Bob le flambeur
Paris takes a momentary respite from the clamour of its citizens. Dawn pins man against himself. The city, calm and forgotten, does not seem real without the aggravated and often intemperate – at least this is true of the Pigalle district – intentions of some of its inhabitants. The relative absence of others – who often serve merely as resistance, speaking our same language without communicating – this always forces an inward look.
Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), the one they call the gambler, walks out in the early dawn from a gambling joint and finds himself staring into a storefront mirror, as if to reaffirm his solitude. This gesture is not one of vanity, for Bob’s character is one who is at the crossroads of self-effacement and hubris. He has just exited a losing round of crap. “A real hood’s face”, he mutters. But Bob is used to losing. He is going home to sleep, he tells an attendant. As customary, he never retires to bed before 6:00am, his dignified anonymity intact.
Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1955) is an explicitly introspective yarn. More so than Melville’s later films, Bob le flambeur invites the viewer to live along Bob and to enter into his world. The film sets this introspective mood from the very beginning. We are quickly allowed into Bob’s world through an omniscient and friendly narration, an exquisite luxury that is rarely granted to most mortals who surround him.
But Bob, the local legend, even though a scammer, always scheming a new angle to embrace to help him pass the time, is also a gentle soul to those who know him. The exception is fate, given that destiny never knows the inside of a man. “Here, as you’ll hear it in Montmartre, is the strange tale of …” Bob le flambeur. And then as a sentimental jazz score plays, the narration continues: “The story begins in those moments between night and day, by the dawn’s early light. Montmartre is both heaven … [a shot of a descending sky car, followed by one of Pigalle] … and hell.” The friendly and omniscient narrator continues, as it will do throughout the film.
The signs are about to go out. People pass one another, forever strangers. Working people, like this cleaning lady, who’s very late, and idlers, like this young girl, who has bloomed early for her age. But let’s get to Bob. Bob the gambler. An old young man, legend of a recent past.
Bob walks alone through the deserted dawn streets. Everybody seems to know him: the taxi drivers, the newsstand man; even police detectives give him a lift in their squad car. They drop him off at another gambling house. All along, the musical score sets a sombre and melancholic mood.
After Bob is dropped off, one policeman asks another if Bob is an informer. He answers that that is absolutely not the case. He explains that Bob shoved him aside once when a guy shot at him some time back. Bob, unlike the squalid morality of so many “post-modern” men, has earned his loyalty.
Bob le flambeur exhibits that characteristically Melvillian respect for why people act as they do when psychoanalysis and psychobabble just won’t do. Melville, much like Georges Simenon in his policier novels, is more concerned with people’s motives than with solving crimes. In Le Samouraï (1967), for instance, Jef Costello (Alain Delon) asks the piano player, Valérie (Cathy Rosier), why she did not identify him in the police line-up. He is genuinely interested. As the police drive off, they begin a discussion of Bob’s moral make-up. They offer an interesting exposé of Bob’s life that goes a long way in not only describing fundamental traits of his character, but also framing his life in a broader perspective.
Melville’s characters often seem to exist in an existential vacuum that does not ascribe any importance to their everyday lives. We learn from the policemen in Bob le flambeur that he had robbed the Rimbaud bank 20 years earlier. But they go on to say that he is “wiser” now. Of all of Melville’s characters, Bob seems the most human and thus the most interesting. He has a tastefully furnished apartment, whereas Jef Costello lives in a dungy, drearily discoloured prison-cell type room. Where Bob has works of art and books, Costello has a lonely bird that is kept in a cage in the middle of the room. Bob stands out as likeable, spirited and approachable. His demeanour is filial and jovial. This seems to come as a result of having lost his freedom while incarcerated. Like Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) in Melville’s Le Doulos (1962), Bob is an ex-felon who knows the law of the street and who has no fear, hence ever entertaining the opportunity of another caper.
Probably far more interesting than their plot construction, Melville’s films can be viewed as living, vital axioms that are lived out by his characters. They can also be described as visual poetry. Gambling is acceptable and jewel heists are seen as mere jobs that require a sophisticated level of difficulty and wilful engagement. But so is life. Melville treats the affairs of daily life, regardless if occasionally it is the perspective of the law that is portrayed, as vital sketches. Implicit in Melville’s treatment of these unsavoury characters is always a slice-of-life attitude that asks: how do some men decide to pass their lives? What are the trajectories of any given life? These are always interesting cinematic questions. Bob is not as mysterious a character as Costello in Le Samouraï or Corey (Alain Delon) in Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Bob le flambeur is less interested in portraying a gambler than in showcasing the intricate and complex interactions between free will and fate. This question becomes rather pronounced in Melville’s work given that, despite the metaphysical mechanism at work in human reality, there remains the kind of “destiny” that is cast as a result of the relationship between free beings.
Bob’s code of morality, or what amounts to conscience, cannot be explained through theoretical textbook moral abstractions. When a small-time crook named Marc (Gérard Buhr) comes to his apartment to ask Bob for money and to hide out for some time, Bob is ready to comply. But when he discovers that Marc has beaten a prostitute that works for him, he throws him out, telling him that he doesn’t like pimps. This singular incident will later prove to be the decisive reason for Bob’s next incarceration.
Bob’s conscience is unwavering. He is loyal to his friends, while not bothering with the bad will of others. Consistent with his dislike of pimps, Bob is the protector of a young orphan girl, Anne (Isabelle Corey), whom he doesn’t want walking the streets. He takes Anne to his apartment to live. Ironically, it is Bob’s ability to do well that sidetracks his life at the end of the film. Anne becomes romantically involved with a young man, the son of a deceased friend whose life Bob also oversees. Ironically, the solid getaway that they had established for their jewel heist is foiled when the young man tells the young woman the plan in an unguarded moment of bravado.
Another clear indication of Bob’s past and upbringing takes place when Bob and Anne go for a ride to the part of the city where he was born. He admits to her that he left home at age 14. He tells her that his mother scrubbed floors until the day she died. No further social commentary is needed here. This is Melville’s genius at work. The linear plot of Bob le flambeur corresponds with the time-conscious reflection of the protagonist. Bob eventually comes to the realization that most of his life has been lived in internal turmoil. The reason that one can interpret his life as an emotional upheaval is evident in his restlessness to find a definitive caper that will round out his existence. Bob’s days, like those of other bourgeois men that he passes in the streets, are spent in pursuit of a future-promise. The day-to-day incessant having-to-do that corresponds to human reality makes life a long series of events and emotions that, in the absence of some unifying vision, makes life a mere heap of days. But in human existence the culmination of a succession of days simply will not do as a symbol of quality of life. There is perhaps something to be said of the heroism of people who attack the daily world as such. After all, life is lived without a map. To possess a will that tries to make sense of more than is sensually available always proves to be a pertinent bonus in our subsistence.
