The Great Santini (1979)

I sometimes tell people that my mother was like Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth from Ordinary People and my father like Robert Duvall’s Bull Meechum from The Great Santini. It’s a harsh characterization, not completely accurate, and, even though it does have a grain of truth, it’s mostly the result of how both movies were in constant rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. Ordinary People framed my image of the toxic feminine. The Great Santini framed my image of the toxic masculine.

The Great Santini opens with a group of United States Marines stationed in Spain in 1962. Franco, unmentioned, is still dictator. Vietnam lurks ahead in the not too distant future. Castro is consolidating power in Cuba. The United States Marines are having a going away party for Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Meechum is a veteran, a popular, charismatic senior officer. He is also, as we shall soon see, a 40-year-old fraternity boy. After a waiter, then a senior United States naval officer, comes into their private room to ask, then order them to quiet down, Meechum and his buddies play a practical joke on the other people in the restaurant. They stagger out into the main dining room, drunk, and pretending to be even more drunk. There’s a band playing. Meechum grabs a woman and forces her to dance with him. She pulls away, indignant, then sits back down. Meechum, who had hidden an open can of cream of mushroom soup under his jacket, then walks up to the stage, and pretends to be sick. He then “throws up,” spilling the can of cream of mushroom soup. His fellow Marines start barking, get down on their hands and knees, and drink up the soup as if they were dogs drinking up their own vomit. It’s all good “fun and games” for the “men” who operate multi-million dollar fighter aircraft.

The scene changes to a military airport in Atlanta Georgia. Lillian, Meechum’s wife, Blythe Danner, Ben, his oldest son, Michael O’Keefe, younger son and two daughters are waiting for his plane to arrive. Anybody who’s seen the famous image of an American POW greeted by his family upon his return from Vietnam will immediately recognize the image. Meechum has never been a POW, and the war in Vietnam hasn’t even started, but the director Lewis John Carlino is reminding us exactly where we are in history. The conflict between the generations that will soon erupt in the streets and on the college campuses is also brewing in the Meechum between Meechum and his older son Ben.

It’s much easier to misinterpret The Great Santini than it is to misinterpret Ordinary People. If the family in Ordinary people, that icy, funereal trio of suburban Chicago WASPs, is so utterly cold and loveless that we realize from the very beginning it needs to crack up, the family in The Great Satini is a lot more complex. Lillian Meechum, and Blythe Danner is a much better actress than her daughter Gwynneth Paltrow, is a southern “lady.” She’s warm, gracious, kind, nothing like Mary Tyler Moore’s vicious upper-class Yankee bitch. What’s more, she and her husband, while they may fight, trade blows, and yell insults, genuinely love each other. After we see them in a post coital embrace, a long married couple in their 40s who still sleep with each other, they wake up, pile into a station wagon, and drive north to Beaufort, South Carolina and the 321st fighter squadron, which Meechum has been brought back to the United States to command. They sing. Lillian, a southerner starts out with Dixie, and Meechum, a Yankee, drowns her out with Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If the symbolism is a bit heavy handed, it’s effective at making its point. Beaufort, which is near the famous Marine Corps base at Parris Island, is not Selma Alabama, or Philadelphia Mississippi. It’s part of the Sea Islands. It has a substantial black population and was the site of a famous experiment in Radical Reconstruction. The Marine Corps means there’s a substantial presence of the federal government. This isn’t a grim, backwoods redneck hellhole with night riders and burning crosses. It’s a gorgeous old Tidewater city with gigantic old plantation houses, a substantial population of people from outside the south, and no obvious signs of Jim Crow.

That said, racism, as we will see in the film’s climax, is still front and center. After Meechum rents a huge ante-bellum plantation house, he jokingly baits Arrabella Smalls, their black maid, with accusations that she’s a potential thief. Meechum is no racist, and Lilian treats Arrabella Smalls no differently than she would if she were white. But Arabella’s son Toomer, a fisherman and beekeeper, who we earlier saw driving his cart full of honey jars into town, will soon get into a fatal conflict with a local gang of racists.

The Great Santini is an old school 1970s liberal movie. While there is a nod to Meechum’s older daughter Mary Anne, Sarah Jane Persky, who codes “Jewish, smart, plain, feminist,” his son Ben is squarely at the center of the narrative. If Robert Redford, in Ordinary People, went right for the jugular, gutting his Chicago WASP family, and exposing it as a complete fraud, then Lewis John Carlino seems a bit confused about whether he wants to make a movie that’s genuinely feminist and anti-militarist, or if simply wants to tell a story about a father and son. I haven’t read the Pat Conroy novel the Great Santini is based on but here, in the film, Mary Anne Meechum seems as needy for her father’s attention as she does critical of his patriarchal authority. She mocks her father’s authoritarian personality, but always seems like her brother’s sidekick. She makes up stories about sleeping with black dwarfs to get his attention, which become more and more outlandish as he simply pretends she doesn’t exist. For Bull Meechum, his two daughters really don’t exist. There’s a darker side to his oddly likeable frat jock, but Carlino never quite exploits it as well as he should.

