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My Favorite Movies – The 400 Blows (1959)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

One of my most unpleasant memories of film-school was in a Film Theory course in which we learned about Auteur Theory by watching Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave classic The 400 Blows.

I had already seen “The 400 Blows” about a year before watching it in class. I knew it was a great film and something special, and watching it in this class and learning about Auteur Theory made it all the more intriguing to me…when it ended with that iconic image of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) looking to the camera with a look of question (like, where does he go from here?), I was getting ready to applaud but nearly everyone else in the class was laughing. One student in the front row even said, “Why would you want to show us that? That was one of the worst movies EVER!”

I felt so bad for the professor that at one point, as I ran into him in the hall, I told him, “For what it’s worth, ‘The 400 Blows’ is one of my favorite movies.”

And it is, too. It’s also one of the biggest influencers for my favorite subgenre of film: the coming-of-age story.

It’s also one of the tougher ones: no melodrama or sentimentality–it’s just showing this troubled kid who always gets in trouble with school and with his parents, puts himself in a bad position many times, and everyone sees him in the worst possible light. Even when he changes his mind to return something he had stolen, everyone wants to label him as a bad egg. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, done in one shot (which was actually the young actor’s audition footage–Truffaut liked it so much he included it in the film), we get numerous reasons for his unhappiness.

My favorite scene: the psychologist interview I already mentioned is a highlight, but my favorite scene is still the ending that my peers/classmates laughed at. Yeah, that awkward optical camera zoom-in is dated, but what it means, I will never forget. Antoine has just done yet another thing that will get him in even more trouble, he has no idea where to go from there, and neither he nor we have any idea what is going to happen to him. The push-in on his face says it all: an uncertain young man faces an uncertain future.

Truffaut has made four other films featuring this character of Antoine Doinel–I’ve only seen the immediate follow-up (“Antoine and Colette”) but not the others. Not yet, anyway…

The 400 Blows (Les quatres cent coups) (1959)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The title of the 1959 French drama, “The 400 Blows,” refers to an idiom that roughly means, “to raise hell.” It’s actually a somewhat-misinterpretation of its French title, “Les quatre cent coups,” derived from the French expression “Faire les quatre cent coups,” meaning, “to live a wild life.” (The literal translation is “400 practical jokes.”) I didn’t know that until I looked it up after I saw the film. Up to then, I didn’t understand what “The 400 Blows” meant and its literal translation didn’t make much sense to me either. But when the phrase “to live a wild life” came into place, I started to think about it and it made more sense.

The film’s central focus is a resourceful, misunderstood adolescent who is unlucky—he doesn’t necessarily go looking for trouble but it always seems to find him. Adults see him as a troublemaker—his insensitive teacher finds it easy to describe him as a troublemaker, his mother sometimes loves him while doesn’t know how to feel about him at other times, his stepfather tries to be his friend but even he sort of the same as everyone else does toward him, and by the end of the film, he’s labeled as a juvenile delinquent. Even before then, when he gets into trouble, he finds it best to run away and live on his own rather than go home. This kid lives in a world he didn’t make, he doesn’t understand, isn’t understood by, and would rather be left to his own resources, or to put it bluntly, “to live a wild life,” which the film’s title indicates.

“The 400 Blows” is a brilliant film—one that gives us a hard-edged, open-minded portrait as to how this boy, Antoine Doinel (played perfectly by Jean-Pierre Leaud), slowly but surely turns to crime because of how everything and everyone around him seems to judge him. We see events in his life that help shape his present while raising questions about his future. This material could have been treated as light as a feather, but through the vision of French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, it becomes as real as the feelings many kids like Antoine feel.

“The 400 Blows” was Truffaut’s debut feature and it came at a time when filmmakers took advantage of the French “New Wave” cinema by making unique choices through personal stories. This film was one of the most influential at the time because you could tell it was personal and even semiautobiographical (I’ve read reviews that state how the movies saved Truffaut from crime, and there are times when Antoine’s mood is softened by a trip to the cinema). Add solid filmmaking to that and it’s easy to tell why this film was so well-regarded from the start and even still holds up today.

Antoine is a real kid, not much different from other kids his age or from his own classmates for that matter. It’s just he’s usually the one that’s caught and he’s unlucky enough to get punished. At the start, the students are passing around a pinup; the teacher punishes him once it’s in his hands. Antoine fails to turn in homework, skips school, and even makes up a lie about his mother dying to cover for both. Once the lie is revealed, that puts him in a worse spot. For Antoine, it seems he can’t do anything right in his teacher’s eyes. At one point, he writes an essay about his grandfather’s death in homage to Balzac, whom he has a shrine dedicated to in his bedroom. But his teacher gives him a failing grade and suspends him, accusing him of plagiarism.