A fascinating parallel can be drawn between Le Samouraï and Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Demitrios. In the former, Jef Costello, unlike Bob, lives mostly in his own head, expressionless, loveless and seemingly careless. Ambler’s Dimitrios Makropoulos is created on the same principle of anonymity. Clearly Costello has a past. Someone must know him? Bob lives in a neighbourhood where he at least has several friends and many acquaintances. This is not so for Costello, who lives in a kind of existential suspended reality where the world only exists as the unfortunate container of his being. With Costello, the clear impression is that he is waiting for life to begin somehow.
Le Samouraï is a fascinating example of a film that makes absolute sense of the daily travails of everyman – of anyone. What is most striking about this work is that it creates a sense of suspense that transcends the screen. At the end of Le Samouraï, we are left thinking that perhaps Costello had a way out of his predicament. We almost come to believe that we can help this man – who, even though, his actions demonstrate desperation, there remains no emotional or psychological baggage to explain him away. But this saccharine-coated moral superiority on our part is precisely the fingerprint of the ‘post-modern’, as Melville seems to suggest. But what exactly is his predicament? Costello dies due to his honour, not out of any extraneous environmental contingency. His death is defined by his code of honour – of his own doing.
The world is too large and complex, and human reality too slippery and fleeting, so we conjure up endless institutions and yellow ideologies that are bent on creating a new man – a mechanical man who must not fail to cover all angles, during all times and where life proper cannot be lived without an angle. Costello simply lives and dies – like so many others before and after him. What bothers us most about his death, then? That he has apparently taken his own life? Or is it his oppressive anonymity that haunts us? But a dignified anonymity has always signalled a central characteristic of existential freedom. Where our imagination is ignited regarding some aspects of Costello’s off-screen life, Ambler manages to develop a dual linear plot that makes an existential subject out of the criminal, Dimitrios. The concrete beauty and effectiveness of Melville’s work is to leave all such questions to those who have a need to fashion them. But what can reality mean in an age that all of a sudden has discovered free will through a hollow and sophomoric vehicle called virtual reality. The driving force behind Melville’s cinematic conventions is simply “old fashion” imagination. Ambler’s Dimitrios moves through pre-World War II Europe like a shadow. But a shadow for whom? While Dimitrios might not be a subject to himself – a mere Sartrean pour soi object – Latimer, the writer who decides to tract him down, does in fact make him into an all-consuming object of reflection.
What could be more interesting, literally and philosophically, than to extrapolate where the existence of an onscreen Costello begins and ends? What if Costello’s life were made manifest to an interested party while he engaged with the world? Latimer solicits Dimitrios’ whereabouts as a psychological desire to go beyond the newspaper reports and obituaries where these characters gain their subjectivity. Yet this is the same cinematic treatment that Carol Reed offers regarding his villain, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), in The Third Man (1949). While Lime is hiding in the half-light and confusion of World War II, his old friend, Martins (Joseph Cotton), the writer, is innocently seeking his company through the Viennese rubble-laden streets. As in A Coffin for Dimitrios, most of The Third Man is spent building the suspense of a mystery man who may already be dead.
The lived reality that is Dimitrios’ life is not known until the very end of the novel when Latimer finally faces him in a most ominous meeting. However, throughout this undertaking Dimitrios becomes much more than an ordinary criminal for Latimer. Equally, in a sense in Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, the audience is made to play the part of Ambler’s writer, Latimer, or Reed’s Martins – an omniscient observer.
Bob, on the contrary, is not as sinister a character as Costello, Dimitrios or Harry Lime. Bob is actually an amicable character whom we forget is a criminal for great stretches of the film. For the most part, we encounter Bob in his role as senior neighbourhood gambler. He is even funny. Bob is a man with a pressing sense of the passage of time. It is not until the end of the film, when Bob and his accomplices take arms against the police during the casino heist, that we come to regard him as a criminal. For instance, before the casino heist plot is unveiled and rehearsed, Bob is just a lovable loser. His love of horses does nothing to conceal his wretched history at the track. But losing to Bob is commensurate with living. To win would only signify a bonus, while losing is still a significant vital activity. Bob’s life is replete, alive with possibilities. He states, “Fortune favours the brave”, suggesting the need to hope. When he does win at the horse track, he and friend Roger (André Garet) go to a casino from where they emerge broke. This is the point in the film when Roger tells Bob that the vault at the Deauville Casino holds 800 million franks. Immediately Bob begins thinking seriously about the job. He says: “800 goddam million. The job of a lifetime!”
Melville’s main characters exhibit a stoic and cavalier attitude toward life. But, in Bob’s case, we can even say that he is actually content. Bob’s character is an example of ataraxia or what is better expressed as a subdued sense of contentment. Julian Marias illustrates this state of being as:
In other words, ataraxia consists in a state of alertness, which is serenely and foresight directed toward action. Courage in the midst of dangers, and above all in the midst of sudden, unexpected, and unforeseeable dangers, is an attitude. Composed of serenity, of acutely perceptive calmness, that allows one to act promptly and with certainty, even without prior preparation. (1)
Bob’s resolute calm springs from the awareness that crime is only one aspect of human life. While Jef in Le Samouraï and Corey in Le Cercle Rouge may not know better, Bob does, but waits for fate to smile upon him anyhow. Unlike these other men, Bob exhibits a greater sense of control. His world is collared by a conscious contemplation of his fate. One of the more interesting aspects of Bob’s character and the reality that he occupies is his sense of time – that is, of time slipping away. Like the professor (Edward G. Robinson) in Henry Hathaway’s Seven Thieves (1960), who merely wants one more opportunity to “make the world gasp”, Bob is a man possessed by an awareness of time. However, Melville does not convey this inner reality readily through the conventions associated with outer action. Instead, we find that Bob’s serenity is commensurate with his inquietude. In some respects, one can argue that Bob is the maker of his own possibilities, of his world. What could his attention to detail, his meticulousness, his sense of timing mean if not the exercise of a heighten free will? One can liken Bob’s world to that of the inner world of an artist, often living by the dictate of his own parameters.
