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American Cinematographer Magazine

Band of Outsiders (1964)
Dolby Digital Mono
The Criterion Collection, $29.95

Godard and Coutard's fruitful collaboration continued with their 1964 triumph Band of Outsiders, a work of effervescent experimentation that fairly bursts with verve. The story presents a quintessentially French romantic triangle: while taking an English class, naive teenage beauty Odile (Anna Karina) falls under the sway of Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), a feckless pair of wannabe thieves who develop an even greater interest in the girl when she mentions that a large pile of bills is stashed in an unguarded dresser at her adoptive aunt's riverside home. As they plan the heist, the trio frolic and flirt their way through Paris, which Coutard's lens renders in the charcoal hues of black-and-white neorealism.

Shot in just 25 days, Band of Outsiders is more about mood and style than story; indeed, the plot is a simple B-movie mechanism drawn from the 1958 pulp novel Fools' Gold, penned by Dolores Hitchens. Godard's film version, which features the director's poetic voiceover, focuses on the ambience of its settings and the emotional vicissitudes of its three leads. It's also peppered with intellectual quotations, references and in-jokes that will provide plenty of mirth for attentive students of literature and New Wave cinema. (For those who can't catch them all, a handy "visual glossary" is provided.)

The picture's loose, improvisational style and naturalistic atmosphere have made it hugely popular among cinephiles, as well as a major influence on other filmmakers (particularly Quentin Tarantino, whose affection for this classic is so great that he and two partners named their production company A Band Apart, after the film's French title, Bande part). Happily, this Criterion DVD offers fans an impeccable high-definition digital transfer supervised by Coutard himself, as well as a rich selection of extras.

Chief among "the loot" (as the disc refers to these goodies) is an on-camera interview with Coutard. "I've always liked taking risks," the great French cinematographer maintains, adding that he fully embraced Godard's freewheeling, impulsive approach to cinema, which was styled to resemble "live reporting." Predating the Dogme95 movement by three decades, the director insisted on handheld cameras and natural lighting whenever possible. "Since I'd been a war photographer, Godard's approach didn't bother me," Coutard relates. "More experienced studio cameramen wouldn't have liked it." One problem, however, was the fact that "there was no real script. Jean-Luc would show up with whatever he'd written for that day. We'd end up filming that. If he hadn't written anything, we didn't film anything. As far as the photography was concerned, there were no specific ground rules other than to try and make it as good as possible, but within the context of live reporting."

Godard's mandates created other challenges that Coutard solved with ingenuity and resourcefulness. A lightweight Arriflex camera was encased in a supple blimp to capture exterior scenes handheld, but it proved too noisy for interior scenes, which had to be shot with a much heavier Mitchell. This camera was simply too hefty to handhold, but the cinematographer was still keen to maintain the naturalistic feel he had established while shooting at outdoor locations. Coutard and his crew achieved this goal by fashioning an early prototype of the three-wheeled Western dolly, which the cinematographer would climb aboard. As he panned back and forth, the dolly's soft tires would flatten out and cause the camera to shift, thus simulating the off-kilter look of authentic handheld work.

The other extras on this disc are equally illuminating. In addition to Coutard's recollections, Karina offers her own delightful memories of working with Godard (to whom she was married from 1961-64) during an interview recorded in 2002. A 16-page booklet offers essays by poet Joshua Clover, descriptions of the characters by Godard and a reprint of a 1964 interview with the director. Rounding out the package are Agnes Varda's silent comedy Les Fiances du Pont Mac Donald (featuring Godard and members of the Band of Outsiders cast); La Nouvelle Vague par elle-meme, a 1964 documentary that offers some rare behind-the-scenes footage of the Band of Outsiders shoot; and two theatrical trailers.

In an onscreen interview for the Nouvelle Vague documentary, Godard sums up the spirit of the movement with the no-nonsense deportment of a true revolutionary: "This movie was made as a reaction against anything that wasn't done. It was almost pathological and systematic. A wide-angle lens isn't used for close-ups? Then let's do it. A handheld camera isn't used for tracking shots? Then let's do it. It went along with my desire to show that nothing was off limits."

- Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.