Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard, based on a novel by Dolores Hitchens
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 05/08/1964

Band of Outsiders (1964)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Smooth Criminals

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Here's a confession for you; I used to hate Jean-Luc Godard. I thought he was the most pretentious, dunderheaded filmmaker of all time. I mean, what's up with showing only the backs of everyone's heads in Vivre sa vie (1962), for Pete's sake? But little did I know I was already on the path of learning to appreciate, love, and cherish Godard.

Once you realize that all of Godard's work struggles with the twin poles of art and pulp, of greatness and trash, of criticizing a film and loving a film, you're halfway home. Though one could make a case for his masterworks like Vivre sa vie (1962) and Contempt (1963), Godard's so-called crime films like Breathless (1959), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Band of Outsiders (1964) illustrate this duality best.

Band of Outsiders, newly released by Rialto Pictures and opening today at the Castro, begins with the lowliest of pulp stories (based on the novel "Fools' Gold" by Dolores Hitchens) but Godard starts with the story already in progress, showing that he doesn't particularly care about story mechanics or suspense.

Intellectual Franz (Sami Frey) and vulgar Arthur (Claude Brasseur) plan to rob a house occupied by Odile (Anna Karina, Godard's then-wife), a lovely girl they've met in an English class. The film begins with Franz and Arthur driving along, then stopping and looking at the house, all the while talking about this and that.

After about ten minutes, a narrator brings us up to speed, offering a few snippets of "plot" for "latecomers": an English class, a house by the river, a pile of money, and a romantic girl. That's all you need to know, really, because nothing more than that actually happens. (For serious film buffs, the "house by the river" line references a 1950 Fritz Lang film of the same name.)

Rather than simply telling us a pulp story, Godard is more interested in the idea of making a film of a pulp story. He wants us to be constantly aware that we're watching a movie. He allows mistakes to creep into the film. A character says a line in one shot, then repeats the same line in another shot, and Karina looks right at the camera and wonders, "do we need a plan?" (She's referring to the robbery, but could actually be talking about Band of Outsiders itself.)

The robbery itself plays like the most bungled, half-witted attempt in film history. The robbers pause in a warehouse backlot full of giant spools while they borrow Karina's stockings to use as masks (they admire her naked thighs before moving on). When they get in the house, nobody seems to know what to do; the money isn't where it was supposed to be, they go back and forth between looking for it and tormenting Karina and Karina's aunt, and the whole thing culminates in a lackluster shootout filmed from an inert middle distance on the front lawn.

Godard allows himself to insert any fleeting idea into the patchwork of the story. For example, he wonders how long a "minute of silence" really is, and suddenly inserts a minute of silence into the film. When he feels like paying tribute to the Stanley Donen film Give a Girl a Break (1953), he guides his three characters through a wonderful little dance number (which Quentin Tarantino in turn paid tribute to in Pulp Fiction) in a cafe. The film almost plays like a record of Godard's thoughts over a few weeks in 1964.

Though it's hard to dispute the pure historical impact of Breathless, Band of Outsiders works the best of Godard's crime films. Its black-and-white, low-budget feel makes it a kindred spirit to the B-movies Godard loves (like Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour and Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin). During the final fade-out, the film promises a "sequel" with the further adventures of Franz, Arthur and Odile in full color and Cinemascope. The following year, Godard provided it, kind of, with Pierrot le Fou, another film I love.

Thanks to the great Rialto Pictures for rescuing Band of Outsiders from its current second-hand muddy video state and bringing it back to its luminous theatrical greatness.

In 2003, the Criterion Collection released the definitive DVD of this great film. Extras include a visual glossary of references and wordplay, interview excerpts with Godard, rare behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with cinematographer Raoul Coutard and actress Karina, Agnes Varda's silent comedy Les Fiances du Pont Mac Donald -- featuring Godard and members of the cast, trailers and a 16-page booklet.

In 2013, a Criterion Blu-Ray followed, transferred from Gaumont's 2010 restoration, so the quality is even higher. (It also includes an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.) Otherwise the extras are the same.

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