watching again and again, are the stand-alone scenes. You hardly care what’s come before, or what’s coming next, you’re so caught up in the perfect moment.

Bogey’s classic line:  “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Wish I could say that the way he does, and mean it. Heck, he’s even plausible when he wants to talk about the bird.

 

“The movie is essentially,” Ebert noted, “a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It’s all style. It isn’t violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak, and embody their characters.”

Think about San Francisco and you think about Sam Spade. The shabby office with the frosted glass door. The city streets by night. I’ve walked that town with key scenes in my head, from the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street, where Spade’s partner was done in (there’s actually a plaque to mark the spot) to the fancier locales around Union Square. I’ve even stayed in Joel Cairo’s hotel, the Belvedere (now the Monaco, a Klimpton property with a delightful restaurant).

Indelible.

In a Lonely Place

I just wanted to haul Gloria Grahame’s character aside In_a_lonely_place_1950_posterand tell her in no uncertain terms: Honey, forget him.  He’s bad news, even if he’s not a murderer. Sure, he’s Humphrey Bogart, and a very vulnerable Humphrey Bogart at that, but he’s trouble from the get-go.

Imagine what a basket case Rick must’ve been right after Ilsa left him, before he opened that night club in Morocco. If he’d gone back to the U.S. and started hanging out with cynical Hollywood people instead, he might have turned into the mean drunk he plays in this picture, a guy who picks fights and gets into road rage incidents, beats women around and displays not a trace of emotion when the innocent hatcheck girl he was with the night before turns up dead.

It’s certainly a change, to see Bogart playing the line between alienated artist and psychopath — and coming out on the psychopath side. None of the people in his orbit know how to take him. They’re all walking on eggshells, bracing themselves for the next explosion and yet, inexplicably, they keep coming back for more abuse.

Grahame’s character is attracted to him, and you do see why.He gives off a dangerous allure and there’s an animal intensity to their first encounter. Bogart’s hot!lonely place Flash forward three weeks and he’s grown cuddly.  Nothing like the love of a good woman to turn a guy around. But soon it’s Grahame’s character who’s a basket case. She suspects Bogey of murder (with good reason) and he picks up on her doubts and gets paranoid and possessive.

The movie turns into a mess at this point, although you’ll keep watching. Stick with it and you’ll get the ironic twist on Bogey’s best line, from the screenplay he manages to finish with Grahame’s loving support: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Casablanca

I wish I could have been on the set when they were filming “Casablanca.”  What a great story, and what a great cast!  Wartime Hollywood must have been a lot like Rick’s Café Américain.  Refugee actors desperate for work, preyed on by studio executives who knew they could get them on the cheap.  But something about the exotic mix of nationalities, along with the high stakes involved, brought out the best in people.

All those Europeans, their nuanced performances, make Humphrey Bogart’s straight-talking American stand out like a sore thumb.  Don’t get me wrong.  Bogart is perfect as Rick, the cynical nightclub owner who retrieves his sense of purpose while letting go of the only woman he ever loved.  Against the shadowy elements of “Casablanca,” his clear-eyed character emerges in sharp relief, the way a searchlight cuts through the night fog.  No wonder the exquisite Ilsa fell in love with him!

I’ve never liked Peter Lorre better than in the role of Ugarte.  “You know, Rick,” he says, “I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”  Even a thief like Ugarte can disarm with his honesty.  Then there’s the fine French actor, Marcel Dalio, in a bit part as Emil the croupier.  Mere minutes onscreen, but he is luminous.  Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari:  pure pleasure to watch this master actor at work.  And Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault.  Seeing him come around and commit himself to the anti-Nazi cause makes me smile every time.

“Rick, you’re a sentimentalist,” he tells Bogey.  Well, count me in, guys.

(18 January 2011)