The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan]

(France 1959)

In his cool noir mystery Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan], director Jean-Pierre Melville in his only starring role is Moreau, a cheerless and jaded reporter with Agence France-Presse. As he’s leaving work one night, his boss (Jean Lara) asks him to investigate the whereabouts of one Mssr. Fèvre-Berthier, the French United Nations delegate, who curiously has gone M.I.A.

Moreau heads straight to the flat of a frequent collaborator, hardened alcoholic photographer Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset), and yanks him out of bed—never mind the girl there with him. Delmas is the archetype paparazzo: cold-blooded and motivated by money. He knows his way around Manhattan.

The two men trail Fèvre-Berthier through a number of female associates: his secretary (Colette Fleury), a two-bit actress (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh), a burlesque stripper (Michèle Bailly), and a high dollar whore in a high class brothel (Monique Hennessy). They find out what happened to him, but the story is scandalous.

Moreau doesn’t want to print it, but Delmas insists otherwise. A strange car following them around may persuade them to do the right thing—whatever that is.

With enough trench coats and fedora hats to clothe a newsroom, Two Men in Manhattan reflects Melville’s characteristic minimalist neo gangster movie style. The personal ethics here are all grey, which fits nicely with the night scenes, especially the exteriors shot on Times Square by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Aside from the exteriors, Manhattan never looked more fabulously fake: most of the interiors—the subway, a bar, a club, a theater, a hospital, a diner—were shot in a studio.

Part detective flick and part morality play, the tone shifts quite a bit between drama and waggishness, leading me to conclude that Melville didn’t take Two Men in Manhattan very seriously. It’s a minor work that comes off tongue in cheek, which makes it fun to watch—it compensates for Melville’s rather thin script. Plus, the whole thing sure is pretty.

With Christiane Eudes, Paula Dehelly, Nancy Delorme, Carole Sands, Gloria Kayser, Barbara Hall, Monica Ford, Billy Beck, Deya Kent, Carl Studer, Billy Kearns , Hyman Yanovitz, Ro. Tetelman, Art Simmons, Jerry Mengo

Production: Belfort Films, Alter Films

Distribution: Columbia Films (France), Mercurfin Italiana (Italy), Cable Hogue Co. (Japan), Cohen Media Group (USA)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

North by Northwest

(USA 1959)

“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”

—Roger Thornhill

 

“That’s funny. That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”

—Man at the Prairie Crossing

I expected Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest to be suspenseful, cinematic, and even a bit perverse, peppered with the director’s inimitable wit and dark sense of humor. It certainly is all that. However, I didn’t expect it to be altogether facetious, or as fun as it is. Scene after scene, North by Northwest delivers; not many films give as much bang for your buck as this one.

Cary Grant is Manhattan ad executive Roger O. Thornhill—”The ‘O’ stands for nothing,” he quips at one point. A mild-mannered, stylish middle-aged man in a grey flannel Brooks Brothers suit—think Mad Men—he leads a perfectly predictable straight life serving clients, drinking martinis, and keeping his WASPy mother (Jessie Royce Landis) entertained.

While having cocktails at the Plaza Hotel one afternoon, Thornhill is yanked into a treacherous game of cat-and-mouse when the goons of a smooth and well-spoken spy, baritone Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), mistake him for a government agent named George Kaplan. It’s nothing but trouble from here.

Relentlessly hunted after being framed for an incident at the United Nations, Thornhill flees Manhattan on a passenger train that looks a lot like Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. He meets cool, mysterious, and sultry stranger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who’s headed to Chicago. Her innuendo is sexy, but she’s not exactly trustworthy—Thornhill senses it, and so do we.

North by Northwest is ultimate Hitchcock, fueled by mistaken identity and packed with psychological drama manifest mostly in the form of dizzying pursuit: a drunken car chase on a windy road, a moving train, an out-of-nowhere crop duster in an Indiana cornfield, a race down Mount Rushmore. Nothing about the plot is believable; it’s more preposterous than a James Bond film. Although it shares the same Cold War sensibility, North by Northwest is much more intriguing and memorable. It’s also more entertaining.

Ernest Lehman’s script is brilliantly put together, but the story isn’t what makes this soar; it’s Hitchcock’s directing and the acting, particularly that of Grant, Saint, and Mason. Grant is a hoot to watch here; he plays Thornhill like a high-style Thurston Howell without his Lovie. He walks a fine line between convincing and cartoonish, always coming off as the former. It’s quite an astounding feat of balance, actually. Saint is the perfect counterpart to Grant. I could listen to Mason talk endlessly. Martin Landau plays a secondary character, but he’s awesome as über creepy (and probably closeted) Leonard, Vandamm’s right hand man.

Ahead of its time in many ways, North by Northwest is consciously silly yet pushes a few boundaries. Exceedingly mischievous, it just might be Hitchcock’s most charming film. It’s definitely more fun than any other film of his that I’ve seen—not that I’ve come close to seeing all of them. It’s truly a dazzler.

Personal geek-out side note: in a film full of thrilling moments, the most thrilling for me was the scene outside The Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. I live two doors down from the hotel, now known as Public. I’ve stood in the exact spot Grant did as he exited the alley to cross Goethe to get to the hotel—I walk my dog there all the time. It’s amusingly weird to see a place you know so well onscreen, let alone in something from almost 60 years ago. It’s different, but not much. Here’s what it looked like when North by Northwest was filmed:

IMG_9083.PNG

And here’s what it looks like today:

Ambassador.jpg

In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed North by Northwest “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Leo G. Carroll, Philip Ober, Josephine Hutchinson, Adam Williams, Robert Ellenstein, Edward Platt, Philip Coolidge, Edward Binns

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

136 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) A

Fathom Events

Some Like It Hot

(USA 1959)

An anonymous staff writer for Variety magazine reviewing Some Like It Hot upon its initial release in 1959 said it succinctly:

Some Like It Hot, directed in masterly style by Billy Wilder, is probably the funniest picture of recent memory. It’s a whacky, clever, farcical comedy that starts off like a firecracker and keeps on throwing off lively sparks till the very end.”

(http://variety.com/1959/film/reviews/some-like-it-hot-2-1200419454/)

And how! I never saw Some Like It Hot—I wasn’t sure how good or even funny it would be after nearly 60 years. My expectations were zero. I’m happy to report that it most certainly is a blast—the humor still works well, and the whole thing is deliciously tongue in cheek. I loved it.

Chicago, 1929: musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) desperately need work. After inadvertently witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, they reluctantly accept a gig playing in a female jazz band headed to Florida—as female musicians, of course. Yes, in drag. Who knew sultry party girl Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) would be around, constantly threatening to blow their cover?

Loaded with sexual tension and humor, Some Like It Hot shows a side of the ’50s I didn’t realize existed: it’s brazen, offbeat, ardent, inspired, and totally original. Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe are unstoppable together. The scene with Curtis and Monroe on the yacht is oddly hot. I definitely get the appeal of Monroe after seeing this—and I’ve seen in her other films, specifically Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not the same effect at all. Joe E. Brown is unforgettable as cracker-barrel millionaire Osgood Fielding, who tries his damnedest to woo Daphne (Lemmon).

Some Like It Hot has the absolute best final scene—if not the absolute best final line—in film history. It’s a classic that everyone should see.

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed Some Like It Hot “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

121 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?Movie=53017