When cinephiles think of Jean-Pierre Melville, they typically associate the French director with taut, detail-heavy procedurals about criminals, gangsters, hitmen or the French underground. He is a director obsessed with process, an auteur of action flicks that are mostly about the incredible boredom and obsessive preparatory work that must always precede the high-stakes heist or the dramatic shootout. In terms of current US-American screen culture, Melville would fit in most readily with the work of Vince Gilligan, the man behind the hit shows “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” shows where action sequences are earned after on-screen hours of the characters hashing out the crucial details. That describes, Melville, too: a muscular, masculine action cinema that is understated and patient, the apotheosis of mid-century, European cool.

One exception in Melville’s oeuvre to his slow thriller calling card is 1963’s Magnet of Doom, a sprawling buddy road movie set in the US. Unlike the stylish panache of Le Samouraï, the minute detailing of Army of Shadows or the context-specific, emotional stares seen throughout Bob le Flambeur, it’s quickly-paced, more like loud and kinetic subgenre films such as Midnight Run or Stranger Than Paradise than Melville’s more famous efforts. It was also Melville’s first color film. While Melville was incapable of making a bad film, Magnet of Doom is more enjoyable today for the on-location cinematography that takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of the US—particularly the South—and for the way it captures the delightful material culture of the early ‘60s. The film today is best savored as an archive of the by-gone era of everyday Americana, a cinematic partner to the Pop Art of Warhol and the delirious fictional scribblings of Kerouac.

The movie pits failed boxer Michel Maudet (a spectacular-as-always Jean-Paul Belmondo) against villainous, racist tycoon Dieudonné Ferchaux (Charles Vanel), who is on the lam for a litany of white-collar crimes he committed as chairman of a Paris bank. Ferchaux needs a lackey to help him run to the US, empty his bank accounts and escape to Venezuela, where he will be safe from extradition back to France. Maudet seems a good choice to the hurried Ferchaux, and he gets the job. Once in the States, the two clash, become friends, clash and so on—it is a rhythm familiar to any film-viewer, as the buddy road movie is a classic of the medium. Plot is secondary; this is less about story and more about setting.

On that front, Magnet of Doom offers an eye-full of material culture: Roadside diners in all of their period genuineness, consumer products on shop shelves, ugly period furniture, beautiful period cars and an array of unmistakably US-American characters including sleazy gamblers, baby-faced soldiers in uniform and crass FBI agents. Like other French filmmakers—Louis Malle, Agnes Varda and Guillaume Nicloux come to mind, as do observers dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville—Melville seems to be truly besotted with the US and its brash, bright culture and people.

Magnet of Doom is inessential Melville and decidedly un-cool, too. It’s for completists only, and those who adore Americana as a cinematic genre– a contemporaneous offering in this genre would be the surprising ‘60s drama The Swimmer. Still, for times such as these, it’s a damned fine way to spend a couple of hours.

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