Magnet of Doom (Jean-Pierre Melville / France-Italy, 1963):
(L'ainé des Ferchaux; An Honorable Young Man)

Two bouts, one in a Gallic boxing ring and the other in a Louisiana swamp, and the road between them. The failed prizefighter is a former paratrooper (Jean-Paul Belmondo), he answers a newspaper ad and finds himself in an airplane to America next to the corrupt banker (Charles Vanel), "an old oak tree who wanted to be called godfather." Secretary, bodyguard, surrogate son, the roles multiply as they reach New York and head south, though not before a solemn visit to Frank Sinatra's birthplace in Hoboken. "Fate had decided. I could only watch in the rear-view mirror." Simenon according to Jean-Pierre Melville, or Deux hommes dans Manhattan expanded in Decaë color and Francoscope, a reverie of the New World. A predatory philosophy ("Sheep, leopards and jackals") is the same on either side of the ocean, the pearly Oldsmobile Cutlass is posed next to roadside diners and crimson gas pumps in acute Ruscha compositions. Drive by the George Washington National Forest and who but Stefania Sandrelli turns up as a hitchhiker in a Shirley MacLaine 'do—the camera cranes over the trees by the peebly riverbank and suddenly it's a Delmer Daves western, complete with a harmonica theme by Georges Delerue. (A valiseful of dollar bills is dumped off the side of a cliff to curtail the interlude.) Feds with extradition papers, rockabilly GIs by the jukebox, nods to The Set-Up and Citizen Kane and Some Came Running, toothpaste commercials on the motel telly. New Orleans is the final stop, with a Cinecittà starlet in blue plumes at the nightclub and a fateful scuffle in a bayou shack. "California champagne," Belmondo shrugs. The joke is that this excursion into Yankee territory is envisioned largely inside a Parisian studio, with location glimpses only adding to the hallucinatory effect of wide open spaces as inescapably entrapping as Melville's noir labyrinths. A key transitional work, overlooked even by the director's buffs yet understood at once by Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Kings of the Road... With Michèle Mercier, Malvina Silberberg, and Barbara Sommers.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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