Oak Street Cinema revives Jean-Pierre Melville's film noir masterpieces

Hard-boiled heroes: Alain Delon in Le Cercle Rouge
courtesy of Rialto Pictures

The French have shown a cinematic obsession with mobsters, jewel thieves, and petty criminals that is at least a match for American films, and Jean-Pierre Melville was perhaps the king of French underworld cinema.

Coming into his own as a director in the 1950s, Melville is known especially for his elegant, spare film noirs, and he is considered a forefather of the iconoclastic French New Wave cinema of the late '50s and the '60s. He has become a darling of modern American film directors from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, yet Melville himself was strongly influenced by the works of now-classic American directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Huston.

This week, Oak Street Cinema—still alive and kicking with ambitious fall programming—is reviving three of Melville's masterpieces for its French Crime Wave series: Le Cercle Rouge, Bob Le Flambeur, and Le Doulos.

(Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4:45 p.m., Sunday at 4:45 and 7:30 p.m.)

Alain Delon's ineffable coolness (in all senses of the term) so perfectly befits Melville's bone-dry noirs that if Delon had not existed, the director would have had to invent him. In this recently restored 1970 film, Delon, his eerily mannequin-like beauty obscured by an ill-considered mustache (damn those Beatles!), plays yet another smooth criminal, Corey, who's fresh out of jail, on the run from his former mob associates, and preparing for a jewelry heist. But where Delon's character in Melville's earlier Le Samourai was an isolated monad, Corey finds a delicate, understated bond of shared loneliness with his fellow jewel thieves: an escaped con, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), and the former police sharpshooter (and current drunk) Jensen (Yves Montand). The bravura set piece is the heist itself, which proceeds sans dialogue for an astonishing 18 minutes. Indeed, the film as a whole is marked by a firm conviction to avoid any unnecessary conversation or noise. But the real thrill of the heist sequence might be its refusal to impress us with fancy gizmos and acrobatic trickery: These guys are just really careful, and really well prepared. Be forewarned that the movie's narrative unfolds slowly and obliquely at first. But once the pieces start falling into place, Le Cercle Rouge is like one long, elegantly orchestrated chess maneuver. —Derek Nystrom

(Saturday at 7:30 p.m.)

Melville's 1955 Bob Le Flambeur is a hard-boiled fable: "As told in Montmartre, here is the curious tale of...Bob Le Flambeur," the narrator promises, by way of introducing a silver-haired, trench-coated Galahad who lives in an artist's atelier, tools around Montmartre in a two-toned Plymouth, and gambles each night until dawn.

Something like the cinematic Birth of the Cool, Melville's drollest, most likable gangster movie is set in the '50s, but it deliberately evokes Paris's pre-World War II underworld. There's a nostalgia to Melville's love of smoky dives and Pigalle at dawn. His tough-guy hero, heading home to sleep at 7 a.m., catches a glimpse of his weary reflection in a storefront mirror and mutters, "a real hood's face." (Actually, Bob is played by Roger Duchesne, a distinguished-looking actor with a real-life shady past.) A former bank robber, now the most formidable high roller in Paris, Bob hates pimps but has a soft spot for young lowlife, mainly his protégé (Daniel Cauchy) and an outrageous piece of jailbait (played by then 15-year-old Isabelle Corey). Bob Le Flambeur was Melville's answer to the elaborately choreographed heists of The Asphalt Jungle as well as Rififi, which he had once hoped to direct. Here, too, the caper is presented as a commando mission. Bob Le Flambeur is brilliantly scripted to build up to the grand casino heist—even the insistent checkerboard patterns that make the movie so emphatically black and white culminate with the gaming tables of Deauville. Bob Le Flambeur takes itself seriously, but as attitude thrillers go, it's exceedingly light on its feet. The movie is a superb riff with a boffo finale, a terrific, cynical punch line, and a crazy closing image of Bob's Plymouth on an empty beach. —J. Hoberman

(Wednesday, October 14, and Thursday, October 15, at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m.)

Melville invents bristling, wicked touches here: The hard-boiled hero (Jean-Paul Belmondo) breezes past a barroom statue, and we see it up close—a black woman with two kids, her face peeled into a grimace. And later, as a grizzled ex-con drives through Marseilles toward the man he has mistakenly sentenced to death, his car hits a trippy series of sun showers, as if the entire universe were one big, treacherous car wash. Melville's movies are usually described as "existential," which may be another way of saying that they have no rooting interest whatsoever. Indeed, Le Doulos (1962) is so hard-boiled that it's occasionally repellent—as when the torture and murder of a young woman is tossed off as casually as the barroom piano player's mellow jazz. So if it's Extreme Noir you're after, it may be best to check out the Italian crime filmmakers of the '70s, or such American aberrations as Murder by Contract and The Naked City. At least they don't revolve around as puerile a figure as Le Doulos's Belmondo, who resembles nothing so much as a smug college kid playing a thug—Adam Sandler impersonating Robert Mitchum. —Matthew Wilder

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