Ben’s feminine role model, his path out his father’s twisted, macho world view, is not a woman at all, but Toomer, the maid’s son. That a black man is used to symbolize feminized masculinity and a white man patriarchy is politically problematic to say the least, but at the very least it does put race and class at the center of the story. Even as Bull Meechum becomes more and more of a caricature of boy man, as he drinks, bullies his kids, and bullies his wife, his wife still defends him. “I want to give my son the gift of fury,” Meechum says to Lillian, “or else the world will tear them apart.” Lillian, the bourgeois southern lady, seems to agree. She plays both sides. She defends her son against his father, as soon as her son rebels, she defends her husband. Lillian doesn’t reject patriarchy at all. On the contrary, after Meechum viciously bullies Ben, who had the temerity to beat him as basketball, Lillian defends him. “Your father loves you,” she said. “He just wants you to be the best.”

And why shouldn’t she? Lillian Meechum isn’t stupid. She knows, along with her husband, that she lives in the United States, a capitalist country that values male aggression. To raise her son to be a feminist would, indeed, be a form of child abuse. It would take from him his ability to succeed, to make money, to attract women, to start a family of his own. Lilian is no Beth Jarrett. She loves her son deeply and has no trouble standing up to her husband when she knows he’s wrong. But she’s no radical either. How could she possibly know that in 1962 helping to impose a traditional masculine identity on her son might mean he’ll die, or, even worse, commit war crimes in Vietnam?

Toomer, on the other hand, is something of a revolutionary. These days, it might be possible to see Stan Shaw’s stuttering, folksy black bee keeper as racist, as a “magical negro,” but, if you look more closely, you can see that Toomer is the black, working class equivalent of Judd Hirsh’s psychiatrist, the benevolent father figure who helps the hero break out of his tyrannical WASP family. Toomer has no trouble standing up to racists, and not only verbally. When a group of “shrimp folk” break his honey jars and try to get in the way of his livelihood, he wrenches the leader into a headlock, and threatens to crush his skull under the wheels of his cart. When the gang comes out to home, he sets up a trap to overturn two cages full of bees. The racists scatter,  howling in pain. When the leader of the racist gang starts shooting his dogs — Toomer keeps about 20 — and accidentally shoots Toomer, Toomer, with his last bit of strength, opens the kennel door. His pack of hounds chase down the racist and kill him.

Indeed, Toomer’s willingness to use violence to defend himself puts him a lot closer to Malcolm X than it does to the Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman of Mississippi Burning.

But it’s still Ben’s story. While Ben never challenges Meechum over the neglect of his two sisters, he does stand up to him over Toomer. After the father orders the son not to interfere — “when the crackers and blacks go at it we don’t stand in the middle” — Ben defies his command and goes out to the bus. It’s too late to save Toomer, but, by at least trying, Ben saves himself. The tables are turned. Ben is no longer the bullied son. Indeed, as Bull Meechum continues to degenerate into the alcoholism that symbolizes his toxic, vicious patriarchal authority, his son becomes the parent, he the child. When Ben hunts down his father, who’s wandered off after a drunken binge, he not only saves him from public humiliation, he yells in his face “I love you dad. I love you dad.”

If Ordinary People’s toxic mother in 1980 meant Reaganite neoliberalism, The Great Santini’s toxic father would very soon, in the 1960s, mean Vietnam.

Meechum is killed after the fuel gage in his fighter jet malfunctions, and he crashes it into the ocean rather then kill civilians.  Ben and Lillian take command of the family, and try to maintain things as they’ve always been. Lillian orders Mary Anne not to cry at the funeral. Ben drives the family out of town, leading them as they sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, his father’s old song. Ben’s Oedipal fantasy has come true. He has Lillian and the kids all to himself. He’s the man now. But Vietnam is only a few years away. Ben, 18 in 1962, is soon going to face a choice. Will he go to Vietnam, napalm civilians, become an agent of the imperial state as his father surely would have done, or will he rebel? Will he resist the draft? Will he go to Canada or jail rather than participate in genocide and war crimes? Will Lillian help him? We have no way of knowing, but, like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, he does at least have a fighting chance.

