Jean-Pierre Melville occupies a unique position in the pantheon of French film directors. Melville was too inexperienced, and too involved in the French Resistance, to join the circle of competent professionals (Gremillon, Autant-Lara, Delannoy, etc.) that flourished in the French film industry after Renoir’s flight to the United States. Ironically, this man of conservative politics would become an independent filmmaker and an iconoclastic auteur winning the hearts and minds of the Cahiers Critics years before Breathless would change the landscape of cinema forever.
In true French fashion, success at the box meant a critical comeuppance and while Melville would never be the darling of the underground again his pulp vision truly crystallized in his commercial films of the 1960s and ‘70s. The snubs never seemed to bother Melville who was happy enough to have the means and money to recreate his own hardboiled Paris, inspired by the bandits and back lots of Burbank and Culver City.
Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach to Jewish immigrant parents, young Melville was brought up in a middle-class Parisian neighborhood and coddled by an adoring family. He got his first movie camera at the age of seven and Jean-Pierre spent most of his waking hours either making amateur shorts or watching films in the cinemas of Paris. He began a love affair with American movies, particularly the fast and furious Warner Brother gangster epics starring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and later, Humphrey Bogart.
Melville’s comfortable bohemian existence would be torn asunder by the onslaught of WWII. His cavalry unit was captured early in the fighting and he wasn’t able to reunite with his family in the south of France until 1942. Melville joined the Resistance, but his bad luck grew worse when he was jailed by Spanish authorities and his brother died trying to join up with him.
Freed two months later, Melville made his way to London where he became a full-fledged agent for the Resistance. He spent the duration of the war fighting with the Colonial Artillery of the Free French in North Africa, Italy and France and was decorated with the Croix de la Liberation in 1945.
In years to come, Melville seemed embarrassed when interviewers made reference to his courageous activity during the war. He told them he was no hero—as a Jew it was his duty to participate in the Resistance.
This code of honor plays a big part in the director’s mature films (beginning with Bob le flambeur) where the elegant, professional cons from the pre-war generation make way for a new, tactless breed of criminal. Although he brought talent and life experience to the table, Melville would struggle for nearly a decade to find his place in an industry which had no room for novices.
Melville’s first project in his new chosen field turned out to be a vivid slice of life short chronicling the day in the life of a clown and narrated by the director. At turns, realistic and poetic Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown offers a nuts and bolts take on the methods of Beby and Maiss, two working clowns who find inspiration in their urban surroundings. Although Melville would quickly distance himself from neo-realism this eighteen-minute film presents the first of his many protagonists who live behind masks of their own making.
Melville’s first full-length feature, Le silence de la mer, was based on a classic novel of the Resistance and made under a cloud of controversy. The book’s author Vercors (Jean Bruller) objected to Melville to directing the film on the grounds of his inexperience. Melville also faced the wrath of the French film industry which tried to shut down production because the director lacked a proper union card.
Melville finally won the grudging Vercors over and made the film at the author’s home. Shot on a shoe-string budget the quiet and intense Le silence de la mer is a visual treat (thanks to the neo-gothic cinematography of Henri Decae) and an impressive directorial debut.
Forced to share his country home with a German officer during the Occupation, a French uncle and his young niece do their part for the cause by ignoring all gestures of friendship offered by their poetic new lodger. Initially, the uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and the young woman (Nicole Stephane) quietly resent their chatty intruder von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) who, unlike others in the German military, tries to connect with them with visions of a culturally United Europe.
During a brief interlude in Paris the aristocratic officer gets a rude awakening when he is exposed to the brutality of the Third Reich. As von Ebrennac readies himself for duty at the Eastern front, the sympathetic uncle and niece break their silence to offer comfort to the disillusioned man.
Le silence de la mer is a strange but often powerful work that anticipates Europe’s 21st century status as a pacifist presence on an increasingly fractured world stage. Aside from some heavy-handed commentary, this early effort is a worthy predecessor of Leon Morin, pretre, Melville’s fascinating take on spiritual longing and sexual Resistance.