Consider Pierre Assouline’s insightful description of Georges Simenon’s ritual of thought and writing in his book, Simenon:
Simenon described the creative procedure as ritual: a walk, a trigger of inspiration, a state of grace, material preparation, manila envelope, search for names in the telephone directory, isolation, rising at six in the morning and writing from 6:30 to 8:30, more walking, lunch, a nap, television, children, walking again, reading newspapers but no books, early to bed. Eight or nine chapters in as many days. (2)
Now compare Bob’s attention to dress, his well-ordered apartment, his never going to bed before 6:00am, his loyalty to his friends, including the memory of the dead. Always unwavering in his ways, Bob recognizes himself as a gambler. This sense of grace is a natural driving force in Bob that ought not to be made too much of, especially by adherents of pop psychology where the emphasis is placed squarely on the shoulders of environmental forces. Instead, Bob craves his environment, even when negating the existence of the likes of prostitutes, pimps and police informers. Assouline adds:
He would take longer walks than usual, always alone. This was an early sign that withdrawal was imminent, but also a way of attaining what he called the “state of grace,” a condition in which he felt a void within himself that would soon be filled by his characters. The walks would get longer as he sought to elicit “the trance” he needed in order to enter “novel mode.” (3)
Bob le flambeur depicts a controlled world where most scenes are close-cropped enough to entice the viewer to wonder what takes place outside each frame. Melville’s cinematic world is consumed with what happens in the life of his characters. This larger philosophical view is neatly portrayed in the day-to-day experiences of the characters. In effect, this kind of perspective can easily work for any other type: a businessman, politician, ballplayer or portrait painter. But because Melville’s characters are more detached from most people’s immediate experience, they become flamboyant anomalies that capture the imagination. This, then, is the true essence and power of cinema.
When Lon (Louis Calhern), the lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), returns to his bedroom after being interrogated by the police in his living room, his wife says to him: “Oh, Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, downright criminals, I get scared.” But Lon, who proves to be a not-so-stoic character, answers: “After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.” This is the kind of talk that inspired Melville as his treatment of film noir themes. Melville credits The Asphalt Jungle in inspiring his work in this regard. While Lon and Paul (Riccardo Cucciolla) in Un Flic (1972) only see the immediate gains in a life of crime, both who incidentally end up by committing suicide, Bob does know the price of everyone of his gambles. Bob, like Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) in The Asphalt Jungle, is a competent, disciplined and breezy character that does not fool himself about the perils of his chosen mode of life.
Melville’s work is not as amoral as some critics may suggest. This is a central question that critics repeatedly bring up about his work. The bond that is forged between equals is the driving force behind most of his characters. Bob and Roger are best friends who respect and trust each other. Bob’s friendship and allegiance to the restaurant owner is reciprocated with genuine care for his wellbeing. Once the casino heist plan is put to work, the nine men who embody it become a close-knit unit. Thus it is difficult to argue for amorality in Melville’s characters given their sacred devotion and respect for each other as equals regardless of their chosen racket. Perhaps the subtle yet profound message that can be drawn from Melville’s work is the unmasking of false moralizers.
Undoubtedly, Melville’s experience in the French Resistance during World War II is made felt in his regard for loyalty. Post-World War II French society has been marred by a dubious cynicism that springs from the political expediency of collaborators with both the Nazis and the Soviet Union. This same political expediency is repudiated in Melville’s work in the moral flexibility of police informers.
Examples of self-respect are plentiful in Melville’s films. When Simon (Richard Crenna) in Un Flic is asked to stop by Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), but instead goes for a weapon, Coleman has no choice but to shoot him. Simon knows this perfectly well. When he is searched, no weapons are found on his lifeless body, suggesting that he was ready to die. Corey’s end is also met in the same manner. In Melville, one finds a strong suspicion that perhaps his criminals are more loyal to each other than one often finds in the practical nihilism and degeneracy of the bourgeois world. A telling example of this is seen in the rampant cynicism of the Chef de la Police (Paul Amiot) in Le Cercle Rouge in his conviction that all men are born good but are eventually corrupted. But is this a reflection of himself as an instance of “all men” or is he excluding himself from this dubious category? And if the latter is true, then why not downgrade the categorical “all men” to merely most or some?
Arthur Schopenhauer can best illuminate us when he writes in Counsels and Maxims that:
A man bears the weight of his own body without knowing it, but he soon feels the weight of any other, if he tries to move it: in the same way, a man can see other people’s shortcomings and vices, but he is blind to his own. This arrangement has one advantage: it turns other people into a kind of mirror, in which a man can see clearly everything that is vicious, faulty, ill bred and loathsome in his own nature; only, it is generally the old story of the dog barking at its own image; it is himself that he sees and not another dog, as he fancies. (4)
Statements such as the Chef de la Police’s are never issued by the criminals. In fact, the Chef de la Police’s comment is sharply refuted by Santi (François Périer), the nightclub owner in Le Cercle Rouge. Le Commissaire Mattei (Bourvil) goes to the club to get information from Santi, but the latter does not co-operate. Mattei then decides to arrest him and coerce information out of him instead. Santi counters by reminding him: “You said even if I haven’t an informer’s nature, you’d force me to help you. You’ve got your psychology all wrong.” Santi’s contention is that nothing can change a man’s basic nature. Here, again, there is no excessive preoccupation with an abstract and impersonal moral code, but rather with an abiding conscience.
This serves as a fine example of how cinema can reflect life. But this mirror image, even when it is a realistic and accurate portrayal, can only cover a given perspective. Cinema, then, is perspectival by nature when not solely by intent. Through its basic limitation, the camera can only offer a rendition of what appears directly in its field of view. Of course, cinema is much more than this. But even when what the director intends lies outside this conscripted vision, this view is always limited in its ability to capture an infinite perspective. Yet this is no different to what happens in human life. Husserl’s contention that consciousness serves as a container of the limited reality that it can entertain at any given point serves us well in our attempts to establish the value of cinema. What seems important in cinema is not that it should offer us a limited and often phantom-like world that we cannot recognize as our own. Rather, the essential point to keep in mind is that cinema allows us the luxury to view the immediacy of human reality as occurring in suspended reality. Cinema works as a kind of frozen immediacy that forever captures the essence of time in a manner that is impossible in life.
This approach works best for historical, dramatic and realistic subjects. Melville’s criminal themes that I am addressing are not uncommon to the average citizen, certainly not to real-life criminals. But what can this perspectival rendition of cinema have to say about films that fall squarely into the science-fiction or horror genres, for instance. How do films like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the dream-like quality of L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961) or the purely fantastic Night of the Eagle (aka Burn Witch, Burn!, Sidney Hayers, 1962) have anything necessarily to do with the human condition? The works of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe and the quasi-mystical Sherlock Holmes speak to a genuine, but fragmented form of human existence which pieces together rogue aspects of the human condition. Granted, this attempt at cohesion takes liberties that violate our sense of reality, but, because this is portrayed in a timeless, literary form, we can decipher what is recognizable.