At home, things aren’t much better, especially when his parents immediately take things from the teacher’s perspective instead of Antoine’s. The only time there seems to be an attempt at understanding Antoine comes when he tells his mother he has trouble concentrating, and even then, it’s hard for Antoine to get across what he wants to say (like real people in general, not just children). Antoine lives in a tiny apartment with his mother (Claire Maurier) and stepfather (Albert Remy). It’s revealed that Antoine was the product of an unwanted pregnancy and his mother wasn’t ready for parenthood. It’s clear that she still doesn’t quite know how to handle issues with her son and grows impatient with him when something new comes up. She has her own problems as well, such as poverty and attempting to cover up an affair; she seems to want to spend as much time out of the house as possible. The stepfather seems friendly sometimes but also has his short-tempered moments due to work. The moments when the family is even remotely happy seem sporadic. For example, the happiest moment in the film comes after Antoine accidentally starts a fire. First, the parents are infuriated but then they decide to forgive him, and the whole family has a pleasant night going to the movies. But most of the time, they just see their son as a bother. This is why, when he gets into real trouble, he’d rather live on the streets than in his own home.

He does live on the streets for a while, with the aid of his school chum Rene (Patrick Auffay), who sometimes instigates Antoine’s troublesome activities. He slowly but surely stoops to petty crime, stealing milk, theater lobby cards, and eventually a typewriter from his own father’s office so he can sell it for money. But when he has a change of heart and decides to return it, he gets caught and arrested by the police. From that point on, he’s labeled as a juvenile delinquent and sent to reform school. His parents won’t help him anymore because they believe he’ll just run away again if he comes home. No one will help him because they have no interest in doing so. He’s left at the mercy of social services and is simply a victim of circumstance. The saddest moment in the film is when he is treated like a criminal and put in a police holding cell and a police wagon in the company of prostitutes and thieves. His look through the bars is heartbreaking.

Author Stephen King once said, “In all our lives, there’s a fall from innocence, a time after which we are never the same.” “The 400 Blows” is a film that illustrates that viewpoint very effectively. Nowhere is that clearer in this film than the scene in which Antoine and his friend discuss a way to make more money through petty crime…during a puppet show. While dozens of children are laughing and enjoying the show, these two older kids are in the middle of scheming. By the end of the film, Antoine is no longer innocent and his future is uncertain. The final shot, following a half-grim/half-satisfying final scene, is a freeze-frame with an optical zoom on his face—this closing image has been copied long since this film’s release, but this one has a purpose: for us to interpret Antoine’s predicament for ourselves.

“The 400 Blows” is a subtle, well-acted, great-looking, and emotionally deep character-study that I can’t recommend enough. Today, it still holds up wonderfully as a remarkable film and a classic. Truffaut’s style is direct and truthful so that his film is far from a traditional melodrama, like a good chunk of teenage “coming-of-age” dramas. It’s moving, effective, and causes us to reflect on our own youths. Where will Antoine end up? How did we get here?

NOTE: Truffaut would bring back actor Jean-Pierre Leaud to reprise his role of Antoine Doinel in four other films: the short film “Antoine and Collette” and the features “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” and “Love on the Run.” This could show that “The 400 Blows” really was from a chapter in Truffaut’s life and wants to show how he became the kind of person he is now, but I haven’t seen these films…yet.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

8 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Faithful readers may have figured out that my two favorite Walt Disney-produced live-action movies are “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Old Yeller.” (And to get it out of the way, other great titles, produced by Disney himself before his death, that come into my mind are “Treasure Island,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” and “Mary Poppins,” but I’ll get to those later.) But there was one that I used to watch a lot as a kid—I mean, just as much as “Old Yeller” (yes, that much). That was 1959’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a delightful, fantastic movie that I loved as a kid and love even more now.

The film takes place in a small Irish village, where an old widower, named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe), lives with his 20-year-old daughter Katie (Janet Munro) in a gatehouse near Lord Fitzpatrick’s (Walter Fitzgerald) estate, of which Darby is caretaker. Darby passes the time by telling stories around the town pub—telling stories about the times he constantly attempts to catch the leprechauns, particularly their king Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea), who live on a hilltop known as Knocknesheega. Lord Fitzpatrick has hired someone else to labor the estate, which means Darby and Katie will be forced to leave, so a young Dubliner named Michael McBride (a 29-year-old Sean Connery in one of his earliest film roles) can move in. Darby begs Michael not to tell Katie that he lost his job, and manages to convince Katie that Michael is only here to help out around the house. That night, Darby is led to Knocknesheega where he stumbles upon the home of the little people. It turns out he was led there by King Brian so he can stay forever, away from the harshness of the real world. Darby manages to escape and make his way back home, which leads to King Brian finding him and Darby being able to trick him so he can capture him. Now in Darby’s possession, King Brian owes Darby three wishes to be granted, and Darby decides to save them for something wise.

