Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless

Play It Again, Sam

(USA 1972)

“It’s from Casablanca. I’ve waited my whole life to say it!”

—Allan

Play It Again, Sam is a rare Woody Allen film that he wrote and starred in but did not direct; it’s only his second such screenplay (http://www.ibtimes.com/8-films-woody-allen-acted-didnt-direct-video-1386755). Herbert Ross directed this film adaption of Allen’s play of the same name. Interestingly, it’s set in San Francisco, not New York or Los Angeles.

Allan Felix (Allen) is a neurotic film critic whose flaky wife (Susan Anspach) just left him. All on his own in their small apartment crammed with his film memorabilia, he’s understandably out of sorts and depressed; being Woody Allen, though, it’s a hundred times worse than anyone else, which makes it funny. His friends Dick (Tony Roberts) and Linda (Diane Keaton), a married couple, encourage him to meet new women, even going so far as setting him up on a date (Jennifer Salt). It’s not working because, well, his neurotic tendencies undermine his efforts—breaking record albums, spilling drinks, knocking down furniture, getting beat up. Not even the ghost of Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) popping up here and there to offer advice on babes helps. Allan crosses a line when he falls for Linda—and Dick catches a whiff of something going on.

Play It Again, Sam is typical Woody Allen—need I say more? He’s relatably cringeworthy, which is his gift. I loved Linda’s “I love dick” speech and Allen’s date with hot redhead Jennifer (Viva). All the references to Casablanca are fun. The story is a bit predictable, but the characters here keep the film enjoyable. So do the situations, which are just silly enough to remain believable without going too far.

83 minutes
Rated PG

(MoviePlex) B

Dead End

(USA 1937)

I never heard of the Dead End Kids until I saw this film. Long before West Side Story and The Outsiders, the Dead End Kids served as a Depression Era vehicle for social commentary on American urban life. Living in tenements along the East River as the moneyed started to convert Manhattan’s slums into upscale properties, the Dead End Kids demonstrated some of the pains of change and the kinds of decisions necessary to avoid going down a road to ruin (i.e., a life of crime). The ensemble held on in different incarnations well past its shelf life until the late 1950s, when the actors were in their mid-30s and had become more of a comedy act.

Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s successful 1935 play, Dead End is the one that started it all. It goes through a day in the life of a street “gang” led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop). The kids are rough around the edges and have names like Dippy (Huntz Hall), Spit (Leo Gorcey), and T.B. (Gabriel Dell). They openly mock their rich neighbors across the street in the co-op that abuts the slum (the windowless door to the co-op clearly states “service entrance”), steal, fight, play cards, shine shoes, and spend a lot of time swiming in the river at the end of the block. A slick neighborhood expat gangster, “Baby Face” Martin (a young Humphrey Bogart), who apparently made it as a hit man elsewhere, returns with his thug, Hunk (Allen Jenkins). No one, not even his low-talking mother (Minor Watson), wants him around. Meanwhile, Tommy’s sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a mother figure who’s off work striking for better wages, is trying her best to keep Tommy on the right path. She mentions a few times that the extra $3.50 a week (!) she’s fighting for would get them to a better place. She’s all into Dave (Joel McCrea), an unemployed architect with his eye on a rich girl (Wendy Barrie) who lives in the co-op.

Loaded with subplots, the story is okay even with its old school melodrama. Some of the performances—specifically Bogart, Sidney, McCrea, and Watson—are decent. The surreptitious way syphilis is slipped into the story is interesting. Otherwise, Dead End has issues. It may have been edgy in the ’30s, but in comtemporary eyes it reads as silly, even campy. The set is too tidy and ordered to be a real street. The kids’ exaggerated fake Archie Bunker accents get annoying after awhile—I expected to hear the word “murdalize” at many points (I didn’t). The story is moralistic in an unsophisticated way that even the ABC Afterschool Special never was. Still, Dead End depicts a world without a middle class and criticizes gentrification, points that ring familiar today. I didn’t hate Dead End, but it’s completely forgettable.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-