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

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

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

Part One here.

A seasoned auteur

Melville’s hard-boiled era would begin in earnest with his movie Le deuxième souffle / Second Breath (1966). An ambitious and sweeping gangster flick in the vein of Le Doulos, Second Breath tells the story of Gustave ‘Gu’ Miranda (Lino Ventura), a criminal serving a long sentence because of his unwillingness to rat out his associates, earning him great respect within the French underworld. Gu breaks out of jail and robs a platinum truck so that he can build a new life for himself in Italy and not have to live off his girlfriend Manouche (Christina Fabrega). As soon as Gu breaks out of prison he immediately becomes a target for the French authorities led by Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), a character whom I can only describe as being a 50/50 mix between the dogged-determination of Al Pacino’s character in Heat and the perpetual exasperation of Inspector Zenigata from Lupin III.

Second Breath as a movie feels a lot like Melville on autopilot, many of the tried and tested themes from his more interesting works, Bob the Gambler and Le Doulos (ambitious criminal protagonist, a game of cat and mouse between a gangster syndicate and the police, the loneliness and alienation of criminality etc),are on display here, but are presented without the expected panache and vibrancy of Melville at his best. 

Within the context of Melville’s career itself, however, Second Breath is one of his most important movies for two reasons. The first is that it established his working relationships with Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse, whom he would work with again on Army of Shadows three years later, and the second is that Second Breath represents the culmination of Melville’s transition into being a commercial filmmaker ( it was Melville’s most financially successful by this point of his career), a fact that would affect his standing and personal friendships with the Cahiers group later on. 

Stills from Second Breath

Le Samourai / The Samurai (1967) is widely considered the defining movie of Jean Pierre Melville’s career. His best known work internationally, it marked the beginning of his short, yet fruitful collaboration with Alain Delon, and it can be seen as the development of the existentialist gangster drama that Melville had established eleven years earlier with Bob The Gambler. In the gloomiest period of Melville’s career, Le Samourai’s downbeat nature still stands out, largely because during production Melville’s studio Rue De Jenner burnt down in suspicious circumstances destroying his vast archives of photography and scripts. 

It is plain to see the psychological toll that this took on Melville within the movie itself. The protagonist, slick assassin Jef Costello, has no home and few possessions (apart from a pet bird). He flits in an almost ghost-like way through the film’s narrative and although he’s the main character he takes on a strangely passive role in the sense that the plot happens to him rather than him affecting the plot, in the way that a character like Sillen in Le Doulos, does, mirroring Melville’s own feelings of powerlessness. 

The plot of Le Samourai is Melville at his most basic. Jef Costello (played by Alain Delon) is a bushido- following (a moral code for samurai) lone-wolf assassin caught by the police after the completion of a job. He is caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse between the police, who want to arrest him, and his initial employers who want him dead to tie up any loose ends.

Aesthetically Le Samourai is Melville’s iconography writ large, from the ‘black suits of armour’ trench coats and suits, to the hats, to the gritty yet beautiful on location shooting (depicting a perpetually raining Paris and Kubrick- like- minimal interiors dominated by grey and blue hues),this is pure unadulterated Melville. The most important quality that makes Le Samourai work however, has got to be Alain Delon’s performance as Jef. In what would be the first of three collaborations with Melville, Delon completely understands the chic fatalism that Melville ascribes to his characters. Delon marries his movie star charisma and male model features with an uncanny ability to blend into the background, as the character of Jef Costello has to do to survive. 

Not to discredit Jean Paul Belmondo for one second but he would have  been far too hot-headed an actor to bring Jef Costello from the page to screen. Le Samourai is one of Melville’s most philosophically and spiritually dense works- due in part to the bushido philosophy that Jef Costello espouses, there is an almost quasi-religious aspect to the lifestyle of Melville’s gangsters and no character of Melville’s is a better poster boy for their renouncement of worldly pleasures and vices than Jef Costello.

The depth of Melville and Delon’s personal friendship is, more than any other factor, the thing that makes this movie so good. When you have such a talented director and an actor who both think and feel the same way you can’t help but create a masterpiece. Melville and Delon’s artistic tandem was so strong that when Delon was presented with the script for Le Samourai all it took was Melville reading the first seven minutes worth of the script to convince France’s brightest young movie star to sign up. Melville being Melville did what any normal human being would do after that and gave him a spear, a sword, and a samurai dagger to help him get into Jef Costello’s mindframe. 

