Summertime, which means fog and drizzle where I live gives me license to watch old films. Mainly ones set in Paris, shot in black and white and evoking the past. Two I'd recommend - even if you've seen them - are both worth a re-visit, The 400 Blows by Truffaut and Bob le Flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville.
They're set in the same quartier the 9th arrondissement around Pigalle and parts of the Montmartre in the 18th - Bob le Flambeur shot over two years and coming out in 1956, The 400 Blows, Truffaut's second very autobiographical film came out in 1959.
I've OD'd on them this week via the Criterion collection which puts out a nice clear print - if that's what you call a high def cleaned up DVD - along with the original theatrical trailers and interviews with the directors at the time, commentary by some of the film crew and actors and this really gives a dimension to what they were doing at that time. Also to what the film responded to which nowadays seems like ancient history and a remembrance of times past.
Ok Bob le Flambeur (the Gambler) is a denizen of the red-light Pigalle, he's got a nice artists' atelier in Montmartre where we see Sacre Coeur from the window. But the film opens with Bob leaving a game at dawn in Pigalle, the fading blinking neon of strip clubs, wet streets deserted apart from a garbage truck, a cleaning lady scurrying home and a lost young girl who stops at a frites - french fry stand (boy I wish those were still around ). Bob, of course, unable to go home with a small wad of francs still in his pocket drops in on another poker game in Pigalle...to lose again. So here we're dropped into dawn, a backroom at le Carpeux and a hot game of poker with everyone drinking and smoking. Pigalle as it once was.
The 400 Blows takes place south of Pigalle and borders the streets where Bob walks and spends the nights gambling. But we're with a young Antoine Doinel who lives with his family in a 7th floor chambre a bonne - maid's quarters where he sleeps in the hallway. He's always playing hooky from school, getting in trouble, out on the streets going to see movies. His mother, it's established in the first scene, finds him an obstacle. He was an unwanted child and his father - step father it turns out - puts up with him. They leave him alone on the weekends, neglect him. Truffaut touches on powerful and universal childhood themes.
But the Occupation and war which impacted everyone isn't mentioned and the surprising thing I heard in the commentary by Raymond, the assistant director, good friend of Truffaut and basis for his best friend in the movie, really put this in perspective.
Raymond and Francois' actual childhood took place during the Occupation, but why Truffaut set the film later.. when the scars of deprivation, hunger and shame hung to everyone...'François said it would have been another film if he'd set it during the Occupation, had other issues.'
The actor in Bob le Flambeur, who played the young tough and protege of Bob, was interviewed several years ago. An old man now but his eyes sparkled, a joie de vivre bubbled from him and he spoke about how all the actors worked for nothing. He talked about the red light district of Pigalle then and how even in the mid-fifties it was different. 'Changed. Before the war it was still gangsterland like then but there was a code - he'd lived there - 'and sure they were violent and there were murders - but they policed their own and if they gave their word that was enough.' He said in the 50's that was all gone because during the Occupation people had to chose - collaborate or resist - even if they were gangsters. The Gestapo went to the clubs, the boite a nuits and lines divided. Collabo's thrived and made money, even fortunes and if they weren't turned in or shot after the war, kept those fortunes. The stain of collaboration didn't go away and the code had changed because no one trusted them.'
Striking that he said this about the 50's when the 'code' of Bob and his gangland and gambling cronies lived by this and the movie's subtheme dealt with betrayal.
I interiewed a Comissaire in the 9eme who's district is Pigalle and a flic who'd walked the beat there. They both talked about how it changed but was a community, they'd use informants in the clubs, and that's like it always was even in Bob le Flambeur.