The narration element of Bob le flambeur exhibits a sense that perhaps Bob’s story is retrospective of a life from long ago. Before undertaking a practice run of the casino heist, the narrator says, “Here’s how Bob pictured the heist.” Of course, the narrator at the beginning of the film has Bob coming in and out of shadows. Bob’s life is lived in the twilight. The line, “Bob the gambler. An old young man, legend of a recent past”, infuses this surreal quality that cannot be fully appreciated until the film’s closing narration.
At the end of the film, Bob goes to the casino as planned in the heist, but he becomes distracted and begins to gamble. The narrator then explains: “Robert Montagné, ‘Bob the High Roller’, just as nature made him. Lady Luck, his old mistress, made him forget why he was there.” This takes place as the young man is shot and killed by the police. Bob holds the dying man. Bob is then arrested as two casino workers bring huge stacks of money that was to be “the job of a lifetime!”. The formality of referring to Bob as Bob Montagné suggests the closing of a life and not just another chapter of Bob’s escapades.
Unlike Bob’s cheerfulness, Jef Costello’s seemingly joyless life can be said to be lived entirely within his own head. What the two do have in common is the necessary fortitude that allows them to live a solitary existence. This is so much the case that it serves as a fundamental pillar on which Le Samouraï is built. Melville’s storied and profound cinematic output can be credited in part to his overarching vision as an artist. Even though the epithet of artist is an abused and mostly meaningless word today, it does truly describe Melville’s vocation as writer-director. With the exception of his third feature, Quand tu liras cette lettre (1953), Melville directed and wrote or co-wrote the scripts to all his films. This general level of control remains an enviable one today, a rare bird in a tasteless age. Much is made today of collaboration, in this or that respect, and in this or that project, but this constraining and often asphyxiating mentality comes about for two simple reasons: either it is a mere recognition of the limitation of the æsthetic vocation, or it is a self-survival mechanism where true vision is lacking. But the reality remains that true art always has the individual and subjective mark of an autonomous artist.
The confidence that Melville must possess in his vision and ability, the sheer direction that every project must have from its inception in order to assuage future difficulties, these are all objectifications of his visionary prowess. Without a doubt, this very æsthetic conviction is passed on to Costello in both his stoic attitude toward life and his fortitude. Costello’s character is a study in solitude. Melville admits to this himself in an interview. (5) But the solitude that Melville has in mind, and which he manages to depict so well, is the precondition that goes into the make-up of the kind of person that embraces such solitude. In other words, Melville’s notion of solitude is not commensurate with that of the anti-social loner who goes off to live in the mountains. On the contrary, Costello’s solitude is indicative of a particular strength of character that neither knows nor cares for social interaction. Of course, part of Melville’s notion of the social world embodies a total rejection of the false, the hypocritical and the double morality that is embraced by some people through adherence to self-promotional means. Costello seems content with his solitary condition. When a beautiful young woman looks and smiles at him from an adjacent car, he gazes at her and continues on his way. Costello never deviates from his task. Whether in a criminal or civil manner, Melville’s point here has to do with the required level of focus and discipline for success in any chosen endeavour.
This level of solitude is best described by [Michel de] Montaigne when he writes: “What you must seek is no longer that the world should speak of you, but how you should speak to yourself. Retire into yourself, but first prepare to receive yourself there; it would be madness to trust in yourself if you do not know how to govern yourself.” (6)
Montaigne soundly demonstrates that indiscretion is not only reserved for our relations with others. In Costello’s character, we see no subsequent emotional breakdown, whining or blaming or the subterfuge of hiding in the ways of other men. Costello is his own man, so much so that to appreciate his solitude Melville suggests an audience to come into his world. Montaigne adds:
There are ways to fail in solitude as well as in company. Until you have made yourself such that you dare not trip up in your own presence, and until you are self-respecting and ashamed. (7)
Le Samouraï opens with a scene of Costello’s small apartment. A gentle rain is seen falling through the open curtain. A bird softly chirps in a cage that is placed in the centre of the room, as traffic is heard outside in the wet street. Like Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï also begins with a quote. This time the saying comes from (the invented) The Book of Bushido. It reads, “There is no greater solitude than the Samourai’s … unless perhaps it is that of the tiger in the jungle.”
The comparison between the Samourai’s solitude and that of the tiger is interesting in that the tiger is a hunter, but it is also hunted by man. The Bushido or “way of the warrior” was a way of life for the warrior who, like the tiger, is both hunter and hunted – by its own sense of self-sacrifice and discipline. Costello’s small, dingy studio apartment, too, is in keeping with the values of the Samourai: the austere and frugal condition of the room. His demeanour is also consistent with his overall description: Costello’s attention to physical appearance and his stoic morality. But still more important are his self-control and lack of emotional display. In the opening sequence, Costello is seen lying in bed smoking a cigarette, the smoke rising slowly on the right side of the screen. He then puts on his coat and fedora, and looks in the mirror in a Melvillian moment of self-consciousness before exiting his small apartment. The stillness of the room, the gentle rain and the set design are all early indications of the inner serenity of this man, Jef Costello. As a striking example of Melville’s attention to detail, we see the shadow of a passing automobile reflected in the ceiling. The opening scenes of Le Samouraï are comparable to the early suspense that Fritz Lang establishes at the start of Ministry of Fear (1944), when Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) sits anticipating the moment when the clock strikes midnight and he can begin to put the two years that he has spent at Lembridge Asylum behind him.
Costello is next seen out on the sidewalk looking around until he gets into a parked Citroën and begins to try out some keys that he keeps on a long ring. He succeeds in starting the vehicle and drives off through the Parisian streets in the rain. He drives the stolen car to a garage where an attendant changes the license plates as Costello patiently looks on. Next, the man gives him some papers, but Costello motions to him to hand him a gun. Costello then pays him. This entire sequence of scenes takes place without a word being uttered.
