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‘Could it be by the sea, Your Honor?’

Scene from "The 400 Blows": Antoine Runs Away

[…] He moves through the Paris streets (photographed with exhilarating
clarity by Henri Decaë) confidently but a little anxiously, a trace of
unease betrayed by an odd scurrying half-run he breaks into from time
to time, as if he he’d suddenly remembered that someone was chasing
him. It’s the gait he uses in the movie’s famous final sequence, when
he escapes from the reform school he has wound up in and, his pursuers
well behind him, makes his way across a bleak beach for his first-ever
glimpse of the sea.

The camera travels with him, recording every
jerky small step until he reaches the edge of the water, looks at the
big-deal sea for all of about five seconds and then turns back,
expressionless, to face us in what quickly becomes a freeze-frame: the
last, powerfully ambiguous image of the film.

This sort of
ending wasn’t common in 1959, and viewers were impressed. Mr. Truffaut,
overcoming the considerable ill will he had earned as a Cahiers critic,
won the prize for best director at Cannes; the movie was a hit in
France and all over the world.

That freeze-frame stuck in
people’s minds as if it were a sharp, nagging memory of their own. What
looks most remarkable now, though, isn’t the blank still face that
closes the film, but the daringly long run that brings us to it, that
allows our emotions to gather and build with each short, stiff step
until, without quite understanding why, we end up overwhelmed. It’s the
movie in miniature, really.

Right from the start of his career
Truffaut had the sly gift of holding our attention while appearing to
be doing almost nothing, just moving at his own casual pace away from
the traditions that dogged him and toward something that might have
looked to him as huge and vague and daunting as the ocean. […]

"A Troublemaker Who Led A Revolution," Terrence Rafferty, New York Times, Sept. 21, 2007

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