Ordinary People (1980)

While not as universally despised as The English Patient or Crash, most people consider Ordinary People one of the weakest films ever to win Best Picture. The elephant in the room was Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. From the Godfather to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, politically conservative, yet culturally radical Italian American auteurs dominated the 1970s. But the counterrevolution was on. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, an attempt at a leftist, revisionist take on the old west, had failed so badly it brought down United Artists. Ronald Reagan was on track to become President. Lisa Birnbach had published the Official Preppy Handbook. The counterculture was out. The WASP was back in. Ordinary People, which is set in Lake Forest Illinois, one of the wealthiest towns in suburban Chicago, was just what the academy needed.

Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People, is anything but a Reaganite. He’s a good liberal who cares about the environment, founded the Sundance Film Festival, and acted in a film about the Cuban Revolution. His next film as a director, The Milagro Beanfield War, ventured as far away from WASP Lake Forest as you can get, all the way to the Hispanic Southwest. So why did he choose to direct a long, glorified, cinematic version of a John Cheever story?

Let’s do a little thought experiment. What if Redford decided to leverage his own popularity in Hollywood, and the culture of nouveau-WASP, Reaganite, neoliberal chic to make a film that’s far more radical and subversive than it’s sometimes given credit for? Indeed, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting might, in fact, be considered the conservative sequel to Ordinary People. Good Will Hunting, in spite of its superficially leftist politics, at least holds out at least the promise happiness in the meritocracy. Sure, Matt Damon’s Will has a very famous speech where bashes the NSA, years before it was cool, but, in the end, we know he has no intention of staying in South Boston with his working class friends. He’ll get into the upper-middle-class some way.

Ordinary People shows us that the last place any of should aspire to is a mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois.

On the surface, Redford’s Lake Forest is beautiful. Ordinary People opens to the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon. As we drift through a series of autumnal images of high bourgeois suburbia, we are introduced to Conrad Jarrett, a young Timothy Hutton. Conrad Jarrett is half James Dean in East of Eden, half Wit Stillman preppie. He’s a popular, straight-A student with a wealthy tax attorney for a father, Calvin Jarrett played by Donald Sutherland, and the kind of mother Martha Stewart made a fortune marketing as a fantasy. The Jarrett house is perfect, too perfect. Not a blade of grass, not a piece of furniture, not a knife, a fork or a spoon is out of place.

Soon we learn something is very, very wrong. Conrad’s older brother, Buck, died in a boating accident. Conrad survived. Conrad attempted suicide, and was committed to an insane asylum, where he was given electroshock therapy. Beth Jarrett, Mary Tyler Moore, is high WASP, middle-aged perfection. To quote Frank Rich on former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, “she’s such a good example of the horsey set she almost neighs.” Beth is the kind of passive aggressive, upper-class WASP who thinks she’s making a gesture of infinite kindness simply by talking to you. She’s the kind of woman who makes you feel guilty for making her feel guilty that she can’t be nicer to you than she thinks you really deserve. She hates her younger son. Buck, not Conrad, not even her husband, was the most important man in her life. She’s an ice cold, emotional black hole who blames Conrad for not being the one on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Calvin Jarrett, while he may be an irritating wuss, is far more likeable. We never quite learn what kind of tax law he practices, but, if his gorgeous Lake Forest estate wasn’t inherited, we can be pretty sure it has something to do with helping rich people keep the IRS from taking their money. If the strongest side of Ordinary People is the way it captures the rhythms of the frigid upper-middle class, the way these people keep secrets even when they don’t, the way they deal with people instead of talking to them, their physical discomfort in one another’s presence, then its weakest side is in the way it refuses to engage class as class. Calvin Jarrett is the sensitive 1970s WASP male from central casting.  Money is etherealized into style. In real life, a Calvin Jarrett in corporate America would get eaten alive. Here, he never seems to work, and he never seems to worry about money. Beth Jarrett, the angel of the hearth become emotionally withholding devil, bears the entire burden of Redford’s dissection of the neoliberal, Reaganite meritocracy.

But if Ordinary People is a misogynistic film, it’s a great one.  TV shows like Mad Men still try to sell us on a fantasy of high WASP chic. Ordinary People rips it to pieces.

After Conrad starts psychoanalysis with Dr. Tyrone C. Berger, Judd Hirsch, we learn that what he needed all along was a dose of earthy Jewish warmth. Judd Hirsch is not only marvelous as a psychoanalyst, the film captures the dynamic of what it’s like for a young man to try heal himself in therapy only to have to go back home to the same upper-class household that made him need therapy in the first place. To watch Ordinary People back to back with Good Will Hunting is to realize what a reactionary film Good Will Hunting is. For Matt Damon’s Will, getting in touch with your feelings is a first step towards abandoning your emotionally stunted blue collar childhood. Once Will heals his soul he’ll be ready to join the Calvin Jarretts of the world in the corporate boardroom. For Timothy Hutton’s Conrad Jarrett, it’s not that easy.