In a testament to Melville’s economy of both, words and narrative structure, Costello goes about creating an alibi for himself. There are no wasted words or awkward movements that would detract from Costello’s focus. He first goes to an apartment building to see Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon). She tells him, “I like it when you come around, because you need me”, but he doesn’t answer her. Then he goes to another apartment building where some men are playing cards. He asks, “How long will you be here?” One man answers, “We have the room all night”, to which Costello answers, “Count me in from two o’clock.” Then the man tells him, “Bring your money, in case you lose”, but, in a rare affirmation of his self-confidence, Costello assures the man by saying, “Never lose. Not ever”, and walks out. The fact that he was asked to bring money to the gambling table is a strong assessment of his confidence. Only such a nerveless and poignant regard for the “job” that he was paid to undertake can prepare a killer for the tumultuous events that he will face later that night. Costello goes to a nightclub to kill its owner. The club has a jazz trio playing and there are a lot of patrons present. This is all very important given that Costello has no visible fear of being seen. Upon entering the club-owner’s office, the man asks Costello, “Who are you?” Costello simply answers, “It doesn’t matter”, to which the man now asks, “What do you want?” “To kill you” is the younger man’s cold answer.
Also, it is fair to characterize this rationally calculated series of events at the beginning of Le Samouraï as belonging to the staple of the film noir genre. However, one aspect that keeps this from completely fitting into this genre is Costello’s solitary and muted regard for his honour. Costello does not belong to any organized crime ring. Even though he has been paid to kill the nightclub owner, the contract has been negotiated through a middleman. When Costello is arrested at the gambling house, none of the other men present protest nor do they seem concerned. This is a society of equals where there is an agreement not to ask and not to repudiate others for their activities. At the police station, identification line-up he is presented as: “Jef Costello; age 30; no criminal record; not carrying a gun.”
Le Samouraï’s pace is indicative of psychological passage of time and how this affects the protagonist. With the exception of being shot, the events of the film do not seem to occur to Costello. When he is shot, or, to be exact, grazed by a bullet, he goes home and tries to bandage his wound. This is the only instance of emotion that he exhibits. The significance of this is that, while everyone is afflicted with physical pain, not everyone is susceptible to emotional and psychological pain. Costello looks out onto the daily world of men as a kind of spectacle that he is merely passing through.
Naturally, Costello must have a side to him that we are not privy to. In the absence of such information, we are left with many questions as to his daily life. One intriguing question is the fact that he does not have a previous criminal record. How and why would he be entrusted with such a complex job given his background as a criminal novice? Is his solitary life an attraction for the people who hired him? Apparently he, too, has a contract on his head. But it is interesting to view how Costello’s fortitude and self-motivation are useful tools for the criminal elements that hired him. Would Costello be equally useful to collective socially-politically motivated institutions that cannot tolerate the whims and authority of the individual?
At the police station, his stoic demeanour is unchanged even during his interrogation. He is released due to insufficient evidence, but the police begin to trail him anyway. Several scenes later, three men discuss the pros and cons of leaving him out on the street without having to kill him. They think that he is really good given that he fulfilled his contract. One of the three men is a bartender at the club where the owner was killed. Another scene follows where more commentary about Costello’s ways is offered. The policemen talk about how he is “different”. They discuss how to break his alibi, including by bugging his home telephone. These scenes give the viewer respite from the film’s narrative and force us to think about Costello’s interior constitution. Melville says in an interview that he does not write his film scripts with a moral angle in mind. He does say that often a moral is present after the fact. This is an interesting view because, in doing this, Melville allows the development of an existential reality to occur in Costello’s character that is less theatrical and more vital. The importance of Costello’s ways is not to be blinded by his criminal lifestyle. Instead, Costello is a type of person who can inhabit any sphere of human reality. Costello returns to the club and waits outside for the young piano player, Valérie, to leave. The following exchange is the only time that Costello is seen engaged in anything remotely resembling social interaction:
COSTELLO: Why say you didn’t recognize me?
VALÉRIE: Why kill Martey?
COSTELLO: I was to be paid.
VALÉRIE: What had he done to you?
COSTELLO: Not a thing. I didn’t know him. I met him for the first and last time 24 hours ago.
VALÉRIE: What sort of man are you?
This is a consequence of Costello’s attention to detail. For instance, when he returns home, he finds his bird agitated and missing half its tail feathers, at which point Costello realizes that something is amiss. This is when he realizes that someone has been in his apartment. He looks around and discovers the hidden bugging device. This is Melville’s manner of suggesting the rewards that come about from a life attuned to the mundane facts of daily existence. When Costello returns from making a telephone call from a drugstore across the street, he is assaulted by the same man who shot him on the overpass. The man, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier), points a gun at Costello and demands that he undertake another job. Costello refuses and Rey says, “Is that a principle? Costello answers, “No, it’s a habit.” This suggests, as Ortega y Gasset argues in his book Ideas and Beliefs, “habits” are things that we embody while ideas always remain outside of a vital perspective. (8)
The implication here is that there comes a point when principles are no longer conscious notions but rather become a manner of life. It might even be the case that that point is traversed the instant that we react to the violation of our principles. Costello then tells Rey to tell him who sent him. Rey replies, “You don’t him. He’s not in our league.” The admonition “not in our league” is all that Costello needs to go on the offensive. He manages to take the gun away and walks out leaving Rey tied up in his apartment. Costello takes the man’s comment as an insult. He clearly does not agree with Rey’s view of himself.
Confronted with a character like Jef Costello, the average analytic critic’s monstrous mania for dissecting reality until there is nothing left, finds himself reaching for the Freudian bag of tricks. Is Costello a misanthrope? Is he a manic depressive? Or is he merely arrogant? One can go on and empty the coffer of all the up-to-date, and fashionable psychological categories, and the reality remains the same: Costello is a man of honour – of reason, even, one might argue given his coldness. The fact is undeniable that, once a mental process finds the sufficient reasons (proofs) to convince itself, only conscience, whenever this is present, can interfere. The two-sided blade of reason can easily cut both ways if misused. What keeps us from exhausting, and in many instances from fabricating, illusory theoretic castles is an openness to work with the material creation that is given us. In other words, the failure of “theory”, as this word has come to be understood today, is that of a self-contained, self-referential talk that ignores or simply does not respect the aspect of reality that it sets out to study. This brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s notion of what he refers to as “the collective hypnosis”, where the desire for silence, stillness and the calm observance of the mundane has been squandered along with so many lives that ignore it. Cocteau writes in an introduction to André Bazin’s book, Orson Welles: A Critical View:
In fact, neither Welles nor I enjoy speaking about our work. The spectacle of life prevents us. We might remain a long time without moving and watch the hotel stir around us. Our immobility would demoralize busy businessmen and frantic specialists of cinematography. It resembled the ordeal of a gondola when busy businessmen and frantic specialists have to climb in and submit to its rhythm. Very soon we were receiving menacing looks. Our stillness had us taken for spies. Our silence caused fright and was charged with explosives. If we happened to laugh, it was frightful. I would see solemn gentlemen pass at top speed in front of us for fear of being tripped up. We were accused of lese-festival, of keeping to ourselves. (9)
Aside from the plot and drama of Le Samouraï, Costello’s story is a study in solitude told in pictures. Melville conveys a formal, stylistic unity that elevates even the most meagre subject matter into an existential exploration of his character. In Costello’s case, one is exposed to a meditation on solitude. Costello’s zest for moral clarity is stronger than his desire to flee danger. These qualities make Costello’s drama more of an introspective exposition of self than a mere rendition of cops and robbers. An example of this is witnessed when Costello returns to Valérie’s apartment to find out if she is in with the people who commissioned the murder of Martey. He encounters the very man who ordered the job. He shoots the man.
