Tag Archives: Alain Delon

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

Rocco and his Brothers is a sociological examination of what happens to a rural, southern Italian family when they move to the industrial north that ultimately rejects sociological and economic explanations for human behavior in favor of the idea that character is destiny. In what’s widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest films, Luchino Visconti — who is widely credited with having invented the Italian neorealism with Ossessione in 1943 — looks forward to the operatic melodrama of his “German Trilogy.” He also lays the groundwork for American films like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, and Scarface.

Italy, like the United States, has a rich, industrial north, and a poor agrarian south. Similar to how blacks came north in the 1940s and 1950s to work in the auto-industry in Detroit, the postwar economic boom in Milan attracted poor farmers from Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, and in the case of Rocco Parondi and his brothers, from Basilicata, the arch of the Italian boot. Rocco and His Brothers opens in “Stazione Centrale,” a grand edifice similar to Grand Central or old Penn Station in New York. We meet Rosaria Parondi, the family matriarch, Rocco, Simone, and their younger brothers Cira and Luca. They are going to meet Vincenzo, the eldest, who has come to Milan ahead of them. As the great metropolis unfolds around them, as they stare out of the windows of the bus as it makes its way through the brightly lit city center, we realize they have never seen this kind of traffic, wealth, or bright, artificial light. “It’s like daytime at night,” Simone will say later.

A more careful observer will also realize that Visconti has pulled a fast one. These aren’t the kind of non-actors usually cast in neorealist films, but movie stars. Except for Katina Paxinou, who plays Rosaria and who looks very much like an authentic southern European peasant, the Parondis look like a family of male models. Rocco, a very young Alain Delon, is ethereal and angelic, a vision of boyish innocence. Simone, Renato Salvatori, is forceful and masculine, a Mediterranean Brando. When they finally get to Vincenzo’s apartment, they find Vincenzo celebrating his engagement to Ginetta, played by a very young Claudia Cardinale. By drawing up a standard neorealist frame, poor family from the country cracks up in a big city in the industrial north, Visconti sets up the expectation that the key to the plot’s resolution will depend on economic and historical forces beyond the control of the individual. But by casting good looking professional actors as poor southern Italians, he blows up the neorealist conventions from the inside. It’s not poverty that destroys Simone and leaves Rocco trapped in a career that he hates, Visconti says. On the contrary, the freedom and relative prosperity in Milan allows allows the two men to become themselves in a way that could not have happened back in Basilicata. Simone becomes a rapist and a murderer because, deep down inside, he’s genuinely rotten. Rocco becomes, in essence, an indentured servant to a corrupt boxing promoter because he never wanted to be free in the first place.

But it’s Annie Girardot, a their neighbor, a prostitute who becomes involved with, first, Simone, then Rocco who gives Rocco and His Brothers its heart and soul. Giradot, who 40 years later would play Isabelle Huppert’s domineering mother in The Piano Teacher, turns in one of the great performances in cinematic history. From her pursuit of Rocco, to her terror when she’s raped and later murdered by Simone, from her desire for upward mobility to her essential honesty, from her emotional warmth and vulnerability to the hatred and rage she expresses over Simone’s brutality and Rocco’s passive aggressive betrayal, she expresses just about every emotion a woman seems capable of expressing. She’s also almost certainly the stand in for Visconti himself, her sexual obsession with Alain Delon the conduit through which a gay man in 1960 could channel his lust for a young Adonis. Not far behind her performance is Renato Salvatori as Simone. Even though Simone is an irredeemably loathsome cancer who snuffs out the life of a beautiful, vital young woman and sets his mother and brothers on the road to their eventual destruction, we can’t help but pity him. If Visconti is telling us that character is destiny, Simone’s destiny is the way he has no character, no self, no will, no morals, no individuality. He is a passive receptacle who becomes, in effect, the embodiment of the malevolent forces of industrial capitalism, the lumpenprole who falls out of the working class and preys on the working class. While I can imagine Marlon Brando in his Streetcar days playing Simone Parondi, I cannot imagine him so effectively expressing the emptiness of his character, the hollow, gaping hole that opens up inside a man too weak to hold himself together when given the freedom to live up, or down to his true self.

