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August 30, 2022

Symphony for a Massacre


Symphonie pour un Massacre
Jacques Deray - 1963
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

The basic set-up of Symphony for a Massacre is very familiar after more than sixty years of similar crime films. A group of five gangsters, all with legitimate business, pool their money to purchase a large amount of drugs for eventual sale. One of the five betrays the others by stealing the loot, and then tries to cover up his actions by murdering his partners. It is no surprise that everything ends badly for everyone involved.

Most of the film takes place in Paris. The youngest of the gangsters is forty years old. As one who has kept up where I can with French crime films, it struck me how the genre has shifted with the criminals often part of France's growing ethnic minorities, and the locations moved to the outer suburbs of islands of dingy, ill-repaired apartment towers. Some of violence that may have been shocking in 1963 will seem muted for contemporary viewers.

The lurid title, created shortly before the film's release, belies a relatively low-key tale. What we see is as methodical as the executions of the various crimes. The third film by Jacques Deray was also the first to gain enough attention to set a career primarily with crime thrillers. Deray's commercial peak was shortly before and after the 1970s, especially as Alain Delon's go-to guy with nine collaborations. The screenplay, adapted freely from a novel, was done by Deray with Claude Sautet and Jose Giovanni. In addition to writing the dialogue, Giovanni, a name associated with many classic French crime films, appears as the film as one of the gang members. Over the next two decades, Deray made films where the pace was quicker and the violence more explicit, but Symphony establishes his much of his style and themes.

While several cast members such as Charles Vanel and Michelle Mercier are familiar to cineastes, Symphony has been noted as being the film that boosted Jean Rochefort to being a major presence in French cinema. Rochefort's hang dog face is missing his usual mustache here. One person writing about the film thought that Rochefort was miscast because he does not look enough like someone who with evil intentions. That may well be why Deray had cast Rochefort, because of his ordinary looks which serve as a distraction from what may be going on in his mind. Rochefort's seemingly unlikely role as a hardened criminal here is in retrospect complimentary to his role almost forty years later as the retired teacher who dreams of changing places with a bank robber in Man on a Train.

In his New York Times review, A. H. Weiler connects Symphony with Rififi. Jules Dassin's film set a new standard for heist films, both in France and internationally. The word rififi is French slang for a violent show of force. Weiler was probably unaware that Deray's previous film was Rififi in Tokyo, like Dassin's film, based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton. Dassin was famous for his extended, wordless enactment of the burglary of a safe. Deray likewise as dialogue free scene with Rochefort committing his planned crime while on the night train from Paris to Lyon.

The blu-ray is sourced from the 2016 2K restoration. The supplement is composed of alternating interviews with French film journalists Francois Guerif and Jean Philippe Guerand, primarily covering the importance of Symphony for Deray and Rochefort, the artistic influence of Jose Giovanni, and the initial critical and commercial reception of the film in France.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 30, 2022 06:10 AM