The healthier Conrad gets, the more he comes into conflict with Beth. “Aren’t I supposed to feel better?” Conrad asks Berger. “Not necessarily,” Berger answers. Berger doesn’t want Conrad to fit in. He wants him to get mad. Whether or not Berger intends it, Conrad is the revolutionary agent of change who will bring down the film’s microcosm of the corrupt, bourgeois order. Indeed, we begin to realize that Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt, as tragic as they were, also made it inevitable that the Jarrett family would finally crack up, and that, in the end, it’s a good thing. Had Buck not been killed, Beth Jarrett would have been able to maintain her emotional tyranny over her husband and her younger son for decades. But once the crisis presents itself, Conrad has to rebel or die, and Calvin either has to support him, or lose the only child he has left. Ordinary People ends on a sad note. We don’t know what will happen to Conrad, but we have seen him grow from an angry teenage boy into a man. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment in a two hour movie. Conrad, the least favored son, the Cain marked out for destruction by a withholding bourgeois female God who dotes on his older brother, survives. After Beth gets into a taxi and drives off into the night, we feel like a cloud has lifted, and it has.

RESTLESS (Gus Van Sant, 2011)

The late Dennis Grunes’ take on Gus Van Sant’s Restless. The late Roger Ebert also gave it a positive review. As far as I know, I’m the only other person (and the only person with a long life ahead of him) who did. But it’s always great to have your tastes validated. If this film becomes as popular as it should be, I’ll be able to say I liked it before it was cool.

Cesar Chavez (2014)

While most people in the United States have heard the name Cesar Chavez, very few of us know anything about him other than that he was a Mexican American labor leader who organized the grape boycott back in the 1960s and 1970s. So any biography, even a plodding, TV movie of the week style film is probably worth seeing. It’s certainly preferable to the latest Batman movie. Diego Luna’s film is probably as weak as its critics have accused it of being. But I also think he deserves credit for an earnest, well-intentioned effort.

Cesar Chavez opens up with Michael Pena’s voice over. Chavez was born in Arizona in the 1920s. His parents owned a ranch, which they lost during the Great Depression. Like John Steinbeck’s Okies, they moved west to California to work in the fields. Chavez himself was a migrant laborer when he was 11. We next see Ceser Chavez as an adult. He’s living in Los Angeles, working for a group called the Community Service Organization, trying, unsuccessfully, to recruit a family of migrants. Chavez, who’s supported by another organizer named Dolores Huerta, Rosario Dawson, announces that he doesn’t feel as if he’s any use as a labor bureaucrat in LA. He wants to go back to work in the fields and organize workers on the ground. Some TV movie of the week drama ensues. None of his kids want to uproot themselves, but his wife is supportive. They all pile into a car, drive to Delano in California’s Central Valley, and Chavez gets to work in earnest.

The scenes that take place in Delano have been criticized for their historical inaccuracy, more specifically, for their failure to pay sufficient attention to Chavez’s Filipino allies. While the script does in fact include one very striking scene centered on Filipino migrants, I think there’s probably some truth in the criticism. My own experience includes working in an Alaskan Salmon cannery back in the 1990s where the workforce was broken down into four distinct groups, Anglo Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos and Slovaks. I probably know the rhythms of a work environment like the one Chavez tried to organize better than Diego Luna does, and I don’t think he’s captured very much of what a group of agricultural laborers acts like in reality. Cesar Chavez was filmed mostly in Mexico and the scenes in Delano do indeed strike me as biased towards Mexicans against Filipinos. What’s more, they feel sanitized and didactic. There are no single, sexually frustrated young men who drink too much. Everybody has a nice Christian family.

The scenes in Delano do effectively dramatize the racism Mexican Americans experienced back in the 1960s, still experience, and just how in the tank for the ruling class the police are. One of the strongest scenes involves an attempt of the police to outlaw the world “huelga” (“strike” in Spanish), and Chavez’s wife, played by America Ferrara, leading the civil disobedience. The subplot involving the racist harassment of Chavez’s son never quite comes alive, but the local, conservative white women who come to heckle the strikers do provide a vivid image of racism and xenophobia. But don’t expect John Ford. We never really get a sense of the terror and isolation experienced by migrants. Nobody gets cheated out of wages outright, even though there are scenes where workers protest their wages being cut. There’s a pro-forma nod to feminism, but Rosario Dawson, as Dolores Huerta, really doesn’t have much to do. Compared to the way the old 1950s film Salt of the Earth puts women and their struggle at the center of the narrative, Diego Luna is well intentioned, but weak in his delivery.

