Monthly Screenings
Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

Dan Fainaru      

Donning a cowboy hat and dark Ray Bans, cruising around town in a big Cadillac – in real-life, Jean-Pierre Melville used to look just like a character from one of his own films. A firm believer in “larger than life” figures, he fashioned his appearance to resemble his movie heroes – those he met in the countless American adventure yarns he watched through long sleepless nights, when, as an adolescent, he was getting acquainted to a world that he later infused, once he began making movies,  with a unique French flavor.

Born in Paris as Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917 to a Jewish Alsatian family., he was an avid circus fan all through his childhood, (his first short film, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown was dedicated to one of his heroes at the time); but once he started as a teen to explore the streets and back alleys of the city, his fascination gradually moved to the cinema. Although experimenting with a variety of eccentric crafts before being drafted into the French army in 1937, it was clear that Jean-Pierre’s future was in movies. It was during his military service – first in the French Army and later in the Resistance – that he adopted the code-name “Melville” as a tribute to the great American novelist, Henry Melville (Moby Dick).

When discharged in 1945, Jean-Pierre took the first step toward realizing his dream. He sought employment as an assistant director but was turned down – the production companies would hire him only if he became a member of the cinema trade union. But when he approached the Union, he was told he can’t be a member unless he is hired by a film production. Frustrated with the bureaucratic shenanigans of the industry, he was to set up his own independent studio at 12 Rue Jenner, moving into the upstairs apartment, above the studio. By that time, everyone knew him as Jean-Pierre Melville.  

It did not take long for the French film industry to turn its nose up at the young upstart’s declaration of independence. When working on his first feature film, Le Silence de la Mer (Silence of the Sea), some of the exhibitors warned movie theaters against showing the film, threatening toblacklistt them and cut off their business relations. They called him “an amateur,” claimed he knew nothing about filmmaking, employed inexperienced novices (such as Henri Decaë, who became one of the greatest cinematographers of the French New Wave), and accused him of tackling challenges exceeding his abilities.

Amateur? Melville was willing to accept this derogatory term because it reflected his love for cinema. “I believe that you must be madly in love with cinema to create films,” he often said. On the other hand, he rejected it angrily, for he claimed no other French filmmaker was involved as deeply as he was in every aspect of filmmaking – from planning the shots and writing dialogue, to conceiving even the minutest gestures. Melville followed Ernst Lubitsch in believing that for each shot, there is only one correct camera position – and he never quit before finding it. It took many years before French critics acknowledged Melville as the meticulous professional he was, who directed his films with obsessive precision.

To a certain degree, Melville might be considered the trailblazer for La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave), which was to emerge some twelve years later. He shared with the New Wave directors a passion for film, preferred the imaginary world of movies to crude everyday realism, like them he was a dedicated fan of American cinema, and displayed disdain for the patronizing, garish, superficial, and squandering French studio system with their “tradition of quality” films. Melville was repulsed by the orderly, institutionalized frameworks of industrialized production, and strongly believed that true education in cinema is acquired at the cinematheque, not at the university.

The French journal Cahiers du Cinema, the official spokesman of the New Wave, was often ambivalent toward Melville: while Jean-Luc Godard expressed his appreciation, casting him in Breathless, several Melville movies, especially Army of Shadows, were suspected as being inappropriately politicized (right wing). It was only years after his death that Melville assumed the recognition he deserved.    

But the distance between Melville and the New Wave was impossible to bridge on so many other levels. While the New Wave filmmakers admired Fritz Lang and Nicholas Rays’ Johnny Guitar, despising William Wyler and Billy Wilder, Melville adored Wyler’s The Children’s Hour and Wilder’s The Apartment. “If… I have consented to pass for their [the nouvelle vague‘s] adopted father for a while, I do not wish to anymore, and I have put some distance between us,” Melville said in an interview in 1964. “After the failure of Deux hommes dans Manhattan, I decided only to undertake films intended for a mass audience, and not purely for a small number of enlightened film buffs.” It’s no surprise that he was suspicious of movies, like Last Year at Marienbad, that may have demonstrated his own kind of obsessive filmmaking, but for distinctively different purposes.

Today, Melville is largely identified with gangster films such as The Fingerman (Le Doulos, 1963), Second Breath (Le Deuxième soufflé, 1966), The Red Circle (Le Cercle rouge, 1970) and The Samurai (1967) - the epitome of his work in the genre. Filming mostly outdoors, Melville studied the locations meticulously – not to document reality, but rather to exploit its authenticity in rendering his imaginary stories. “I am careful never to be realistic.… Everything I do is fiction. Always,” he stressed. Thus, both his interior and exterior shots were an integral part of a world he painted in his imagination. The opening sequence of Melville’s last film, A Cop (Un Flic, 1972) is a poignant example:  a desolate seashore boardwalk, twilight, pale streetlamps providing the only source of lighting, with the murmur of cars passing on a road and waves crashing on the beach on the soundtrack. Drenched in shades of blue, the scene establishes an atmosphere reminiscent, as many critics noted, of Turner’s landscape paintings.     

Film theorists have referred to Melville as a “genre existentialist” for whom genre is destiny imposed upon its heroes, a world they occupy and abide by its own rules, although often against their most heartfelt instincts. A hopeless romantic, Melville focused on the constant discord between friendship, loyalty, love, life itself, and the ethos of the social climate inhabited by his heroes – the latter invariably triumphant. Whether born on the “right” or “wrong” side of the law, his characters cannot escape their roots and are judged accordingly. In terms of absolute justice, as the police commissioner in Red Circle says: “Every man is born innocent, but this does not last long.”

As one whose soul was captured by American cinema and whose personal heroes were stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, Melville preferred actors whose physical presence contributed to the roles they played no less than their dramatic talents – actors like Yves Montand, Lino Ventura, or Alain Delon. In Magnet of Doom (L’aine des Ferchaux, 1963), Melville planned on casting Spencer Tracy in the lead, but due to the American star’s poor health, he was replaced by Charles Vanel, one of France’s icons in the post WWII era. Notably, it was while shooting this film that the close relationship between Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo came to an end. Belmondo, who had contributed significantly to the success of The Fingerman and Lèon Morin, could not stand the way Melville treated Vanel, whom he admired. At a certain point he lost his temper, stomped over the director’s stetson hat, threw his dark glasses on the floor and furiously walked away. Melville had to wrap up the rest of the film without one of his stars.

Though largely remembered for his gangster films, Melville’s rich oeuvre included three intense wartime dramas taking place in occupied France: The Silence of the Sea (1949), based on Vercors’ cult novel published during the War, confronts a humanistic German officer with a French girl and her uncle who were ordered to host him in their home; Lèon Morin (1961), the relations between a fiercely secular woman and a Catholic priest; and Army of Shadows (1969), based on a collection of Resistance stories by Joseph Kessel.

And finally, a sample of the unique French spirit Melville instilled in the American gangster genre he so adored: In Bob the Gambler (Bob le flambeur, 1959), Bob, a handsome middle-aged thief planning to clean out the Deauville casino, returns to his apartment before dawn. He finds his mistress asleep in his bed with his young protégé and confidant. One can easily imagine the dramatic turn this scene would take in the world of American gangster movies. But Melville’s protagonist does not disturb the couple; instead, he gently pulls the covers over them and tiptoes out. This subtle, existential gesture, an acknowledgement of his own age, is at the same time a tribute to the magic of youth viewed through mature eyes. By the way, it was this film that inspired, years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Frank Sinatra hit Ocean’s 11 and all of its blockbuster sequels. 


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