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Two from Jean-Pierre Melville, “The Last Laugh”

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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.

10142008_ledeuxiemesouffle.jpg“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.

10142008_thelastlaugh.jpgNo 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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