Le Samourai would prove to be Melville’s international calling card. It was both a huge hit in France, selling 1.9 million tickets, and was one of the first exposures of foreign audiences to Melville’s movies. Sadly Le Samourai would signal the beginning of Melville’s fallout with the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd. From the younger generation he previously had dinner regularly with Jean Luc Godard and was a guest at his wedding to his muse Anna Karina, and was called in for cameos by both Godard and fellow nouvelle vague alumni Claude Chabrol, who now began to view their hero as a commercial sellout, making movies no different to standard Hollywood fare (a notion which would intensify over the course of Melville’s last three films). 

The legacy of Le Samourai in inspiring the works of other filmmakers and artists cannot be overstated. Its influence can be seen in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, the bande dessinee The Killer, Walter Hill’s The Driver, Vengeance by Johnnie To, The Killer by John Woo, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Stills from Le Samourai

L’Armée des ombres/ Army of Shadows (1969) is far and away a Melville’s most personal movie. An exploration of the French resistance during World War II, Melville seeks to de-glamourise the collective image of fighting in the resistance, electing instead to show the paranoia, suffering, and physical & mental torture that fighting against the occupying Third Reich actually entailed.  

Army of Shadows follows the plight of Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a civil engineer and resistance member,  who because of the actions of an informer is arrested and placed into a Nazi prison camp. Gerbier, through great ingenuity and suffering, manages to escape and returns to his hometown of Marseille to try and find whoever gave up his identity. 

Army of Shadows is a slow and deliberate adult thriller, which gradually suffocates the audience as the events of the narrative unfold. In his bid to deglamourise life as a part of the resistance, the interior locations such as the various safehouses that the resistance members have to hide in to stay alive are deliberately depicted in the most squalidly miserable way possible by Melville. 

The paranoia and fear that Gerbier and his resistance comrades feel is palpable and given Melville’s personal experiences,  it is completely unsubtle in depicting the sheer sacrifice that the resistance members made for a free France. After being accustomed to the stark glamour of Le Samourai , Army of Shadows is a truly jarring watch, especially in its dramatisations of the interrogation and torture methods used by the Nazis, culminating in the movie’s most iconic scene where Gerbier’s fellow resistance member Felix is being tortured by the Gestapo. 

This scene in particular is a microcosm of what Melville is trying to achieve with the movie. There are no Hollywood style stops to sensationalise what is happening, but instead we’re presented with a series of faceless, cold, gestapo bureaucrats and Melville allows us to use our worst imaginings about what is going to happen next, creating one of the most effective and haunting torture scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. 

The protagonist Gerbier is one of Melville’s most interesting characters, while for the most part he is presented as being likeable and skilled at making the tough decisions ( which I don’t want to spoil), that he makes towards the end of the movie, that makes them all the more shocking in their cold brutality. There is a feeling that Melville sees a lot of himself in Gerbier, in the sense that they are both good men forced into making horrific judgements by their circumstances. A scene in particular which serves to show both how similar the real Melville and the fictious Gerbier truly are, is when Gerbier is hiding in Britain trying to gain additional support from the hiding Free French and goes to see Gone With The Wind remarking that France will be truly free when the French people ‘will be able to see this fine film’, providing a much needed piece of levity in the process. 

Stills from Army of Shadows

Despite being a monumental artistic achievement, Army of Shadows was about as well received as an XL Bully in a children’s playground by French critics upon its release. The cold reception can largely be attributed to the political climate in France at the time, as after the May 1968 student protests and the Franco-Algerian war any media even seen as slightly pro De Gaulle and the French resistance was shunned by a newly radicalised student audience who saw it as an exercise in toeing the party line. This movie would also put the final nail into the coffin of Melville’s relationship with the Cahiers cohort. 

