Film Reviews

Jean-Pierre Melville

Published October 15, 2020
Jean-Pierre Melville. Would you buy a used film noir from this man?

With Hollywood saving its blockbusters for better days the cinemas are turning to classic and foreign films to fill the void. This is not a stopgap, but a great opportunity. If only a small percentage of regular cinema-goers take the chance to broaden their horizons it would be marvellous thing for film culture in this country.

As part of the trend one of Sydney’s few remaining art deco cinemas, the Randwick Ritz, is hosting a season of films by French director, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73).

Jean-Pierre Melville: Master of Shadows and Silence has been organised by Cinema Reborn, a group of enthusiasts that runs an annual festival featuring cinema classics in new, remastered prints. Six of Melville’s films from a career total of 13 are being screened on successive Sundays, with brief introductions from figures such as David Stratton and Bruce Beresford. I’ll be fronting up to introduce Le Doulos (1963), tomorrow (Sunday 18) at 4 pm.

Melville’s real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. He was born into a Jewish family from Alsace, but changed his name during World War Two while working with the French Resistance. The surname was borrowed from his favourite writer, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. It was the first symptom of an abiding fascination with of American culture that would find an outlet in Melville’s movie-making and in a carefully-constructed persona. Wearing a Stetson and Ray-Bans he would drive around Paris in a huge American convertible. He had a passion for jazz and for classic Hollywood films of the 1930s.

Like French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, for whom he was an acknowledged mentor, Melville was a cinephiliac. In his younger days he would go to the cinema at  9 am and emerge at 3 am the following day. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of American movies which allowed him to reel off lists of favourite films and directors. He knew who was responsible for the writing, the cinematography, the music and the set design.

I’m told that in film schools today it’s hard to get students to watch anything in black-and-white, let alone from the 1930s. This may be one of the reasons for the prevailing ordinariness of so much contemporary cinema. In the Hollywood of the 1930s audiences accepted that movies would transport us to a parallel universe: a world resembling our own, but more glamorous, more heroic, more rich in possiblities. A movie’s artificiality was part of its appeal, not a reason for complaint.

Melville embraced that sense of artifice, planning his films with painstaking care. He was the ultimate control freak – the very definition of the French auteur who concerned himself with every aspect of a project, imposing a personal style upon the final product.

Melville would demand that an actor wore a hat or a collar with exactly the right tilt. They would be forbidden from moving their eyes freely, being obliged to look at the camera or a particular spot on the wall according to his instructions. He left no room for improvisation or any deviation from the script. Such dictatorial tendencies would bring about furious arguments with stars such as Lino Ventura and Gian-Maria Volonté.

In fact Melville was so “difficult” he was said to have argued with everybody. He was, by turns, secretive and exhibitionistic. Although he loved to shroud himself in mystery he performed for the paparazzi with his American hats and cars. He was simultaneously an intellectual and a populist, making highly ‘literary’ movies that were also box office hits.

His first feature, The Silence of the Sea (1949), based on a respected novel of the French Resistance, by Vercors (AKA. Jean Bruller), took most of its dialogue directly from the book. The story of an old man and his niece who are forced to play host to a German officer during the occupation, the film is filled with high-flown rhetoric, even though the hosts never say a single word to their unwelcome guest.

The play of silence and dense, involving dialogue is a trademark of Melville’s movies. In The Samourai (1967), generally considered his greatest achievement, Alain Delon plays a hit man who never utters an unnecessary syllable. In Léon Morin, Priest (1961), Jean-Paul Belmondo, is cast against type as a dynamic young priest, while Emmanuelle Riva plays a communist widow beset with conflicting desires. The duo spend much of their time engrossed in theological discussions – which sounds deadly but makes for a series of gripping scenes, as the question of God’s existence wrestles with rising sexual tensions. The movie was a huge popular success.

The Silence of the Sea and Léon Morin, Priest form a rough trilogy of films about the Second World War and the Resistance, along with Army of Shadows (1969), a movie that received mixed reviews at first appearance but is now an accepted masterpiece. Although shot in colour it must be one of the gloomiest features ever made. Not only does most of the action take place in darkness or shadow, it paints a bleak, deeply fatalistic portrait of the times. The film technique exemplifies the “minimalism” of Melville’s late work, which employs an absolute economy of means.

Although Army of Shadows is a war story it has stylistic affinities with the genre for which Melville is most famous: his gangster movies. If the first of these, Bob Le Flambeur (AKA. Bob the Gambler) (1956), has the flamboyant style of a hard-boiled police story, by the time of Le Doulos (1963) and Le Deuxième souffle (AKA. Second Wind) (1966), Melville’s approach had become grittier and more brutal. The later crime movies, Le Samourai, The Red Circle (1970) and Un Flic (AKA. A Cop) (1972), are as finely designed as a Swiss watch.

Melville’s reputation waned following his premature death from a heart attack in 1973, but he has re-emerged as a major influence on directors such as Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, John Woo and  Walter Hill – all admirers of the film I’m introducing – Le Doulos. A portrait of a Parisian underworld riven by murder, fierce loyalty and betrayal, the title refers to a hat but is also a slang term for a police informer. While the plot unfolds as a sordid tragedy we are never able to feel certain about where the truth lies. In typical Melvillian fashion the line between criminals and cops is so porous these deadly rivals seem more like colleagues.

In the hyper-masculine world of Melville’s films a killer may have a stronger sentimental attachment to a police inspector than to a woman. The few women who appear in his movies, with the exception of Riva in Léon Morin’, are mostly instruments to be manipulated by men, or weak-willed beings who can’t be trusted. It’s easy to call out the misogyny of these movies but this is so much a part of the director’s pessimistic world view one can hardly imagine a different state of affairs. Ultimately the male characters in Melville’s stories do no better than their female counterparts. We are led to sympathise with, and even admire, these thieves, gangsters and casual killers, but implacable fate always has the last say.

“The truth,” said Melville, in discussing Army of Shadows, is that man is always defeated.” This textbook existentialism threads its way through his meticulous depictions of Parisian nightlife, sordid hide-outs, elaborate heists, car rides, gun fights, fear and sudden death. It’s a spectacularly dark vision that exerts a mesmeric power on the viewer. When the lights come up we know we have been in the presence of a master.




NB. The video clip is not from the Cinema reborn festival, but the Criterion Channel. It gives a pretty good idea of the Melville style



Jean-Pierre Melville: Master of Shadows and Silence

A Cinema Reborn festival

Randwick Ritz, each Sunday, 4 pm, until 8 November.


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 October, 2020