People's memories of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 Band of Outsiders (showing in a DCP restoration) tend to emphasize the obvious delights: the scene where the three young leads (Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) do the Madison in a Paris café, or the one where, with the goal of beating the record set by an American tourist, they dash through the Louvre in an attempt to see it all in less than 10 minutes. We also remember the youthful charm of the actors — Frey handsome and a bit obdurate; Brasseur with a fireplug body and a tough-guy mug incapable of hiding his vulnerability; and Karina, playing a naive girl who wants to be liked by the boys but who is, like Louise Brooks, one of those pure creatures of the movies, so direct and piercing that she transcends the limits of technology and the chasm of decades. When she looks into the camera, you feel she can see right into you. Do people hold onto those moments of exuberance because the rest of the film is so bewilderingly sad?
Band of Outsiders, adapted from Dolores Hitchens’ affecting pulp novel Fools’ Gold (recently republished in the Library of America’s Women Crime Writers compendium), follows Franz and Arthur (Frey and Brasseur), who are at the age where the aimlessness of their youth will, unless they do something, become the model for their adulthood. They find an opportunity in Odile (Karina), the sheltered girl they both fancy, who tells them of the stash of money kept by a boarder in the big house where she lives with her aunt. The boys dream and dress like the American gangsters in the movies they’ve seen, and soon they plan a robbery without ever quite apprehending the difference between their noirish fantasies and reality. But one look at their reality tells you why they’ve retreated into these fantasies.
It’s no surprise that, as shot in black-and-white by the great Raoul Coutard, the movie is beautiful. But it’s the bleakest sort of beauty: winter-bare trees, the perishing and deserted streets of the Parisian exurbs, shabby cafés and lodgings. Even the supposedly fancy house Odile lives in looks as if the inhabitants could pack up in an hour and not leave behind anything that would be missed.
The house is the setting for the inevitable crime, executed as though it were a game of make-believe turned deadly serious. Real guns replace cocked fingers, and yet, in a touch that’s both cruel and heartbreakingly tender, Godard makes the real violence appear nearly indistinguishable from the play-acting we’ve seen. The tough and sentimental dreams fed by American gangster movies and pulp novels aren’t enough to help these three escape their lives, even as the cheerlessness of those lives makes us understand why they have to dream. This is a world apart from the way so many contemporary movies riff on an ironic fetishization of our cinematic past. Godard works at an affectionate distance that allows him to comment on his characters’ naivete. But close enough so that he can hear their hearts break.