Saturday, January 8, 2011

FIAF fetes Lino Ventura and the gangster genre in January's Cinema Tuesdays series

Ah, that mug. It's unforgettable. Particularly once you've seen a few of the films of the guy who owned it: Lino Ventura, one of the supreme stars of the French (and occasionally Italian and American cinema). Born Angiolino Giuseppe Pascal Ventura (on Bastille Day!) in northern Italy's Parma, he moved with his family (appropriately enough) to Paris while still a child -- and lived there the remainder of his life (without ever, it is said, becoming a French citizen).

After moving from job to job (one of these was as mechanic's apprentice), he found a real career in wrestling (he's shown in his trunks, at left), rising as high as professional European champion in 1950. It was after a injury in the ring forced his retirement from sports that director Jacques Becker, on the lookout for "gangster" types, cast him in a role in the now-classic Touchez pas au grisbi, in which his lengthy Italian name became the shorter and more memorable Lino Ventura.

As an actor, while the fellow possessed a narrow range that seldom allowed for much outward display, his rich and memorable inner life created characters -- usually more proletariat than bourgeoisie -- that seemed equally comfortable as detectives or criminals and never had a moment on-screen that was not utterly truthful. Ventura -- who both starred and  became good friends with the likes of Jean Gabinwho helped him with his early acting career, and later in that career, Alain Delon.

The father of a developmentally disabled child, Ventura also co-founded the still-vital-and-growing organization Perce-Neige with his wife Odette in the early 1980s to support handicapped young adults. He earned a César nomination for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in Robert Hossein’s Les Misérables and would continue to perform practically until his death in 1987.

The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York's premiere French cultural center, is ringing the New Year in with a special Cinéma Tuesdays month devoted to the late (and still-missed: no one has begun to take his place) actor titled Lino Ventura: “Monsieur Gangster.” During this January, FIAF will present six French thriller and/or film noir classics -- curated by Marie Losier -- that explore different facets of Ventura’s gangster persona. The complete program, with my comments included, is below. To see the program at FIAF on-line and/or to order tickets, click here.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)
January 11 at 12:30 & 7:30pm
Directed by Louis Malle, 1957. B&W. 88 min.
With Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, and Lino Ventura
Never one of my favorite films (I found it too slow and obvious, with an insistenty "jazzy" score that rarely shuts up), it's still one of those "classics" that will help complete your genre (noir or thriller) and Louis Malle collections.  According to the FIAF description, it's about a woman and her lover who plan to kill her husband in a “perfect murder” plot that soon goes fantastically awry. Malle’s debut feature contains many blessings—including a landmark score by Miles Davis, atmospheric visuals that point to the coming New Wave, and a great turn by Ventura as an inspector.


Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres)
January 11 at 4pm
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville,1969. Color. 140 min.
With Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, and Jean-Pierre Cassel

Another "classic" that failed to ignite my delight, this one is -- whew, long -- and somewhat tiresome. While it should not have been ignored upon initial release (it was only first distributed here in America in 2007), still, TrustMovies has to say that he can somewhat understand the film's being overlooked. FIAF's view: Army of Shadows is now rightfully considered a masterpiece of war cinema. Ventura gives a career performance as the leader of an underground cell during the Resistance who escaped internment. Haunting and profound—an unmissable film.


The Big Risk (Classe tous risques)
January 18 at 12:30 & 7:30pm
Directed by Claude Sautet, 1960. B&W. 103 min.
With Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, and Marcel Dalio

My favorite of all the films I've seen so far in this series, Classe tous risques is so very good that it makes one wonder why filmmaker Claude Sautet did not do more noir and gangster movies over his very interesting career. The movie, which tracks a highly "wanted" man as the law closes in on him, gives Ventura a career highlight role, and also gives one to a very young Jean-Paul Belmondo (the actor made Breathless this same year). For my money, Belmondo is much better in this film -- giving as warm and genuine a performance as he ever has -- with none of the smarm that soon, due to the success of the Godard movie, would soon overtake most else in his performing repertoire. He seemed to have decided, "Well, this is what audiences want, so I'll just give it to them." And he did. But in Classe tous risques -- a remarkably rich, surprising and humane movie, considering the criminal element with which it deals almost completely -- he, Ventura and a lovely Sandra Milo, bring to life some very memorable characters. While the movie has little of the much-vaunted French New Wave "flair," as we now realize decades down the line, flair does not always wear that well. I've seen this film twice already, and it wears very well.


Second Breath (Le deuxième souffle)
January 18 at 4pm
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966. B&W. 150 min.
With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, and Raymond Pellegrin

I haven't seen this one in many years, but upon a first viewing, it did not strike me as anywhere near the level of Melville's Le samourai or Le cercle rouge. As I write this I am having trouble remembering even the plot, so I'll let the FIAF decription spell things out: Upon escaping from prison, Gustave (Ventura) discovers his sister’s safety threatened. Willing to perform one last heist, he finds himself dogged by a detective—and worse, much of the criminal underground. Melville once again proves himself a master of ratcheting suspense and Ventura perfectly balances terror and disillusioned weariness.

The following two films I have not seen and hope to catch during this month-long Ventura fest, the first of which I don't believe was ever released in the USA:

Monsieur Gangster (Les tontons Flingueurs)
January 25 at 12:30 & 7:30pm
Directed by Georges Lautner, 1963. B&W. 105 min.
With Lino Ventura, Bernard Blier, Francis Blanche, and Jean Lefebvre

Notes FIAF: A fascinating film, mostly because of its integration of comedy into the grisly landscape of noir. Ventura brings gravitas to the role of an ex-gangster who is roped into guardianship of a dying mob boss’ daughter, but the tension and violence that follows is offset by some marvelously comic turns.

Not only was this one released in the U.S., a bad U.S. remake was even made:

The Grilling (Garde à vue)
January 25 at 4pm
Directed by Claude Miller, 1981. Color. 86 min.
With Lino Ventura, Michel Serrault, Romy Schneider, and Guy Marchand

The stark setting of a police interrogation room is used to maximum effect in this tense, twisting standoff of a film. When only one suspect turns up in a double murder case, the Inspectors (Ventura and Marchand) grill him mercilessly. Matters only get further complicated when his estranged wife appears...

About FIAF

FIAF's mission is to create and offer New Yorkers innovative and unique programs in education and the arts that explore the evolving diversity and richness of French Cultures. FIAF seeks to generate new ideas and promote cross cultural dialogue through partnerships and new platforms of expression.

CinémaTuesdays is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency, and by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. Special thanks to The Cultural Services of the French Embassy and The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

FIAF - Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street
(between Park and Madison Avenues)

$10; $7 students; Free for FIAF Members

Tickets: | 800 982 2787

Information: | 212 355 6160

Subway - 4, 5, 6, N, R and W to 59th Street & Lexington Avenue;
F to 63rd Street & Lexington Avenue; E to 53rd Street & 5th Avenue
Bus - M1, M2, M3, M4, Q31 to 59th Street; M5 to 58th Street

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