Supercool and desperate and retroactively magnificent though it is, American film noir rarely had — film for film — very much deliberate philosophical torque; they were too busy being fast-moving, medium-to-low-budget programmers. In the American psyche, westerns always held more self-consciously ontological cachet: here were portraits of the American soul reckoning with evil, with fate and with itself. Noir came by its resonance more circumstantially, collectively and after the fact, although the catalogue of ’45-’60 noirs still constitutes the most culturally expressive chunk of Hollywood films ever made. It took the French to recognize noir for what it was, and, in the personage of pulp archangel Jean-Pierre Melville, to transform the noir paradigm into a full-on dark night of existentialist tribulation. The two Melvilles to get newly, ravishingly Criterionized, “Le Doulos” (1962) and “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966), are studies in the famous genre’s evolution from haphazard Zeitgeist to the expressionistic poetry of modern alienation. The hapless gangsters in Melville’s films don’t know much except two things: their sense of honor is the only thing they can take with them to the grave, and that date with the grave is coming all too soon.
Melville was a one-man filmmaking combine who famously lived in an apartment above his own studio; both Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlöndorff schooled here, and the Cahiers du cinéma crowd loved him. While not his most romantic or ambitious movie, “Le Doulos” might be his best; there’s no underestimating the thrill of having seeing it in 1962 and sensing that the overcast, uncaring, starkly capitalist world you live in was being captured on film for the first time. (For Americans, the battle between male friendship and criminal necessity in a society being stripped of masculine options was best expressed in 19th-century frontier towns; in France, it was in the chaos of contemporary cities and their outskirts.) It begins simply enough, in drizzly gray black and white that begs for a trenchcoat: Faugel (Serge Reggiani) is a crook released from prison and engaged quickly in a simple heist. But then it seems as if his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) ratted on him, but then it seems he didn’t, and as it reveals its narrative selectively, Melville’s film becomes an epistemological inquisition: how much do we think we know about anyone, and how much of that is true? Most of the time, we, like Faugel, do not know who to trust. (To paraphrase William Hurt from “The Big Chill,” men in hats are always doing something terrible.) With its doublings and mirror episodes and postponed judgments, “Le Doulos” is a famous Tarantino correlative (you can imagine that as a clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, Tarantino took home “Le Doulos,” “City on Fire” and “Diner” one night, and “Reservoir Dogs” was born). It’s still one of the most innovatively conceived crime movies ever made, and one that feels intimate with the fringe mob life in unique and convincing ways.
“Le Deuxième Souffle” begins more abstractly — with an absorbing prison break sequence that’s visualized completely in terms of angular rooftop vertigo and executed completely in silence. Again, the narrative appears easy to grasp at the outset, but Melville is never less than committed to the idea that while we watch one thing, a myriad of significant actions are unfolding off-screen. Always. Of the escapees, one survives, Gu (Lino Ventura), an aging, burly bull of a stock-in-trade murderer, and his efforts at staying hidden and then participating in one more heist, so he can flee the country, dominate the story. You expect the heist to go awry, but it doesn’t — life does. Meanwhile, Melville’s gray, realistic images of lost men in fedoras facing the inevitable uselessness of their lives on Earth come off as iconic as traditional Christian sculpture, and his fascinating habit of revisiting places and instances from successive points of view makes him a filmmaker-philosophe, the undisputed Antonioni of the genre film.
No one has recently thought to reevaluate the thematic gist of F.W. Murnau’s film school staple “The Last Laugh” (1924), a lavishly realized silent classic that’s as famous for its Murnovian “subjective camera” mise-en-scene (he reused many of the tropes a few years later in Hollywood, in “Sunrise”) as it is derided for its simplistic morality-tale story, in which Emil Jannings’ self-important luxury hotel doorman becomes demoted, due to his age, down the company ladder to lowly washroom attendant. Today, the intertitle-free film no longer scans merely as an indictment of hubris and status-mongering — after all, how far does the fat old fool actually fall? (He lives, with a deluded sense of importance, in a ghetto.) The emphasis, visually realized and otherwise, focuses on the character’s point of view, but if you step back, “The Last Man” (as it was originally titled) plays like a parable on service industry exploitation, a downsizing nightmare, and thus it is not far from Kafka, or from modern American society. The tacked-on happy ending insisted upon by the producer, which declares itself to be improbable, has never pleased anyone. The film’s a landmark no matter how you read the thrust (Murnau set a high bar for the moving camera that was only equaled in the ’30s by Lang and finally surpassed by “Citizen Kane”), but with time its proletariat message has only gained force. The definitive Kino edition comes with both the restored German version and the unrestored export edit, a making-of doc and a new score.
[Photos: “Le Deuxième Souffle,” 1966; “The Last Laugh,” 1924]
“Le Doulos” (Criterion Collection), “Le Deuxième Souffle” (Criterion Collection), and “The Last Laugh” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.