Jean Pierre Melville, French Cinema’s Forgotten Man: Part One

Jean Pierre Melville, French Cinema’s Forgotten Man: Part One

Jean Pierre Melville, French Cinema’s Forgotten Man: Part One. By Simon Thompson.

Jean Pierre Melville is a director with a career that is simultaneously both easy and difficult to categorise at the same time. While he is primarily known for re-inventing gangster movies through his distinct visual style and moody existentialist philosophy, pigeonholing him into that sub-genre is a disservice to the versatility of his filmography:  through movies such as the masterful war drama Army of Shadows (1969) and the realistic depiction of rural life in Leon Morin, Priest (1961), Melville showed that he was a filmmaker capable of lending his unique eye and storytelling ability to a variety of subjects outside the crime genre. 

Melville was born Jean Pierre Grumbach in Paris, in 1917,to parents of Alsatian Jewish descent. Whilst not being from a particularly well-off background (his father was a rag-merchant), the young Grumbach fell in love with movies and literature at a very early age. The works which left an indelible mark on him in his childhood were the silent documentary White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and the books of Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. Politically Grumbach was strongly influenced by his older brother Jacques, a writer for the Socialist Party Weekly Le Populaire. This was more than likely a key factor in Grumbach’s decision to join the French Communist Party as an adult (which he would eventually leave due to his opposition to the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939). 

Grumbach’s first foray into filmmaking was making home movies on a 16mm camera that his father had given him as present. Any further filmmaking ambitions during this period of his life were put on hold, when he was drafted into the French army for national service, at the age of 20, in 1937. 

When France was occupied by the Third Reich in 1940 Grumbach, alongside his brother Jacques and sister Janine, all joined the French Resistance with Jean-Pierre taking the codename Melville in honour of his favourite author. Experiencing the horrors of World War II indisputably shaped Melville’s personal and artistic outlooks more than anything else, with a single event in 1942 being the catalyst for this change. 

In 1942, Jean Pierre and Jacques would both cross the Pyrenees together in the hope of reaching Spain ( which was neutral during The Second World War). Melville had successfully made the journey a few weeks earlier as Jacques attempted to follow him carrying money intended for Charles De Gaulle. Along the way Jacques’s guide shot him dead and robbed him. Melville didn’t discover his brother’s death until after the war was over and it’s clear that you can see the trauma and pain that he suffered from it in his portrayal of the French resistance members in his movie Army of Shadows and the overall morally ambiguous and pessimistic tone of much of his work as a whole.

After the end of World War II in 1945, Melville resumed his pre-war ambition to become a filmmaker but quickly realised that he would have to work his way up the ladder of the French film industry. Around this time he applied to be an assistant director, but was refused a license to do so, for a reason that nobody seems to know. For any other aspiring director this would have been a catastrophic professional set-back, especially because most European film industries operated a semi-identical policy to the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s-1960s where anybody entering had to go through the various bureaucratic channels to get ahead. 

Jean Pierre Melville however wasn’t like any other aspiring artist, so he decided to set up his own independent studio, rue Jenner in Paris’s 13th arrondissement.

In 1946 Melville made his debut short entitled 24 heures de la vie d’un clown ( 24 Hours In The Life Of a Clown). In this slice of life drama about the struggles of two clowns in Paris, Melville exhibited a lot of the tonal and stylistic traits that would come to be associated with him as a filmmaker i.e. the balance between style and hard-edged reality, shooting on location, as well as his bold and dynamic use of noir shadowing. 

Melville wouldn’t make his full directorial debut until three and a half years later with the movie Le Silence de la mer  (1949). Made just four years after the end of the Second World War, The Silence of the Sea not only represents Melville’s directorial debut but also his first psychological exploration into his time as a part of the French Resistance. Adapted from a novel by Jean Bruller ( who, like Melville, also served in the resistance), The Silence Of The Sea tells the story of a relationship between a Nazi lieutenant named Werner Von Ebrennac, and an uncle and niece in a rural village. 

Within the film’s narrative it would have been easier for Melville as a screenwriter simply to portray Werner as a cartoonish Donald Sutherland in Bertolucci’s 1900-style lunatic. However Melville was far too gifted a writer to fall into that convenient and easy trap, and instead gives both Werner and the uncle/niece nuanced character arcs which challenge their assumptions about one another. It’s a testament to how skilled a storyteller Melville was, that a movie which takes such a balanced approach to the darkest chapter in France’s entire history, was a domestic box office smash taking in 464,302 admissions in Paris and over a million admissions in the rest of the nation launching Melville as a household name in the process.

