#10 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
I don’t get some translated titles. The original French title literally translates as The Eldest of the Ferchaux. I have no idea where Magnet of Doom comes from. It’s exploitative in implication, which is weird for a movie that’s essentially a buddy road trip. It was probably an effort to oversell an independent French movie to American audiences that could be caught up in a catchy title and little else. Still, it’s weird.
Anyway, Jean-Pierre Melville returns to America to collect B-roll footage and then shoot most of his movie back in his Parisian sound stages like he did on Two Men in Manhattan. This is the better of the two films, though. The earlier film was beset by a first half that never seemed to accomplish much, only partially saved by a second half that set things on the right course. Magnet of Doom is much more confident narratively from the beginning and never flags. The earlier film also had some questionable production design decisions that made the interiors of New York seem pristinely clean compared the dingy exteriors actually shot on location. The production design of the Parisian sets on the latter film is much more in line with the exteriors shot on location in America, creating a more cohesive visual experience.
Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a wannabe boxer who loses his last amateur bout before his manager drops him. Left penniless, he and his girlfriend try to figure out how to survive. He answers a newspaper ad for a secretary to a nameless client who ends up being Dieudonne Farchaux (Charles Vanel), a wealthy, older banker who has decided that he needs to go on the lam. In his youth in Africa, he threw a grenade at three black men to defend himself and the colonial government has kept the investigation alive well past the original statute of limitations. There are threats that it will be the basis for action against Farchaux along with any list of things that wealthy bankers do to attain their station. So, under cover of darkness, he hires Michel and takes a plane to New York.
In New York, his mission is to collect as much of his money as he can before he flees to Venezuela. His bankers give him a hard time because it’s obvious that the French government is angling to get him back, though they haven’t gone through the proper procedures for extradition yet. He accuses them of wanting to simply keep his money to build some new branches, and settles for just grabbing what he can from a safety deposit box at another bank. With that cash, the pair head south.
The meat of this film is the relationship between Michel and Farchaux, and that really begins on the departure from New York. Michel, a young man who has failed at the one major thing he tried and also run out on his girlfriend back in France for this job, looks to this older man of questionable morals, perhaps a potential role model, and wonders when Farchaux thinks of him. Farchaux won’t give an answer, keeping a distance between them, but the trip through Virginia and eventually into Louisiana reveals much.
They reach a diner. Michel puts on some Frank Sinatra on the jukebox. Two American military men walk in, turn it off, and put on more contemporary music. Michel asks for them to be polite. They refuse. He knocks them both down, and they immediately become friends for the rest of the pair’s time in the diner. Farchaux can appreciate a young man fighting for what he sees as his. Things go a bit sour when Michel decides to pick up a pretty female hitchhiker. Farchaux wants nothing to do with it, and when Michel takes the girl to a riverbed to frolic for a bit, Farchaux takes the suitcase of money he has and throws all of the bills down the roadside. He keeps enough to get him to Caracas in an effort to maintain control of the situation, but Michel and the girl simply go down to the riverbank and pick up as much of the money that’s still sitting there. Farchaux realizes that he’s taken on a young man who can dominate him in a one-on-one competition of masculinity.
After a brief episode where the girl tries to steal all the money and she ends up on the side of the road with nothing, the French men end up in a remote house in the bayous of Louisiana. The road element is really just the middle third of the film, and the final third settles into a psychological duel between Farchaux and Michel that is reminiscent of Les Enfants Terribles and Quand tu Liras cette Lettres. It’s not as impactful as either of those examples, perhaps because there’s no sexual energy between the two characters here, but it’s largely functional. Farchaux feigns illness after illness in their remote house to keep Michel around, afraid of being alone in a world that wishes him harm. Michel wants freedom, and he often goes to Jeff’s Bar owned by Jeff (Todd Martin) just to get away. Jeff was an American GI in the War, stationed in France and who speaks French to Michel and spent some time in prison. He also takes a night to go to New Orleans where he meets a French dancer, Lou (Michele Mercier).
Farchaux, realizing that he’s much more dependent on Michel than the other way around, grows increasingly desperate, but Michel is not sympathetic to the man who wishes to control him. The finale of the film is Michel needing to deal with his history of abandoning people (namely his girlfriend in France), Jeff taking advantage of the situation, and Farchaux reaching his lowest point.
Belmondo and Vanel work together well. They don’t really have the kind of chemistry to give the great impact to the ending of the film. I think that has as much to do with the writing as their acting. They never quite get close enough for the breaks in their relationship to impact the audience. Perhaps a stronger emphasis on a father/son relationship instead of taking it towards a more psychological duel direction early would have helped. Their relationship ends up feeling a bit too antagonistic early, I think.
The film as a whole fits very comfortably into Melville’s filmography. In fact, it might be the most Melville of his films. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of something like Le Doulos, the creepy atmosphere of Les Enfants Terribles, or exquisite tension of Bob le Flambeur. It’s a more pedestrian effort from Melville, though it does maintain interest from beginning to end. It’s not the technical success of some of his earlier films or the emotional journey as others, but it works.