At this juncture in the film, it becomes clear that loyalty and sincerity are much more important to Costello than simple survival. Later, he goes back to the nightclub. He puts on his white gloves and goes up to and begins to stare at Valérie as she plays. In a defensive move, she asks him, “Why, Jef?” He answers, “I’ve been paid.” She understands that he knows just who ordered the killing and why, and that he knows she is in on it. But the more conventional ending that could place Le Samouraï at the mercy of some viewers never takes place. At this point, the police burst into the club and shoot Costello. When they check his gun, they find that it is unloaded. In fact, Costello effectively commits suicide and thus lives out the honour of the samourai theme. And so, Le Samouraï is a tale of solitude and deception. What makes this a fresh film is that Costello is portrayed as undergoing this disenchantment and disappointment right before our glance – and alone. What makes Le Samouraï a tragedy in the classical sense is not that he got what he deserved – that would be a case of simple justice – but that he lives out his destiny consciously to fruition.
Le Cercle Rouge
What can we learn today from Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge? One aspect that quickly comes to mind, as we have said, is Melville’s attention and respect for detail. His films possess a rare poetic quality that enlightens even the most bare and mundane subjects. Melville’s cinematic control over conventions of space and time, set design and pacing, and the interweaving of the idiosyncrasies and nuances of his characters makes him a master of the mise en scène. The precise positioning of a hat, the stationary camera allowing the actors to perform their craft, the long intervals of silence – these are all fine examples of Melville’s meticulous mind at work. An exemplary rendition of this technique is evidenced in the train sequence at the start of the film when Mattei and Vogel (Gian-Maria Volontè) are beginning to settle into their compartment. Mattei is a policeman who is escorting Vogel from Marseille to Paris on the overnight train. Mattei handcuffs Vogel to the upper bunk bed. Vogel is then shown with his head on the pillow, while simultaneously a similar shot of Corey, whom we see for the first time, has the future ring-leader of the jewellery heist sleeping in his prison cell. This fine juxtaposition of one man who is on his way to prison with another about to be released the next morning is an early indication of knitting the “red circle” theme. As Mattei opens the window shade, the camera slowly zooms out of the train, first showing the entire window, then the window flanked by other windows, then the length of three train cars. As this takes place, the window where Mattei is seen is always kept in the middle of the screen. Next we see the entire train bisecting the French countryside. This shot offers a broader perspective of how significant this early encounter is for both parties.
Melville’s cinematic themes can be defined as timeless and universal: loyalty, perseverance, a life of self-regulating discipline and, above all, a cavalier and stoic attitude toward life. But classical philosophical motifs in a French policier, some cynics will cry out? In a Midi magazine interview from 27 May 1970, Melville takes on this particular point when asked why his fascination with the policier. He explains:
I think the police thriller is the only modern form of tragedy possible. A protagonist doles out a sudden death or is himself killed. There’s no doubt that the police thriller is a very practical vehicle for the adventure film in France.
Melville then goes on to explain that, because France does not have the vast open spaces found in the United States, action films there must conform to a lot “of twists and turns”.
However, the notion of twists and turns in a Melville film does not convey the same gratuitous and disjointed sense of physical action that some people have come to expect from this genre. Action for Melville denotes an overstatement. Again, much like George Simenon’s novels, Melville’s work is framed not by the action performed by his characters, but rather by the interior world that defines the human condition. This is so much the case that Melville, like Alfred Hitchcock, did not enjoy the filming process, because he found this to be merely the mechanical transcription of a personal vision.
Of the 13 films that Melville made from 1949 to 1972, Le Cercle Rouge is without a doubt his greatest artistic and commercial success. The other Melville policier films are Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Deuxième soufflé (1966), Le Samouraï and his final film, Un Flic.
Le Cercle Rouge is a tale of an “encounter”, as Melville himself describes this work. The plot revolves around the break-in of a famous and well-protected jewellery shop on the Place Vendome. In this respect alone, this work is one of the great heist films of all time, along with The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1954) and Topkapi (Dassin, 1964). A newly released felon, Corey, brings together a team of men to undertake this difficult job. The group includes a criminal on the lam named Vogel and an ex-policeman sharpshooter, Jansen (Yves Montand), who has been taken over by “the beast”, as he refers to alcohol. While the heist scene itself remains a masterful example of filmmaking, the scrupulous and patient execution of this caper taking 25 minutes, it is the preceding and subsequent scenes that give the film its balanced and intelligently sustained suspense.
What makes the heist so intriguing is the roundabout manner that brings the characters together. While all three men accept the job for various private motives, their destinies become intertwined in such a way that precludes the interference of mere luck. The film begins with an epigram taken from Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, that describes how the sage
drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.
Melville’s task in Le Cercle Rouge is to demonstrate just precisely how this is to occur. Of course, the outcome is a painstakingly elegant and flawless clinic of how to engage in cinematic art. What one does not find in a Melville film is the dizzying and nauseating effects provided by shoulder-mounted camera work that achieves nothing short of self-mockery, gratuitous violence and vulgarity, sophomoric special effects, superfluous and pointless chatter, and the endemic lack of direction that characterizes such a great percentage of post-late 1960s films. Also absent is the ideological proselytising of “committed” directors who have sacrificed cinematic art to the whims of cinema as bread and circus.
Instead, Melville creates suspense by allowing great lengths of time to take place between segments of dialogue and action. Here the responsibility is shifted to the viewer to tune in to the characters and their circumstances. Nothing comes cheap in Melville’s films. Melville, like Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance, is a director gifted with a vision of how a story is to unfold, of which the filming process is merely the physical manifestation.
