In praise of crime film poet Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville was the lone wolf of French cinema and the connective tissue between American film noir and modern day master directors like Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. Dive into his ice cool cinema with GFT's latest CineMasters season
The cinema world has many reasons to celebrate the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, but the fact that this year marks the centenary of his birth is as good as any. Born in Paris in 1917, Melville grew up movie-mad. In his youth, the Frenchman claimed to have haunted his local cinemas day and night, watching his first film at nine in the morning and not emerging until 3am the next day. It proved a fine film school. “I believe you must be madly in love with cinema to create films,” he once said. “You also need a huge cinematic baggage.” His movies would carry plenty.
Melville’s favourite cinema was of the hard-boiled variety, those American crime flicks featuring laconic leading men in fedora hats, dangerous dames and unhappy endings, which were later dubbed film noir by French critic Nino Frank. His love of Americana extends to his name; Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but adopted the new moniker as a codename during the Second World War in a mark of admiration and self-identification with his favourite writer, Herman Melville – “an author, an artist, who meant more to me than any other,” he said. After the war, it became his filmmaking nom de plume.
Melville’s films can be broadly split into two categories. There are his trio of films working through the traumas of war in Occupied France: début Le Silence de la Mer, from 1949; Léon Morin, Priest, from 1961; and Army of Shadows, from 1969. The rest are the existential crime films for which he is best known.
An outlier is sophomore feature Les Enfants Terribles, a claustrophobic chamber piece following the dysfunctional co-dependent relationship between a sickly young man and his domineering sister. It’s a more feverish picture than the ice cool thrillers (Le Deuxième Souffle, Le Cercle Rouge) for which Melville would become famous, and this added heat would appear to emanate from poet and author Jean Cocteau, who wrote the script and the novel on which the film is based.
Cocteau, a celebrated filmmaker himself with films like Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1949), chose Melville to direct on the strength of Le Silence de la Mer. The set of Les Enfants Terribles, however, was not a happy one. Cocteau and Melville regularly clashed, particularly in the casting of Cocteau’s adopted son Edouard Dermit in the lead role, his movie star looks not equating to movie star charisma in Melville's eyes. The resulting film feels more indebted to its author than its director, but the expressive cinematography that plays with light and shadow, its concern with dangerous love triangles, and the slap in the face ending would become Melville trademarks.
All three are in play in Bob le Flambeur (1956), Melville’s next film and first masterpiece. Silver-haired Roger Duchesne stars as the title character, an incorrigible gambler who’s been on a run of bad luck that’s left him broke. Bob has no interest in life as a pauper, however, and begins planning an elaborate robbery to put him back in the black after hearing a tip from a croupier friend that the Deauville casino is vulnerable to a heist.
Bob brings in his tough young protege on the job, and he also begins a casual relationship with a much younger woman. But, as would become a running theme in Melville’s films, sentimental attachments like friends and lovers prove the downfall to our hero. This lone wolf attitude is one Melville shared with his characters. “Why do you think I have chosen solitude?” he said in a 1971 interview. “Commerce with men is a dangerous business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone.”
The characters of Le Doulos (1963) learn this the hard way. It’s a film of cross and double-cross set in a less glamorous universe than that of Bob le Flambeur. This is a world of threadbare hideouts, inky back alleys, and eerily deserted streets where you’re not likely to be disturbed as you murder an old friend and bury the murder weapon, his loot and some stolen jewellery for safekeeping. The most ambiguous figure here is Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Silien, a safe-cracker whose loyalties seem split between his two best friends: cop Salignari, who rumour has it he’s turned stool pigeon for, and fellow criminal Maurice, who’s fresh from a spell in the joint and planning his next robbery.
Le Doulos’ characters all appear to behave unconscionably, and such is Melville’s cool detachment to their behaviour, we’re not sure if any of their actions are justified until over halfway through the movie when the murky plot begins to reveal itself. In our current age of superhero adoration, it’s bracing to be reminded that our protagonists could be problematic, and not necessarily on the side of truth and justice. Not that such misbehaviour goes unrewarded: the final scene of a Melville film tends to be as corpse-ridden as a Shakespearean tragedy.
Melville’s vivid body of work reached its zenith with three films starring the beguilingly handsome Alain Delon. Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972), Melville’s swan song, are fine-tooled action films where the complex plotting seen in the likes of Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos have been stripped away; standard movie accoutrements like backstory and dialogue are cut to the bone.
Le Samouraï is the most loved of this Delon trio and certainly the most iconic. It’s Melville’s first film in colour, but the palette of cobalt blues and iron greys make it feel just as monochromatic as the earlier work. Again it’s a film about mistrust; Delon plays Jef, an assassin for hire who’s betrayed by the organisation who contracted the hit that opens the film. It’s always dangerous to assume a film’s protagonist is in some way a reflection of the director’s own personality, but in this case the temptation to do so is irresistible. Like Melville, Jef is a man of process who takes his work incredibly seriously, is meticulous, and is the best at what he does. Aside from the killing, he’s Melville to a tee.
Melville died young, aged 55, at the height of his filmmaking powers, with only 13 features under his belt. His career feels far from meager, however, given both the quality of the films and their influence. The young iconoclasts of the Nouvelle Vague were vocal in their contempt of the French cinema that came before them (le cinéma de papa), but Melville’s films were a different story. Just look at some of the first works from that movement – Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958), François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) – and you clearly see Melville’s DNA. Godard even stole Melville’s favourite actor, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and gave Melville a cameo in gratitude, while Malle and Truffaut procured the services of Melville’s regular cinematographer, Henri Decaë.
Melville’s influence spread far beyond France. Pretty much every great action film from the 60s onwards owes him a debt, from Michael Mann’s icy neo-noirs to John Woo’s Hong Kong shoot-em-ups. When The Skinny spoke to Walter Hill, an existential poet after Melville’s own heart, we asked him about Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 crime film Drive, which borrowed wholesale from Hill’s own 1978 feature The Driver. His answer was both generous and a mea culpa. “I know Nic. He’s been over here to the house. Bill Friedkin [The Exorcist] introduced us and we both immediately said, ‘Well, we both know that we’ve stolen from Jean-Pierre Melville.’” By watching GFT’s latest CineMasters season, many similar connections should fall into place.
Jean-Pierre Melville: GFT CineMaster season
Le Doulos: 8-10 Sep (times vary)
Les Enfants Terribles: 10 Sep, 2.50pm (on 35mm)
Le Samourai: 17 Sep, 2.15pm (on 35mm)
Bob le Flambeur: 25 Sep, 6pm
Purchase tickets at glasgowfilm.org/shows/cinemasters-jean-pierre-melville
A Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective is also currently underway at Filmhouse, Edinburgh. Head to filmhousecinema.com/seasons/jean-pierre-melville-2017 for details