Originally published on the Film Noir Foundation website
The Criterion Channel launched earlier this year with a spotlight on American film noir. This month, it celebrates the shadows of international crime dramas, gangster films, and thrillers.
The Complete Jean-Pierre Melville
All 14 Melville films, from his debut documentary short 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946) to his final feature Un flic (1972), are presented along with a profile of Melville from the documentary series Cinéastes de notre temps and other interviews and bonus featurettes. Melville is the master of the French gangster film, which he elegantly brought into the modern world with meticulously plotted and smoothly directed crime classics, and it is remarkable how many of the maverick director’s films are either full-fledged French noir or tinged with a noir sensibility. Even his French resistance masterpiece Army of Shadows (1969) is built like a heist movie with fatal stakes and an atmosphere of isolation and loneliness.
The best of his crime cinema classics are steeped in both a sentimental code of friendship and honor among thieves and an unforgiving streak of loyalty, professionalism, and sacrifice that defines his heroes. Le deuxième souffle (1966) embraces the romantic fantasy of underworld loyalty and lives of calculated risk and violence but also a hard-edged ruthlessness; betrayed gangster Lino Ventura turns almost feral to restore his honor and redeem his reputation. And in Le samouraï (1967), Alain Delon is a film noir loner for the post-noir era, the ultimate professional in an alienated world of glass and metal. Melville drops iconic gangster conventions into an austere world that turns Paris into an insular universe where reality is subservient to the romance of the movies.
Half of the films are new to Criterion this month, including the elegant, elegiac Bob le flambeur (1956), the wonderfully ironic tale of an aging gambler who plots an elaborate heist; Two Men in Manhattan (1959), a newspaper picture with the sensibility and style of a private detective odyssey with Melville himself playing French reporter in New York City; and the cool, often cruel Le doulos (1962) with Jean-Paul Belmondo as a smiling underworld informer, a skewed morality tale that riffs on the criminal code; and Le cercle rouge (1970), a meticulously executed heist classic with Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonte, and Yves Montand as a trio of criminals whose bond of brotherhood is expressed in swapped guns and shared cigarettes.
Two of the featured films have never been released to home video. The recently-restored noir melodrama When You Read This Letter (1953) stars Juliette Gréco a novitiate who leaves the convent to care for her younger sister and Philippe Lemaire as a gigolo and thief who preys upon the naïve younger girl but becomes infatuated with Gréco. It’s a plot driven purely by emotion, which isn’t Melville’s strong suit, but Gréco’s implacable, guarded performance gives the otherwise unlikely romantic tension with Lemaire’s scheming opportunist an enigmatic edge.
Magnet of Doom (1963) is adapted from a Georges Simenon novel but the sensibility is hothouse American pulp crime, like Charles Willeford or Jim Thompson as seen from abroad. The odyssey sends failed boxer-turned-bodyguard Jean-Paul Belmondo and crooked Paris businessman Charles Vanel to New York and New Orleans in a weirdly stylized road movie through skewed Americana recreated in increasingly sweltering colors almost entirely in Melville’s studio. Neither are top-rank Melville, but they are fascinating rarities
The “Jailbreak!” collection features the Criterion Channel debut of Le trou (1960), Jacques Becker’s meticulous story of the elaborate escape from a hellish Parisian prison. He paces the film deliberately, as attentive to the time it takes to accomplish each task as he is to the minute details and split-second timing of every facet––one of the many things it shares in common with Rififi, another exacting crime classic.
Directed by Christian Petzold
The films of German director Christian Petzold rework the conventions and themes of film noir, melodrama, and other classic genres. “Directed by Christian Petzold” presents four of his best, all starring the brilliant Nina Hoss.
In the eerie, alienated Yella (2007), Hoss is an abused woman who flees from her depressed hometown and a violent stalker — her ex-husband — to find her niche in the cracks of the pirate corporate economy of Germany. Jerichow (2008) reworks the narrative dynamics of The Postman Always Rings Twice for rural East Germany, with Hoss as the wife essentially bought by a Turkish-born businessman and Benno Fürmann as a dangerous drifter he hires as a driver and debt collector. In Barbara (2012), set before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hoss is bitter and angry as a doctor in East Germany exiled to the hinterlands (essentially a prison without walls) and harassed by the secret police for daring to love outside of official channels.
All three movies are new to Criterion and join the previously available Phoenix (2014), a searing film noir/melodrama that plays out in the rubble and desperation of post-World War II Germany.
“British Hitchcock” isn’t exactly noir, but the thirteen films in the collection present the master of suspense as he develops and perfects his defining approach to cinema, from his first distinctively “Hitchcockian” classic The Lodger (1927) to his patented mix of thriller and romantic adventure in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). While you’ve likely seen those latter two, the collection also features some lesser-known productions presented in beautiful editions.
Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock’s talkie debut, isn’t as effective as the silent version of the film but it does show the filmmaker experimenting with sound for cinematic effect and developing themes he explores throughout his career, notably his fascination with the effects of guilt, secrets, and suspicion on relationships. Rich and Strange (1931) is not a thriller but a romantic comedy of innocents abroad, yet the satire of bourgeois complacency and cultural provincialism has an undercurrent of darkness and a dry wit to the barbed humor. And in the “wrong man” thriller Young and Innocent (1937), Hitchcock flexes his cinematic muscles in a few knock-out sequences, notably a long tracking shot across a dance floor into a close-up that he re-used decades later in Notorious.