Saturday, August 3, 2013

Clean My Shoes, Oscar Madison!

Wouldn't the 70's TV sitcom reprise of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple have been so much better if Felix and Oscar had been hit men? And wouldn't Henry Silva have made a much more interesting clean freak than Tony Randall? And wouldn't it have been great if they'd have had to go on a road trip together to France to rub out a potential mafia stoolie? Just think of the comic hijinks that would have ensued as an angry Silva frustratedly explained to an apathetic Klugman that he likes it clean just before they go in to kill a guy. What's that? You want to see such a show? Unfortunately, that version of the TV show never existed, but there was this little French film from 1965...

Based on the novel by Pierre Lesou, who also wrote the Melville adapted Le Doulos three years earlier, Je vous salue, mafia! (Hail, Mafia) is a serious, low key, existential trip involving two seemingly disparate hit men assigned to silence a potential mob informant in Marseille. Complications arise, however, when the mafia kingpin in jeopardy from the possible testimony is unexpectedly released from jail and calls off the contract. Ubiquitous 70's TV star, Jack Klugman, plays mafia soldier, Phil, who has personal reasons for wanting in on the hit and talks his way into the contract over the obvious disapproval of fellow button man and prospective partner Schaft (Henry Silva). The two men ultimately team up and fly to Paris to meet their contact (Micheline Presle) who has made arrangements to expedite the hit. Meanwhile, their target, Rudy Hamberg (Eddie Constantine), who has already eluded one attempt on his life, makes his own preparations.

I initially watched this film knowing only the title and that Silva and Klugman starred. I wasn't expecting much and the poor quality of the print I was viewing only served to dim any optimism. But by the end of the film, I was stunned at just how strong the story, atmosphere and characters were especially in the the last act which provides a truly sublime and fitting denouement to the proceedings. The plot is simple yet deceptive in its subtle execution. Developments that will serve as complications are casually introduced into the story in such an ordinary, slice-of-life fashion that their import can almost be missed amongst the banality. While the leads do everyday things like shave, bathe, read the paper and dine out, the plot still inches ever forward toward the inevitable. The stripped down, moody style of the film feeds right into this slow walk to oblivion with high contrast, stark, yet very bright, monochromatic photography, a crazy jazz soundtrack and a desolate rural setting in the final act. Silva and Klugman's hit men characters are the principle focus of the film and though they are anything but a squabbling Odd Couple, there is a fundamental difference in personal make up. Silva's Schaft is the erudite type as evidenced by his book loans to Klugman's Phil and his occasionally donned, thick-framed glasses. Despite admitting to speaking "not one word" of French, Schaft nevertheless uses the correct enunciation when giving directions to places like Dijon while Phil apathetically struggles with the foreign pronunciation. Phil, despite hailing from the same neighborhood in New York as Schaft, appears much less polished and more low class than Schaft by virtue of his bull-in-a-china-shop attitude, rumpled look and penchant for horse racing. Klugman's hangdog, schlubby physical appearance feeds right into this persona. There seems to be differences in personal philosophy between the two as well. At one point, Silva's character states simply "I like clean"  meaning he prefers the orderly, clear cut, structure and code of the mafia hit man. Klugman, who apparently disregarded the rules when he insinuated himself into the contract for his own reasons, doesn't appear to care about this, but nevertheless wants Silva's approval. This conflict between the two men causes an undercurrent of tension throughout the film that only surfaces in the beginning and near the end culminating in an almost Jules and Vincent-type time-out just before the hit when the characters stop and verbally hash out their differences. It's a climactic moment in the relationship that occurs just prior to the climax of the plot itself and serves its purpose well given how the story plays out.

There are some bumps early in the film including a few mediocre supporting performances by very minor characters, some choppy editing and a Manos-style, metronome-like section in an otherwise solid jazz score. The target's mistress and accompanying subplot were completely disposable as well. But these flaws were brief in duration, and believe me when I say, all is forgiven by the end of the final act when everything comes together perfectly to bring home one of the strongest and most satisfying endings I've seen in a crime film.

Score 8.25/10


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