Melville’s next project, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles (1950)was a match made in heaven between source material and director. Closely working with the novel’s original author Jean Cocteau (himself a brilliant filmmaker and artist in his own right), Melville’s renders Cocteau’s biting vision of youth from the page to the screen beautifully. With a complete understanding of the original novel’s iconoclastic nature and its portrayal of a parasocial, obsessive, and ultimately tragic relationship between a brother and sister,  Melville showed himself to be a director who could balance deeper intellectual meaning and strong characterisation with a stylish flair which combined the flourishing film noir sub-genre happening in American cinema, with a distinctly French sensibility tonally in keeping with directors such as Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne. 

Melville correctly realised that a young post-war audience were looking for bleak and fatalistic stories, that matched the socio-political landscape around them. As a result of this notion, he took the artistic risks that he did to spectacular box-office success taking 719,844 tickets in France upon its release by chiming gracefully with the tastes of French cinema-goers at that time. 

With two consecutive box-office successes on the go, Melville had now established himself as one of the most exciting young directors in France and a favourite of French audiences all at the tender age of 33. It was around this time when as his fame began to rise, so did his eccentric image and habits off set. Many but not all great directors, are solitary types who prefer to spend time alone in the fictional worlds of their own creation and the behaviour of Jean Pierre Melville did little to dispel this widely held idea.

Melville would routinely spend hours at his desk with his cats, wearing his trademark sunglasses indoors with all the various windows and shutters closed, writing, due to his belief that ‘ [art] is possible only when the creator is alone, when he isolates himself from the rest of the world’. He also became notorious for his resentment of having to actually shoot movies because he had to not only get up early to do so, but he also had to change out of his pyjamas.

After a three year hiatus most likely due to fatigue, Melville returned in 1953 with When You Read This Letter a movie centred around a strong principled young-woman, who after the death of her parents, leaves the convent she was due to join to care for her younger sister, who is attracted to a completely amoral drifter. When You Read This Letter is what I would describe as the final pure slice of life movie of Melville’s career, a final goodbye to the post-war social realist style of filmmaking that he’d cut his teeth on in favour of the elegant crime movies and thrillers which made him an internationally renowned auteur. 

Before 1956 Melville as a director was more akin to someone like Roberto Rossellini than he was to Jacques Becker or Jules Dassin, but one movie would change that public perception of him within his native France, and fully form his association with crime cinema. I am of course talking about Melville’s 1956 masterpiece ( and my absolute personal favourite of his movies) Bob Le Flambeur which roughly translates to Bob the Gambler in English.

Shot on location within the Montmartre district of Paris, Bob the Gambler follows gentleman thief/ compulsive gambler Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne). Bob is a well-liked and trusted figure in the neighbourhood with his classy personality winning over the young aspiring gangsters in Montmartre, the demi-monde community, and local law enforcement all at the same time. Trouble strikes for Bob when he loses a significant amount of money through his habit, so to recoup the losses he hatches a daring plan to rob a casino in Deauville for 800 million francs in cash on the day of a big horse race. 

Bob The Gambler is a masterpiece because it’s a movie which looks to both the past and the future. Melville took inspiration from the American gangster movies of the 1930s (such as Little Caesar, Angels with Dirty Faces, and The Public Enemy etc) and married their tradition of a rise and fall narrative with the peculiarly French tradition of the gentleman thief in the vein of Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin. But rather than presenting these long running and beloved fictional archetypes in a conventional way, Melville and the film’s cinematographer Henri Decae (who later became a frequent collaborator of Melville’s) decided to shoot the movie using mostly natural light, giving the cinematography a stark, almost documentary-like quality, to the extent that Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, as well as the rest of the Cahiers Du Cinema movement would cite Bob The Gambler as both an essential building block of their own visual styles and what inspired them to film scenes using a handheld camera. 

From an editing standpoint Bob the Gambler was miles ahead of  anything else in French filmmaking at the time. Through Melville’s bold use of a single jump cut, a style of editing that wasn’t particularly prevalent in French cinema at that point, Melville, whether he had meant to or not, had laid down the first stepping stone toward the nouvelle vague (new-wave) movement that would dominate and irrevocably change the status-quo of French cinema in the late 1950s- 1970s. Simply put, without Melville’s techniques in Bob the Gambler there would be no 400 Blows or Breathless and with no 400 Blows and Breathless the last half century or so of cinema would be almost unfathomably different. 

