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SCREENING ROOM

Cinema Dangereuse

French crime-film retrospective continues with a trio of finely crafted tales of suspense.

June 18, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque's thoroughly enjoyable "Jean-Pierre Melville and the French Crime Film" series continues at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., Friday at 7:15 p.m. with Jacques Becker's "Touchez pas au Grisbi" (which translates as "Don't Touch the Loot"). Whereas Becker's "Le Trou" (The Hole), screened last week, is a masterwork of suspense, this 1954 gangster film begins in such a low gear that it threatens to lapse into a lull only to become increasingly tense. It's a kind of an older guys/young chicks picture with a pair of middle-aged men (Jean Gabin, Rene Darcy) dining at the same Montmartre cafe every night and heading for a nightclub where their girlfriends (Dora Doll, Jeanne Moreau) dance in the chorus.

Gabin has reached the age where he'd like to have called it a night lots earlier if he didn't have an image to maintain, but Darcy still likes to play around. Gabin's girl (Doll) is an uncomplicated blond--the actress' name fits the character she's playing to perfection--but Moreau, not surprisingly, is not just another cutie with bangs and a ponytail. She's got an eye on the main chance, and Darcy's pillow talk has netted her the prize information that Gabin is sitting on a fortune in stolen gold bricks. When Gabin's erstwhile comrade (Lino Ventura) hears this news, the plot of the film, adapted from an Albert Simonin serie noire novel, kicks in.

What concerns Becker is that eternal theme, the question of honor among thieves. Gabin is suddenly thrust into a dangerous, volatile predicament, but his loyalty to the foolish Darcy never flags. "Grisbi" is loaded with night-life atmosphere, and it offers the unique opportunity to see together France's greatest screen icon, Gabin, the virile man of the people, with Moreau and Ventura, who were to become icons themselves.

Indeed, Ventura (in his screen debut), whom Becker discovered in a wrestling ring, would eventually succeed Gabin as France's definitive, world-weary tough guy. There are a couple of moments when Moreau, who would become the grande dame of the French cinema, has an uncanny Brigitte Bardot look, but already she projected a hauteur to be reckoned with.

By the time of Louis Malle's 1957 debut film "Frantic" (Acenseur Pour l'Echafaud), which follows "Grisbi" at 9:30, Moreau had acquired the poise, proud carriage and that firm yet deeply feminine stride that characterizes her to this day. "Frantic" established Moreau as a star, launched Malle's distinguished career and helped usher in the New Wave.

"Frantic" is one of those taut, intricately constructed thrillers in which everything that could possibly go wrong does. Moreau inspires her lover (Maurice Ronet) to murder her rich, old arms-dealer husband, to whom he is a far from valued employee. Ronet, who would go on to star in one of Malle's most memorable films, "The Fire Within," as a man contemplating suicide, in this film plays a veteran of the Foreign Legion who is nevertheless an inept murderer; he gets trapped in an elevator, leaving Moreau with the impression he's run off with a pretty young florist.

Moreau comes across as a woman coolly risking all for love. With breathtaking camera work by Henri Dacae, who was to become a pillar of the New Wave, "Frantic" has style to burn, with its shifting moods accented by a score composed and performed by Miles Davis, no less.

Unabashedly romantic, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1966 "Second Breath," which screens Saturday at 7:15 p.m., exalts the tradition of honor among thieves yet again. After 10 years in prison, a middle-aged crook (Lino Ventura) escapes and is given shelter by an old flame (Christine Fabrega), a sleek blond whose cousin in Marseilles will help get him out of the country. Before then, he will take part in a holdup of an armored truck carrying a billion francs in bullion.

This brief outline does not begin to suggest the elaborate intricacies of the plot, which serves effectively to test Ventura's character under terrific duress and to suggest that imminent betrayal lurks everywhere. Melville is remarkably convincing in his depiction of the importance of loyalty, camaraderie and respect for professionalism among crooks, whom he presents as isolated, lonely figures.

Much of that conviction is due to the staunch playing of his cast, which includes Marcel Bozzufi (the key killer in "Z" and "The French Connection"). Ventura is especially impressive. He has such strength that he makes this criminal seem gallant and his fate therefore touching, as in a Bogart movie. "Second Breath," which will be followed at 9:30 p.m. with a repeat of "Touchez pas au Grisbi," is assuredly a triumph of terse, firmly controlled style. Its high point is the robbery sequence, a bravura work of brisk, economic montage. (213) 466-FILM.

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