Godard's 'Outsiders' poetic

Duvivier's 'Le Moko' perfect

Critic's Choice

Film

January 19, 2003|By Michael Sragow

If the Beatles overhauled popular music, then Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were the Lennon and McCartney of movies, exploding old boundaries, tearing American forms loose from Hollywood convention, and rooting them anew in a raucously tender sensibility. Truffaut, like McCartney, was openly emotional and lyrical. Godard was the Lennon / Lenin figure -- satiric and intellectual -- but in the years when he and Truffaut were simpatico, Godard also dared to be romantically vulnerable.

You can see Godard at his most Truffaut-like in the new Criterion Collection DVD of Band of Outsiders, a beautiful poetic melodrama from 1964. This elegy for the fleeting romance of youth -- starring Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur as amorous friends and dreamers who together botch a heist -- is filled with quixotic splendors.

The DVD includes a 39-year-old printed interview which explains why Godard calls this lyric flight "A French Film With a Pre-War Atmosphere": He wanted it to resemble populist novels "that weren't filmed before the war ..."

But Godard also might have thought of one pre-war novel that was filmed, perfectly, in 1937: Henri La Barthe's Pepe Le Moko, which Julien Duvivier turned into a classic exotic-erotic thriller. Pepe Le Moko the movie features Jean Gabin as an exiled master thief with a telltale heart. He lords it over the Casbah -- the perilous demimonde of Algiers -- while yearning, fatally, for a knockout Parisienne (Mireille Balin) and the City of Light itself. It's another superb Criterion Collection DVD.

The movie was little seen in the U.S. until this year, because Hollywood swiftly remade it as Algiers. The highlight of the disc's many extras is a film-to-film comparison of key sequences from the two pictures -- displaying the breadth and specificity of Duvivier's originality and influence. Pepe Le Moko is the director's masterpiece, blending electric documentary images with bravura melodrama in a style akin to operatic verismo.

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