#7 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
This is pure genre style done through the Melville lens, and it’s fun. It’s not his best work, but it’s the more refined version of Le Deuxieme Souffle. It’s a steady build up through escapes and an extended heist with just enough character to build up for the audience to attach to through it all. There’s no real emotional involvement, giving us an exercise in almost pure style. In terms of effect, I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The film begins with two men leaving police custody in different ways. The first is Corey (Alain Delon), being released from prison after time served, given note of a great score on the outside by a prison guard the night before he leaves. He immediately goes to an associate he knew on the outside, Rico (Andre Ekyan) whom Corey did not give up while in prison and was thanked by having Rico steal his girl, so Corey steals Rico’s money and cash in return. The other is Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) who escapes from the custody of Inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil) from a moving train. Wandering the countryside and barely escaping the dragnet that Mattei puts up around the area, he sneaks into the trunk of a car at a roadside restaurant which happens to be the car that Corey bought with the money he lifted from Rico. After protecting this well-known escapee from detection at a road stop, Corey introduces himself at gunpoint in a field and offers him protection. He does have a job that will require three men, after all, and he’s already burned one of his main bridges to his past life. It is helped when some of Rico’s men run Corey off the road while Vogel is still hiding in the trunk, and Vogel saves Corey’s life by pulling his gun on the two, killing them.
The trail of bodies on the road between Marseille to Paris is just enough for Mattei to figure that Vogel, who leaped off a train between the two cities, is probably heading his way to Paris, and he starts the longer work of trying to track down Vogel, leaning heavily on a nightclub owner Santi (Francois Perier), a former associate of Vogel’s, to try and get any traction in his investigation that he can.
It’s been obvious for a few films that Jean-Pierre Melville loved to use his cinema to document underground processes, the official response to them, and find the tension inherent in them in the most stripped-down ways. This may be the most bare-bones film of his body of work with Corey, Vogel, and Mattei being, essentially, monosyllabic archetypes, reflecting their outer appearance and professions through and through. And yet, what makes this instance of Melville’s sparseness of narrative work is that attention to process. Vogel’s escape is intricately documented, creating the tension as we watch Vogel barely keep ahead, we know that Corey has the key to the trunk of his car and we wonder if the police will buy that he doesn’t. Combined with the ability to focus on a small set of characters, it works.
The only character who has anything that resembles an arc is Jansen (Yves Montand), a former police officer that Vogel knows and puts into contact with Corey. When we first meet him, he’s in his bed as the phone rings from Corey, and he has visions of snakes and things crawling up to get him. By the end of the film, he has conquered these visions of beasts. It’s kind of unclear how, but it’s something. To be honest, Jansen is a fairly minor character in a piece that’s essentially four characters big, though.
The actual heist is somewhat famed for being thirty minutes long and entirely wordless. We get the slightest of rundowns about how the target of the heist, a jewelry store, has its security set up, and then we’re into it. There’s sneaking in, disabling the security guard (without killing him), firing a specially made bullet into a special keyhole that gets hots enough to melt just enough upon being fired that it will fill the space perfectly, subverting the need for a key (I mean, sure, whatever), and then collecting all of the jewels. This is primo Melville right here. This is where Melville’s focus on the documentation of process really pays off. The intricate detail that any other heist film would dismiss within seconds gets focused on and drawn out in a way that fills the audience with incredible tension. This is the film at its absolute best.
The finale of the film feels like its supposed to have some kind of tragic feel to it, but this is where Melville’s move into pure style serves him wrong in the gangster movie genre. It worked better in Army of Shadows with the World War II setting. In the gangster/heist setting with minimal character, it doesn’t work as well. If the ending isn’t supposed to be tragic, then I have to wonder what the point of the whole thing was. The one character I think we’re supposed to like most is Jansen, and when I don’t feel anything at his fate, it’s a demonstration of the limitation of where Melville could take this stylistic approach in this genre.
However, that’s not to undermine the overall effect of the film. This is purely a genre exercise, and as a genre exercise it’s tense and fun. From Vogel’s escape at the beginning to the final effort to sell the stolen jewels at the end, this is a tense crime film. Every actor is there, playing down their roles to fit in with Melville’s vision of a stoic landscape. The sole exception is, again, Montand, who, with something to do on a personal, character level, provides a nice bit of hesitation and unease around his performance.
The film requires attention and some patience, but it’s well rewarding for those who can get on its wavelength. It may not have the subtle visceral qualities of Army of Shadows or the twist of emotion of Le Doulos, but this is a highly skilled work by Melville that entertains quite well.