That’s my taste for the absurd. There’s still a bridge on the River Kwai nestling somewhere in my heart. I like the futility of effort: the uphill road to failure is a very human thing.
— Jean-Pierre Melville
The French addiction for American film is longstanding, and few Gallic directors embody this infatuation as fully and successfully as Jean-Pierre Melville. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917, he changed his name to that of the author of Moby Dick; habitually wore Rayban sunglasses; kept his car radio permanently tuned to the Armed Forces Network; and was frequently photographed wearing a wide-brimmed western hat. Meville immersed himself in the body of American film made before World War II. He constructed an idiosyncratic canon of the 63 greatest directors of that day, which includes such usual suspects as John Ford and Howard Hawks as well as more obscure individuals such as Harold S. Bucquet and H.C. Potter.
As much as the cinema molded his worldview, Melville was a man of action, tested in the course of conflict like few individuals who have chosen to display violence on screen. Born a Jew in Paris, he served in the military and participated with distinction in the Resistance during World War II from 1939 to 1945. Only one of his films, L’Armée des Ombres (1969), depicts these exploits, yet it is not hard to conceive of the interplay of deceit and subterfuge in his crime narratives as a transposition of armed conflict to the civilian arena.
There is little in Melville’s upbringing that would lead one to assume he would become a film director. And yet, he is one of the French cinema’s great mavericks. The young Turks of the New Wave looked up him to as a role model — he appears briefly in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless (1959) — for Melville began his feature career in 1947 devoid of the usual trappings of authority. He lacked a union card, professional access to film stock or even permission for adaptation from the author, Vercors, of his first release, Silence de la Mer. Moreover, at a time when many French films suffocated from the confines of studio sets and a hampered use of the camera, Melville shot on location and treated the image without regard for convention.
At the same time, Melville possesses one of the most deliberate and finely honed visual styles that I know. If he fiddled with the institutional confines of his craft, he treated what he presented on the screen with the utmost care and rigor. His compositions virtually never draw attention to themselves or away from his plot and characters. This is particularly true of his works about criminals and the police, his policiers.
In the wake of the post-war export of American films to Europe, French critics discovered and rhapsodized over the works that they came to call film noir. Melville was prominent amongst those who transposed the foreign material to their own milieu. His protagonists wore the trench coats and fedoras modeled by Bogart and Mitchum, and spoke a continental version of tough guy patois, with Galoise cigarettes hanging from the sides of their mouths.
While Melville echoes the physical action of the American genre cinema — his films do not lack for shootouts or fistfights — it was not simply the gunplay that impressed him. He was even more influenced by the manner in which the behavior of the thug as well as the cop embodies a code or, if you will, an ethics of the urban demimonde.
Melville’s characters live altogether in the present tense. Neither introspective nor retrospective, they define themselves by concrete gestures: the way a gun is held, a woman is caressed, an object is stolen. So specific and unrelenting is his gaze, Melville at times resembles a lepidopterist and his characters winged creatures pinned to a board. Yet, Melville also approaches his narratives with a strong streak of romanticism. His tough guys display a pronounced tendency to look out for the unprotected and often allow their frail emotions to replace their more base instincts.
Bob le Flambeur (1955) kicked off Melville’s sequence of potent policiers. “A love letter to Paris” in his words, the picture was shot on location, in the streets and bars of Montmartre and Pigalle. Grubby and garish as this precinct might be, the eponymous protagonist (Roger Duchesne) passes from scene to scene untouched by his surroundings.
A compulsive gambler and former thief, Bob supports an adoptive clan that includes his “son” Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) and the flighty adolescent Anne (Isabelle Corey), whom he rescues from other unsavory individuals in the district who prey upon youth. With his snow white hair and impenetrable gaze, Bob thinks about little more than placing his next bet and maintaining the admiration of his immediate circle. Curiously, that body even includes the police, who view Bob as a reformed thief as well as a man of his word.