Particularly interesting about Le Cercle Rouge is the citing of a conversation Rui Nogueira, writer of Melville on Melville, had with Melville, where the director tells him:
You’re one of those intellectuals for whom, a filmmaker, once he’s successful no longer holds any interest. So, since Le Cercle Rouge is a great success, one of the most successful films in French cinema, I’m sure your intellectual side is stronger than the rest of you. And even if you don’t have the courage to tell me, you think it’s less important than the other films.
In an inescapably interesting paradox, the guard who tells Corey that he is the best man for the jewellery heist tells him that he wants out of his job, while Corey says that he doesn’t want to return to prison. The following sequence of events after his release from prison establishes a poetic regard for solitude that contains the essence of Melville’s greater themes. We see Corey eating at a diner as dawn is transformed into morning. Next, he goes to the apartment of an old acquaintance, Rico (André Ekyan), who betrayed him during his court hearing. There he finds his ex-girlfriend. He takes several thousand franks and a gun from Rico’s safe. He then places a picture of his girlfriend in the man’s safe as a reminder of a double betrayal. This is his encounter with the world outside of prison and it will eventually prove to be a costly one. Corey is next seen walking the streets at 7:30am before he enters a pool hall and begins to play alone, until two of Rico’s men come in an attempt to shoot him. This is an important series of events because, even though he has not broken any laws at this point, this encounter with Rico will prove instrumental in the police investigation of the jewellery heist. This early series of engrossing events is indicative of a much greater widening of the red circle theme.
Corey then buys an American car and is seen driving and listening to a jazzy score. But thereafter the red circle comes into play once again when Corey stops at a police roadblock that is intended for Vogel, the escaped prisoner. There is no way for Corey to know, so he acts as if the search is for him because of the man that he shot at the pool hall. Melville essentially tells two tales in Le Cercle Rouge: Vogel’s escape and Corey’s freedom, which includes Rico’s wrath, and the jewellery heist. Corey’s fate is sealed when Vogel gets into the unlocked trunk of Corey’s Plymouth Fury III while he eats in the diner. But Corey’s side-glance does not miss this and he drives to a muddy field and tells the man to come out. Vogel comes out of the trunk with Corey’s gun and tells him to put up his hands.
COREY: Fine way to thank me.
VOGEL: You see me climb in?
COREY: Sure. Or I wouldn’t suggest you get some air.
VOGEL: Why run the risk like that?
At this point, Corey shows Vogel his prison-release paper. Vogel then asks, “This morning? That’s unbelievable.” Corey then shows his character when Vogel asks him if he was not afraid of being found in his car. To which Corey nonchalantly answers, “Of what?”, and then throws Vogel a cigarette box. But Corey doesn’t go into why he helped him.
The on-screen characteristics of the red circle theme are illuminating and suggestive of a greater tie than what we can account for in the characters. What makes this deterministic and even fatal theme so vitally important has to do with the dual thematic lines of narrative coming together. But might greater reflection on this theme not logically arrive at Gottfried Leibniz’s notion that to change one thing is tantamount to changing everything? Clearly Corey and Vogel will remain together due to the prison guard having told Corey of the jewellery heist. If not for this central tenet of the film, they would both part ways after their initial meeting in the field. How far back does one have to go to realize the interconnection between events and people? While this is not completely the aim of Le Cercle Rouge, it establishes such a logical precedence. This is in keeping with general tenets of the human condition in that human reality does not readily present itself as a polished moral tale, but rather as incondite fragments. What any given viewer brings to Le Cercle Rouge – or all cinema, for that matter – is an æsthetic that organizes reality. The question as to how far back does this interconnectivity extends is answered with the respective degree of imagination that the viewer brings to this question.
The circumstances that surround Mattei, Santi the nightclub owner, who refuses to turn police informer, and Corey’s girlfriend, who holds the same sense of loyalty, are all indicative of a red circle theme in their own respect. What would have happened to Corey after he is trailed through a deserted country road by two of Rico’s men in a Chevrolet Impala, if not for Vogel who comes out of the trunk right before they shoot Corey? This signals the beginning of their bond. Yet this question is relevant because the encounter with Rico’s men is an episode that, up to that juncture, belongs solely to Corey’s experience. As more of these situations take place, we are granted the right to question whether these events are mere coincidence.
Equally true is Mattei’s having to justify his beliefs to the pathologically cynical Chef de la Police. Isn’t it enough that Mattei should be a fine policeman? The Chef de la Police scolds him:
CHEF DE LA POLICE: Mr. Mattei. Didn’t you know that a suspect must be considered guilty?
MATTEI: Not for me, sir. I’ve dealt with so many suspects who were innocent.
CHEF DE LA POLICE: You must be joking! No one is innocent, all men are guilty. They’re born innocent but it doesn’t last.
MATTEI: Sir, my chief just told you that only chance can catch Vogel now. Chance and myself, actually.
CHEF DE LA POLICE: Mr. Mattei, I don’t doubt your goodwill, but allow me to doubt your efficiency in arresting culprits.
This Roussean sense of an original paradisiacal human condition is clearly not shared by Mattei. In fact, he seems appalled at the sheer cynicism of the Chef de la Police. We get to know Corey better when he returns to his apartment for the first time since leaving prison. He looks around but shows no emotion until he throws a picture of his ex-girlfriend into a trash can. This domestic scene depicts Corey, as we also witness in Bob le flambeur, a man who possesses a sense of refinement. We are left wondering why Corey ended up in prison in the first place.
No less interesting is a biographical profile of Jansen, the ex-policeman. A biographical profile seems important because in several respects it counters the Chef de la Police’s disregard for individuality and human autonomy. If it is true as Ortega y Gasset asserts that, “Every life is a point of view directed upon the universe”, then we see that Jansen has very powerful private reasons for entering into a partnership with Corey and Vogel. (10) Like the professor in Henry Hathaway’s Seven Thieves, Jansen’s motive for taking part in the jewel heist does not spring from the desire for money. Jansen essentially uses the opportunity to confront his greatest fears, not the least which is his weakness for the bottle, which he refers to as “the beast”. The notion of biography is important in Melville’s work precisely because his characters are all clear examples of subjective entities that refuse objectification in one manner or other.
