The French Noir Anti-Hero and The Trench Coat

The trench coat of the French noir anti-hero is either a purpose coat, a detail of realism and narrative drive or a stylized element that values aesthetic and atmosphere. Two films of two great humanist French directors, François Truffaut and Claude Sautet, serve best to emphasise the first, whereas Jean-Pierre Melville reaches the most abstract of styles with Alain Delon’s Jeff Costello character and costumes in Le Samouraï.

Charles Aznavour in “Tirez sur le pianiste” (1960) | Les Films de la Pléiade

Charles Aznavour in Tirez sour le pianiste, 1960, directed by François Truffaut

Tirez sur le pianiste was François Truffaut’s homage to the American B-movie, a genre he loved, drew from in his own work, but originally subverted. He disregarded the conventions of cinema, thus making Tirez probably the most typically Nouvelle Vague of all his films. “I turned my back to what was expected of me and took my own pleasure as my own rule of conduct”, the director said, shifting tone significantly from Les 400 coups. The plot, adapted from the book Down There by David Goodis, is classic noir. But Truffaut brought in many other themes he wanted to talk about, from glory, success and failure, to family, women and love.

Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) focuses on the destiny of a man once known as a gifted pianist, Edouard Saroyan, who leaves behind his life and faces his downfall in a small Parisian bar as a band pianist under the name of Charlie Kohler. After a visit from his gangster brother one night, Charlie is accidentally dragged into complicated circumstances that he can not control. Truffaut wanted Charles Aznavour in the role, whom he adored in George Franju’s La tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall), 1959. “Aznavour and Truffaut are alike in many ways,” commented Serge Toubiana, “same sickly look, same dark and feverous eyes, full of suppressed anger, ready to blow”. Truffaut thought of Aznavour as being vulnerable, but not a victim, therefore his fragility allowed the audience to identify with him.

Charlie Kohler is an ordinary guy who has found success and then descended again to an ordinary present. He is a reserved, quiet, remote, lost in his own thoughts. He “has the air of a melancholy outsider, a nowhere man, destined to remain homeless in the world. Only at the piano is Charlie capable of exposing his feelings,” says in the book Film Noir 100 All-Time Favorites. His trench is both an everyman’s coat, a reflection of the common life that he can not escape from and a shield from his past and the outer world.

Lino Ventura in “Classe tous risques” (1960) | Mondex Films, Les Films Odéon

Lino Ventura in Classe tous risques, 1960, directed by Claude Sautet

I honestly don’t remember the impression Classe tous risques made on me the first time I watched it, many years ago. But when I rewatched it recently, it just blew me away. That long opening sequence, from the train station (one of the most beautiful train station shots in cinema) to the hold-up in the streets of Milan, that was the moment that already sealed it for me. It felt so incredibly real and naturalistic, giving the film an almost neorealist feel. It was shot in the busy streets of Milan, in broad daylight amongst unaware passers-by who react in real time onscreen – isn’t this one of the key elements of New Wave filmmaking (and one of the elements that made Godard’s À bout de souffle, released just one week before in 1960, a revelation)?And yet, Sautet’s film, one of the most impressive debuts in the history of cinema, was dismissed upon its release as old-fashioned and static.

In that first sequence, you can breath in the desperation of Abel Davos (Lino Ventura). It very much feels in the realm of human existence. Because real life, too, gets messy. And you have to deal with it. Abel is a convicted killer who escaped France years ago and has been living in Italy with his family, but now thinks it’s time to return to France after one more robbery that will help him get across the border. The film is about survival, friendship, loyalty and betrayal among thieves – Melville will approach the same theme, but two years later, in 1962, with Le doulos. But what truly sets Classe tous risques apart is that the plot and the characters seem anchored in reality, in the present. Because of the children. A school for his two children is the only thing Abel wants. You may not understand or condone his past, but you are rooting for him at this moment in his life. If I could sum up the film in one image, it would be this: A man walking on the street; a few meters behind him, two children following him. As a side note, all these elements that make the film stand apart were beautifully captured by illustrator Tony Stella in his poster for the film.

