‘French Crime Wave’ is Dressed To Kill

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The New York Sun

When was the last time you wore a tuxedo? A wedding you didn’t want to attend? Some mandatory charity event from hell? Your prom? Well, according to the 38 movies in Film Forum’s five-week series beginning Friday, “The French Crime Wave,” the French wear tuxedos all the time. They put on a tuxedo to shoot out a jeweler’s security system from an impossible distance with a high-powered rifle. They don the old penguin suit to play one final hand of cards while casing a casino. Even the bank robbers in Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” are dressed to the nines in tuxedos and tailored overcoats, ready to go to work on the vault.

Film Forum’s series includes thrillers (“Diabolique”), slashers (“Eyes Without a Face”), courtroom dramas (“La Vérité”), and whodunits (“Goupi Mains Rouges”), all of which fall somewhere in the film noir category. But if film noir is about human beings destroyed by forces beyond their control, then the gangster movies in this series suggest that if we can’t control our destinies, we can at least control the cut of our suit. These criminals may be marching to their doom, but they’re determined to look good on the way.

Many film critics have long proclaimed that France’s tradition of film noir and crime cinema is cobbled together from bits and pieces of American B-pictures. But the French had a noir tradition long before they had a word for it, even filming a version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” seven years before Hollywood did. This pre-war tradition of “poetic realism” was put on hold during the Nazi occupation. After the war, French filmmakers took a good look at the American films of the 1940s they hadn’t been allowed to see — films such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Double Indemnity” — and declared, “Of course, that’s film noir,” and immediately went right back to what they’d been doing before.

What they’d been doing was turning out films that were later scornfully dismissed as “cinema of quality” by the New Wave of the 1960s. But “cinema of quality” roughly translates from the dictionary of snobbery as “good movies,” and the greatest achievement of Film Forum’s retrospective is to rescue pre-New Wave French cinema from the junkyard to which it had been unfairly consigned. Though the series covers 63 years’ worth of crime films, extending all the way to 2000’s “Murderous Maids,” it is the earlier films that defined the genre, more than the ones that kept it moving, that warrant the most critical attention.

The director in this lineup who’s most easily identifiable is Jean-Pierre Melville, who took the crime film and stylized it until it looked less like a movie and more like a Pina Bausch dance performance. “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970) is a collection of mesmerizing, abstract gestures that barely holds together, while “Bob Le Flambeur” (1955) shows us a looser, younger Melville chasing his style with the story of Bob (Roger Duchesne), an aging gentleman of the underworld who decides to rob his local casino. As the plot thickens, “Bob Le Flambeur” features all the trappings of a crime film, but is ultimately a black comedy more notable for its closing card game than anything that comes before it.

Melville finally got the combination just right in “Le Doulos” (1962), an intricate ballet of trench coats, fedoras, and deep shadows. Maurice (Serge Reggiani) is a lifelong criminal just out of the joint, and he wonders why the cops keep showing up on his jobs. Too bad he’s blindly devoted to his buddy Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), because everyone else thinks the guy’s an informer. Even the police think Silien is one of their own, but Melville has more than one plot twist hidden up his sleeve and everyone on-screen only has about 20 cigarettes to go before they get perforated. It’s the perfect cocktail of fate and fashion.

Made the same year as “Bob Le Flambeur,” Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” is the ultimate high-style crime movie, with a tubercular Tony (Jean Servais) self-destructively plotting the robbery of a high-security jewelry store. (But of course: The best criminals only steal jewels.) Tony recruits a dapper crew and their half-hour, wordless heist still grips the viewer as intensely as it did 53 years ago. Things end badly, but then again (spoiler alert) pretty much everyone in these movies arrives at a bloody end. For these men, it’s not the getaway that matters, it’s how they look in the act. They dress for crime because they respect crime — it’s not a road to quick cash, it’s a calling. The cops are just trifling public officials, dressed like robots and doing their jobs. (It’s no accident that one of Melville’s best movies, 1969’s “Army of Shadows,” which isn’t featured in the Film Forum series, makes the bad guys Nazis.) Dressing well and pulling scores is true freedom; following rules and wearing off-the-rack is a kind of creeping death.

Melville once said that a man’s suit is his armor. In Jacques Becker’s “Touchez Pas Au Grisbi” (1954), Jean Gabin plays Max, a man who would completely evaporate were he pried out of his double-breasted suits. On the far side of 50 and wanting nothing more than retirement and a nice nap, Max only swings into action when a young, drug-dealing shark makes a play for his loot. As it turns out, Max and his half-past-dead cronies are still capable of extreme violence, and the film becomes “Cocoon” with hand grenades. Despite his age, Max is pure sex, confidence is his cologne, and by the half-hour mark he’s scored with three different women. What else would you expect from a man who keeps his safe-house fridge stocked with nothing but Champagne and pâté.

Two years before “Touchez Pas Au Grisbi,” Becker had taken the gangster movie back to the turn of the century in “Casque D’Or” (1952), which chronicles a series of slaps: Simone Signoret gets slapped by her cutthroat boyfriend, then she slaps the carpenter with whom she’s having an affair, who slaps her boyfriend in the back with a knife before he gets slapped with a frame-up by the gang’s boss, who wants to slap Signoret all by himself.

The only film in this series with something resembling a happy ending doesn’t feature a single gangster: 1947’s “Quai des Orfèvres” (1947). As sure-footed as anything Alfred Hitchcock ever made, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film should become a Christmas classic, like a cynical, venomous version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Set in the world of the music halls, “Quai des Orfèvres” tells the story of a singer, Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair, Clouzot’s mistress at the time), who has killed a perverted old industrialist whom she met for a “private audition.” Unfortunately, her jealous husband showed up right after she fled the scene, and now he’s caught in an ocean of lies.

Clouzot enjoys making the case that love won’t just tear us apart, it will also get us the death sentence, but he takes as much pleasure in putting his characters back together as he does in ripping them apart. It’s a sign of surprising maturity that his movie’s most decent character is a stoop-shouldered cop who buys his ill-fitting clothes off the rack. It’s almost as if the director was speaking for his entire artistic genre, saying, “If there’s hope for someone who dresses this badly, then there’s hope for us all.”

Through September 11 (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).

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