Melville’s second feature would coincidentally find him collaborating with yet another highly-strung author. Based on Jean Cocteau‘s novel, Les Enfants Terribles follows the incestuous adventures of youthful siblings Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane). After getting knocked out by a rock-filled snowball, the sickly Paul leaves school to be nursed back to health by his doting sister.
The narcissistic pair, accompanied by Paul’s friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard), begins to play wicked games in the bedroom. When their mother dies, Elisabeth accepts a modeling job to support the “family” and she soon becomes friends with fellow cat-walker Agathe (Renee Cosima), who bears an uncanny resemblance one of Paul’s schoolboy crushes.
Elisabeth gets hitched to a wealthy American, who has the good grace to die in a car crash, so the quartet can move into his Parisian mansion. When Paul tells Elisabeth he has fallen in love with Agathe, the jealous sister arranges a wedding between her friend and Gerard, sending Paul into a fit of despair and, finally, suicide.
Since Cocteau helped oversee the production and provided the mellifluous voice-over, Les enfants terribles has always been subject to questions of just who was the film’s true auteur. Against Melville’s wishes Cocteau gave his “protégé” Eduoard Dermithe the role of Paul in the hopes he would become another Jean Marais. Indeed, both Dermithe and Nicole Stephane have the well-coiffed hair and chiseled good looks Cocteau preferred and many of the surreal sets and sequences seem to have been inspired by The Blood of a Poet.
Given all this baggage it’s often difficult to find Melville’s touch in Les enfants terribles. The mise-en-scene is certainly more kinetic—thanks to Henri Decae’s probing camera—than either of Cocteau’s major films of the era (Les parents terribles and Orpheus). There is less posturing in the performances and fantastic flights of fancy are fewer than in the Cocteau films. But, in the end, this excellent interpretation of a difficult novel didn’t add as much to Melville’s growing reputation as it did to Cocteau’s established legend.
Although Melville’s fame spread among the underground critics during the 1950s, it proved a difficult decade for the anxious and notoriously impoverished filmmaker. Eager to work with acclaimed playwright Jacques Deval, Melville accepted the assignment to work on Deval’s adaptation of Quand tu lira cette letter.
Set on the shores of the French Rivera, this steamy melodrama follows the sordid adventures of Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire), a lowlife boxer/mechanic on the make for a big score. Max maintains a vaguely homosexual relationship with his sidekick in crime Bicquet (Daniel Cauchy), a bellboy who tips him off on the habits of the rich inhabitants a beachfront hotel.
Fresh from causing the accidental death of an unsuspecting socialite (Yvonne Sanson), Max is forced into marrying a young woman he has raped by the girl’s older sister. Max is pleased to learn his engagement with Denise (Irene Galter) comes with a nice dowry but that doesn’t stop him from trying to seduce Therese (Juliette Greco), a stern beauty who quit a monastery to mentor her orphaned sister. Max tries to win Therese and vows to turn over a new leaf but his efforts die in vain when he is dragged under a train carrying his beloved.
Although the chaste heroine elicits sympathy it is the blissfully amoral Max who is more interesting as the first Melville anti-hero operating under his own set of rules. The explosive film proved a box office success helping fund a project closer to his heart.
Melville would spend nearly two years filming bits and pieces of Bob le Flambeur, a stylish noir-caper set in the seedy quarters of Montmartre.
After a stretch of bad luck at the local gambling tables Bob (Roger Duchesne) rounds up his old gang to pull one last heist at a Deauville casino before he gives up his life of crime for good. Bob’s protégé Paulo (Daniel Couchy) brags about the heist to his young girlfriend Anne (breathtaking Isabel Corey) unaware she is also sleeping with Marc (Gerard Buhr), a notorious police informer.