“Classe tous risques is the best film adaptation of any of my books. It doesn’t have any nightclub scenes. It doesn’t treat the subject as folklore. And it has more heart than Le deuxième souffle,” said José Giovanni, who also wrote the books on which Jacques Becker’s Le trou (another 1960 masterpiece) and Melville’s Le deuxième souffle (1966) were based.

Sautet seeks out the remains of humanity in his characters, regardless of their past and crimes, whereas Melville’s characters only live by a certain code of honour, stripped by emotions, family, wives and lovers. Lino Ventura is a doomed man (soon widow) on the run, he has a sad, liven-in face. His clothes look lived-in, too. His trousers and jacket reflect his turmoil and disrupted life. Only when he goes off to settle matters with his former partners he puts on a trench coat. He has to look like he means business, because he does, and his children are his only drive. He can not escape his fate, but he must do right by his children. There is nothing more powerful than that. “A bison of a man possessed of a bashed-in face of surprising beauty, charisma and soulfulness, Ventura in this movie constitutes, for me, the French Gangster – as Tragic Hero, of course – distilled to its quintessence of romantic fatalism and calm acceptance of impending death,” John Patterson beautifully wrote.

Alain Delon in “Le Samouraï” (1967) | CICC, Fida Cinematografica

Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, 1967, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956), Roger Duchesne’s character, too, seemed anchored in reality, with his crumpled trench coat, looking more like he was playing himself – Duchesne was a gambler in real life and in the film he looked like he was wearing his real clothes, staying true to his nature. It was Jean Paul Belmondo’s Silien in Le doulos who paved the way towards that clean and crisp aesthetic from Melville’s later films. The height of that almost abstract aesthetic was reached by Alain Delon in Le Samouraï.

In Le Samouraï, Delon recedes in the safety of his trench coat. It’s his armour. Together with the tilted downward hat, the trench is also part of what has come to define the protagonist of films noir. But regardless of Melville’s passion for all things American and for Hollywood gangster and noir movies, he’s a different kind of noir anti-hero. He’s Melville’s noir anti-hero. Like a samourai, Jef Costello abides by a code of conduct and leads a solitary existence. His dressing is like a ritual, systematically putting on his hat and coat before going out to get a job done. Everything about him is cool and calculated. It’s like he is fitting himself for battle.

Le Samouraï is a film that extracts its substance from cinema and belongs to the cinemas, so it uses words only when absolutely necessary and vital, said Rui Nogueira in an interview. It is a film where clothes speak much more than words. In a career-defining performance, in the role of a Parisian contract killer who has realised he is being double-crossed by his employees and seeks revenge, Alain Delon, with his exceptional good looks and impeccable look, meets Melville’s idea of the gangster as an image. Clothes make the man in Le Samouraï. Everything is simple, stark, clean-cut, primordial to his lifestyle – the trim grey suit, the black slim tie and white button-down shirt, another black suit, the inky wool coat, the hat, the trench. Delon is dressed with the finest precision, but he seems completely unaware of his appearance. He’s completely detached from everything, hardly betraying an emotion. It’s part of the job, of his profession. He lives and kills alone. There is a scene towards the beginning of the film, where Delon, stopped at a traffic light, is watched admiringly by a pretty young woman. His body language is minimal and signals that he has noticed her gaze, but he only gives her a blank look and turns away, without even satisfying her with a smile. Nothing distracts him from his fateful path.
editorial sources: “Truffaut on Cinema”, compiled by Anne Gillain / “François Truffaut at Work”, by Carole Le Berre / Serge Toubiana presentation of “Tirez sur le pianiste” / John Patterson essay for “Classe tous risques” (BFI) / “Classe tous risques: Beautiful Friendships”, by Bernard Tavernier (Criterion Collection) / “Melville on Melville”, by Rui Nogueira / interview with Thierry Crifo in the documentary “Diary of A Villain” (StudioCanal, The Criterion Collection)

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