#11 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
I don’t often say this, but this movie needed to be shorter. A fair bit shorter. I enjoyed it, and it’s easy to see its influence especially over Quentin Tarantino, but I don’t think it does quite enough with its time, especially in the first half. The story of an escaped convict who joins in on a heist outside of Marseille in order to help fund his life on the lam outside of France is full of the right characters, motivations, and twisting plot to entertain, but when every scene feels like something Robert Bresson would have edited, it kind of drags the whole experience down a bit. I really think I would have gotten more out of it if the film were simply paced a bit faster, cutting maybe ten minutes off of the running time.
Gu (Lino Ventura) escapes from prison in the middle of an extended sentence for a botched gold heist along with two other prisoners and makes his way to Paris. Meanwhile in Marseille Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin) is organizing the heist of over a billion francs worth of platinum. He has three men backing him up, including Jeannot (Albert Dagnant). Everything is ready for the heist at the end of the following month, and Jeannot decides to go to Paris to take care of a rival, killing him and getting mortally wounded by Alban (Michel Constantin) in the shootout. Alban functions as the bodyguard to Manouche (Christine Fabrega), Gu’s sister, who learns of Gu’s escape and knows that she has to hide him and figure out a way to get him out of the country safely. Into all of this steps Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse), a Parisian policeman who knows all of the players and is out to get Gu back into prison.
The main driver through all of this is supposed to be Gu’s criminal code, a common idea of ethics in the underworld in Melville’s work. However, my problem is that Gu is sitting alone in a room for quite a long time from when he gets to Paris, kills a couple of low-level hoods trying to threaten Manouche, and then starts his way to Marseille. The attention to detail of Gu’s life in his glorified prison cell doesn’t really contribute much. There’s something there about the meagerness of his existence, his reliance on other people just for survival, and his limited movement that’s supposed to feed his later desire to take part in the dangerous platinum heist, but he has dialogue later that simplifies the matter as just he needs money if he’s going to live any kind of life on the lam. In short, I feel like Melville takes a very long time to say very little in the film’s first half.
The film picks up with the heist, though. Through Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), a criminal who works along most of the time and Paul offered the fourth spot to after the death of Jeannot, Gu learns of the heist and gets invited to take part since Orloff won’t, feeling like the risk isn’t worth any money. The heist is paced like the rest of the film, but with clear stakes, goals, and action, the slower pace actually ends up working in the film’s favor here. It creates tension. I never felt like Gu sitting in his little apartment was tense, but four men waiting in the hills of Southern France for two cops escorting a van full of platinum is tense.
The heist goes largely according to plan, and they get away with their money. The second half of the film is the noose tightening around Gu by both Jo (Marcel Bozzuffi), Paul’s brother. Things feel like they are going to continue to go well as Gu waits for the heat to die down in his little cottage outside of Marseille when he’s identified, despite his new mustache, by one of the guards from his prison who is on vacation. Blot swoops in and tricks Gu into naming Paul as a coconspirator in the heist which has taken the front pages of France’s newspapers by storm. This recorded bit of testimony won’t be admissible in court, but it’s enough to get Blot to convince the local police chief Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) to pick up Paul and pretty much torture him. Word gets out that Gu gave up Paul, and that’s how Jo gets involved, roping in the other two members of the heist crew out of fear that Gu will also give them up.
The focus moves curiously from Gu to Orloff, though. I was really on board with the film after the heist, but the lack of attention to Gu in favor of Orloff feels off to me. Orloff, out of prison and able to speak with people like Manouche and Jo, he ends up the driver for the final meeting instead of Gu.
Gu escapes from the hospital after he injures himself in police custody, kidnaps Fardiano and forces him to write a confession about the underhanded and illegal nature of his methods before he goes to meet with Jo and the two other crew members. This faceoff is pure Tarantino and obviously a huge influence on him. It’s Gu protesting his innocence (in very cool, masculine tones, mind you) while holding a room of three hoods up with a pair of guns. It’s quality stuff.
Overall, though, I find the film entertaining but drawn out. I really don’t think you need to cut the film in half or anything, but this is definitely Jean-Pierre Melville being self-indulgent. Still, self-indulgent Melville is still pretty good stuff. Gu’s journey from escaped criminal to crew member to desperately clearing his own name is a strong narrative throughline. The intertwining of Gu and Jo, that actually begins near the start of the film, is a nicely complicated thread that ties a whole lot of the film together. I just feel like long stretches of this film are kind of dull. There’s really good stuff throughout, including the central heist, but this is a rare example where I feel like a film really could have used some trimming. As a character piece, not enough gets done with Gu for all the focus we get on him early. For a thriller, not enough happens in the face of the quiet moments. It’s kind of in between the two genres instead of finding a way to bring them together as a single cohesive work.
Still, it is pretty good.