Classe Tous Risques (Consider All Risks, France-Italy, 1960)

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Released just before Belmondo was unleashed upon the cinematic world in Godard’s Breathless, Classe Tous Risques is a fascinating glimpse of mainstream French film but not in the form of Truffaut’s ‘old man cinema’. In 1954 Francois Truffaut’s polemic, that heralded auteurism, was published in Cahiers du cinema. Here he railed against the ‘cinema du papa’; in other words it was a young man’s moan against the boring mainstream. He called for the auteur to give a personal vision that was cinematic, rather than script bound. It wasn’t until Truffaut, and the other directors of the nouvelle vague, began making movies at the end of the decade that his vision was fulfilled.

Claude Sautet, who became commercially successful in the 1970s, was picked to direct by the star Lino Ventura who plays a gangster having a ‘last hurrah’ as he makes his way back to Paris with his young children. The direction is good, the scene when Belmondo is arrested is great, but what struck me about the film was the use of location filming. Clearly they were shooting on the street with lightweight equipment, so important to the ‘new wave’, and the passerbys are ‘working’ as free extras.

The hardboiled narrative, based on a José Giovanni novel (he also co-scripted), is engaging enough and the performances are excellent.

Advertisements

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.

Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, France, 1960)

Playing the audience

Despite being over 20 years since his debut film, Quentin Tarantino still dazzles some students. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it does, along with the supposition that film history began with Star Wars in 1977, severely limit understanding of cinema. Similarly, the inability of hundreds of critics to find more than two 21st century films in the top 50 of the decennial Sight & Sound poll threatens to turn film into an exercise in nostalgia. Tarantino himself is entrely open about his debt to the French nouvelle vague and named his company after a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Tirez sur le pianiste may not be a great film but it still feels thoroughly modern with its mix of irreverence in plot, its take on the gangster genre and the style in which it is shot. Truffaut uses the source material, an American ‘pulp’ novel by David Goodis, and inflects it with a modernist sensibility that keeps its heart intact. Much of this is to do with Charles Aznavour’s moody performance, encapsulating a ‘would be’ existentialist hero but who is a prisoner of his class. The close-ups of his faltering hand that is too shy to touch the woman he loves are extremely effective in representing his wounded character.

I always preferred Godard to Truffaut, however this, and Jules and Jim (1963), are superb films.

Sin nombre (Mex-US, 2009)

On the track to nowhere

I enjoyed this rather conventional take on migration and gangs, conventional in its narrative drive but unusual in its focus on Central America. There are two strands to the narrative: Sayra is trying to get to USA via Mexico and Caspar, who falls out with his gang leader; the two threads entwine as he tries to escape.

The portrayal of place is excellent, writer-director Cary Fukunaga (an American filmmaker) has done his research well. I particularly liked the scenes on the train, giving us a sense of the desperation of people who have no choice but to travel illegally; reminiscent of the ‘down and outs’ of the Great Depression in America. Less convincing was the gangs which are rather cliched; however that’s not to say that that isn’t how it’s like (how would I know?). I would have liked to see more of why young men are attracted to gang life (no doubt for economic reasons).

For us cosseted westerners, this is an ideal film because we can see the usually-vilified Others (illegals) and so understand better why they are forced to be illegal. This is far better than swallowing the tripe that the mass media peddle.

London Boulevard (US-UK, 2010)

Starry London thriller

I don’t know why this thriller bombed at the box office as I found it mostly gripping and well acted: Keira Knightley in particular as the vulnerable actor hounded by paparazzi. Even Ray Winstone, reprising his gangster role, manages to squeeze even more menace than usual from the scumbag he plays. Colin Farrell is an engaging lead and add David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Eddie Marsan and Stephen Graham, you can see we have some of the best actors in the British business. And I haven’t mentioned Ben Chaplin, who seemed to have disappeared for a while, as an absolutely terrific sleazeball.

This was William Monahan’s debut as a director, having scripted The Departed (2006) amongst others; he also wrote and produced. It’s well shot and the only miscalculation, apart from a rather unraveling ending, is Sanjeev Bhaskar’s doctor who’s meant to be comic relief. The British gangster film has a terrible reputation; with the honourable exceptions of Sexy Beast (2000), with Winstone, and Gangster No.1 (2001), with Thewlis. This uses London locations well, eschewing the tourist spots apart from some eloquently composed skyline shots, conveying the sense of menace of estates and the gentility of the posh areas; gangster Winstone is comfortable in both locations.

Maybe the romance between the principals, Farrell is meant to be protecting Knightley, is too reminiscent of The Bodyguard (1992) or it was because Thewlis’ washed-up druggie actor is entirely unconvincing (as a character not as a performance). Well worth catching up with on DVD I suggest.

Dead Presidents (US, 1995)

Vietnam and gang movie

The Hughes brothers have only made two features since this sophomore effort 15 years ago. Their first two films offered a political dimension to conventional narratives – maybe that’s why they’ve made so few films – and this film has an interesting visual style. This first half is a sensitively portrayed ‘coming of age’ film and takes in the Vietnam war; the second half shows the protagonist’s decline and fall into gangsterism. It’s a fairly cliched narrative but it’s difficult to present a snapshot of a decade in any other way. Apocalypse Now (1979), in particular, has colonised images of Vietnam, but the Hughes brothers have enough savvy to not pale in comparison. The film is particularly gory but it does serve the narrative rather attempt merely to shock the audience.

A strong cast who, to my eyes, stray too far into African-American stereotypes; but as these types are being utilised by black filmmakers, I shouldn’t complain. Excellent film; well worth seeing.

Bechdel test: Fail (8/4)
Protagonist: Male (2/7)

Gomorrah (Gomarra, Italy, 2008)

Living with death

Living with death

Whilst Gomorrah is clearly a gangster film, representing the Naples Camorra, it also resembles the (so-called) fly-on-the-wall documentaries that trace a number of contemporaneous narrative strands about lives in, say, airports or hotels. These, however, use voice overs thereby disallowing them as ‘observational’ documentaries as their meaning is anchored. That said, if Gomorrah had had a voice over I would’ve been able to follow it more readily!

We’re offered several,  violent, slices of life that portray existence in the poverty-stricken area (that resembles the Kidbrooke estate in SE London)  in the thrall of the Comarra. Silvia Angrisani, in the current issue of Sight & Sound, complains that we can’t understand the social context from the film. However, this is true of this form of documentary; by necessity it shows a limited view. To extend the film to show, say, the role of politicians, would make the film a melodrama (no bad thing). Clearly Matteo Garrone (who, reportedly, is wanted dead by the Camorra before Christmas) wanted to focus on life at the bottom.

Much of the film is shot handheld (the image above is the only stylised shot in the film, a tour de force featuring one of the characters escaping having survived a bloodbath), probably the only way to shoot given the locations, its  use of non professional actors and in keeping with its ‘documentary’ feel.

The film also acts as reportage, many won’t know of the Camorra’s role in dumping toxic waste on farmland and the death toll in Naples (one every three days). It doesn’t deal with the corrupt nature of the Italian state, which allows this to happen, but that’s for other films.