Monday, July 03, 2006

Elegy for the Aged Gangster: "Choice of Arms" (1981)

Alain Corneau’s Choice of Arms (1981) is a solid crime drama with an outstanding cast: Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve. Montand is Noel Durieux, an aged, reformed mobster who now breeds thoroughbred horses with his wife Nicole (Deneuve). Noel is thrust back into the crime world when two escaped criminals show up at their door seeking refuge: Serge Olivier (Pierre Forget), Noel’s old partner-in-crime, and Mickey (Depardieu), a sociopathic, low-level gangster. Mickey becomes problematic when he threatens to expose Noel to the police for aiding and abetting them. When the police track the criminals to Noel’s house, Mickey flees. Noel must then keep the police off his back and at the same time track down Mickey to ensure his mouth stays shut.

The story’s foundation is secure, but on the whole the writing seems uneven: some characters and scenes feel extraneous, and the first half of the film doesn’t flow too well. Partly, this might be because the American cut is only 114 minutes long, 21 minutes shorter than the European cut. But while the first half of the film seems awkwardly assembled, with characters and situations lacking the necessary exposition, the second half is tight and gives new depths to the characters, Noel Durieux in particular.

Knowing that the cut I saw wasn’t complete, I want to believe that all of Choice of Arms’ faults would somehow be fixed if the 21 minutes were reinserted, but the most I can do is speculate. As it stands now, the biggest flaw is with Nicole Durieux. Catherine Deneuve has proven herself as one of the world’s strongest actors in such films as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Repulsion (1965), and Belle de Jour (1967), but here she isn’t given a chance to lend her talent: hers is only a peripheral role. It seems that whenever Mickey shows his face around the house, Noel is forever telling Nicole to deal with the horses. Thus, all the important scenes take place between Montand and Depardieu—Deneuve is never given a chance to develop any rapport with them.

Depardieu, however, gives a magnificent performance as Mickey. He delivers his dialogue with such immediacy that pre-meditation seems impossible. It is this unpredictable quality that makes his scenes so rife with anxiety. One of the highlights of the film is a scene where Mickey gets into a scrape with a female gas station attendant. When he pulls his gun on her, she keeps right on at him, screaming and provoking him still further. In a way, her cheeky impudence is rather humorous, but after having witnessed him kill before, we can’t help but think she’s asking for it. Instead, Mickey gets back in his car and backs into the front window of the store.

Contrary to Depardieu’s wired performance, Yves Montand plays his character as stoic and aloof. There’s an unnerving calmness about Noel, even when Mickey is running around the room firing off his pistol: it is as though Noel has seen this before, and knows exactly how to handle the situation. Noel inspires in us a murderous confidence, knowing well that if he has to, he will go to the farthest measures to assure he and his wife’s safety. Which is not to imply that Noel is a trigger-happy retiree: like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III (1990), Noel is happy to be out of the game and not at all anxious to get back in it, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to play if need be.

As effective a story as Choice of Arms is, it still follows the gangster movie code in many ways. Aged gangsters are always calm, cool and collected—Noel in this film, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Jean Gabin’s Max in Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954), and Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972) amongst many others in the genre. The young gangsters are always too hotheaded, as well—Depardieu in this film, Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and the list continues. These archetypes, clichés though they have become, are almost essential to the genre: an inherent way to communicate generational conflict, nostalgia for the past and uncertainty for the future. There is always something elegiac about these stories, the we watch the old generation, so staid, unable to pass on quietly; it is as though the world is so unstable in the hands of the young that the old cannot leave well enough alone. This is really the core emotional conflict of Choice of Arms, with Mickey being a threat to the security that Noel has established. Such a timeless theme that permeates multiple genres and such disparate films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Choice of Arms may not be the most original movie ever, but Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu really make the film worthwhile.

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