On the night of the crime Bob is planted at the casino, but an unexpected winning streak distracts the gambler and nearly causes him to miss taking part in the doomed robbery. As Bob is led away by police, his winnings are put away for safe-keeping until the gambler hires an expensive lawyer to set him free.
This most famous of Melville films establishes the deliberate, slow-burn style his future work would strictly adhere to. Bob and his gang are larger than life subjects, men of honor who are out of touch with the less than brave new world around them. Bob’s greatest error is placing trust in youth, as both the talkative Paulo and the untrustworthy Anne betray him in the end.
Though beautifully shot (by the painstaking Decae), the elegant Bob le flambeur does suffer from amateurish acting (Corey) and Melville’s penchant for unnecessary detail. Still, the splendid results bore a simple truth; a major filmmaking talent had finally burst from its cocoon.
Another film noir years in the making, Two Men in Manhattan is as hardboiled and loopy as the Big Apple—a far cry from the genteel underworld of Bob le Flambeur. Consumed by a love for America it only seemed natural Melville would sooner or later direct a film on the gritty streets of New York City. But, instead of creating an ode to his beloved American gangster flicks, Melville’s new film owed more to the newer, vicious noir of Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly) and Alexander MacKendrick (Sweet Smell of Success) and the breathlessness of the French New Wave.
When United Nations delegate Fevre-Berthier goes missing, a local French news agency assigns top scribe Moreau (Melville) to flush him out. Moreau enlists a cynical photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) to help chronicle an odyssey that will lead them in and out of theaters, bars, and strip-joints in search of the elusive delegate. When they learn one of the actresses they interviewed has tried to commit suicide they brutally interrogate the helpless woman (Ginger Hall) until she admits Fevre-Berthier died of a heart attack during a tryst in her apartment.
The unscrupulous pair breaks into the love nest and scoop-conscious Delmas photographs the dead man. The men break the news to Moreau’s boss Rouvier (Jean Darcante) who, in turn, lets them know Fevre-Berthier was a hero of the Resistance and it would serve everyone’s best interests if the lurid story was left untold. Moreau is ready to give up the ghost, but Delmas refuses to part with his precious roll of film in the hopes of selling the story to the tabloids.
Two Men in Manhattan captures all the chaos of daunting Gotham city. Thanks to the rapid pacing and some extraordinary night-time cinematography (by Melville and Michael Shrayer) we are mostly distracted from the slipshod script, the piecemeal editing and some dreadful acting. Still, it’s hard to get too upset at such a breezy and entertaining movie that never takes itself too seriously.
Melville would never return to the United States to make a follow-up film but, as we shall see, the director would carve out his own special niche of neo-classical filmmaking in his home country.
The first film of Melville’s mature period, Léon Morin, pretre is a true oddity in his canon. This rigorous work about Catholic faith, directed by a secular Jew, taps deeply into the spiritual and sensual longing of a young widow who is attracted to the handsome priest who tries to convert her.
Set near the France-Italy border during WWII, Barny (Emmanuele Riva) is a hard-working mother struggling to get over the death of her Jewish husband. With nearly all the town’s men either imprisoned or fighting in the Resistance, Barny develops a crush on her beautiful female boss. A sworn atheist, she engages in intellectual jousting with a local young priest Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo). His thoughtful means of persuasion finally wins her over and she decides to re-convert to the church.
Soon, Barny is bringing troubled and lonely girlfriends from the office to Morin, who converts a few and fights off the advances of another. In the meantime, Barny grows closer to the priest until realizes she is in love with him. She propositions Morin but he storms out of Barny’s house and distances himself from her.
When the Germans pull out of the town, Barny is reassigned to a new job in Paris. She gets word Morin is also leaving town to work in a mission, so she goes to his flat to say goodbye. It is a sad farewell, as Barny realizes she will not meet him again…in this world.