Where do I begin with this movie? There’s literally a lot to like about “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” and a great deal of inventiveness. Well, I guess I’ll begin with the rules that are established with the leprechauns. For example, if you wish a fourth wish after your third, then it negates the other three; leprechauns’ powers only work at night; leprechauns can take any shape or form (such as a rabbit); they love dancing, whiskey, and hunting, which Darby can use to trick them; and so on. All of these rules are important to the story, and important for Darby to be smart enough to remember them all. This makes Darby a wise adversary for King Brian to match wits with. And that’s another wonderful thing about this movie—Darby and King Brian can be good friends when they need to be, but when to get what they want, they know how to fool each other into making it happen for one another. For example, how does Darby escape the leprechaun underground world? He plays a hunting song on the fiddle for the leprechauns to dance to before jumping to their horses and going off to hunt, in spirit of the song, thus giving Darby a chance to escape—here, he has used the leprechauns’ love for dancing and hunting to his own advantage. King Brian is able to outwit Darby as well, such as when he tricks Darby into wasting one of his wishes, and even at one point to save Darby’s life (without giving anything away).

I like the way the rules for the leprechauns are set up. Although, I have to wonder—there’s one scene in which King Brian manages to escape from Darby’s bag through a crowd of people, but the people see him as a rabbit. How does that work? If King Brian’s powers only work at night, then how was he able to make everyone see him as a rabbit (if he didn’t transform himself as a rabbit)? I mean, OK, Darby was tricked into wasting his second wish so that Michael could see King Brian (though only as a rabbit), but what was the extent of that wish? Could everyone else just see him as a rabbit, like Michael? I don’t know; maybe I’m questioning too much.

And before anyone lists any comments below, I’m not going to list the possibility that Darby is imagining all of this about the leprechauns and the magic they represent all this time (as inventive as that may be, don’t get me wrong). This is a fantasy and I’m dealing with it. Let the leprechauns and whatever spooky element Darby comes across later be there; don’t read too much into Darby being the only one to see them.


Speaking of spookiness, Darby also comes across a sinister ghostly figure at the end, known as the Banshee, which is said to represent death. In a complicated turn of events, Katie winds up at death’s door and Darby desperately attempts to keep the Banshee and the Death Coach from taking her away. Both the Banshee and the Death Coach frightened me as a kid (the Banshee’s blue-tinted, ghostly image, and not to mention her moaning howl, still continues to send chills down my spine, I’ll admit). I don’t doubt it frightened other kids as well (well, perhaps not those who were angered that the Nostalgia Critic listed the Banshee’s appearance as the Scariest Nostalgic Moment, but I digress); it’s just one of those scary aspects you find in Disney movies (the donkey-transformation in “Pinocchio,” the forest scene in “Snow White,” and so on) that scare younger kids but delight older ones.

But as for the lighthearted scenes, of which there are a lot, there are two in particular that I just love to watch every time. One is the aforementioned fiddle-scene in the leprechaun world, and it is very entertaining as well as visually astounding—by the way, the special effects in this movie, for the most part (I mean, aside from obvious trickery), are just fantastic; there are many great shots that show Darby and the little people in the same frame (done through forced perspective) and it seems completely seamless. I’m not quite sure how they were able to make them appear in the same frame in that day and age, but it’s just incredible. Anyway, the other scene I love is the scene that follows, as Darby and King Brian play a drinking game together so that Darby can trick King Brian into staying until daylight so that he’ll be powerless (and that’s how Darby catches him). This game gives us the “Wishing Song,” one of two songs in this movie (I’ll get to the other one in a bit). The “Wishing Song” has the two of them trading verses back and forth to see how long they can go. This scene is entertaining in the way they continue and keep coming up with clever, amusing rhymes.

This one’s my favorite: “I wish I was married to Old Widow Tunney; she’s ugly as sin, but has beautiful money.”

Oh, I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention the budding romance between Katie and Michael, which takes up a good chunk of movie. Darby wants Katie to be happy, while Katie only thinks about caring about her father and working around the house and doesn’t believe she has time for a man in her life. But Katie and Michael spend some good time together and actually get close to one another, while Katie doesn’t know that Michael is actually here to take Darby’s place. And Michael is wondering how long it will be before Darby tells her. But Michael isn’t keeping this secret for his sake—he genuinely likes Katie and Darby, and does want to help them. While this part of the movie isn’t as fascinating as Darby and the little people, it does help to deliver solid characterization, and on top of that, the two do share convincing chemistry together.

And need I also mention Sean Connery singing the other, most memorable song in the movie, “My Darling Irish Girl?” You know, it might just be me, but I’m not quite sure how to react to Sean Connery singing here. It’s kind of surreal, and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s a good song, though.

What else is there to like about this movie? Albert Sharpe is excellent in the title role, Janet Munro and Sean Connery are appealing, the special effects are outstanding for the most part (there are some noticeable goofs, but when they’re good, they’re very good), I love the creativity among the leprechauns’ folklore, I love how Darby and King Brian are able to outwit each other, the atmosphere surrounding this small Irish town is evident throughout, and even the side characters such as the town locals who listen to Darby’s stories are amusing. “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” is just an all-around fantastic movie. It’s charming, creative, and (for lack of a better word) Disney-magic.