Circumstances change, however, when Bob’s chronic losses at cards lead to a need for ready cash, and the possibility of robbing the Deauville Casino offers a dangerous but irresistible solution. Bob recruits a group of confederates and perfects a means to breaking into the vault. At the same time, Anne’s roving libido leads her to take up with a pimp who spills the plans to the police. In the end, as Bob’s life has been ruled by the whims of fortune, the robbery is both a success and a dismal failure. The film concludes ironically: Bob has won even more money at the table than he hoped to clear from the caper, yet whether or not it will assist him in legally clearing his name remains an open matter.
If the narrative of Bob le Flambeur never rises above that of a well told anecdote, what drives the film is Melville’s compelling aptitude for ambiance. Like the contemporaneous Rififi, shot by the expatriate American Jules Dassin, the film is about a caper, but it comes across as a comedy of manners in criminal dress. Bob’s inveterate compulsion to gamble collides with his commitment to Paolo and unrequited affection for Anne. We care whether he gets away with the booty, but worry more that he retains his dignity. The fact that Melville was able to retain such consistency of tone and point of view is even more impressive, considering that undependable financing caused him to shoot intermittently, over a 2-year period.
The Criterion Collection’s release of this captivating film includes the company’s standard panoply of extras. In this case, a video interview with Daniel Couchy, the actor who portrays Paolo, and a radio episode of an early 1960s conversation with Melville accompany a digital transfer. The picture is shot in standard ratio, and therefore not letterboxed, but the image certainly improves upon the previously marketed videotape. In addition, the subtitles have been newly translated, to reflect a more accurate version of the vernacular-drenched dialogue.
Melville returned to the policier model seven years later with Le Doulos. Less well known than his other work in the genre, this film rewards attention with more elaborate characterizations than its predecessor. If you are never in doubt as to where Bob or his cohorts stand, the motivations of the figures in this film seem as transitory as the weather. The title refers to the French expression for stool pigeon, for duplicity is as commonplace as trench coats in this environment. As Melville stated, “The characters are all double, they are all false.” Furthermore, the criminals and the police lack the kind of brotherly bonhomie of the earlier picture. A character can never be sure when he might be shot or betrayed or arrested in Le Doulos.
The plot is concatenated but never confusing. Recently released from prison, the burglar Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) resumes acquaintance with one of his former cohorts, Gilbert (Rene Lefevre). Seeking revenge for the murder of his girlfriend, Faugel shoots Gilbert; then, with no other occupational recourse, Faugel returns to robbery, helped by Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who provides him with the necessary tools and information. Tipped off by an informant, the police interrupt the break-in and kill Faugel’s accomplice. Faugel, in turn, shoots the inspector in charge of the operation and returns to jail, convinced that Silien has betrayed him. Once released, Faugel again seeks revenge, although circumstances will prove neither that things are as they seem, nor that vengeance benefits anyone in the long run.
Eventful as this synopsis might seem, Le Doulos is less a chronicle of gunplay and recrimination than a depiction of the emotional quicksand that underlies male bonding. No one other than Faugel trusts Silien. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the thief remains convinced that Silien’s appeals for collaboration are not simply ruses. Belmondo’s relaxed and affable manner allows the viewer to question Silien’s genuine motivations; it also makes the character’s violence all the more disturbing.
Though Melville rarely indulges in visual trickery, in Le Doulos, he does achieve a stylistic tour de force, capturing the interrogation of Silien in a single, continuous take of more than eight minutes duration. The visual appearance is complicated by the fact that one wall of the office is glass. So emotionally compelling is the rapid exchange of positions among the characters that the sweeping camera seems to illustrate the transfer of control, back and forth between the criminal and the investigators.
Le Samourai has received the greatest attention of all Melville’s work save Bob Le Flambeur and is judged by many to be his masterpiece. The Asian director John Woo, for example, has called it “the closest thing to a perfect movie that I have ever seen.” One can easily see the influence of this picture on Woo’s work, for the calm self-possession of his protagonists, particularly those played by Chow Yun-Fat, resembles the stoic deliberation of Jeff Costello, the hired killer played with exquisite sangfroid by Alain Delon. The actor’s unblemished beauty never cracks, no matter how dire Jeff’s circumstances.
In fact, an effective chill pervades the entire picture. Melville ratchets down the color to a near monotone, and Jeff often looks affectless. Le Samourai resembles at times the tamped down atmosphere of Robert Bresson’s work, in that its asceticism makes the occasional unleashing of violence especially disturbing.