Bob the Gambler kick-started the era of Melville’s career which is often rightfully categorised as when he was at the peak of his directing powers. At this point he had earned not just the respect of his peers, for example Robert Bresson, (who paid direct homage to Melville’s Silence of the Sea in his movie Diary of a Country Priest) but from the significantly younger Cahiers Du Cinema crowd. With Melville being the ardent individualist that he was however, he didn’t try to make movies to pander to either group instead charted his own artistic course with the stories and themes that he wanted to explore, as shown by his follow up to Bob The Gambler and second consecutive crime-movie Two Men in Manhattan (1959).

(Stills from Bob the Gambler)

Two Men in Manhattan is a movie that I would label the only misstep of peak Melville. Following a straight down the middle classic noir narrative, Two Men in Manhattan follows two French Journalists named Moreau (played by non-other than Melville himself) and Delmas (Pierre Grasset) as they trawl through the seedier sides of New York City hoping to uncover the mysterious disappearance of a United Nations diplomat.  

While Two Men in Manhattan retains the brooding and sombre tone of Melville’s previous work, and has some absolutely gorgeous cinematography which strangles every bit of movie magic out of New York’s streets and interiors, narratively it doesn’t work because the film feels more like Melville’s personal sightseeing tour around New York and a love letter to the American crime-cinema that so inspired him, than it does a strong three act structure. Prominent French publications such as Le Monde and L’Aurore decried Two Men in Manhattan as dull and poorly paced, simply existing so that Melville could indulge his fascination with America. 

(Still from Two Men in Manhattan)

Melville was still a visual stylist at the top of his game, but his ability to construct a narrative had now been ferociously called into question. He emphatically answered that question with his next two movies Leon Morin, Priest (1961) and Le Doulous (1962). 

Leon Morin, Priest reminded people of Melville’s artistic versatility and his roots in smaller-scale intimate drama. The only ‘black suit of armour’( a term Melville used to describe the costumes of his criminal/ morally ambiguous characters)  in this movie was that of a small town Catholic priest named Father Morin. The plot of Leon Morin, Priest,a young woman falling in love with a member of the clergy in a small town during the occupation era, feels more akin to a Capra-esque wholesomeness than it does the grimy backstreets of Paris, but the moral conflict that both the film’s protagonist Barny and Father Morin struggle with is nothing less than pure Melville. 

Leon Morin, Priest is a slow and measured piece of filmmaking. There are very few cuts, the camera takes on almost Ozu-level of stillness, and the genuine romance felt between the two main characters truly carries the movie. Overall Leon Morin, Priest is Melville’s most experimental and daring work, a visual statement to critics and audiences that brand Melville was more far more malleable and flexible than they had previously given it credit for. 

(Still from Leon Morin, Priest

Other than being an important declaration by Melville against being pigeonholed artistically, Leon Morin, Priest marked his first collaboration with French screen legend Jean Paul Belmondo, who funnily enough was also playing against type as the compassionate and witty Priest Father Morin in contrast to the character types such as Michel in Godard’s Breathless which had help to establish him as a major star. 

Melville and Belmondo would re-team for Melville’s subsequent movie, Le Doulos (1962) ( French slang for a police informant). Le Doulos marked Melville’s triumphant return to making crime cinema, with Le Doulos being bolstered by one of the best constructed narratives of Melville’s entire career.

If I were given the task of selecting a movie which shows off both Melville’s skills as both a visual storyteller and a writer, Le Doulos would be the one that I would pick. While it focuses on the criminal underworld in the same way that Bob The Gambler does, it’s a much less glamorous depiction of a criminal lifestyle; if Bob The Gambler shows off the sophistication and elegance of criminality then Le Doulos does the opposite by realistically detailing the paranoid constant back-stabbing and betrayal that is a part of being a gangster. 

Without going into too much detail (because if I try to explain the plot of Le Doulos in full that’s an article itself), Le Doulos chronicles the life of a recently released thief named Maurice (Serge Reggiani). After getting out of jail he kills/steals the valuables of a man called Gilbert Vanovre in retaliation for Vanovre murdering his wife Arlette before he was in prison, to stop her from informing. After settling one score, Maurice decides to rob a house in an affluent area but before he can do anything the police suddenly arrive on the scene and he is forced to flee. As a result of this Maurice suspects his friend Silien (Jean Paul Belmondo) of informing on him, with the rest of the narrative flitting from Maurice and Silien’s perspective as the audience tries to find out if Silien is a snitch or not. 