The weakest scenes of Chavez, by far, are an attempt to dramatize his hunger strike. Try not to fall asleep as Michael Pena sits in bed and tries to look sick. Pena, who doesn’t really have the charisma to carry the film, seems to disappear. The narrative gets confused, and John Malcovich, as a racist, right-wing grower, steals the movie by default. Chavez’s veganism, which, as far as I know, played a major role in his work, is cut out of the story altogether.

The second half of Chavez feels like a 1970s liberal “movie of the week.” Robert Kennedy is good. Then he gets shot, and we get Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, who are both, of course, in the tank for the rich growers. That it’s all perfectly historical — Robert Kennedy did aid the grape boycott and Nixon and Reagan were in the tank for the rich — doesn’t make it work as drama. I did learn that Richard Nixon attempted to break the grape boycott by selling California grapes in Europe and having the military buy the rest, but Chavez’s trip to Europe to convince British and French labor leaders to support him might just as well been a documentary, or a TV news special.

So the final verdict? See Chavez for the historical importance of the subject, but don’t expect too much. The man himself was far more complex and interesting then Diego Luna portrays him here. The real Cesar Chavez, the anti-communist, Catholic vegan who fell into the trap of trying to raise wages by limiting immigration, deserves a better movie. This one will have to do for now.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy is a clear-sighted look into the dark, rancid heart of American capitalism.

Most famous for one of its most insignificant scenes, James Cagney rubbing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, William Wellman’s seminal early gangster film dramatizes the life of a working-class Irish Catholic hoodlum from his rough boyhood in Chicago to his ghoulish demise. Wellman, who directed the very first movie to win an Oscar for “Best Picture” as well as the short, sharp, brutal masterpiece The Ox Bow Incident, has so much flinty, stripped-down artistic integrity that it makes me wonder if perhaps WASPs and only WASPs should direct gangster movies. Later films about organized crime like The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas all seem marred by an operatic, overwrought, Italian sensibility. The TV mini-series Breaking Bad, in turn, feels like a short film padded into a 5-year-long mini-series. Why keep re shooting the same story in greater, more ornate, more baroque complexity when William Wellman put it on screen in its pure, distilled essence, all the way back in 1931?

It’s hard not to like Tommy Powers, the role that made James Cagney a movie star. We first meet him in 1909. He’s still a boy, but his personality is fully formed. He’s cynical. He hates girl. He’s belligerent. But he’s also clever, resourceful, brave. If he had the right kind of role models, he could probably be anything he wants. What he has are a physically abusive policeman for a father, and Putty Nose, a Fagin-like petty criminal, for a mentor. He also has a doting mother, a lifelong friend named Matt Doyle, and, most importantly of all, a straight laced brother named Mike.

We see Tommy and Matt a few years later as young men. They attempt to do a robbery for Putty Nose. It goes bad. One of their gang gets killed. They shoot a cop. Even though Putty Nose hangs them out to dry — a move that he will later regret —they don’t get caught. In 1917, Mike Powers enlists in the army, and goes off to France. We never quite learn what happens to the father. He simply disappears. Perhaps he just got sick of his family and abandoned them. In any event, while Tommy and Matt have jobs as streetcar conductors, they’re well on their way to being career criminals. New Years Day, 1920, the day Prohibition became the law of the land, is also the day they get their big break, the chance to make “real money”

One of the joys of The Public Enemy is the way it gives you a real sense of history. Filmed in 1931, on the eve of repeal, The Public Enemy stages the 1920, New Year’s Eve rush to buy alcohol in Chicago. It’s like any supermarket the day before a blizzard. People are stocking up while they can. But Matt, Tommy, and a local crime boss named Paddy Ryan are planning ahead. Alcohol will now be a hot commodity on the “free market.” Paddy is willing to buy all that Matt and Tommy can steal. He’s also willing to use them as muscle against saloon owners who don’t buy their beer. Paddy works for Nails Nathan, the biggest gangster in Chicago, and by signing on with Paddy, Tommy and Matt are signing on with Nails Nathan. Soon, Tommy is a rising star in the Chicago underworld, complete with a wad of cash, and a fancy new wardrobe. He’s a natural, brutal, clever, and efficient. He has no moral scruples to get in his way. When he’s ordered to kill Putty Nose, he does it with no more regret than he would have stepping on a centipede in the basement, or swatting a fly. Matt, by contrast, while an enthusiastic professional criminal, still manages to look a bit distressed as Putty Nose begs for his life, and Tommy guns him down in cold blood.