Rocco and His Brothers is occasionally compared to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, but all the comparison really does is highlight Ford’s essential optimism. Rosario Parondi is no Ma Joad. She doesn’t keep her family together so much as keep herself together as it falls apart around her. If Ma Joad was open minded and expansive, Rosario Parondi is small minded and rigid, too wrapped up inside the protective shell of her southern conservatism ever to be of much use to anybody. But if Rocco and His Brother is not The Grapes of Wrath it’s not Visconti’s later film The Damned either The Damned was an enjoyable movie, but only because we didn’t care about any of them characters. We hate Visconti’s ruling class family of Nazis every bit as much as he does and enjoy every moment of their destruction. The more creatively sadistic he gets, the more we cheer him on. Rocco and His Brothers is gut wrenching. We care about the people we see tortured on screen. We identify with them. We feel their defeat. I genuinely wanted to see Alain Delon’s Rocco and Annie Giroud’s Nadia get married and live happily ever after. That their defeat is due partly to their character, to their own lack of will, is a much more eloquent protest against capitalism than it would have been had it been simple poverty. “We come from the land of the olive tree, the moon, and the rainbow,” Rocco says, dreaming of his hometown in the south. None of them will ever see it again. It’s the empty fantasy of beaten, uprooted people.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Jim Jarmusch’s seventh feature length film, an homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samouraï, is a beautifully filmed meditation on race and social isolation. Quiet, nuanced, aesthetically rich, it’s a work of art that demands to be seen multiple times, an object to be contemplated from a variety of different angles as though it were a painting or a piece of sculpture. A critique after only one viewing will be limited, but a comparison to Melville’s great original is probably the best place to start.

Forest Whitaker, who takes over for Alain Delon, plays “Ghost Dog,” who takes over for Jeff Costello as the contract killer who follows the Code of Bushido. Where Delon is slim, elegant, ghostlike, Whitaker is thick, stocky, and substantial. But their characters have two things in common, a quiet, self-possessed intelligence, and a love of birds. Costello lives in a spare, white, minimalist apartment in Paris with a single bird in a cage, and a case full of mineral water. Ghost Dog lives on a roof in Jersey City with dozens of pigeons, a hidden tool box full of guns, and a collection of books. They seem too noble for their chosen work, murder for hire for a local crime boss, but they both carry their assignments with a dedicated professionalism so intently focused on the details of the process that it almost transcends the finished product. Is it possible to admire a professional killer because he looks so good while he’s doing the job?

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one,” Ghost Dog says, quoting a Master Ittei. “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog both meet their end when a small, seemingly insignificant detail in a carefully planned assassination goes wrong. For Jeff Costello, it’s Valérie, a black singer and piano player who witnesses him shoot a night club owner, her boss. For Ghost Dog, it’s Louise Vargo, the daughter of a mob boss. While we don’t know why Jeff Costello had been assigned to kill Valérie’s boss, we do know why Ghost Dog is assigned to kill Handsome Frank, a “made man” who’s sleeping with Louise. Ray Vargo, her father, objects to their relationship. He contacts Louie, a local mobster Ghost Dog considers his benefactor — Louie had saved Ghost Dog’s life years before — who, in turn, contacts Ghost Dog. Their method is as ingenious as it is low tech, notes tied to the legs of one of Ghost Dog’s many carrier pigeons, difficult to trace and foolproof. But then something goes wrong. Louise, who was supposed to have been out of town, is in the room when Ghost Dog comes through the door and kills Handsome Frank with one clean shot to the head. Vargo, her father, now decides that killing a made man was so dangerous that they have to eliminate his paid assassin, and orders Louie, on pain of his own assassination, to hunt down Ghost dog and have him killed.

Probably the biggest different between Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog is the nature of the hero’s antagonist. Jeff Costello faces a genuine menace, a sophisticated police dragnet as methodical and professional as he is. Ghost Dog, on the other hand, is never in any real danger. Vargo, Louie, and their fellow mobsters are really just buffoons. Jeff Costello escapes the police chase only because Valerie, who he’s later told to murder to eliminate he as a potential witness, covers for him. Le Samourai poses an almost unbearable moral dilemma. Does Jeff Costello shoot his benefactor and live? Or does he stay true to his code of chivalry and die? Melville resolves Le Samourai’s plot with such a clean elegance that, while the film justifies repeated viewings, we leave satisfied we know what was in Costello’s mind. We never see it coming. Yet after it’s all over, we realize nothing could have possibly been any different.