To use a music analogy, if Bob The Gambler is Reasonable Doubt,then Le Doulos is The Infamous by Mobb Deep. The best adjective I could use to describe Le Doulos is grimy. Whilst the outfits the characters wear and the cinematography itself are immaculate the characters themselves for the most part are completely unlikable, but they have to be unlikeable to survive in the lifestyle that they lead. 

But it’s emblematic of Melville’s skill as a writer and his casting of Reggiani and Belmondo as the protagonists, that despite having the leads being traitorous scumbags you never feel alienated to the point that you stop watching. If you had any other actor but the charming and charismatic Jean Paul Belmondo in the scene where Silien is brutally interrogating Maurice’s girlfriend Therese about the robbery, the actions of Silien would be even harder to swallow and while you’re still shocked at the sheer callous brutality of what Silien does to her, because, it’s Jean Paul Belmondo it almost sugars the pill, with a feeling I can only describe as being akin to watching Tom Hanks or Cary Grant burn down an orphanage. 

Le Doulos was Melville’s first truly big budget movie, made for a whopping two million francs, and with the increased budget Melville really got to flex his directing muscles, as the greater finance allowed for more elaborate set pieces than anything French filmgoers were accustomed to in his earlier work. Le Doulos is a true masterpiece whose legacy can be seen in movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Johnnie To’s Election, and Infernal Affairs. In the context of Melville’s career itself, it forms an extension of the recurring theme in his crime films of the fatalistic loneliness that comes from being a gangster, an idea which Melville had hatched with Bob The Gambler but would really let run riot with Le Doulos and much of his later work. 

(Stills from Le Doulos)

Melville’s next film L’Aîné des Ferchaux/The Elder Ferchaux (1963),  an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel of the same name, was both much more structurally simple than Le Doulos and far more stylistically limited from a visual point of view. The Elder Ferchaux chronicles the story of Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo) an ex French para-trooper and recently retired boxer. Desperate for money he answers a job advert to become a bodyguard to a disgraced and wanted elderly banker named Ferchaux ( Charles Vanel). Michel travels with Ferchaux to the United States so that Ferchaux can recover money resting in a deposit account there, but once they reach the bank they find out he can’t actually withdraw it because of an extradition order placed on him by the French authorities, forcing Ferchaux to use his back-up plan of crossing the United States border to Venezuela so that he can recover money he has stashed there, turning the narrative into a sort of quasi Rain Man-esque road trip as only Melville could make it. 

The Elder Ferchaux is sadly something of a damp squib on Melville’s glittering filmography. While it does have some absolutely fantastic individual scenes ( such as a sequence in a diner where Jean Paul Belmondo’s character gets into a fight with two US serviceman over a jukebox selection) and Belmondo and Vanel’s interplay is pitch perfect, generally this feels like Melville running on autopilot with none of his distinct style being discernibly there on screen. 

This could be down to the fact this was the first film that he shot in colour having impeccably honed his use of black and white-and the movie suffers for his lack of experience with this.

(Still from The Elder Ferchaux)

After a period of three consecutive movies from 1961-1963, Melville would take a three year break from filmmaking. During this gap Melville seriously considered moving to the United States but was devastated and disgusted by the racial segregation and prejudice towards black people that he had witnessed whilst shooting The Elder Ferchaux on location in New Orleans, never stepping foot in the country again and publicly declaring that “‘Blacks are right to revolt … No one can reproach them for wanting to fight … The reason I didn’t want to live in America is that I would have become a witness of a black sub-proletariat … and I couldn’t bear that.” 

Instead Melville would remain in his native France with his work taking on an even darker and more despondent tone- which is really saying something given that his earlier movies aren’t exactly anybody’s idea of upbeat comedy. Melville, since the real America’s prejudices and inequalities were far too grave to witness, would instead create his own hardboiled cinematic America within the realms of French cinema, an almost mythical place where it’s almost always raining and everybody is dressed immaculately, reinterpreting the works of his American cinematic heroes (Huston,De Toth, and Wise) with a distinctly Gallic edge. 

End of Part One.

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