Thus Melville’s films go a long way in depicting a valuation of life over the all-consuming objectifying superstructures of modernity. Hence Ortega’s contention:
Every individual, whether person, notion or epoch, is an organ, for which there can be no substitute, constructed for the apprehension of truth. This is how the latter, which is in itself of a nature alien from historical variation, acquires a vital dimension. (11)
The proof of this lies in that while the natural processes of life – illness, fate and chance, just to mention a few – regulate themselves, all that man can do is contemplate this reality. Jansen’s drinking remains in his sphere of control, but, when viewed in a broader perspective, what we then fall face to face with is life itself. Jansen gives up drinking because the job requires a steady, expert hand. The preparation for the heist is a classic Melville exposition of patience, intrigue and suspense. Corey and Vogel go through a maze of alleys, buildings and rooftops until they enter the jewellery store through a small bathroom window. This scene is intense and intelligent, without unnecessary bravado and brutality. The reason that Jansen needs a sure hand is two-fold: first he makes a “soft” bullet out of lead, antimony and tin that will turn off the electronic control that regulates the alarm system without destroying the mechanism. Second, Jansen has to be at his best to shoot the control device about 20 yards away.
The post-heist scenes in Le Cercle Rouge concentrate on the problem of how to dispose of the jewels. This is not a matter of irony as is the case in Seven Thieves or the gold being claimed by the mountain at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948), but instead one of human treachery. At the end of Le Cercle Rouge, Corey and Vogel become trapped by Mattei when they attempt to sell him the jewellery. Someone has already alerted the police. Jansen, who didn’t want the money to begin with, is the only one of the three that survives and who comes up on top having given up his vice. Thus the circle is closed for all the parties involved.
Un Flic opens with a memorable scene of a storm in a deserted French coastal town. Four men drive slowly and park their car a short distance from a small bank, the only business open in the area. The weather condition and the boarded-up isolation of the town makes for a perfect bank robbery. The scene changes and in a parallel editing we are introduced to a police captain, Edouard Coleman, riding with three other policemen through the busy dusk Parisian traffic. Coleman narrates:
Every afternoon, at the same time I started my cruise by the Champs-Elysées. I was on duty just before nightfall. But it was only when the town was asleep that I could really work. My name’s Edouard Coleman.
Two aspects of Coleman’s character are immediately felt: Delon is not playing a gangster, but a police detective this time; in addition to being a detective, he is also a loner.
The scene of the bank robbery is a long and patient ordeal that is not intended for the fans of roller-coaster ride, gratuitous action, cardboard character films of today. These scenes are intelligent and well-crafted. The four bank robbers disappear into the mist and rain. They bury the money in a field and drive one of the men who was shot to a hospital. Coleman, too, is seen driving in the dark night. Simultaneous action and the fact that the number of bank robbers, as well as policemen, is four suggest the interconnection between people’s destinies. This is confirmed when Coleman stops at a club to see Cathy (Catherine Deneuve). Also present at the club is Simon (Richard Crenna), the leader of the bank robbers.
Un Flic proved to be Melville’s last film, Melville dying a short time later at 53 years of age. At the time of its release, and still to this day, the film has received legions of ire that has managed to convey a great deal of its detractors’ malicious intent. Regardless of the fact that Un Flic is seen to lack some of the tight scripting and suspense of Melville’s two more recent films, Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, its greatest contempt does not spring from æsthetic motives. Le Cercle Rouge was released in October 1971 and sold more than 4 million tickets. This commercial success alone is reason enough in some ideological circles to disqualify and envy its director – or in some respects even denigrate him for political reasons. These “critics” will deny this, but the reality remains that Melville was a promoter of individual autonomy, American films and automobiles, and was viewed as a conservative by French communists and liberals. The outrageous and personal attacks that have been levelled at Un Flic bear out the pettiness of ideological criticism. The danger in this game is two-fold: defamation of the artist personally and, more important, the “re-writing” of the film for unsuspecting future viewers. Curiously enough, most of the criticism that has been brought to bear on Un Flic has come from the heretofore pretentious and arrogant mentioned quarters. The average viewer does not possess the necessary ideological invective to engage in such drudgery.
Their relationship is strained when the three remaining gangsters go to the hospital to pick up the man they left there after the heist, suffering a gunshot wound. They dress up as ambulance drivers, but they can’t move him because he is comatose. Instead, they have Cathy enter the room and give him a shot to kill him in order to keep him from talking.
The strongest ambiguity that the film establishes is the question of whether Coleman and Simon know each other. We know that both men are intimate with Cathy. However, what is not clear is whether Coleman knows and to what extent of Simon’s activities. And, if so, does Coleman look the other way? The film is plotted in such a way as to suggest that Coleman does not know about the bank robbery. He certainly does not know about the second heist – the interception of the drugs on the train – given that he hears about it from an informer. Before the three hoodlums come together to discuss their second and more daring heist – stealing drugs from a Paris-Lisbon train – Coleman, Cathy and Simon have a drink together. While the second heist is particularly fanciful, this alone is not sufficient reason to dismiss the film. This aspect of the film is in keeping with the adventure angle of the plot.
What marks the lowering of Simon onto the moving train from a helicopter is not its degree of believability, that we must more or less accept as a convention of the adventure genre, but rather the use of several of Melville’s staple techniques: silence, laconic dialogues, meticulous planning and superb scene-crafting. What seems so interesting philosophically about Melville’s work is that at one level the films are very effective as sophisticated entertainment, while on another depicting a slice of life realism that cannot be denied.
Melville’s work contains a great reverence for irony, and what can be more a fundamental tenet of the human condition than irony? But irony is something that escapes us a great deal of the time given the subtle and temporal proximity of reality to our lives. Irony on the screen develops and we see its impact in a temporally suspended reality. The advantage of cinema over reality is the obvious level of control that the viewer retains. Cinema, then, is a form of container of life that allows the discerning viewer the luxury to piece together the scattered pieces of reality as fragmentation. Thus, in effect, Melville’s work, like all great art, is a pastiche or vignette of daily existence. Again, what is so important about Melville’s films philosophically is their vital grounding in reality itself.
The endings of Bob le flambeur, Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic all convey a sense of time winding down. Taken in chronological order are the following: imprisonment in Bob le flambeur; reluctant suicide in Le Samouraï; killed by police in Le Cercle Rouge; and another reluctant suicide in Un Flic. The final sequences of these four films offer a sense of tired characters who have become disillusioned and disenchanted, their vitality squeezed out of them, and who are on the verge of abulia.
- Julian Marias, Philosophy as Dramatic Theory (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), p. 237.
- Pierre Assouline, Simenon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 340.
- Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims (New York: Prometheus Books, 1995).
- Le Cercle Rouge, the Criterion DVD booklet.
- Michel de Montaigne, Selected Essays (Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black, 1943), p. 107.
- José Ortega y Gasset, Ideas y Creencias (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1964).
- André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View (Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991), p. 31.
- Ortega y Gasset, The Modern Theme (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), p. 91.