Jim Jarmusch has another agenda altogether. Ghost Dog’s benefactor is not a beautiful young black woman who’s willing to risk her life to see him go free. On the contrary, Louie is an ugly, sleazy middle-aged crime boss who’s mainly out for himself. Why is Ghost Dog so loyal? We never get a satisfactory answer. Jarmusch does not set up a narrative that gives him a choice between his life or honor. After he kills a group of men who threaten Louie, he could easily escape, but he chooses not to. He not only allows Louie to kill him. He traps him into it. Is Ghost Dog, like Jarmusch’s earlier hero William Blake, already dead, a ghost lingering between life and death while his consciousness catches up to what happened to his body? Or does he simply have a death wish?

Louise Vargo witnesses the death of her lover Handsome Frank with such a lack of affect that she initially seems either catatonic or just retarded. But the book she’s reading, Rashamon, the title, the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s famous film about how individual perception skews narrative, gives us a possible hint. Why does a clearly superior black “samurai” continue to serve a clearly inferior white mobster? Ghost Dog believes he owes Louie his continued loyalty because he also believes Louie saved him as a child. In a flashback, Ghost Dog is being kicked to death by a gang of thugs. Louie comes along, shoots their leader, and saves Ghost Dog’s life. In Louie’s flashback, however, he only shot the man beating Ghost Dog to save his own life. Ghost Dog’s attacker pulled a gun and he beat him to the draw.

This, it seems, is Jim Jarmuch’s statement on race. Why do black men give their loyalty to white men when they don’t really owe them anything? Indeed, while both Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog are loners, Ghost Dog has one friend, a Haitian ice cream truck driver who speaks no English. Ghost Dog speaks no French, and yet both men share a wordless fellowship, a silent understanding that comes from their both being black men in the United States, a bond that transcends language.

After Ghost Dog makes a second friend, a nine year old black girl who loves to read, he gives her Louise Vargo’s copy of Rashamon. Read it and tell me what you think, he says, first to the little girl and then, just before he dies, to Louie. Clearly Jarmusch considers Rashamon key to understanding Ghost Dog.

While the story, which Jarmusch is quite obviously telling us to read, is not identical to the film, and while a reading would probably deepen Ghost Dog even more, I keep coming back to Kurosawa’s famous meditation on the unreliable narrator. How does individual perception affect our understanding of an experience recollected? The 1990s, after all, gave us the OJ Trial, the split screen that showed blacks celebrating and whites disconsolate after OJ was declared “not guilty.” I watched Ghost Dog from the point of view of a white man, a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, and the larger oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch himself. How would a black movie goer see the same film?

Jim Jarmusch is not a mainstream Hollywood director. On the contrary, he started off as a working musician, immersed in the world of Jazz and alternative music, an environment far and away more multicultural and multiracial than lily white Hollywood. From the Screaming Jay Hawkins song that almost becomes a leading character in Stranger than Paradise to Screaming Jay Hawkins himself in Mystery Train to Tilda Swinton’s eerie resemblance to David Bowie’s Thin White Duke in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has always been obsessed with race, and the ability, or lack of ability of blacks and whites to understand one another. Anybody, black or white, knows why Jeff Costello dies in Le Samouraï. But why does Ghost Dog let Louie kill him? Am I, like Dead Man’s Nobody, who makes a brief cameo in Ghost Dog, says: “a stupid white man?” Would it make more sense to a black film goer than to me? Or does Ghost Dog take the mystery to his grave? Or does it really matter? Perhaps I’m trying to impose Jean-Pierre Melville’s literary sensibility onto Jim Jarmusch’s visual and aural sensibility. Why even try to make sense of a movie that, like a painting, invites contemplation more than it does explanation?

Indeed, how Jim Jarmusch managed to transform the industrial neighborhood around Journal Square into something as beautiful as the Tangiers of Only Lovers Left Alive remains another mystery.

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.