The Möbius strip of noir ambiguity, as hard and shivery and tortuous as can be. (A character states the destabilizing purpose early and simply: "I don’t like easy setups.") Jean-Pierre Melville starts off with a diagonal reverse tracking shot through a sprawling passageway, in and out of the shadows, punctuated midway through with a brief upward tilt and capped with a slow, granular zoom. The veteran burglar (Serge Reggiani) is out of jail to ponder his reflection in a cracked mirror, "nothing left inside." A stark composition illuminated by a solitary lamp post receives the loot (jewels from the Mozart Avenue heist), a makeshift map describes it as "terrain vague." A diagram of betrayals, arrests, vendettas and deaths follows. "To die or to lie," that’s the core of gangland decorum, derived from the Hawks-Huston-Dassin school and cut by Melville into an adamantine construction. Jean-Paul Belmondo enters as an inky, trench-coated silhouette by a doorway -- his Silien is a floating figure, his friendship split between fellow thief Reggiani and the police commissioner (Jean Desailly). The fedora is part of his uniform, adjusted calmly in the midst of violence ("Now be reasonable," he whispers to the mauled moll tied to a radiator); hatless later when he woos the capo’s mistress (Fabienne Dali), he seems uncloaked and laddish. Sleek murkiness is the mood, as befits a tale told twice, first as a snarl of tangled subplots and then as an explanation that explains little. Details exude strangeness: a mural of an antebellum steamboat dominates Michel Piccoli’s nightclub, Yankee cars are too bulky for Parisian streets in rear-projection shots. The celebrated long-take at the police headquarters rotates left and right to trace warring lines of thought, and is taken up by Fassbinder (Love Is Colder Than Death). "In this business, you either end up as a bum or full of lead." The collapsing screen from Les Enfants Terribles figures suggestively in the final shootout, the concept of underworld honor reduced to a fallen chapeau. Cinematography by Nicholas Hayer. With René Lefèvre, Marcel Cuvelier, Philippe March, Carl Studer, and Monique Hennessy. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce