Adapted from a Georges Simenon novel, Magnet of Doom (why it's called that I don't know, though the American DVD I watched had the title An Honorable Young Man) is about a young amateur boxer and ex-military man (Jean-Paul Belmondo, the cool tall smoking male of the Nouvelle Vague) who becomes a 'secretary' to an older white collar criminal (Charles Vanel) who had to leave France fast. Instead of going to Venezuela, like one might think is most logical, they head to America, first to New York and then, following a brief road trip, New Orleans.
This is where most of the story takes place - which is mostly just watching their relationship disintegrate and thoughts about taking-the-money-and-running for Belmondo (yeah, Vanel has a big stack of cash that he had to take out of his security box in New York before the feds got wise) - and it's not bad. If there's a problem it's that by the time one comes to this movie, which I didn't really know about until recently (it only got released on DVD last year I believe, and aside from a NY Film Festival screening fifty years ago it never got a release stateside), one has probably/likely seen all of Melville's other films. And it's not a major work.
Or, if it is, Melville doesn't really have a lot of energy to make it more than just an interesting B movie, no more no less. It is actually a "crime movie" if you think about it, just different because it's not about a heist or guys in trench-coats, but about an older man trying to out-run the law and... himself, I guess.
Belmondo and Vanel make up most of the heart of the picture and keep it fascinating. You want to know what each one will do next - Ferchaux needs Michel more than he needs him - amid the sweltering heat and the old man's boy-cry-wolf physical ailments. And Melville cast his two leads well. So well that it helps, a little, to distract from portions that don't work dramatically or feel dated. There's a mid-section in the film while they're on their cross-country trek that Michel stops (rather suddenly) for a female hitchhiker, and they quickly become lovers (?) in one of those Movie-Fantasy-Scenes where right after they pick her up they stop and Michel and the young woman have a swim and kiss and then... at the next stop she tries to run away with another truck driver (?)
It's something like that where Melville, whether it's through himself or Simenon's text, shows a bit of sexism, or just not knowing what to do with a female character that could have become a fully developed character or a love interest (and there IS a love interest, sorta, later in the movie in New Orleans, though I wonder if this is also an excuse to just show a woman practically naked while Michel sits drunk). It's not a criticism I'd like to make against the director but I do; he has his two main male characters fully developed, and the actors inhabit them well enough, that it disguises that everyone else in the movie has not much dimension at all. Well, maybe the bartender has a little as a mean-looking-dude of a sort.
But Melville's love of America comes through and that helps a bit. And it's interesting to see him work in color for the first time, though ironically I think I prefer when he has his more subtle, washed out and blue-ish colors in later movies like Army of Shadows and The Red Circle. Here things are bright enough (hard to tell fully from the non-Amamorphic DVD transfer), and he gets the local color about right even as it's all shot, oddly enough, in his studio in Paris (what, you thought he'd trek out to America to shoot this? Heavens no, though I'm sure a second unit for the rest of the footage).
An Honorable Young Man/Magnet of Doom has an intriguing performance from Belmondo, in terms of 'what will he do next', and some good cinematography. But there should've been a little more 'there' there, past the male camaraderie and themes of loyalty (which, yes, it's fine and well drawn enough).
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