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At the American Film Institute’s
National Film Theater Aug. 31 to Sept. 5
Bob le Flambeur opens with a shot of Sacre Coeur, the crypto-Byzantine church that dominates northern Paris, identified by the narrator as representing heaven. Then the camera watches a cable car ease down the hill to nearby Pigalle, home of strip bars and gambling dens, which the narrator pauses a beat before identifying as hell. How seriously should the first-time visitor to the world of Bob “the High Roller” Montagné take this introduction? No more so than does scenarist (and narrator) Jean-Pierre Melville, who with this 1955 film began his career as a gangster-flick director by playfully subverting the genre.
That’s not obvious at first. “An old young man” with “a real hood’s face,” Bob (Roger Duchesne) wanders through Montmartre just before dawn, and both the man and the place have a palpable vibe: Bob and his neighborhood still evoke the gritty prewar era (when the area contained a “casbah” Melville remembered as off-limits to cops). Yet they also presage the coming youth-culture outbreak, embodied by a glimpse of motorcycle-riding party girl Anne (16-year-old Isabelle Corey, who was to lose the contest to become France’s leading late-’50s sex kitten to Brigitte Bardot).
An ex-con with a strict code of honor, Bob gambles all night, winning enough to maintain his gentlemanly wardrobe and roomy apartment with a picture-window view of Montmartre’s most prominent landmark. When not rolling dice, playing cards, or reading the racing form, he looks out for Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), the son of an old colleague, and for women who are likely to become victims of pimps like Marc (Gérard Buhr). It’s the latter avocation that leads Bob to become Anne’s protector.
One day, Bob does so well at the track that, overly optimistic, he heads to the casino at Deauville. There he loses so badly he’s willing to listen when a friend introduces him to a croupier who informs them that, on a good day, the casino’s safe contains as much as $3 million. Though he’s sworn off any crimes large enough to attract the attention of his cop friend Ledru (Guy Decomble), Bob can’t resist planning a seemingly foolproof heist. Of course, the operation’s success requires that Paolo and Anne keep their mouths shut, especially around Marc, who owes a tip to Ledru. And there’s one other eventuality that the meticulous Bob fails to plan for.
Melville, who had made two previous features on nongangster themes, devised Bob le Flambeur’s twist ending after concluding that Jules Dassin’s Rififi (which he had hoped to direct) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle had already perfected the heist genre. So he decided to make what he called “a comedy of manners,” although he did turn his finished script over to pulp fictionist (and Rififi co-writer) Auguste le Breton, who recast the dialogue in his own tough-guy style. Melville, who died in 1973, once mused that he might remake Bob with his original scriptif he could find a copy. Instead, he deeded the lighthearted gangster movie to Jean-Luc GodardBreathless includes two direct homages to Bob, and Band of Outsiders certainly partakes of its spiritand went on to direct chilly, highly stylized films such as Le Samouraï, which influenced John Woo (among others).
Bob le Flambeur was not widely seen in the United States in the ’50s, although it did get a limited release as Fever Heat, apparently marketed as a soft-porn movie. (The film includes fleeting peeks at Corey’s breasts.) Its first major U.S. release came in 1981, but this reissue offers both a new print and new subtitles by Lenny Borger, who also translated Breton’s slangy French for last year’s restoration of Rififi. The film has been refreshed, but it hardly needs to be rejuvenated: Melville’s proclamation of a new age of underworld cool is forever young.
Jim McKay’s first feature, 1996’s Girls Town, was greeted with very friendly notices, commending the filmmaker for his good intentions as much as anything. Now McKay’s accomplishment has caught up with his reviews. Our Song is the film that Girls Town was apparently supposed to be: a loose, naturalistic depiction of teenage girls who exist far from the tidy suburban realm of Britney Spears, AP tests, and the Gap. It’s simple and unforced, yet emotionally profound.
