Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

French film noir -- aka Le Kino Black

Phone rings Monday morning; Cedric: “John! I’ve just realized Le Doulos is only running a few more days at Film Forum.” “True; let’s go tonight.” Having estimated the job due tomorrow morning will be done by evening (which it is). The 7:40 show. Theater crowded but not packed; a/c not too high. We sit a bit closer to the screen than I like, so that my attention is perpetually jumping between the titles and the faces, and frankly I would rather sit back where I can take it all in at all times, especially when Belmondo is on screen. Can he ever really have been so young and pretty? Those absurdly sensuous lips, that excitingly imperfect profile, those suggestive eyes, abruptly cold or hot? He was always that cold, and that cruel, and that cool, yeah, but … pretty? (1962.)

The film is self-conscious noir; that is, not the pure, dumb noir of Hollywood in the forties, but noir after the French had decided it was an official style, an imitation, almost an affectation (Belmondo standing in for, say, Mitchum). But the story is as hard-boiled as anything in a studio B, and as filmmaking, as an artist (J-P Melville) playing games in your head and mind and heart, it is not merely Great Art (oh no!), it’s a cracking good entertainment, the best and tightest you’re likely to see.

For example: You’re going to like this sweet old guy, and then he’s going to be abruptly shot, and you aren’t going to find out for forty minutes why he deserves to be shot – in Hollywood, they’d make you hate him before they let someone shoot him so it would be satisfying, not disorienting. Or: you feel the tension rise between a handsome brute (JPB) alone with a friend’s girl, and your skin prickles anticipating steamy sex (at least a kiss with teeth), and then he slugs her and straps her to the radiator, and pours whisky on her head, and hits her again when she wakes up. Or – sheer storytelling art! (the book author’s idea, or Melville’s? or what attracted Melville to filming the book?): JPB again telling what you know and he knows are lies to seduce a not very bright woman who loves him into betraying her official man, succeeding at this lust-tinged fakery (so is he lying when he tells her he wants her back?) for reasons we are not yet told; then, meeting a guy (Serge Reggiani) much betrayed, telling him an even wilder cockamamie story about events of the last day or so, with flashbacks – and are these lies also? Or truths we had not seen? Utter fantasies told for reasons we have yet to learn? So that we are completely bewildered, not sure whom to trust, or like, or feel for, and some of the plot points fit neatly into questions we had set aside for the moment, and that secures our trust, but then other things go wrong, and that makes us nervous again – our comfort, our ease with this story, these characters, is never catered to (as it would be in Hollywood), but rather we are kept perpetually off-balance and uncertain where our sympathies should lie, so that we are also (like it or not) kept fascinated with the story that is being told, lest we miss anything important or some detail we can cling to. A Chinese box puzzle and so much more elegant and suave and true than the coloratura vehicles Hollywood concocted at the end of the decade for Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren in sentimental imitation but a heavier emphasis on dressmaking and lavish scenery. (Carlo Ponti produced Le Doulos, however, so you can see why he later hoped the formula, all cleaned up and spiffy, would work for his wife. Financially, it did.)

Over dinner, I said, “In Hollywood you’d be told why the guy was a skuzz before someone shot him. Like the brother-in-law in The Godfather.” To which Cedric responded, “And they never kill the woman in Hollywood.” Which is not quite true – Hitchcock often kills the woman, sometimes for no apparent reason at all (Janet Leigh in Psycho), or else after making her at once guilty and someone we feel for (Kim Novak in Vertigo) (in Strangers on a Train, the murder is shocking, meant to shock, but we have been made to feel she had it coming), and he is doing it calculatedly, because he knows it will shock.

And yet, and yet: When I rented They Knew What They Wanted (Carole Lombard playing a lower-class hard-boiled dame who’s been around the block, totally against her usual type, and playing it stunningly well), I was very disappointed in the changed ending imposed by the Hays Office: a girl who’s been around the block and is pregnant with one man’s child (no less) could not settle down and marry another man, however much he desired it! Frustrating, knowing how warm and cuddly the play’s ending (in both the text and in Most Happy Fella) makes one feel, how it satisfies. But actually, imposed by the Hays Office or not, the ending of the movie is actually truer to life; it is the Broadway (and musical) ending that is sentimental and phony; the discomfort about the trick on Tony, even when he decides to live with it, that she is worth it, that forgiveness is the sane and manly way (which it is) would indeed call for feelings that might not be easily accepted, that would make one uneasy; in the 1930s, a girl in Amy’s predicament would in fact go away to a “home” and give the child away too, and Tony would let her do that however much he wanted her. (And the discomfort of the family in the realistic 400 Blows or the unrealistic Volver show what happens when they don’t: the feelings always at the back of the mind, ready to lurch out.)

Dinner was at Cedric’s favorite village restaurant; excellent Italian food with genre scenes on the walls, entrees starting at $8.95 and a loud jazz combo – can this really be 2007?

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