5. Frantic (1988)
Polanski’s thriller begins with a gripping sense of confusion and desperation, flowing unevenly into a scarcely believable but hugely enjoyable clandestine world of missed connections and secret alliances. Whilst Walker takes a shower, his wife, Sondra, simply disappears and he is left to his own devices, attempting to retrace her steps through the Parisian underworld, accompanied only by Ennio Morriccone’s haunting synths. Polanski saw the film as a moment when a line is crossed, somewhere between the past and present; what a man used to be and what he might become. The stunning rooftop sequence purposely recalls Vertigo, reminding us of another detective in search of more than just a woman. Frantic explores the idea of the city as a place where anything can be discovered or regained, a space where nothing is lost, except those who are searching.
4. Rififi (1955)
Celebrated for the remarkable, wordless, 32-minute heist at the centre of the film, Jules Dassin’s intricate thriller is so consummately constructed that many forget that it arrived five whole years after John Huston set the standard in The Asphalt Jungle. Still, the casual humour, razor-sharp dialogue and relentless pace make it a classic of the genre. Working its way through the set-up, the robbery and the downfall, there’s an almost mechanical pleasure in watching the endeavor fall apart. The attention to detail in the methodology of the gang is remarkable, the men slowly insinuating themselves into the vault, inch by inch, clawing back the minutes threatening to overtake them. Totally convincing, despite the self-conscious stereotypes it toys with, this is the real thing: one of the all time great crime movies.
3. An American in Paris (1951)
Gene Kelly is in full swing here, perfectly in synch with the fluttering heart of Vincente Minnelli’s gorgeous, expansive film. Excelling in the role of Jerry, a heart-broken painter seeking refuge from his everyday life, Kelly turns in one of his most dazzling performances. An American in Paris prances along to the Gershwin numbers before hyper-real backdrops in the style of Manet, Van Gogh and Renoir, taking place in a kind of dream Paris. John Alton’s photography – used to such sinister effect in the early noirs of Anthony Mann – is superbly defined, reaching what seems to be a pinnacle for the medium. This is Paris, sure, but filtered through a particularly resplendent Hollywood Technicolor, fired by the radiance of its own beautiful stars. Minnelli creates a world within a world, upstaging himself scene after scene until the glittering finale. This is a Paris within a Paris, an all singing all dancing city of the imagination.
2. Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)
Truffaut’s film is always surprisingly leisurely, stealing time and space from the citizens of the great capital. The rebellious young protagonist, Antoine, is an irrepressible force who may have discovered that freedom is a point of no return: stepping out from his life for a moment, he finds it impossible to return and becomes an exile with no destination. The rhythm and unpredictability of the narrative reflect the patterns of everyday life, of the city: the overlappings of joy, sadness, hope, disillusionment, escape can be found in the seemingly random series of urban episodes enjoyed and endured by Antoine, forming a kind of cumulative Paris of unexpected incident. Truffaut rarely allows Antoine a point of view: he is trailed by the camera throughout his wanderings, stalked through the streets by his own sense of fate, which catches up to him at the film’s conclusion in that momentous frozen-frame.
1. Le Samourai (1967)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful study of male solitude, masochism and melancholy is an inspired reworking of Frank Tuttle’s seminal noir This Gun for Hire. Instead of Alan Ladd, we have the peerless Alain Delon as Jef Costello, an isolated, self-regarding dandy of a contract killer. Delon’s performance is an understated masterclass in minimalist body language and lingering, passive looks: he drifts through the city in the manner that other men kiss their wives, with a sense of fatigued dread. Melville plays with the archetype of the lonely male hero, urging Delon to glide through the night with an unsettling calm – instilling the whole film with a pensive and unprepared stillness. The rituals and methods of Jef turn Le Samourai into a cinema of process, of rigour and obedience. The meticulous construction is fascinating and the set-piece at its heart, the chase sequence on the Metro, is one of the most memorably staged set-ups in French cinema.