But it’s not Matt who serves as the main foil for Tommy Powers. It’s his brother, Mike Powers. While Mike may in fact be the petty embezzler Tommy accuses him of being — he may scam coins at his job as a streetcar conductor —he’s still a man who struggles against the temptations of a career as a gangster. That means long hours at work, night school, the slow, demoralizing grind of working-class men everywhere. Tommy’s mother pretends not to take sides, but it’s clear Tommy, not Mike, is her favorite. Whether or not Tommy has a grudging respect for Mike is the film’s most intriguing question. Tommy, to be sure, is a cold blooded sociopath, but when his brother punches him in the face, he let’s him get away with it. When Mike histrionically declaims that a keg of Tommy’s illegal beer is not just beer but “beer mixed with blood” Tommy makes a show of bravado, but we wonder if, deep down inside, he might not realize his brother is right, that he’s a doomed man headed for certain damnation.

The Public Enemy is a pre-Hayes Code movie. Wellman eschews simplistic moralism. There are vivid, realistic scenes of the Chicago underworld, a gangster’s mistress who gets Tommy drunk and seduces him, a swishy, gay tailor, that were censored for decades. Wellman doesn’t balk at showing us how much more fun being a gangster must have been then being a working man. Mike Powers might be the film’s moral center, but he’s a dull, ineffectual, mean spirited scold. William Wellman was under no obligation to bring Tommy Powers to a bad end. We can assume that, when he does, his motivation was to tell an honest story, not to live up to any kind of coercive requirement to show that “crime doesn’t pay.” So when Tommy does meet a bad end, it’s not a deus ex machina, not a clumsy tip of the hat to the censors. It’s the only logical outcome of Tommy’s story. Tommy, who is a sociopath may be a charismatic, entertaining man, but, inside, he’s rotten through and through. The are no happy endings. Crime doesn’t pay. It pays you good and hard.

Even 80 years later, the last minute of The Public Enemy is one of the most brutal, and vivid sequences ever put to film. Tommy Powers is snuffed out with no more sentiment than he snuffed out Putty Face.  By comparison, Brian De Palma’s Scarface looks like a  silly gore fest and Scorsese’s Goodfellas like bad, Italian stand up comedy.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Bob le flambeur, or Bob the High Roller, an early film by Jean-Pierre Melville, set the template for so many later American “heist” movies that, at first glance, it’s almost difficult to write about. The characters will all seem familiar. You have Bob, the veteran, 50-something gambler who wants to make one big score before retiring, Anne, the teenage girl eager to begin a life as a petty criminal, Paulo, Bob’s dimwitted 20-something sidekick, Marc, the woman beater and ex-pimp coerced by the police into turning informer, and a supporting cast of petty criminals, cops, and bohemian low lifes. The plot will seem familiar to anybody who’s seen one of the Steven Soderbergh “Oceans” films. A crack team of criminals comes together to do a “job” in an exotic, romantic location. Something goes wrong. There’s an ironic plot twist. The ending leaves an opening for a sequel.

If you look more closely, however, you’ll begin to notice how most of the American remakes of Bob le flambeur pulled it out of a political and cultural context that every Frenchman in the 1950s would have understood. Bob Montagné lives in a duplex in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre. It’s not quite what you would call luxurious, but he does have a tall pair of windows that look out over The Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Actually, the view is even better than I’m describing it. The Sacré-Cœur Basilica  fills his pair of windows, a vision of heaven shimmering in the distance. For an American, the The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is “that big white church up on the hill in Paris.” It’s a pretty postcard, nothing more. For an Irish Catholic like Bono, it was a great place to stage a U2 video. But for a Frenchman, The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is the “victory mosque” built by the French ruling class over the mass grave of the Paris Commune. For “Montmartre,” substitute “Berkeley in the 60s” or “Kent State,” then multiply that times one hundred. For an American, Montmartre is a romantic, far off, exotic place. For a Frenchman, Montmartre is the ancient capitol of French radicalism, of the Jacobins, of the Paris Commune, of the militant French working class.

Bob Montagné, a role George Clooney was born to play, may be an elegant, silver-haired, middle-aged gentleman, but he’s no bourgeois. As Melville makes clear when he has Bob take Anne  back to the ratty little shack where his mother lived, Bob is a slum kid. Montmartre isn’t a far-off exotic place. It’s his home town. Well into middle-age, Bob is still scamming his way through life. Anne is no victim. She’s a shameless little hussy, but Bob knows she’s on a dead-end road. She won’t always be young and pretty. Eventually, if she doesn’t change her ways, she’ll just be another saggy, washed-up old whore on the streets of Paris. But how will she, or Bob’s sidekick Paulo, change their ways? The French class system has condemned all of them to the choice between a dull, soul crushing life in the working class, or the ante-purgatory of the Montmartre ghetto. Montmartre, the film’s narrator tells us, is “a little piece of heaven and a little piece of hell.”