The probing Leon Morin, made with the surprising approval of the Catholic Church, calls for a modern faith, free of dogma and tired rituals. The virile and cranky Belmondo is an appealing face of a new Catholicism, offering comfort to those frightened or alienated by the rigid church elders.
The earthy Riva is a revelation. She is something of a Mary Magdalene, at first reading too much into the priest’s generosity then fantasizing about Morin’s sexual prowess. But under Melville’s sensitive direction, the complex Barny is endearingly human and ultimately more sympathetic than the enigmatic Morin.
Belmondo went on to play another mysterious figure for the director in Le doulos, a riveting underworld tale about a bitter ex-con out to right old wrongs.
Freshly sprung from prison, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) confronts and kills a fellow gang member who betrayed him in the past. Faugel ransacks the man’s hideout to find a parcel of valuable jewels he pinched in an earlier heist. Faugel buries the jewels in a vacant lot for safe-keeping then returns to his old life of crime.
Faugel orchestrates a new robbery but when the cops surprise him at the scene, killing his henchman and wounding him, Faugel suspects his old friend Silien (Belmondo) has set him up. While in jail Faugel arranges a hit on Silien completely unaware the would-be informer is pulling strings to gain his freedom and secure the buried treasure.
In a truly inspired bit of casting Melville pits the soulful, old school Reggiani against the aloof anti-hero Belmondo who schemes to screw his old chum over. As the small-time hood with a chip on his shoulder Reggani is marvelous, burning with a quiet intensity rarely seen in underworld figures of the American gangster film.
In Le doulos Melville truly hits his stride. The familiar pregnant pauses and drawn-out takes now add layers of incredible tension. This is especially true in the two spooky night sequences where Faugel, then Silien, bury and uncover the stolen jewels under a lonely lamp post with only a distance train whistle breaking an eerie silence.
The stylistic advances made in Leon Morin, pretre and Le doulos seem to have liberated Melville from merely aping the American films he adored. Though, he would make mostly genre films for the rest of his career, they would be distinctly French in character.
Based on an existential noir by Georges Simenon, L’aine des Ferchaux (Magnet of Doom) cast Belmondo as Michel Maudet, a failing boxer who takes a job as a personal secretary/chauffeur to a shady banker looking to go on the lam. Once the unlikely pair arrives in New York, austere Dieudonne Ferchaux (Charles Vanel) begins to warm to Maudet who becomes the older man’s protector on their increasingly bizarre journey to New Orleans.
Melville’s first color film is a valentine to America and much of the location filming is a true feast for the eyes. But, the wide open spaces of the road and awkward infusion of American types and FBI agents ends up dwarfing the slowly-developing character study. Unlike Melville’s tauter crime capers there is a lack of urgency in Ferchaux’s odyssey, so when he is tracked down and murdered in a squalid flat by a pair of petty criminals the effect is curiously anti-climactic.
Little of this shaggy-dog filmmaking would rear its head in Le deuxième souffle, a meticulous, two hour and twenty minute study of a career criminal trying to keep one step ahead of a determined cop.
After making a daring breakout from prison, Gu Minda (Lino Ventura) takes revenge on a pair of gangsters who threatened his girlfriend Manouche (Christine Fabrega) and loyal partner in crime Alban (Michel Constantin). Looking to squirrel away enough money to skip the country with Manouche, Gu takes part in an elaborate roadside robbery but when two motorcycle cops get killed Police Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse) steps up his efforts to track down the elusive Minda.
Gu is soon apprehended and under heavy interrogation he unintentionally reveals his collaborators. Minda manages to escape but his criminal code forces him to seek redemption leading to his own self-destruction.
Ambitious but overlong Le deuxieme souffle has the feel of a transitional piece, bridging the old world criminality of Bob the Gambler, Maurice Faugel and Gu Minda to the more professional and nihilistic villainy of Belmondo and Alain Delon in Melville’s late period masterpieces.
