Young people often have faith in their own heartlessness. What enables a person to "ghost" a lover or abruptly abandon friends and family without explanation is the confidence that the emotional repercussions, if there are any, will be bearable. Jean-Pierre Melville's 1963 film L'Aîné des Ferchaux (released in English speaking countries as Magnet of Doom) presents such a young man, a former paratrooper and former boxer, named Michel played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. He finds a fitting father figure in a disgraced businessman named Ferchaux, played by Charles Vanel, and we watch them embark on a bittersweet adventure as the old man gradually loses everything but his new, capricious young friend. Melville's first colour film, it becomes a wonderful road movie featuring a lot of great footage of the eastern United States.
The story begins in Paris, though, with Michel losing a boxing match without a knockout or anyone getting particularly worn out--the physically formidable Michel is defeated by the points system and, like that, his career is over. He goes back to his apartment where he explains to his girlfriend, Lina (Malvina Silberberg), that now he has to look at this loser in the mirror for the rest of his life. She doesn't get it.
She maintains a simple-hearted faith in him even when he rips her dead mother's necklace off of her to pawn it. She has faith in him right up until he abandons her, penniless, at a cafe while he takes a job as a secretary for Ferchaux.
From boxer to secretary--of course Michel bluffs his way through the interview but he doesn't have to try very hard because Ferchaux hires him on the grounds that he likes his face. Ferchaux is used to being rich and respected enough that he can indulge in his instincts. Now following a scandal in which he beat up three men, he's forced to flee for New York, in the hopes of eventually reaching Venezuela. Authorities prevent him from accessing his bank account so he settles for a few million he can get out of a safe before he and Michel go on the road.
It becomes clear that Ferchaux has run out of friends. Despite his age, he has accrued no lasting love or friendship with anyone, everything having been based on opportunism and transaction. It's easy to see how Ferchaux may have once been much like Michel when he was younger and this, along with his own needs, explains why he looks on Michel with so much affection even when Michel's loyalties clearly grow increasingly tenuous. Any time a girl comes along, for one thing, Michel is ready to split on the old man--first with an American hitchhiker named Angie (Stefania Sandrelli) and then with a gorgeous French dancer working in New Orleans named Lou (Michele Mercier).
The two leads could not have been more perfectly cast, both Belmondo and Vanel bringing their own rough, ragged charms with Belmondo easily conveying the vulnerability of a confident young person who doesn't know himself very well. Vanel is lovely as someone who's old enough to know people all too well but is desperately hoping to be surprised. L'Aîné des Ferchaux or Magnet of Doom is available on The Criterion Channel.