Friday, August 03, 2012

Sautet at FSLC: The Dictator’s Guns

You see a lot of life and death at sea.  Skipper for hire Captain Jacques Cournot is about to see more of both in The Dictator’s Guns, a hardboiled caper which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s nearly complete retrospective for Claude Sautet, who is probably best known to most cineastes for his highly intimate late career dramas.

Cap. Cournot has been hired by playboy businessman Hendrix to acquire a sailboat in Santo Domingo from a little old lady in Pasadena who only sailed her once.  However, as soon as Cournot kicks the tires and telegrams her his offer, the good ship Dragoon disappears under criminal circumstances.  It turns out his boss is not who he thought he was, nor is his boss’s boss.  As for the American widow—she’s no lady, she is a femme fatale.

Making haste to the DR, the Widow Osborne more or less clears the captain with the coppers so she can retain his services tracking her boat.  Unfortunately, he does so in rather short order, bringing them face-to-face with a desperate gang of gunrunners, including Hendrix, her gutless ex-husband #1, in the cabin of the listing ketch.  From here, they are off to Key Largo territory, as the Cap and widow play the wait-to-pounce game.

Frankly, this is not a very well thought through scheme, boiling down to the reluctant Cournot ferrying crates of munitions from the off-kilter boat to a nearby sandbar on the dinghy.  Still, the noir works like a charm.  Hollywood character actor and onetime San Quentin resident Leo Gordon is like a walking Sam Fuller movie as the ringleader Morrison.  In the lead, Lino Ventura is like a Lino Ventura character, except perhaps more likable.  Indeed, his Cournot is not a world-weary drifter.  He seems to quite enjoy flirting and partying with the other carousers flocking to Santo Domingo’s night spots.  His expatriate life actually looks like fun, except for the part where he is held captive by arms smugglers.

Sylva Koscina (veteran of a legion of sword & sandal flicks) adds a bit of nostalgic appeal as the Gabor-ish Osborne, also getting down to business rather gamely in the big shootout-siege.  Walter Wottiz’s moody black-and-white cinematography is a pleasingly noir, as is the crime-jazz soundtrack co-composed by big band leader and record producer Eddie Barclay (for whom Quincy Jones once worked) and his label’s music director Michel Colombier.

There are plenty of Bogartian influences in Arms, but it all comes together rather nicely.  Like most of the Nouvelle Vague that never really embraced him, Sautet clearly appreciated American film noirs and had a good understanding of their mechanics.  It all makes for fun, moody stuff and a real change of pace from his later masterpieces, like Un Coeur en Hiver, screening Sunday (8/5) and Thursday (8/9).  Definitely recommended, The Dictator’s Guns screens today (8/3) at the Walter Reade Theater as the Things of Life retrospective continues, culminating with the premiere American theatrical engagement for his 1971 classic Max et les Ferraileurs, starting next Friday (8/10).