News and Commentary – Jean-Pierre Melville 100!
Mid Century Cinema favorite Jean-Pierre Melville would have turned 100 on October 20, and his centennial has led to countless celebratory retrospectives, as well as, it would appear, the forging of The Jean Pierre Melville Foundation. We would say it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy—but that would be wrong of us, as he was, by all accounts, a rather difficult fellow. Directors Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlöndorff, each of whom worked as assistants to Melville, tell irresistible stories about their experiences working for a charismatic task master. (Some favorites: Melville and Claude Sautet calling on Tavernier’s parents, urging them to allow their son pursue a career in film; Melville, in a fit of pique over a trivial matter, ordering his entire crew not to speak to Tavernier for three days.)
Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but in the ruins of the French collapse before the advancing Nazi blitzkrieg his army unit was evacuated to England, where he joined the French resistance and adopted the name Melville, which he kept after the war. There was no doubt about the career he would ultimately pursue—Melville’s passion for the movies knew no bounds. (He told Rui Nogueira, in the invaluable interview-book Melville on Melville, that during a one-week leave in London in 1943 he saw twenty-seven films.) And so, after the war he would pursue a career in film, starting in 1946 with the undistinguished short 24 heures de la vie d'un clown.
Much more remarkably, Melville would make films on his own terms, outside of the rigid confines of the rule-bound and hierarchical French film industry. His first feature,The Silence of the Sea, was made with stray ends of film stock on a less than shoestring budget, and was something of a sensation, as we have discussed at length here. The success of Silence led to a high-profile and well-regarded adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, followed by a period of uncertainty that fizzled out with the melodrama When You Read this Letter, the only real clunker in the Melville filmography.
It was not until Bob le Flambeur (1956) – perhaps his most beloved film – that Melville emerged as the Melville of our imagination. A relatively lighthearted caper film, influenced by John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (of course Melville would insist he had conceived of Bob long before he saw the Huston film), it has things to say about honor and fate and crime and masculinity and all that. It was also shot entirely on Melville’s terms: the first movie he made at “Jenner Studios”—an old warehouse he bought, set up shop in, and lived above for many years. (If you see a staircase in a Melville film and say to yourself, “hey, that looks familiar,” well, it should—it’s the same staircase.) It was this Melville, the independent operator, often working with cinematographer Henri Decaë, who would become a hero of the French New Wave, a reverence reflected in his featured cameo in Godard’s Breathless, small role in Chabrol’s Landru, and brief appearance in Rohmer’s first film.
Two Men in Manhattan (1959) was the first of what I have dubbed Melville’s “noir improvisations,” along with Les Doulos and Le Deuxième Souffle. Two Men isn’t so much a movie as an excuse for a movie. But if you’re the kind of person who would enjoy tagging along for an exhilarating, night-for-night chase in the wee small hours across hipster Manhattan, you won’t want to miss this one, which is simply a delight. Les Doulos, with Jean Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani and Jean Desailly (the first two reels of which have not been surpassed in the noir canon), and the existential caper film Le Deuxième Souffle, with Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse, are each essential viewing.
The early sixties yielded two additional Melville-Belmondo collaborations: the rather strange-but-watchable L’aine des Ferchaux, which is really a three part film in which the parts don’t quite hold together (we love the first third), and another masterpiece, Leon Morin, Priest, a film that observes with brilliantly framed precision the complex and subtle relationship (and implicit, unrequited flirtation) between a priest and non-believer (Emmanuelle Riva) in a small town during the occupation.
Melville left us too soon, collapsing into the arms of a friend while puzzling through some elements of his next project, a thriller that was to star Yves Montand. But with his last four pictures, Melville would go from strength to strength. Three films with Alain Delon – Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge, and Un Flic – are all well worth seeking out. (Most critics rave about the first two, but we’re on board for all three—and stay tuned, we’ll soon have more to say about the Delon trilogy in a Fifty Years Ago Today post about Le Samourai.) And then, of course, there is the incomparable Army of Shadows, featuring Ventura (the two men were not on speaking terms during the production), Meurisse, Simone Signoret, and a company of favorites. The ultimate resistance picture (and all too relevant today), it is his greatest film – it is one of the greatest films ever made – and, fittingly, it is a singular, summary statement of Melville’s entire career.
Our user’s guide follows the vid-caps below.
Melville's Cameo in Breathless
Two Men in Manhattan
Leon Morin, Priest
Army of Shadows
The Films of Jean Pierre Melville: A User's Guide
Un Flic (1972) **
Le Circle Rouge (1970) **
Army of Shadows (1969) ***
Le Samourai (1967) ***
Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) **
L’aine des Ferchaux (1963)
Les Doulos (1962) **
Leon Morin, Priest (1961) **
Two Men in Manhattan (1959) *
Bob le Flambeur (1956) *
When You Read this Letter (1953)
Les Enfants Teribles (1950)
The Silence of the Sea (1949) *