French Noir Brightens Up Summer

It’s a shot of Melville straight, no chaser.


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Army of Shadows will screen at BAMPFA in a noir fest of sorts.

Courtesy BAMPFA

The hard-bitten writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73) was shaped by the two-fisted moral tales of Hollywood heavies John Ford and Howard Hawks (along with more superficial trappings of American culture) and his own ambiguous experiences in the French Resistance. Over the course of a dozen-odd films he made in the aftermath of the liberation of France through the early ’70s, Melville inscribed a world erased of anachronistic distinctions between law-abiding and lawbreaking, and heroism and villainy. He was the right man at the right time in the right place, an unflinchingly expressive exponent of existentialism without the nasty aftertaste of nihilism.

Aiming to brighten your summer with varying shades of darkness, BAMPFA has compiled a complete retrospective, Melville 100, in honor of the master’s centennial. The essential Le Samourai (June 8, 16), starring stone-faced Alain Delon in his 1967 prime as an impeccably dressed minimalist hit man named Jef Costello (!), launches the series in (and with) style. Army of Shadows (June 10, 25), a devastating 1969 study of a Resistance cell outnumbered by the Nazis and bedeviled by informants, is a masterpiece of a different order. The month’s gems include the director’s lesser-known, low-budget 1949 debut, The Silence of the Sea (June 11), also set during the war in France, and Les Enfants Terribles (June 18), an intentionally claustrophobic adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s taboo-testing novel about a brother-sister relationship. If you’ve never seen Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler), Melville’s wonderfully entertaining and wildly influential 1956 portrait of a refined Pigalle gangster with his eye on a Deauville casino’s vault, set your watch for June 24. A meditation on the allure of living outside the law, the indifference of fate, and the magic spell of movies, it’s a shot of Melville straight, no chaser.

Melville 100, June 8-Aug. 12, BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808,  BAMPFA.org. 

 

This report appeart in the June edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

 

Published online on June 5, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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