L'aines des Ferchaux aka Magnet of Doom
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The original French title of this film, L'aîné des Ferchaux, comes closer to the spirit of the story than the rather sci-fi-sounding English name given to it. Literally, the French title means "the eldest of the Ferchaux," as in the oldest son of the Ferchaux family.
Ferchaux is the name of a French financier whose business empire has collapsed, and is played by Charles Vanel. Fleeing from criminal charges, he hires Maudet (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a failed boxer, as his "secretary" and traveling companion to accompany him to New York to collect money he has secretly stashed away. Over the course of the story, the two form something like a father-son relationship.
Maudet is played by one of French cinema's most iconic and enduring stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo. After achieving international fame as the romantic outlaw in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), he spent the next few years working with several noted directors, including Godard again (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), Vittorio De Sica (Two Women, 1960), and Jean-Pierre Melville two times previous to this release in Léon Morin, Priest (1961) and Le Doulos (1963).
Vanel had been working on screen since 1910 at the age of 18. He was best known to international audiences from two Henri-Georges Clouzot films, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). He also had a role in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955). This was his first production with Melville - and his last. Melville was known for bad behavior with some of his actors. He and Lino Ventura had a falling out on their first picture Le Deuxième Souffle (1966); on their second picture, Army of Shadows (1969), the two didn't speak to each other at all. Reportedly during production on Magnet of Doom, Melville treated Vanel so badly that Belmondo slapped the director on set.
This is a lesser known and less highly regarded film in Melville's oeuvre. He is best known for his noirish dramas of underworld loners living out their secret code of conduct. Magnet of Doom comes between the earlier heist pictures Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos and the later underworld master works Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). This is still a tale of intrigue, betrayal, crime and escape, but instead of merely taking inspiration from the Hollywood crime noirs of the 1940s and 50s, the story takes the characters right to the source and it becomes a road picture with America as a familiar but ultimately alien geographical and cultural landscape.
As such, the film can be seen as a precursor to European art films with an American setting central to the story, such as Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974), Werner Herzog's Stroszek (1977), and a few of Chantal Akerman's New York films.
The irony is that most of the film, the interiors at least, were shot inside a Paris studio with occasional glimpses and process shots of New York, Hoboken (where the pair visit Frank Sinatra's birthplace), a national forest in Virginia and finally New Orleans and the Louisiana swamps. Melville drives home the American-ness of the story with roadside diners and gas stations, TV commercials, oblique references to Hollywood films and the Oldsmobile Cutlass driven by Belmondo.
Critics also noticed a distinctly American sound to Georges Delerue's score, incorporating a harmonica theme that would not be out of place in a Western.
The picture was shot by Henri Decaë, one of two cinematographers (the other is Raoul Coutard) closely associated with the French New Wave. Decaë was behind the camera on Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (1958) and four others, Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and seven films by Melville.
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producer: Jérôme Sutter
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville, from the novel by Georges Simenon
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Editing: Monique Bonnot, Claude Durand
Production Design: Daniel Guéret
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Maudet), Charles Vanel (Dieudonné Ferchaux), Michèle Mercier (Lou), Malvina Silberberg (Lina), Stefania Sandrelli (Angie)
By Rob Nixon