Day 2 of this year’s festival brought a slate of French films. As it was a weekend day, that meant four screenings. Because of logistical issues and the sheer physical challenge of watching four films in a day, we ultimately decided to go with just the last two.
Le doulos: As co-host for the day Rosemary Keenan noted, you can’t do a slate of French noir without including Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville’s obsessions with American crime pictures and the trappings of them are a crucial piece of the story of noir in Europe. And this film, fundamentally noir and also starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, is pretty much a hall-of-famer for Euro noir.
The film’s title is explained at the beginning as French crime slang for a type of hat and the kind of person who would wear such a hat, which is ultimately a reference to a police informant. The plot of the film is built around a major heist and a series of interlocking crimes relating to that, as well as suspicion about who in the circle of criminals involved is the informer. It’s beautifully made, with gorgeous use of light and shadow, circular camera pans and POV shots that feel like surveillance cameras or the urgent fearful glances of frightened people. The storyline works well and the way information is withheld from both individual characters and the audience builds to some unexpected plot points.
But I ultimately found it long and kind of tiresome. It sometimes seems infatuated with its own sense of clockwork plotting, and the final 20 minutes feel unnecessary after what came across like a natural conclusion to the story. I was impressed by the high level of skill (particularly Serge Reggiani as the burglar whose actions center the plot), but I can’t say I have any particular liking for it.
There’s one other major problem. Recall my thoughts from day 1 on the surprising presence and agency of the women in those two films. The women in this film are quite literally tools and nothing more. Their characters exist for the men to make use of in furthering their own ends. They are given little in the way of personality or differentiation, and their fates are brushed off as not vital to the plot. This in itself is a major difference from American noir, where women may be constrained by the good girl/bad girl archetypes but still express complexity of character and play active roles in the plot. The treatment of the women in this film left me cold and disimpressed.
Any Number Can Win: This is not really a noir film under my definition; it’s a caper/heist story with a lot of humor. But there are noir-ish points in the framing of its characters’ circumstances and how they are motivated to participate in the heist, which are reminiscent of influences in late 1940s/early 1950s American noir about the challenge of making an honest living.
The story begins with a classic “one last job” scenario, in which an aging thief wants to get the final big score that will allow him to retire comfortably. He needs help to pull it off and calls on a young former cellmate to assist, who brings in his struggling brother-in-law. And the three of them take off to the Riviera with their elaborate setup for the heist. It’s absolutely charming and a lot of fun, and I enjoyed watching it for what it is.
Jean Gabin is amazing as the aging thief, doing all of his acting with the most subtle shifts of expression and body language and still communicating every feeling he’s dealing with. Alain Delon, “stupid-handsome” as Rosemary Keenan described him, is the opposite: a whirlwind of intensity and emotion and rash behavior, always on the edge of being despicable but not quite falling over. The heist itself is an elaborate Rube Goldberg construction with multiple possible angles of disaster; my spouse (both experienced in undercover operations and an aficionado of heist films) was cringing and stuffing his fist in his mouth as we watched to prevent himself from yelling about everything they were doing wrong. The outcome of the film is both hilarious and poignant. On the whole I enjoyed this, and can see its influence in other modern heist films.
But the woman problem exists here too. The two major female characters are there for the men to act at and to give responses to the men rather than having purpose of their own. The wife of Gabin’s character is essentially a call-and-response mechanism for his desire to take on the final heist. The brother-in-law speaks about the toll of his financial struggle on his wife and children but they’re never given voices or faces of their own. Delon’s character initiates a relationship with a woman as part of the heist setup and then ends up falling for her, which complicates his mission; this story thread shows the promise of becoming something else, and yet she ends up shoved into a good/bad box and removed from the story without any real resolution. I’d have loved to tease out her story further, since the hints of her story we’re given are fascinating and it could have fit well with more of the story. But ultimately, she was just another tool for a male character, not all that different from the women in Le doulos.
In the end, neither film felt like something I would come to cherish the way I do many other noirs, nor delightful discoveries the way the day 1 films were for me. And the problem of the women characters is a part of that. I’m setting myself a task of watching some Agnes Varda films after Noir City is done to make up for this.
I chose an evening outfit since we were getting there after dark; I’d thought both films were mid-1950s rather than early 1960s, so my style frame was a little off. But it was still noirish and I liked the concept.
The setting, BTW, is not Noir City. It’s my spouse’s office. And if you’re wondering why my spouse’s office looks like a set for a private eye movie, it’s because he’s an actual real-life PI. We are dedicated in our love of noir.