(Originally posted on 7 June 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
When I hit upon the idea of this column, I knew it was only a matter of time before I wrote about a great moment from a Jean-Luc Godard film. More than most great filmmakers, Godard had a gift for creating unique, indelible scenes in his movies. The only question was, when the time came, which film would I spotlight? There are so many to choose from, all of them great, and each for its own special reason. Yet the one I returned to time and again was his 1964 classic, Band of Outsiders.
Made just after Contempt, his brush with big-budget filmmaking, Band of Outsiders marked Godard’s return to the small-scale films that made his reputation as a director. Like many of his films during the period, it was heavily influenced by American movies, in this case crime dramas. But while the Godard style is unmistakable in each film, he rarely seemed to repeat himself, and each film managed to have a unique look and feel. Band of Outsiders was no exception, somehow managing to be perhaps the most poetic of Godard’s sixties-era output.
The screenplay for Band of Outsiders was adapted from a mostly-forgotten novel by Dolores Hitchens, but it could just as easily have come from any number of Poverty Row gangster pictures. In the story, Odile (Anna Karina), a naïve girl studying English, tells petty crooks Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about a stash of cash hidden in the house where she lives. As the three of them plot to steal the money, both men fall for Odile.
But while the plot is fairly standard-issue, the execution is anything but. In typical Godard fashion, none of his would-be criminals puts much effort into planning their heist. In fact, they don’t expend much time or energy on anything in their lives. Whether they’re spending most of English class flirting and passing notes, or sprinting through the Louvre instead of actually looking at the art on display, the governing philosophy in their lives appears to be, “everything that’s worth doing is worth doing half-assed.”
Yet strangely enough, Band of Outsiders may be the most poetic of Godard’s early films. This is due in large part to the voiceover narration, read by Godard himself. During the film’s celebrated Madison scene, Godard cuts out the music and relates the characters’ thoughts: “Odile wonders if the men could see her breasts moving under the sweater… Arthur thinks of Odile, dreaming of her romantic kisses… Franz is wondering if the world is a dream or a dream the world.” Godard’s narration is used sparingly, but always effectively, throughout the film.
When the heist finally goes down, it’s as haphazardly-done as everything that has come before. On the trio’s first try, they find the door to the room with the cash to be locked, and when they climb a ladder to get to the window, they can’t bring themselves to break the glass. They postpone the burglary, stupidly leaving the ladder outside. When they return the next day, most of the cash has been moved, and while they manage to steal what is left, they seemingly kill the mistress of the house during the heist. Just as they are getting away, Arthur decides to go back, claiming that he wants to verify whether she’s dead or not.
It was practically expected of Godard during the sixties that he would kill at least one main character in his movies. So it was with Arthur in Band of Outsiders. Upon his return to the scene of the crime, he finds the money stashed (by himself, perhaps?) in a dog house, only to discover his greedy uncle hiding in the trees with a gun. The uncle calls out to Arthur, “hey, asshole!” Then he shoots him. Arthur drops the money and starts to draw his gun, staggering slowly toward his uncle as he gets shot again and again, five times in all. After his uncle runs out of bullets, Arthur finds the energy to pull his own gun, aim it, and shoot him dead.
Godard always had a flair for death scenes, whether it was the explosive ending of Pierrot le Fou, the camera looking away at the conclusion of Vivre Sa Vie, or the use of super-slow-motion during the climax of Every Man For Himself. By Godard standards, the visual style of Arthur’s last stand is fairly Spartan, taking place at a distance and in a single long take. After he kills his uncle, the shot continues, with Arthur staggering around in a circle in a highly exaggerated manner. This blatantly unrealistic bit of physical acting would, in a lesser film, come off as comedic.
So why doesn’t it here? Because of the narration. Just before he dies, Godard offers these observations on the soundtrack:
“Arthur’s final thought was of Odile’s face. As a dark fog descended on him, he saw that fabled bird of Indian legend which is born without feet, and thus can never alight. It sleeps in the high winds, and is only visible when it dies. When its transparent wings, longer than an eagle’s, fold in, it fits in the palm of your hand.”
Kind of a strange accompaniment for the death of a low-level criminal, wouldn’t you say? But compare this to two earlier scenes in which Arthur and Franz play-act the death of Billy the Kid. When Franz (as Pat Garrett) pantomimes at shooting Arthur in the back, Arthur stumbling and collapse are just as exaggerated as they are in his actual death scene. In fact, just about the only difference between the play-acting scenes and Arthur’s actual death from a visual standpoint is that the “real” death scene has the presence of guns. Godard never shows any blood, nor does he give us any visual cues that Arthur is actually dead.
This is where the narration is invaluable. The earlier pantomimes are frivolous in nature, the games of two guys who don’t take life especially seriously. They themselves narrate the scenes using the Western semi-legend of Billy the Kid. But when Arthur actually dies onscreen, the scene is narrated by Godard himself, in a dry, dispassionate voice. He evokes not a heroic tale, but rather ancient mysticism. Likewise, if you re-read the narration of the scene, relatively little is about Arthur himself, and most is in fact about the mythical bird. The effect of the narration on the tone of the scene is indescribable, somehow turning this sudden, petty killing into something of a holy moment for Arthur.
As evidenced by the wide variety on the list we posted a few weeks ago, there are many different ways to pull off a great cinematic death scene. They can be funny, gory, heartrending, or shocking. But what they all have in common is that they’re all just pretend. Anyone who watches movies knows that the director is standing offscreen, and once he yells “cut!” the “dead” hero will stand up and walk back to his trailer or joke around with the crew. But although we know this is the case, the scenes still work on us, and that’s because of tone. If we’re feeling the scene, we don’t care that it’s all movie magic. Godard knew this better than anyone, and that’s why the climactic scene in Band of Outsiders is so magical.