Review: Seeing Red: 3 French Vigilante Thrillers on Fun City Editions Blu-ray

These productions play like twists on the hyper-violent Italian poliziotteschi crime film.

Seeing Red: 3 French Vigilante ThrillersFrench crime films of the 1950s and ’60s often centered on professional criminals who followed codes of honor that put them on a more-or-less level moral playing field with the detectives tracking them down. Whether it was Jean Gabin’s aging gangster Max in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi or Alain Delon’s steely eyed assassin Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samoura, these men had a sophistication and moral grounding that minimized the violence and chaos they caused. They were dangerous, even deadly, but only when they needed to be and in a way the cops could wrap their heads’ around.

Fun City Editions’s new Blu-ray set, Seeing Red: 3 French Vigilante Thrillers, consists of a trio of films that play like French twists on the hyper-violent Italian poliziotteschi crime films that reached the height of their popularity in the ’70s. In Jean-Claude Missiaen’s Shot Pattern, from 1982, a more savage brand of cinematic criminal collides with an old-school detective who wears a classic tan trench coat and is played by Michel Constantin, a veteran of Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle. When Constantin’s Alexandre is bemoaning the trouble with today’s criminals, he says to a fellow police officer, “We’re dealing with amateurs and punks. Anything goes.”

Indeed, this is true of the three brutes who smash up several cars just for kicks before hopping on the metro to terrorize the passengers, ultimately killing one of them. Their sheer recklessness and volatility makes them not only exceedingly dangerous, but challenging for the police to hunt down. As in the average poliziotteschi crime film, Shot Pattern shows us how the incompetence (or unpreparedness, at least) of the police leads to the rise of the vigilante—in this case Antoine (Gérard Lanvin), the fiancé of the victim, Carine (Véronique Jannot).

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What could otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill revengeamatic is made all the more unsettling by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s ever-roving camera and extended shots that give film a slight dreamlike quality. Meanwhile, Shot Pattern’s unusual, fragmented structure, with frequent flashbacks to the various stages of Antoine and Carine’s relationship, lends a surprising nuance to Antoine’s emotional turmoil, and unlike so many other vigilante movies, the film gives as much credence to its protagonist’s grief as to his rage.

Where Shot Pattern is compelling thanks to its attention to granular emotions, Gilles Béhat’s Street of the Damned, from 1984, fascinates in its complete disregard of reality. Its portrait of a crime-ridden neighborhood in Lille bears the influence of graphic novels in its bold use of colors, campy costume design, and the completely archetypal villains.

Street of the Damned, also known as Barbarous Street, isn’t about a normal man’s descent in the criminal underworld, but rather a legendary man’s inability to escape from it. That man, Chet, is imbued with stoicism and raw power by Bernard Girardeau. And his repeated tussles with crime boss Mathias Hagen (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, a hoot hamming it up with two ponytails and an angel-white suit), take on an epic, existential weight, even more so because there’s no discernible reason Hagen won’t let Chet be other than he simply doesn’t want to.

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Alain Bonnot’s Black List, also from 1984, returns us to the outskirts of Paris, where three attractive punks and amateur criminals are duped into committing a bank robbery by a group of more seasoned criminals who use the incident to distract police from an armored car robbery at the same time on the other side of town. What begins as a thrilling, extended set piece eventually transforms into something far more melancholy, though no less violent. After the girl (Sandrine Dumas) in the young trio of criminals is gunned down, her mother, Jeanne (Annie Girardot), tracks down the various men responsible for her daughter’s death.

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Black List’s scenario, like that of Shot Pattern, brings to mind Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Bonnot, though, doesn’t merely relish in the pure compulsion of Jeanne’s vengeance. He memorably captures the ways that her violent outbursts only amplify her regret and overwhelming despair as she struggles to free herself of the suffocating presence of grief.

Girardot’s deeply empathetic performance goes a long way to crystallizing this portrait of a woman consumed by and lost within her own anguish. Jeanne even puts on a slick black raincoat when she heads out for revenge the first time and never takes it off for the remainder of the film, running about town like a woman in mourning—a dark specter of death whose rampage gives her neither relief nor satisfaction. Black List is an emotionally rich film but also one that respects the tropes of the vigilante film even as it seeks to stretch its limits.

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Image/Sound

This release marks the worldwide Blu-ray debut of all three films. Each of the transfers are quite strong, with naturalistic colors and consistent sharpness and great depth throughout. The image transfers rich in detail, capturing all the gritty textures of the various low-rent locales and the suspect characters who live there. Contrast is also very good, allowing for all the particularities of the many nighttime sequences to be visible, while the high range of colors allows for the blood and neon reds that show up in every film to really pop. There appears to be a tad too much grain reduction on the Black List transfer, as the image is slightly too smooth, but this is a fairly minor complaint. The audio is equally solid across the board, with a nice separation between the chaotic street ambiance and the dialogue, which is clean and crisp.

Extras

Critic Travis Woods provides very enthusiastic, well-researched audio commentaries for two of the three films in this set. For Shot Pattern, he offers sharp analysis of the film’s style and themes, paying particular attention to how it plays against the expectations of what audiences expect out of a vigilante film. On his Street of the Damned commentary, Woods delves into the various stylistic and narrative traits that make this such a strange film, and spends a great deal of time discussing the underrated work of author David Goodis, whose novel Street of No Return was adapted here. Despite the amount of ground Woods covers in these commentaries, his tone is light and conversational, making them pretty entertaining listens.

Critic Walter Chaw steps up to the mic for the commentary on Black List, bringing the same knowledge and enthusiasm as Woods. Chaw’s scene analysis is especially strong, giving props to Girardot’s raw, open performance and the lived in quality of the film’s milieu.

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In a brief interview, Shot Pattern director Jean-Claude Missiaen talks about the challenges of the shoot, which was shot in 83 locations across 30 days. He also provides the written commentary that accompanies the film’s alternate ending. The final extra on the first disc is a very brief note from Gérard Lanvin expressing his fondness for Missiaen. In his more comprehensive interview, director Gilles Béhat discusses the influence of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter on Street of the Damned and how he approached this film as a mix of Goodis and his own memories of growing up in Lille. In a separate interview, actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu describes the unusual casting process and his approach to his villainous character. There’s also a booklet with an essay by author Barry Forshaw, who contextualizes these three films within the larger tradition of French crime cinema.

Overall

Fun City Editions’s Seeing Red shines the spotlight on a trio of under-the-radar French vigilante films that each stretch the genre in their own unique ways.

Score: 
 Cast: Gérard Lanvin, Véronique Jannot, Michel Constantin, Mario David, Bernard Girardeau, Christine Boisson, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Annie Girardot, Paul Crauchet  Director: Jean-Claude Missiaen, Gilles Béhat, Alain Bonnot  Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Missiaen, Claude Veillot, Jean Herman, Alain Bonnot, Marie-Thérèse Cuny, André G. Brunelin  Distributor: Fun City Editions  Running Time: 278 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1982 - 1984  Release Date: May 7, 2024  Buy: Video

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

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