Assault on the Pay Train (1962; Roberto Farias)
By Mike Dub
Almost every heist movie ever made invests half its time depicting the expertise and professionalism involved in the detailed planning of the caper, then leads to an ostensibly heart-pounding climax in which the crime is committed, followed by a brief summation of the fate of each participant, usually no more than a couple of minutes before the credits roll. So it’s pretty daring that Brazilian Roberto Farias’ 1962 crime drama Assault on the Pay Train opens with the eponymous robbery. Braver still that after the brief opening sequence, it moves into an aesthetic realm more reminiscent of an Italian Neo-Realist drama than with the crime noirs of Hollywood. And even more audacious, it gradually develops into a powerful indictment of race-based poverty that is years ahead of its time.
The first half of the film is a gritty but vibrant tour through a Brazilian favela and the lives of the amateur gang of train robbers who reside there. Despite the endless images of abject poverty – the rows of dilapidated shacks cascading up the hills, unclothed children playing in puddles in the street, a local drunk who won’t stop singing – the film retains dignified respect for its subjects. With a near documentarian approach, Farias’ camera never betrays a hint of judgment or pity, merely revealing the squalid living conditions that are overwhelmingly inhabited with black faces.
The second half of the film veers more toward traditional noir, as alliances evaporate, plans go awry, and police start closing in on the bandits. But that narrative posturing is just a cover to allow for a more explicit and angry condemnation of a system whose only structure is an imbalance.
Shot on location by a young filmmaker with a cast of inexperienced actors, Assault on the Pay Train teems with fresh energy. Whatever flaws exist, they are merely minor missteps in a film that thrives on passion and unabashed rawness.
The Scarlet Dove (1961; Matti Kassila)
By Mike Dub
The Scarlet Dove, a 1961 film noir from prominent Finnish director Matti Kassila, rests as a bit of a curiosity among the other heavily American-influenced European crime films of its time – those of Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol, as well as expatriates Jules Dassin and Joseph Losey. Much like his better-known contemporaries, who traded so well in simultaneously appropriating and demolishing the Hollywood styles they loved so much, Kassila owes a lot to earlier thriller masters, particularly Fritz Lang. However, The Scarlet Dove stops short of breaking free from the clenches of its influences, or its sophomoric narrative, and in the end, we are left with a largely ashen film, only occasionally punctuated by the uniqueness of its best moments.
Following the simple story of Olavi, a middle-aged doctor who discovers his young wife’s affair, Kassila feels no need to explore the simplistic motivations behind the jealous husband plot, and consequently, much of the movie feels like it’s painting by numbers. This is particularly problematic in the final act, as the film turns into a rote mystery thriller with cynical detectives and inexplicably disappearing alibis. It is even topped off with a twist of such proportion that to reveal it, the film states, would be to “ruin the film for others.” Apparently, the filmmakers would prefer that the film is ruined by watching the amateurish surprise ending rather than talking about it.
There are exceptions to the film’s blandness, though. As Olavi trails his wife through the streets of Helsinki, he encounters a series of oddballs who provide a much-needed energetic absurdity to his journey. Likewise, the middle section of the film, a clever diversion in which Olavi experiences a surreal encounter with a strange woman, is truly compelling. Unfortunately, those moments, good as they are, are exceptions in a film that has less in common with the audacious noirs of other European filmmakers, than it does with some of the mediocre Hollywood “B” movies they obliterated.
Retour de Manivelle (1957; Denys de La Patellière)
By Mike Dub
Though based on the novel by prolific British crime writer James Hadley Chase, Denys de La Patellière’s Retour de Manivelle mines the excrement of the human soul with an elegance that seems nearly exclusive to the French. Coming on the heels of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, a worldwide hit just two years earlier, Retour is another domestic noir that comes complete with the necessary archetypes: the impoverished but proud stranger, the icily beautiful femme fatale, the abusive husband with devious plans, and the smarter-than-he-seems detective on the case. And while Retour may not be as bone-chilling or elaborate as its closest predecessor, it is tighter and in many ways bleaker, the film’s cynicism made all the more clear by the lush provincial setting and the alternately crisp and moody cinematography by Pierre Montazel.
The film begins as Robert (Daniel Gélin, the French version of John Garfield), a penniless painter (as though there could be any other kind!), befriends Eric (Peter van Eyck), a young, ostensibly rich alcoholic on the brink of collapse. Eric’s wife, Hélène (the stunning Michèle Morgan) protests their new friendship, but Robert refuses to leave, and he is eventually lured into their devious plots against each other.
The plot is pure genre (not a criticism), but the film thrives on its performances and its frank take on sexuality. In this world where tangible wealth is never quite real, power is determined – or maintained – by a sexual hierarchy. Even those who can’t be bought can still be seduced.