Melville in his turn came to perceive the new wave not as a style of filmmaking but an ‘artisanal system of production’ comparing himself to being “ the  head of an enormous family of totally illegitimate children whom I don’t recognise. “

This falling out would sadly contribute to the dismissive attitude towards Melville’s later work like Army of Shadows, which has only been recognised as the masterpiece that it is after a distribution run in the UK during the late 1970s and then its first release in America 2006, where American critics rushed to praise its virtues, with Roger Ebert proclaiming “This restored 35mm print, now in art theatres around the country, may be 37 years old, but it is the best foreign film of the year.”

Melville’s next movie Le Cercle Rogue/ The Red Circle (1970) represents a connecting point between Le Samourai and Army of Shadows. The Red Circle combines the philosophically minimalist Buddhist elements from Le Samourai ( the movie opens with a quote from Buddha that Melville completely made up just as he had done with the opening quote from Le Samourai),with the slow and calculated pace of Army of Shadows,to form a love letter to a sub-genre of crime cinema in the heist genre. 

Largely set in Paris, The Red Circle tells the story of three men whose paths align to execute a daring jewellery shop heist. Corey (played by Alain Delon), is a prisoner out on good behaviour who is tipped off about the jewellery shop by the warden. Vogel, (Gian Maria Volonte) is a thief on the run who by complete accident runs into Corey on the road and forms a pact to rob the shop with him, and Jansen (Yves Montand), is an alcoholic ex-cop who Corey and Vogel recruit because of his marksmanship abilities. While the three are trying to pull off the perfect crime however, a dogged police inspector named Mattei (Andre Bourvil) is right on their tail, giving the narrative a strong sense of urgency. 

Heists and robberies are plot elements which have almost always played a part in Melville’s work, from the casino heist in Bob The Gambler to the platinum truck robbery in Second Breath, and the home robbery scene in Le Doulos – it’s clearly an aspect of criminality which fascinated Melville. The difference between those movies and The Red Circle,however, is that the hold-ups performed by the characters only form a part of the plot, they aren’t the entire three act structure as they are in The Red Circle

By centring the heist as the sole focus of the three act structure however, Melville frames the actual robbery itself in documentarian detail and because the movie is so stately in its pacing,  by the time we get to the main event you’re almost expecting sharp banter, rapid cuts, and a jazz soundtrack to underpin the proceedings. Instead we are given half an hour of no dialogue, one near-continuous take with very few cuts if any, and a diegetic soundscape in homage to both John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle/ Jules Dassin’s Riffi and a visual declaration that Melville had fully moved away from gentleman thieves and assassins into the even harsher world of the policier. 

The cinematography in The Red Circle represents a continuation of the style which he had adopted with Le Samourai and Army Of Shadows. The mixture of sepia tone, warm greys, and harsh blues, that punctate the restaurants, rural autumnal exteriors, safe houses, and outdoor locations the characters move in allows Melville to achieve the bizarre effect of both glamourising/ de-glamourising the lives of his criminal characters. When you see the roadside restaurant that Alain Delon stops to eat at being clearly framed as depressing and alienating, sadly I still can’t help, as a Brit, but think that it could be worse – he could be stopping at a Little Chef instead. 

Stills from The Red Circle

Owing to have two major stars in Delon and Yves Montand, The Red Circle was one of the biggest hits of the French box office upon its release,  taking in over four million admissions. Although Melville’s relationship with the French new wave had soured by the point of Army of Shadows,it was this movie which unfortunately earned him the sobriquet of being a director of commercial policiers with Godard even sending in a review under a pseudonym calling it “rotten”, but Melville was too busy to care as he was laughing all the way to the bank in his newly acquired Rolls Royce Silver Phantom, a reward that he bought himself to celebrate the movie’s success: for one brief moment Melville was on top of the world.

Melville’s sustained peak would sadly come to an end with his last work Un Flic/ Dirty Money (1972), a movie which carries the unfair stigma of being an unfortunate ink blot on an otherwise practically spotless career. While Dirty Money didn’t reach the commercial heights of The Red Circle it’s by no means a mediocre movie and didn’t deserve the brutal mockery from critics that it suffered at all. 