Joycelyn (Anna Simpson), Maria (Melissa Martinez), and Lanisha (former GWU student Kerry Washington) live in single-mom households in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood whose African-American and Latino girls can’t count on much. Parents, boyfriends, and jobs are undependable, and now even their school is disappearing: It’s August, and the three friends have just learned that the local high school will shut down for asbestos removal, leaving but a few weeks for them to find a place to register for the next year. One of their few anchors is the local marching band, the Jackie Robinson Steppers, in which they play drum-and-brass arrangements of tunes such as Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Chyna’s update of the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” The latter is the one that Joycelyn, Maria, and Lanisha identify as “our song.”
Although Girls Town and Our Song feature similar milieus and predicaments, they have very different rhythms. Whereas the former built to a contrived major showdown, the new film’s most melodramatic event transpires offscreen. Our Song gives almost as much weight to the girls’ discovery of mochaccino ice cream as to Maria’s realization that she’s pregnant. Indulging big dreams and petty thefts, the friends driftthrough the summer, toward unfamiliar schools, out of the marching band, and (in the case of Joycelyn) away from longtime friends. When the final shot lingers poignantly on one of the characters, it’s a surprise to learn how compelling her life has become.
Although not self-consciously arty, McKay’s style does resemble those of such European directors as Wim Wenders and Claire Denis, whose best work constructs a world through the accumulation of small, undramatic incidents and details. Shot entirely on location with either hand-held or fixed-position cameras, the movie is intimate, relaxed, and collaborative. (The opening titles credit the entire cast and crew as the filmmakers.) This is the sort of film in which the ambient sound can say more than the dialogue, and a song can be more powerful than a character’s death. Suggestive rather than prescriptive, Our Song is as much a piece of music as it is a film.
Bob le Flambeur and Our Song both take place mostly within a single precinct, and so does Jackpot. It’s just that the last film’s ‘hood stretches over thousands of square miles. Big mountains, small towns, puny dreamsit’s Sundanceland, the familiar realm of such Rocky Mountain lows as Hard Eight (whose basic scenario recalls Bob) and Promised Land. Small-time as those films’ protagonists were, few previous explorers of motel America’s dark side have pursued such a paltry vision as Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries): to build a career as the best karaoke-bar George Jones imitator west of the Mississippi.
Sunny’s delusions of stardom might be plausible if he were alone in the world. In fact, though, he’s abandoned an attractive wife, Bobbi (Daryl Hannah), and their young child. And he’s taken to the road with a manager, Lester Irving (Garrett Morris), who must be nuttier than he is. Lester takes 15 percent of Sunny’s earnings, but that’s hard to arrange when the singer wins a blenderand worthless when Sunny loses. Lester also gets nothing when Sunny scoresas he does with implausible regularitywith the karaoke circuit’s many willing middle-aged women (including one played by Peggy Lipton) and the occasional inexperienced but equally accommodating underage girl. The lovin’ is easy, but singing Cheap Trick when you want to be George Jones is hard.
The movie’s eclectic hit parade is its most convincing aspect. Sunny is a purist who thinks that he might have a career as an actual country-music singer, but he’s trapped in a world where Van Halen’s “Jump,” Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face,” or Spandau Ballet’s “True”used for ironic effect, of coursemight score higher with the judges than Jones’ “Grand Tour.” Filmmakers Michael Polish (who writes, directs, and produces) and his twin brother, Mark Polish (who writes, produces, and acts), put Grandaddy on the soundtrack and hired Sade and Maxwell collaborator Stuart Matthewman to write the score, but they’re kitsch-conscious enough to also include a Mac Davis cameo and a pink Cadillac.
Like the Polish brothers’ previous film, Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot takes its name from a small town somewhere between the Continental Divide and the Pacific. (Jackpot is in Nevada, of course.) Both films were shot by M. David Mullen, but this time he used a new digital-video process to achieve a look that’s rough-edged yet vaguely glamorous. That’s precisely the aura that the rest of the movie tries but fails to achieve. CP