I have read critical essays on Bob le Flambeur which have argued that part of Bob’s respect in his little corner of Montmartre comes from the idea that he’s an old school, 1930s crime figure in the 1950s, that he comes from a generation of petty thieves and gamblers that refused to collaborate with the Nazis. I don’t know enough about the history of organized crime in France to make any guesses about how Bob made his living during the German occupation. He did spend time in prison, so perhaps he sat the whole thing out behind bars, but it’s clear that there’s now a workable equilibrium between the French state and the underworld in Montmartre. The police like Bob. He’s a criminal and they’re the police, but there’s never any personal animosity. The cops wink at small time gambling and prostitution. Pimps, on the other hand, are despised equally, both by Bob — who’s quick to offer a loan to Marc, another petty criminal, until he realizes he’s an ex-pimp and a woman beater— and by the police, who put the screws on Marc to become an informer.

What happens when that equilibrium breaks down?

The police tell Marc they’re not interested in gambling or prostitution. Neither threatens the French class system as it stands. What they want is “something big.” That’s what they get when Bob, after losing his life savings at a fancy, seaside casino in Deauville — imagine the French version of The Hamptons — comes up with the idea of robbing their safe, a high-tech marvel with four locks and a lift that brings it down underground after closing time. The safe, which, supposedly, contains 800 million Francs, is the way out, Bob’s vision of transcending his roots as a Montmartre slum kid. Not only will that 800 million Francs allow Bob to retire, just planning the heist makes him CEO of his own little company. He finds investors. He strong arms a casino employee, another ex-pimp who doesn’t want his employers to find out about his past, into giving him a floor plan, and the make and model of the safe. He hires a technical expert, a master safe cracker who breaks locks with a stethoscope and an oscilloscope.

Then everything goes wrong.

Bob’s sidekick Paulo, who’s deeply in love with Anne — she can take him or leave him — tries to impress her by bragging about the big job he and Bob have planned. Anne, who doesn’t take Paulo seriously, brags to Marc, who she’s sleeping with on the side. Marc promises to tell the cops. Paulo murders him before can follow through on it, more out of jealousy over Anne than to protect the job, but the wife of Bob’s inside man at the casino come up with her own scheme to get her husband off the hook and  Bob locked up. A skilled professional thief, of course, would immediately call off the job, but it’s not that easy. Bob is committed. He’s already got investors. Robbing the seaside casino has the call of fate. It’s now or never. It’s his last chance. So they go through with it. Bob takes his place as a “lookout” at one of the gambling tables. His crews gets in place. The cops prepare a raid. Then Bob’s luck changes, all for the good. But it’s too late, and the movie ends with a question.

What happens when the unstoppable force of a streak of good luck meets up with the immovable object of a cursed fate?

Le Samouraï (1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï has had a profound effect on everything about American culture from Michael Jackson’s look in the 1980s to the Jim Jarmusch remake in 1999, but is it a good movie?

As a technical exercise in film making, to answer “yes” would be a ridiculous understatement. Jean-Pierre Melville is such a master of lighting, pacing, and visual composition that Le Samouraï easily ranks with some of the greatest films ever made. The chase scenes through the Paris Metro make even good American films like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 or The French Connection look amateurish by comparison. The use of technology like car phones, pagers, wireless microphones, and reel to reel tape recorders is integrated so seamlessly into the plot that nothing looks remotely obsolete, even 47 years later. What filmmaker in 2014, French or American, could make something that looks this good?

As storytelling, Le Samouraï is a bit more difficult to judge. Is Jeff Costello, Melville’s contract killer played by Alain Delon, more style than substance? Do we care what happens to him? If Melville has a lighter, more assured touch in Le Samouraï than he does in Army of Shadows, then it’s partly because he has so much less to work with. The stakes are much lower. Army of Shadows asks whether or not it’s moral to kill a man, or a woman in cold blood, even if it means helping to protect the French Resistance against the Gestapo. In Le Samouraï, we either suspend our moral judgment or we don’t. Jeff Costello doesn’t kill a Nazi or a Vichy traitor. He shoots a nightclub owner, and a crime boss. We either accept that a murderer for hire can be a sympathetic human being, or we turn the movie off, and walk out of the theater.

Or maybe we don’t. Perhaps the whole point about Le Samouraï is that style is substance and substance style. Until the very last from of the movie, we have no idea if Jeff Costello is an honorable man or not. But Alain Delon is beautiful to look at. Brian De Palma’s clumsy knockoff of Costello as Frank Nitti in his film The Untouchables captures nothing of his style or existential cool. For that, turn to the classic song by Sade, Smooth Operator. I have no idea if Sade was thinking of Melville’s film when she wrote her ode to her heartless, yet elegant lover, but I do suspect that for a lot of black women Alain Delon was, at one time, an ideal “fancy man,” to use the label the film’s brutal yet intelligent police inspector pins on him.