Dirty Money’s narrative focuses on an obsessive cop named Edouard Coleman, (Alain Delon reuniting with Melville once again) who is tired and burnt out by the nature of his work as a police detective. Edouard begins an affair with a woman named Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), even becoming friendly with her boyfriend Simon, a night-club owner. What Edouard doesn’t know, however, is that Simon is a serial bank-robber and the leader of a gang of thieves and drug smugglers whom Edouard is investigating, with Edouard’s personal and professional life now becoming more blurred than ever.

It’s clear from the pessimistic tone and cinematography of Dirty Money, that Melville wants the audience to come away from the movie with an understanding of how soul-crushingly miserable police work can be. Edouard’s simple yet beautiful line where he describes the only feelings mankind has towards policeman being “ indifference and derision” can be read in one of two ways. If you are a snarky embittered type you could read this as Melville ‘selling-out’ to the establishment like a certain director who Melville once shared a close relationship with, or if you’re of a more charitable disposition this line can be read as being a part of Melville’s grander plan for the film to create his own Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade-style detective.

 With this in mind, the audience are asked to do with Edouard Coleman what we did with Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade before,  that is to sympathise and understand their nature while not necessarily agreeing with every action and decision they take i.e.  to look at them as realistic and flawed human beings rather than seeing them as alluringly heroic. When we see Edouard endlessly trawling the pavements and seedy underbelly of Paris and brutally interrogating witnesses, the effects of which can be seen on a face as symmetrically perfect and neutral as Delon’s, it can hardly be construed as a join the commissaire propaganda piece. 

 Dirty Money might just be Melville’s greatest exercise in style yet. If you go into it expecting a plot that’s as watertight and Swiss watch- like as Army of Shadows or Le Doulos you will be sorely disappointed, but if you take it on its own merits this movie is a veritable feast for the eyes, which, when viewed through the lens of other stylish crime flicks known for confusing plots, such as The Big Sleep or Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill,is nothing short of a masterclass in how to make a sophisticated policier. Melville’s use of striking blue filters and adverse weather conditions in key scenes, such as the beginning heist sequence that Simon’s gang commits in a seaside town being beset by an almost Kurosawa like howling storm, immediately makes it stand out from his other work in a defiant way and that is truly saying something given how distinctive a director Melville was.

Stills from Dirty Money

Melville’s use of miniatures gives the visuals of Dirty Money a surreal comic-book kind of look. Although Melville is a director often associated with a gritty documentarian style of shooting,  the use of miniatures in key scenes, such as an Ishiro Honda-esque shot of a helicopter flying over a train, showcases a more playful side to the director that I think was misinterpreted because of the image that audiences and critics had of him as only being a hard-hitting crime drama director and nothing more than that. 

Sadly for Melville, Dirty Money suffered from a lukewarm reception from audiences and critics, with both groups seeing it as a weaker outing by Melville. One year on from the release of Dirty Money and with a point to prove, Melville would begin to write a spy thriller script entitled  Contre-enquête with development getting as far as having 200 shots already planned before tragedy would strike. On 2nd August 1973, Melville had dinner with the writer Phillipe Larbo at a restaurant in Paris. Suddenly during the meal, at the age of 55, Melville died from what is reported to have either been a heart-attack or a ruptured aneurysm, leaving behind his wife Florence, dozens of cats, and thirteen feature films which have defined both French and International cinema. 

Upon hearing of his collaborator and friend’s sudden and tragic death, Alain Delon drove all the way from Nice (where he was staying) to the Studio Jenner where he apparently broke down in tears. In an ironic twist of fate death has resurrected Melville’s reputation as a filmmaker, his work has had multiple re-appraisals from critics in his native France who have now rightly positioned him as an auteur in stark contrast to when he was actually alive. 

If you want to gauge his legacy in cinematic terms, however, look no further than the ever-growing list of directors esteemed in their own right who practically worship him. From Michael Mann to Tarantino, to Takeshi Kitano  and John Woo to Frankenheimer, John Milius, Johnnie To, Walter Hill, Jim Jarmusch, Nicolas Winding Refn, Kim Je Woon, and Aki Kuarismaki the list is an ever-growing one of modern greats who admire his talent. You only need to look at the boat sequence in John Woo’s The Killer, or the John Wick series, or the opener of Michael Mann’s Heat to see that Melville may sadly no longer be with us but the mark that he left was truly indelible.

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