(1917 - 1973)
Three Key Films: Le Samouraï(1967), Army of Shadows (1969), Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Underrated: Le Doulos (1962). As with any first forays into a specific genre, Melville can be excused for not fully realizing his later film neo noir brilliance here. After all, this story of a master thief out to unmask the associate who is selling him out to the police is far from perfect—and yet, everything we will come to expect (and worship) about the director’s style is in near full flower: the meticulous mood and attitude of the characters; the attention to old school Hollywood gangster detail; the moral ambiguity of the players; the faultlessness of the casting; the subversive storyline that keeps important pieces of information close the vest, waiting for the audience to catch up and figure things out. As he would throughout the rest of his career, Melville manages to make the small seem massive, the incidental appear near epic. He can turn a simple showdown into a primer on personal ethos and reconfigure a revenge plot so that it comes out more judgmental than justified. “Le Doulos” may translate into a kind of hat typically worn by a ‘stool pigeon’ but in this regrettably overlooked early gem, it’s a crown that Melville is just learning to wear… and wear proudly.
Unforgettable: The interconnecting narratives of Le Cercle Rouge: Like Blow (2001), Pulp Fiction (1994), and/or Goodfellas (1990) afterward, Melville’s complicated approach to storytelling would remain endemic. Indeed, Rouge is a film told in sections, each movement adding to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. The final portion of the film is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another as we jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart—pure Melville.
The Legend: Considered by many to be the godfather of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Pierre Melville epitomized ‘60s French cool. He was cinematic swagger, the international man of mystery making movies instead of deals with equally sophisticated and evocative underworld figures. His was an art as purposeful artifice, of discovering the truth by skimming the surface and never taking sides. At the height of his popularity, writer Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters’ perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline.” It’s a great way of placing his otherwise limited and yet highly voyeuristic oeuvre alongside those of his equally famous countrymen (Truffaut, Godard, etc.). Though he only made 13 films in 25 years, his stamp on both the artform and specific genres lingers throughout today’s glamorized and glorified gangster dramas. Indeed, his mob movies had an almost fetishistic insistence on the trapping of archetype—trench coats, fedoras and finely rolled cigarettes.
Adopting the nom de guerre “Melville” during his time in the French Resistance during World War II (an experience which would inform his most personal—and perhaps greatest—film, 1969’s masterful Army of Shadows), Jean-Pierre’s entry into the film industry was hard fought. Initially denied membership to the French Technicians’ union (he sought to be an Assistant Director), Melville set up his own production company and began making films outside the system. Thus began a strange dichotomy. Many only remember Melville for his work in noir, his crime tropes outranking the rest of his catalog. But that is an unfair description, since some of his best work was directly inspired by the French Occupation. Yet because of the iconic nature of his arch anti-heroes in Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), he was purposefully pigeonholed, for better and for worse.
Though he would eventually reject the notion that he was any sort of patriarchal figure to the Nouvelle Vague, titles like Les Enfants terribles (1950) and Bob le flambeur (1956) were undoubtedly inspirations for the many New Wavers who followed in his footsteps. In fact, the latter would be viewed as an example of the burgeoning auteur theory (especially its use of perspective and individual narrative POV) while the former found its novelty in the knowing details of pre-adolescence and locale. When he adopted the name of the famous American novelist, he did it as both a tribute and a test. Melville one day hoped he could match the beloved author with his own contributions to his craft. Clearly, he did his namesake very proud indeed. Bill Gibron and John Sciaccotta