The film’s plot is simple, virtually anecdotal. Jeff is a hired killer, paid to shoot a nightclub owner. He lives alone and appears to have no life outside his lethal assignments, except a relationship with a woman, Jean Lagrange (Nathalie Delon, the actor’s wife), who acts as an alibi. Jeff commits his work without any effort at subterfuge or disguise. He enters the nightclub clearly observed by more than a few people, enters the owner’s office, kills him, and leaves by the front door.
Curiously, one person who observes the crime and looks Jeff in the eye, an African American pianist named Valerie (Cathy Rosier), chooses to lie to the authorities. Jeff is double-crossed by the individuals who hired him, but takes his revenge. He returns to the nightclub, where he is shot by the police; they then discover that the weapon he displays is unloaded.
Melville describes Jeff as a “schizophrenic”, able to commit violent murders and remain altogether unperturbed. The fact that he appears cognizant of nothing outside this circumscribed precinct is, for Melville, evidence of his dementia. He states, “With schizophrenics, every act is a rite. As a matter of fact, ritual itself is schizophrenic — make no mistake about it. I start from the principle that all animals are mad… Since humans are animals, why shouldn’t they be mad too?” This obsessive preoccupation with ritual makes for a film that chronicles Jeff’s with near scientific precision. Jeff’s focus parallels Melville’s. Le Samourai has all the symmetry of a geometrical equation, retaining one’s concentration despite its preordained resolution.
Melville’s final picture, Un Flic, provides a disappointing conclusion to an illustrious career. He was only 55 when it appeared. An international co-production, its cast includes Delon once again, in combination with Catherine Deneuve and the American performers Richard Crenna and the late Michael Conrad, best known for his role as the precinct chief in the television series Hill Street Blues. One can view the results either as a distillation and fulfillment of Melville’s interests, or an awkward repetition of those concerns.
In either case, Un Flic suggests that Melville is re-visiting familiar territory, without bringing anything particularly novel to the occasion. The pared down plot concerns a triangular relationship among a policeman, Coleman (Delon); a thief, Simon (Crenna); and a woman, Cathy (Deneuve), with whom both men have had a relationship in the past.
Simon engineers a daylight bank robbery and then a train robbery that lead Coleman to suspect him. The policeman doggedly tracks down Simon and shoots him before a grieving Cathy. In the end, both men appear trapped in their respective roles, either unable or unwilling to consider alternatives, while Cathy is an attractive appendage, never as consequential as the loot or the arrests.
While Melville’s reduction of Jeff in Le Samourai to his actions succeeds, the characters in Un Flic are never more than chess pieces. No backstory is offered, nor are we given any clear sense of how Coleman and Cathy were affiliated long ago. It is, therefore, difficult to sympathize with their predicament. In addition, Melville’s craft is stretched to the extreme by the train robbery sequence. He deploys models for the helicopter and the train that are so toy-like as to be laughable. It feels like one is temporarily watching one of those 1960s British puppet series like Thunderbirds Are Go.
As well, during this sequence, Melville engages in one of his many documentary-like depictions of criminal behavior: the camera lingers as Crenna changes clothes before heisting the money. However, this quickly turns to tedium, for the activity becomes so unhurried as to seem little more than an exercise in trying the audience’s attention.
At the same time, elements of Un Flic remind one of Melville’s unquestionable command of craft. The initial bank robbery, shot with a blue cast during a drenching rainstorm, masterfully combines an acute sense of tempo with a knowledge of where to place the camera for maximum effect. If that sequence takes one’s breath away, then the terse yet traumatic moment, when Coleman corners one of Simon’s accomplices about to commit suicide, reinforces Melville’s grasp of his characters’ humanity. The middle-aged man, a bank teller fallen on hard times, holds a gun to his head, and Coleman shuts the door so that neither the audience nor the man’s wife observes his demise. Other directors have mimicked Melville’s grasp of ritual and criminal excess, but few possess his ability to “civilize” inexcusable behavior and compel our attachment to characters we would otherwise abhor.