Here and in 1969’s L’armee des ombres the world-weary Ventura is the true to life emblem of Melville’s code of ethics and turns in, arguably, the two quintessential performances in the director’s hard-boiled oeuvre.
Beginning with the austere hit man thriller Le Samourai, Melville would find a new muse in the perfect, stone-faced features of Alain Delon. Having spent the last few years carving out a niche for himself as a celluloid gangster, Delon was intrigued by the possibilities of playing the mostly silent gun for hire, Jef Costello.
Hired by an unseen mob boss to bump-off a local night club owner, Jef completes the task but makes the critical error of being seen at the club by several witnesses. While his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) is willing to vouch for his whereabouts at the time of the killing, the police inspector (Francois Perier) suspects Jef is the real killer.
When Jef tries to collect for the job he is confronted by a company hit man. Jef shoots the assassin, takes his money, but fearing he is marked for death Jef begins a search for the man who put the contract out on him.
Meanwhile, the police have put a listening bug in Jef’s drab apartment, but he deadens the device before incriminating himself. With the police closing in, Jef seduces one of the club witnesses, pianist Valerie (Caty Rosier), but is disappointed when she doesn’t give up the mob boss’s identity. Jef catches a break when he is contracted for another kill. He finally tracks down the mysterious boss (Jean Pierre-Posier) and kills him, but his professional ethos brings him back to the night club to perform his final hit on Valerie.
Le samourai is minimalist Melville as befitting Jef’s bushido-like villain. The taciturn hit man has a solitary existence and neither the beautiful Jane nor the exorbitant amount of money he makes on killing, bring him pleasure. The chink in his armor turns out to be Valerie, the lovely stranger who originally covered-up Jef’s guilt to the police. Rather than kill the pianist, this failed samurai lets the police gun him down in an act of suicide. Delon is superb as the enigmatic hit man whose face is impossible to read.
Stripped to the bone with a muted Paris its backdrop, Le samourai would prove to be Melville’s most haunting film. Borrowing liberally from the Japanese arts and that most severe of filmmakers Robert Bresson, Melville creates a fatalistic fable of the Parisian underworld that proved to be years ahead of its time.
Melville and Delon re-teamed three years later to make chilling, deterministic caper flick, Le cercle rouge. While being transported to Paris prison Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte) makes a daring escape from a moving train and flees into countryside north of Marseilles. He eludes a dragnet set up by his captor, Inspector Mattei (Bourvil), and hops into the trunk of a parked car outside a restaurant on the highway.
Ironically, the car’s owner is a former con on the run from the mob and the police. Corey (Delon) and Vogel team up to kill the men tailing the recently released prisoner and drive to Paris where they put together a heist to clean-out a prominent jeweler. They hire former policeman Jansen (Yves Montand) as a sharpshooter, but just as they are ready to put the plan into action Mattei apprehends an informer in cahoots with the gang’s fence.
Corey, Vogel and Jansen push on and the elaborate heist comes off without a hitch. The gang’s luck runs sour when the fence claims the jewels too hot to for him to handle. With the window of making a big score rapidly closing Corey accepts an offer by an aristocratic stranger (Mattei) to buy the jewels. They meet at the man’s isolated chateau, but by the time Vogel arrives to alert him to the set-up the police have surrounded the building.
Melville had planned to make a heist film as early as the late 1940s, but the dual successes of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1956) put such a project on the back burner. The Huston film would always weigh heavily on Melville’s consciousness, its nihilistic characters and mindset being a major inspiration for Le doulos and the Delon films.
Le cercle rouge is even more somber than Le samourai. After Vogel’s thrilling escape in the opening scene, the pace kicks back into second gear as Vogel and Corey make their unlikely pact, building slowly towards the nail-biting, spectacular heist. This job is a dead-serious business for these tenured conmen and going back to prison simply isn’t an alternative.