Le Samouraï opens in the apartment of Jeff Costello, the samurai, a 30-year-old contract killer living in Paris. That it’s a dilapidated hole with nothing but an unmade bed, a case of mineral water, and a pet bird is testament to Melville’s cinematography. It doesn’t matter. The lighting is so beautiful, it’s hard to imagine not wanting to be his roommate. Costello puts on a tan raincoat and a hat, walks down onto the street, steals a car, a Citroen, the only kind of car he seems to steal, and takes it to a chop shop. There he gets a new set of license plates and a gun before going to work. First he visits Jane La Grange, his mistress. She’s a blonde, Julie Christie lookalike who lives in a luxurious apartment bankrolled by her older lover. Jeff knows all about the older man and the older man knows all about Jeff. Neither of them care, but that, as we’ll see later, is the point. Having established one part of his alibi, Costello drops in on a card game, establishing the second.

Then he does the job. He walks into a nightclub, makes brief eye contact with a black woman who sings and plays the piano, goes to the office, and shoots the owner dead. Why Jeff Costello’s employers wanted the man dead is never explained. Maybe he owed them money. Many he wanted to cut in on their turf, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the piano player has witnessed the murder. While, normally, a careful, methodical hit man like Jeff Costello would just shoot a witness as a matter of course, here he doesn’t. Is it sexual attraction? Is it a sense of honor. The pianist is obviously an innocent woman. Or is it something different? Earlier in the day Costello had made brief eye contact with a woman who looks very much like a white version of the pianist — that there are critics who mistakenly believe they’re the same woman is testament to Melville’s skill as a filmmaker — who was, quite possibly, a real woman, and also, quite possibly, the angel of death.

Jeff Costello, whatever his profession, still has a code of honor. If this code of honor is embodied in his personal style, then so is his behaviour. Why wear a getup that makes him so recognizable, a tan raincoat and a hat that gives him the appearance of a model out of a men’s fashion magazine? Why not just disguise himself as a deliveryman? Perhaps it would make him something that he’s not.

After the police round up the “usual suspects,” a lot of “usual suspects,” everybody in their corner of the Parisian underworld wearing a hat and a trench coat, Jeff Costello is a hunted man. Jane La Grange and her older, sugar daddy provide the alibi, and the cops let him go, but there’s no question that from the moment he arrives at the police station, he’s not the primary, but the only suspect. To make matters even worse, the gangsters who hired him to kill the nightclub owner now want to kill him. Why didn’t he shoot the witness? Why did he get arrested? He escapes an assassination attempt, but knows they’ll be back.

Costello is now alone, on the wrong side of both the police and the underworld. The police know he did it. It’s now only a matter of proving that he did. Why are they so sure? It’s never explained. Maybe it was the older man. Was he tipping off the cops by making the alibi just a bit too good? He’s no competition for the handsome Costello, and he knows it. I suspect he was. What better way to get rid of his rival. But it doesn’t work. The beautiful Jane La Grange, who occupies an uncertain land somewhere between high-class prostitute and kept woman, has no intention of betraying Jeff Costello. However hard the police lean on her, they can’t break her loyalty. So they transfer their efforts to the pianist, who, like Jane La Grange, covered for Costello, even though she knows very well that he was the man who murdered her employer.

Jeff Costello, in other words, owes his life to both a black woman and a white woman.

If some people were surprised when Jean-Pierre Melville turned his attention from gangster films to make Army of Shadows, they should have watched Le Samouraï more closely. Jeff Costello may be a mere killer for hire who killed a corrupt night club owner, but the police mobilize a dragnet and a sophisticated surveillance net as surely as if he were Jean Moulin himself. Indeed, the mass roundup of men with hats and trench coats, the attempt to bully Jane La Grange, the wireless microphones, and pursuit through the Paris Metro are, perhaps, a more vivid depiction of a totalitarian state closing in on a doomed man then anything in Army of Shadows. If Melville hinted at the connection between the Resistance and the underworld in Army of Shadows, it’s difficult to miss it here. Criminals, like members of a terrorist group or a resistance cell, are the only people who can resist tyrany. After the gangsters hire Jeff Costello for a second job, to kill the pianist, we realize they no longer want him dead. If he does the job, he’s off the hook. But how can he? Would Jean-Pierre Melville, a Jew and a hero in an anti-fascist resistance movement, write a film where the hero escapes with a blond, blue-eyed mistress at the expense of murdering an innocent black woman, and one who covered for him, in cold blood? Costello is doomed, A Samurai, the Code of Bushido tells us, has only one purpose in life, to die. Costello knows his time has come. The only thing left is to check out in style, like a gentleman.