Bright Lights Film Journal

Jean-Pierre Melville, Director: Notes on the French Auteur’s Career

“The film was shot in what would become a blueprint for the director’s production style — without authorization, studio resources, or sufficient funds.”

Jean-Pierre Melville, who directed his first film, The Silence of the Sea, in 1948, predated and in some ways paved the way for the nouvelle vague, even as he sometimes worked in genres far removed from the movement. From 1948 to 1972, he wrote and directed 13 films, mostly policiers and thrillers with occasional forays into French poetic realism. Yet, like Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut, and others who paid homage to him, Melville’s cinematic models were not French but American, specifically, Hollywood commercial films from the 1930s and ’40s. His obsession — it can only be called that — covered genres (film noir), studios (Warner Bros. in the 1930s), and directors (Robert Wise, William Wyler), and extended to personal affectations. His trademarks were a Bogart-like white Stetson hat, sunglasses, and trenchcoat. Director Volker Schlondorff, his assistant in the early ’60s, remembers Melville driving him for hours through the streets of Paris in a vast Ford Galaxy. Even his name was American — in the early ’40s while serving in the war, the man born Jean-Pierre Grumach read Moby Dick and adopted the author’s last name as his own.

Still, Melville is more than the sum of his admittedly eccentric parts. His life reads like a cinephile’s dream. Born in 1917 in Paris to a middle-class family, he was given a 9.5mm movie camera and projector when he was six years old. He made amateur films before he was 10, and by 14 had decided to become a director. Still, Melville had time to join a street gang in Montmartre, where he indulged in borderline criminal activities that would later form the basis for his film Bob le Flambeur. After the war, he tried to get into the filmmakers’ union but was refused, since he had no commercial experience and — in a Catch-22 — no union card. Undaunted, he set up his own production company and made his first film, a comedy short. In 1948 he directed his first feature, based on a short story by Vercors.

Melville’s daring and experimental bent — partly born out of what he called “penury” — were already in evidence with The Silence of the Sea (right). The film was shot in what would become a blueprint for the director’s production style — without authorization, studio resources, or sufficient funds. In this case, Vercors provided his own house for shooting most of the interiors in this triangle drama in which an old man and his niece are forced to house a German soldier during the Occupation. The most unusual aspect of the film is that it is almost entirely a monlogue spoken by the German soldier, creating a striking interiority. Silence of the Sea was typical of most of his later work, too, in winning critical approval (and the plaudits of his fellow cineastes) but failing commercially.

Melville worked with Jean Cocteau on his next film, Les Enfants Terribles (based on Cocteau’s novel), and the production was a tortured one because Cocteau forced Melville to use his (Cocteau’s) boyfriend Edouard Dermit in the lead. Again, lack of money forced the director to use his imagination, most notably in a “crane shot” that was actually made by placing the camera in a rising elevator.

By 1953, Melville began building his own studio, financed by his participation in Quand tu Liras Cette Letre, an international coproduction starring Juliette Greco. Melville’s studio — which burned to the ground but was rebuilt a year later — became part of his mystique for the future members of the nouvelle vague. His determination to make films — “pure cinema” on his own terms — without recourse to the vagaries of major studios and banks provided a model for those who followed.

His next film, Bob le Flambeur (1955) found Melville in a more relaxed, personal mode. Using the trappings of noir, the director fashioned a surprisingly light, almost pleasant caper movie. The title character is an aging gambler whose convoluted attempts to pull off a last big job are thwarted when he wins a fortune from the casino he planned to rob. The film opens in typical noirish style, with the wail of a bluesy saxophone behind the credits. Like most of his films, this one features extensive location photography, giving it a fresh quality that would recur in the films of, particularly, Godard and Truffaut.

Bob le Flambeur marked a turning point for Melville: with one major exception, the rest of his films are noirs. The exception is Leon Morin, Priest (1962), an uncharacteristically French film set during the Occupation. Emmanuelle Riva plays a communist who falls in love with a priest, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Melville’s playful side emerges throughout, in spite of the darkness of the drama. He plays with the audience’s narrative expectations, fading out scenes after only a line or two of dialogue, mirroring the fragmentation of the characters’ lives under the strictures of war. This film also features a thrilling lesbian subplot, as Riva initially goes to the priest to talk frankly about being in love with her (female) boss, Sabine. She is wonderfully direct, almost sensual in describing her feelings: “When she leans over my work, her shadow caresses me.” Melville shows Sabine leaning over her in a loving near-embrace.

Melville’s next films are those best known in the West, particularly Le Doulos, a kind of French Asphalt Jungle,complete with washed-up thugs and double-crossing women. Le Samourai (1967, right), with Alain Delon, is another noir (this time in color), widely considered the director’s masterpiece. Released in dubbed and butchered form in America as The Godson, this film has been cited as a major influence on Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. (Woo’s recurring Chow Yun-Fat character “Jeff” is based on Alain Delon’s character Jeff Costello.) Delon’s bittersweet “heroic criminal” is a modern re-creation of the classic confused noir hero of the 1940s American films. Delon reappears in The Red Circle (1970), one of the director’s more conscious attempts to graft his other favorite American genre, the Western, onto the caper film.

In 1972, Melville made his last film, Dirty Money. The man who jump-started the French New Wave and provided a unique model for independent film production died of a heart attack a year later at fifty-five.