The unusual choice of Bourvil to play the wily inspector Mattei adds a welcome Simenon-like flavor to the proceedings, especially in the surprising finale in which the cop tricks the desperate trio back into “the red circle” of doom.
L’armee des ombres, Melville’s bleak but riveting film about the French Resistance in WWII, is his most personal project. Based on a novel by Joseph Kessel and Melville’s own experiences as a solider in the Resistance, the story follows a band of citizens who go undercover to foil the Nazis during the German occupation.
The members of the group, led by Phillippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), have taken an unspoken oath for the cause, even if means sacrificing themselves or loved ones. Their unyielding sense of duty and the dark, muted mise-en-scene sets a grim tone, but when the heroic resisters outwit and outplay the Nazis at their own cruel war games we are finally offered a fleeting moment of hope.
But such relief is only temporary, for when the loyal and brilliant Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is forced to betray the cause to save her daughter from enforced prostitution, she is earmarked for execution. After performing the grisly deed, the solemn resisters drive to the Arch de Triomphe where marching Nazis desecrate the glory of France. The resisters know they are the walking dead but they will continue to recklessly court danger, so France can live to see another day.
Melville’s final film Un flic is another caper flick featuring Delon, but this time the star did a flip-flop by taking on the role of Coleman, a brutal cop.
Inspector Eduoard Coleman (Delon) is friends with the charming Simon (Richard Crenna), a night club owner and, unbeknownst to Coleman, the leader of a small but thriving gang of thieves. Simon and company have just returned from the Atlantic coast where they have committed a spectacular bank robbery. When Simon fears a wounded member of his gang is ready to spill the beans to the police, he has him euthanized.
Coleman investigates this curious death then confronts a transvestite prostitute (Valerie Wilson), who has information on an upcoming heist on the Paris-Lisbon train. Unfortunately for Coleman, Simon’s gang has already struck, stealing a suitcase full of heroin from a drug-runner on the train and escaping by helicopter.
The angry cop gets a break when one of the gangsters is arrested and fingers Simon. He puts out a dragnet to bring in the remaining members of the gang, but justice is thwarted when one of the men commits suicide and Coleman shoots his old friend before it is revealed Simon carries no gun.
Un flic is a very fine exercise in style, but it is an uneven swan song. Despite using some cheap-looking miniatures, the two elaborately staged hold-ups are as thrilling as anything Melville ever put to film. But for the much of the film its auteur seems either weary or disinterested. The complex relationship between Coleman and Simon is left unresolved and Delon proved too aloof to be convincing as a resourceful cop.
Melville was an artistic and popular peak when he died of a heart attack in 1973. Though his films often drew mixed reviews, Melville helped breathe life back into noir and the gangster film and became a seminal influence on modern filmmakers like Woo and Tarantino who, for better and worse, would take the underworld film to its breaking point.
Books on Melville:
Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris – Ginette Vincendeau ****1/2 Vincendeau’s insightful study almost makes up for the bizarre critical neglect Melville endured in his homeland during his reign as a box office king. By introducing some superb analysis on post war French culture and politics into the mix, Vincendeau gets to the heart of Melville mystery.
Melville on Melville– Rui Nogueira **** An affectionate and flat-out fabulous collection of interviews with and reflections by the dry and erudite Melville. Though out of print, this book is well-worth the exorbitant price you’ll have to pay.
Films by Melville:
1946 24 Heures de la vie d’un clown ***
1949 Le silence de la mer ***1/2
1950 Les enfants terribles ***1/2
1953 Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter) ***1/2
1955 Bob le flambeur ***1/2
1958 Two Men in Manhattan ***1/2
1961 Leon Morin, pretre ****
1962 Le doulos ****
1963 L‘aine des ferchaux (Circle of Doom) ***1/2
1966 Le deuxieme souffle ****
1967 Le samourai *****
1969 L’armee des ombres (Army of Shadows) ****
1970 Le cercle rouge ****1/2
1972 Un flic (A Cop) ***1/2