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SPECIAL SCREENINGS

Jean-Pierre Melville's 'Doulos' Is Scheduled in Nuart Series

December 16, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the most peculiar figures in French cinema. A devotee of American films, and possibly one of the top scholars on Hollywood movies of the '30s-'50s, Melville was highly influenced by their techniques and "language"--most particularly the style of film noir.

His masterpieces are probably "Le Deuxieme Souffle" (1966) and "Le Samourai" (1967)--but "Doulos, the Finger Man" (1962), which plays Thursday on the Nuart's French and Japanese New Wave series, is one of his most characteristic: a nocturnal melodrama with Jean-Paul Belmondo, in his "Breathless"-era prime, as a quick-witted stool pigeon.

Despite his attachment to American films, Melville disagreed absolutely with the ranking of American directors established mostly by the Cinematheque's Henri Langlois and the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema.

Rather than placing Hitchcock, Hawks and Chaplin at the top, Melville's own nominees for the greatest Hollywood film makers--according to his one-time assistant, director Volker Schlondorff--were William Wyler, Robert Wise and John Huston. And his favorite films included two "heist" thrillers: Wise's "Odds Against Tomorrow" and Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle."

Melville began his career as an art film director of impeccable literary credentials, with stunningly faithful adaptations of Vercors' "Le Silence de la Mer" (1949) and Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles" (1950)--done in a style so austere that Melville would later complain that Robert Bresson's legendary literary films, like "Diary of a Country Priest," were actually "Melvillean."

Then, abruptly, he switched into what became his specialty: extremely mordant and dispassionate crime melodramas, bleak, lean and totally unsentimental. In this type of film, Melville has no peer--and Henri-Georges Clouzot, Costa-Gavras and Claude Chabrol are his only French rivals as makers of melodramas.

Playing with "Doulos" is an early film by one of the leading young Japanese directors of the '60s, Masahiro Shinoda--a stylist of consummate, startling gifts, whose admiration for both Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi led him to transmute many of the old, traditional Japanese dramatic, literary and cinematic forms into striking new visual schemes. The film on the Nuart series, one of his most provocative, is the 1965 "Pale Flower."

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