Being an immigrant import, the gangster is hardly an all-American phenomenon—except as defined by movies. He evolved from the silent Hollywood programmer’s black-suited jackanape and soon bloomed into an iconic hippogriff, sporting an executive’s fashion instinct, a WW I vet’s weary code of honor, a thug’s amorality, a bankrupt gambler’s desperate ardor for windfall, and an anarchist’s loathing of the social code. This is where “cool” came from, but the myth of the gangster, one of cinema’s more inventive dissociative-fugue states, also functioned as an expression of proletarian dissent. “The gangster,” famously wrote critic Robert Warshow in 1954, “is the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives.”
The French, fond of contrarian stands, love an antisocial, melancholy non, and as “Le Gangland,” the late-winter Pioneer Theater series demonstrates, that nation’s affaire de coeur with doomed movie hoods is nearly as elemental as our own. In fact, Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), which replaced the paradigmatic American City with the decaying colonial rat-warren of Algiers, is also the film that transformed the Robinson-Cagney sociopath into a laconic, charming rogue-thief fatally facing his own music. After Pépé, the gangster was almost enviable—operating on civilization’s fringe, free and fearless and yet fated (nobly, somehow) to a wretched demise. Without his precedent, Humphrey Bogart would’ve remained a bit player.
Comprised wholly of recent Film Forum-occupying restorations, the retro (which is accompanied by a vintage poster exhibit at the downtown Posteritati Gallery) jumps to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur and Jules Dassin’s Rififi, both from 1955, when the morph of gangsterism into film noir had already jelled. However lionized by filmmakers from Godard to Tarantino, Melville may still be underappreciated. He was the first to impose heady ethical mysteries onto crime films, and the first to film them as if they were Dantean night journeys, coiled around the sorrowful work of personal espionage. (Even Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest, not in the series, is a study of moral tension, something like a noir revisitation of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.) Still, Bob, with its ivory-coiffed chevalier and rueful circuit of betrayal and sacrifice, isn’t as complex or as chillingly Melvillian as Le Cercle Rouge (1970), the neglected masterwork currently in re-release, or Le Samouraï (1967), an argentine dirge of underworld karma that followed Alain Delon’s benumbed assassin to his genre’s inevitable damnation.
For the French new wavers, the gangster wasn’t a non so much as a “no”; Jean-Luc Godard merely reveled in the archetype’s lovable and preposterous movieness, and that was all it took to evoke cinema’s belated modernism. Breathless (1960) was the first of many life-drunk comedies riffing on the static cling of counterfeit tragedy and emotion; the gangster was now a movie-movie bubble boy, consciously living and dying in an absurd celluloid capsule. Likewise, Godard’s winsome threesome in Band of Outsiders (1964) pursues a life of crime like lazy hedonists pursuing a high. Ironically, the effect was to thoroughly humanize and de-glamorize the gangster, who all the while remained bewitchingly glam in his own right. If only to exhaust the dialectic, here’s to hoping both Melville’s aromatically bitter Le Doulos and Godard’s loopy perfection Pierrot le Fou are on the restore-reprint-retitle, destined-for-enhanced-DVD project docket.
Another January retro with its roots in rebellion, “Soviet Sounds” goes hand in hand with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s expressionist “Masterpieces of the Russian Underground,” although “Russian” barely applies to the soundtrack work of Armenian Tigran Mansuryan (The Color of Pomegranates), Ukrainian Sergei Prokofiev (Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible) and Georgian Giya Kancheli, represented by Sergei Bodrov’s new film, Bear’s Kiss (2002). There’s hardly an entry not worth seeing on a big screen and with the orchestras careening, including the Alfred Schnittke-scored Uncle Vanya (1970), filmed back when director Andrei Konchalovsky was a master at intimate rural realism. Personally, I’ve always been a bit disappointed in the tinny clash of Prokofiev’s cymbals during the sound-effects-free ice battle in Nevsky, regardless of how progressive the experiment had been, but there’s no getting over Mansuryan’s timeless tribal dissonance in Pomegranates, that inestimable summoning of pagan energy.