“I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple,” Jean-Luc Godard explained in a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma about the impetus behind the riotous and effulgently beautiful Pierrot le Fou, which premiered that year at the Venice Film Festival. It’s certainly an apt tagline, even for a project that, like all Godard films from his fertile early period (and beyond), abounds with headier concepts and references both high and low — painting, literature, cinema, comics, consumerism, war. But when considering the performers JLG brought together to play Pierrot le Fou‘s Ferdinand and Marianne, his remark becomes even more touching: Jean-Paul Belmondo, who five years earlier starred in the director’s debut, Breathless, the story of another doomed duo; and Anna Karina, in the sixth of seven features she made with Godard, whom she married in 1961 — and divorced before the shooting of Pierrot le Fou began.
Very loosely based on American crime writer Lionel White’s 1962 novel, Obsession, Godard’s movie giddily follows Ferdinand and Marianne (whose nickname for her lover supplies the film’s title) as they lam it from Paris, where he’s left behind a wife, kid, and haut-bourgeois existence, to the Côte d’Azur. Bodies and weapons pile up (Marianne is a member of some kind of shadowy insurgency), as do dizzying incongruities and asides: She breaks into song twice, he imitates the iconic French actor Michel Simon, they put on an absurd play about the Vietnam War for American tourists. Reds and blues dominate; cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s primary-color palette evokes both Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie and the Sunday funnies. Pierrot le Fou ends in betrayal and death, though it is this line from Marianne, spoken in voiceover, that best captures the film’s abandon and the delirium it instills: “I feel alive. That’s all that matters.”
Two days before Pierrot le Fou begins its week-long run at Film Forum, Roy Ward Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) screens at the West Houston Street redoubt as part of the terrific “Women Crime Writers” series, occasioned by the recent publication of the two-volume set of the same name from Library of America. Baker’s film, based on Charlotte Armstrong’s novel Mischief, might have been one of the thousands of American noirs that Godard and his movie-mad Nouvelle Vague confrères consumed at the Cinémathèque Française. Set entirely in a Manhattan hotel, Don’t Bother to Knock is full of small surprises, starting with the perfectly executed transition that Anne Bancroft, in her film debut as chanteuse Lyn Lesley, makes from her barstool: With just a turn, she segues from lamenting her love life with the mixologist to dazzling as the hotel’s featured entertainer, launching into “How About You?”
Listening to the song, piped in to his room, from his bed is Jed (Richard Widmark), a pilot recently dumped by Lyn. As a distraction from his heartache, he pays a visit to Nell (Marilyn Monroe), the flirtatious — and deeply disturbed — babysitter visible from across the courtyard. Don’t Bother to Knock gave Monroe her first headlining role, and her entrance instantly reveals the actress’s talent for conveying extreme vulnerability: Emerging through the inn’s revolving door, humbly attired in beret and cardigan, Nell looks pitifully lost in the lobby, uncertain of her own place among all the guests rushing past her. She becomes further unmoored as the film progresses; though Nell’s backstory borders on the outlandish, Monroe never overplays her character’s instability, tapping instead into deep reserves of all-too-recognizable anguish. While watching, I couldn’t stop thinking about this anecdote, unearthed in a 2010 collection of MM marginalia called Fragments: When the actress was committed against her will to a psychiatric unit in New York in 1961, her strategy to try to secure her release involved re-creating a scene from Baker’s movie.
Other studies of isolation and despair play at MoMI, where “Lonely Places: Film Noir and the American Landscape” concludes this weekend. Bancroft fans will be especially busy in the next few days: The actress, playing fashion model Marie Gardner, stars opposite Aldo Ray’s mistakenly pursued magazine illustrator in Jacques Tourneur’s taut Nightfall (1957), screening on the 20th. The pair’s first meeting, at an L.A. lounge, provides the actress with a great pickup line: “What would you think if I asked you to loan me five dollars?” Though the taurine Ray was never the most spellbinding performer, his occasional stiffness in Nightfall nicely enhances his wrong man’s weariness as he tries to stay ahead of two sociopaths convinced that he’s run off with the bundle they’ve stolen.
Nightfall‘s climactic scene takes place in a snow-covered stretch of Wyoming; a similar wintry, rustic location dominates Nicholas Ray’s paradigmatic On Dangerous Ground (1951), playing the 18th and 20th at MoMI. And like Tourneur’s, Ray’s film centers on a troubled guy named Jim: Robert Ryan’s rage-filled cop, sent out of town to help nab a murderer. Halfway through the movie, he meets the woman who will transform him (and many in the audience): Ida Lupino’s Mary, the blind older sister of the teenager Jim is after. The actress was best known at the time for the steelier roles she played in movies like Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948) — and for her pioneering work behind the camera, becoming the second woman to be admitted to the Directors Guild. In On Dangerous Ground, Lupino is at once unguarded and independent. “I have to trust everybody,” Mary tells Jim, a line that jolts this long-dejected man back to life.
Pierrot le Fou
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Opens December 18, Film Forum
Don’t Bother to Knock
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Playing December 16, Film Forum
On Dangerous Ground
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Playing December 18 and 20, Museum of the Moving Image
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Playing December 20, Museum of the Moving Image