Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Magnet of Doom (1963)

Magnet of Doom (1963) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Georges Simenon.
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Maudet), Charles Vanel (Dieudonné Ferchaux), Michèle Mercier (Lou), Malvina Silberberg (Lina), Stefania Sandrelli (Angie, Hitch-Hiker), Barbara Sommers (Lou's friend), E.F. Medard (Suska), Todd Martin (Jeff), André Certes (Émile Ferchaux), Andrex (M. Andrei) 
It’s no real secret that Jean-Pierre Melville didn’t really get the respect he deserved during his career – or that it took longer than it should have for people to recognize his genius. Perhaps it is simply because he was a forerunner to the French New Wave – but never quite a part of it, with some admirers turning away from him when he admitted he made Leon Morin, Priest to make money – because he was tired of making films no one saw. Perhaps it was because he died too young, before people had a chance to revisit his films. But it is true that it’s only been slowly that people have come around to Melville – with more and more of his films finally being recognized as influential as they clearly were. His 1963 film, Magnet of Doom, remains one of his least known films – and there is reason for that, namely that it isn’t anywhere near his best work. And yet watching it, you get the sense that once again, Melville was ahead of the curve on somethings. It’s impossible to know if Wim Wenders saw this film – but it certainly taps into the same ennui that informed his famous road movies – Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and Kings of the Road – and similar films made in America before them, but after this – like Easy Rider or Two Lane Blacktop. The film probably hasn’t really been rediscovered because, again, it’s not particularly good – especially when compared to Melville’s best, and it comes in between his much more famous crime movies. But it’s still an interesting film to watch – as time capsule at least.
This was Melville’s first film in color – and the second shot at least partly in America, a country Melville loved, although there is no real love lost here. Once again, many of the exterior in the film were shot in America, with the interiors on soundstages in Paris – much like Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan. In fact, much of the scenes shot in America take place inside a moving car – with the camera pointing out at the road as it passes by, and we listen to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s narration – almost as if the budget only allowed Melville and a camera to go to America, and the rest was added in later.
The movie has a classic three act structure. In it, Belmondo (in his last role for Melville) plays Michel Maudet, a boxer, who isn’t particularly good as boxing. We see him in his life in Paris – losing his fight, talking to his girlfriend, etc. – before he gets a good as basically a secretary/driver/gopher for a rich man Ferchaux (Charles Vanel) – a crooked banker. Even after Michel as proclaimed his love for his girlfriend, we see him literally sneak behind her back and abandon her with nothing, to go with Ferchaux to America. At first, they go to New York, where Ferchaux gets his ill-gotten gains, before the pair of them head out onto the road t0 New Orleans. The final act has the two men in that great American city – with Michel increasingly annoyed by the much older Ferchaux, whose health is failing him, and wants constant attention – while Michel wants to go about his life without any commitments.
You can certainly see the roots of characters like the aimless Europeans who made up Wenders films in Michel – driven by the same rootlessness, the same desire for freedom, without really knowing what that is. We get a lot of voice over monologues from Michel – the types of monologues that if they were in a film in 2019 would be described as typical, privileged, entitled Millennial navel gazing – a reminder that young people never really change.
But it doesn’t really appear that Melville’s heart in is this film very much. The style here is much more muted then normal – the camera movement doesn’t flow as much as normal. The storytelling isn’t great either – in large part perhaps because there isn’t much story here at all. And Melville, well into his 40s by now, I’m not quite sure gets the angst of Belmondo’s character.
The result is a fascinating movie in many ways, without really being a satisfying one. Melville made some great films in his day – but perhaps what drew him to this one was more the chance to go America, which he loved, again, rather than the story. There is a reason why 9 out of 13 of Melville’s films are available on Criterion DVD – and this isn’t one of them. I doubt it’s just a rights issue.

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