First daring and experimental in an era of conformity, then classical in the age of the new wave, and finally nuanced and introspective when fashionable tastes ran radical and revolutionary – Melville was often commercially successful but rarely au courant.
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In the summer of 1973, Jean-Pierre Melville was, characteristically, dining out with a good friend and talking movies – in particular, ruminating about his next project, a thriller that would star Yves Montand – when he collapsed, succumbing to an aortic aneurysm. Melville left behind thirteen feature films; his sudden death, at the age of fifty-five, prematurely silenced one of the most distinctive voices of postwar French cinema.
Larger than life – and more than happy to embellish that reputation – two foundations of Melville’s persona are nevertheless beyond dispute in their basic veracity: the stamp of his voracious cinephilia and the weight of his wartime experiences. Not quite born with a movie camera in his hand, he did receive one for a birthday gift as a young child, sparking a love of film that would inspire his vocation. Melville watched movies – especially American movies – indefatigably, reflecting what one associate described as “an almost religious passion for the cinema.” And as a still-young man in the early post-war era, impatient with the rigidities of the French cinema guilds, he set out to make films on his own terms. Eventually he would build his own small studio, taking up residence with his wife in a modest apartment perched above the flight of stairs visible in many of his films.
As for the war, in 1937 the young, Jewish, Parisian Jean-Pierre Grumbach (Melville was the nom de guerre he adopted in tribute to the American author) was drafted into the army. In 1940 his unit saw action in Belgium before retreating to England in the frenzy of the Dunkirk evacuation. Back and forth between Britain and France as a member of the French resistance, the details of his underground activities were, unsurprisingly, not officially recorded, but he was jailed in Spain (a better fate than the one met by his brother, who perished at the Spanish frontier), fought with the Free French in Tunisia and Italy, and participated in the final campaign to liberate France.
Despite the extraordinary career that followed (and in recent years the most welcome and lavish attention bestowed upon him by the Criterion Collection), Melville remains an underappreciated figure. Ginette Vincendeau’s invaluable book Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris (2003) remains the only serious study of his life and work available in English. This is likely due in part to the fact that, perhaps willfully, Melville was invariably out of step with the mainstream: first daring and experimental in an era of conformity, then classical in the age of the new wave, and finally nuanced and introspective when fashionable tastes ran radical and revolutionary – Melville was often commercially successful but rarely au courant. Nor could his personality have helped matters. Known for sporting an exaggerated (and, in France, politically incorrect) Americanized look that featured a cowboy hat and sunglasses, Melville was, as Vincendeau describes, “obstinate, proud and authoritarian,” a man who “quarreled with just about everyone.” His difficult relations with actors were legendary, yet, it should be noted, many chose to work with him repeatedly. (And if it is true that Melville and Lino Ventura were reduced to speaking through intermediaries during the production of Army of Shadows, it did not hurt the quality of the finished product.)
But with the distancing of time – now more than four decades after his passing – Melville’s body of work can perhaps be assessed without the baggage of personal animus or passing fancies. And from this vantage point it becomes clear that there is a strong case for setting his place-card at the auteur’s table. Not only did he produce a formidable body of work, it is also not difficult to delineate a recognizably “Melvillian” film: one that features long, carefully orchestrated takes (long but not ostentatious – often only noticeable after a second viewing); very precise constructions; subtle, understated performances (at times a clenched jaw seems the moral equivalent of an emotional outburst); extended silent sequences; occasionally, elliptical Bressonian minimalism (though Melville insists, predictably but not without cause, that it was Bresson who followed him); and inevitable visual references to favored American films.
Thematically, Melville’s films most commonly center on questions of honor, and, in particular, with characters who recognize certain codes of honor that they must adhere to, at great or even ultimate personal sacrifice. It is necessary to observe that these are codes followed by men. Women in these worlds, when they appear, are held at arm’s length. Unquestionably, in the first half of his career, from The Silence of the Sea (1949) through Leon Morin, Priest (1961), there are many prominent female characters whose narratives and concerns are taken seriously. But from there, in the later films, women are escorted to the margins of the story (at best); moreover, throughout, these are stories told, and a culture portrayed, of men amongst men. Women are desired, essential, and treated with implicitly understood ethics of respect – but they are not intimates, they are another country.
This is to be distinguished (and not defensively) from a subtext of latent or implied homosexuality; Melville’s men (with one exception), like Melville, are extremely, as they say, fond of women. But ultimately they are loners who value the company of other (respected) men and distance the female other in ways similar to the disposition of Melville favorite John Huston, or the boy’s club that was the turn-of-the-sixties rat pack. For better or worse, this masculinist imprint is another mark of the Melvillian stamp that cannot be overlooked.
But nor should it be disqualifying. Rather, Melville’s films, collectively, comprise a body of work that is singular, distinct, and worthy of the close scrutiny that is reserved for filmmakers of the first rank. In this essay, I consider three of Melville’s films in the context of his oeuvre: Two Men in Manhattan (1959), Le Doulos (1962), and Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966). This triplet can be dubbed his “noir improvisations,” a nod to Bertrand Tavernier’s observation that Melville approaches filmmaking like a jazz musician, reinterpreting and experimenting with the standards – in this case, with the classic templates of film noir and the codes and conventions of cinematic gangsters.
Two other triplets can be observed in the Melville canon, which would also reward a more intensive examination. One set are the films of the occupation trilogy: the (yes, Bressonian) Silence of the Sea; the subtle, smart, and thought-provoking Leon Morin; and the incomparable resistance masterpiece Army of Shadows (1969), each of which have seen their critical reputations grow over time. The other trio, of late period Alain Delon films: the minimalist tone poem Le Samourai (1967); The Red Circle (1970), featuring Yves Montand; and the underrated Un Flic (1972) – its lengthy, opening, wordless heist is unsurpassed – include some of his biggest hits.
Four other films, including a couple of oddities, stand more or less alone. Les Enfants Terribles (1950) is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s well-known novel centered on the implicitly incestuous relationship between siblings. When You Read This Letter (1953) is a structurally uncertain “woman’s picture,” which has its moments but doesn’t quite hold together. If Letter is Melville’s least distinguished picture, L’aine des Ferchaux (1963) is his most peculiar. A very loose adaptation of the 1945 Simenon novel, it is a movie of three distinct parts: initially, some pleasantly Melvillian Paris-based intrigue as the paths of a crooked businessman (Charles Vanel) and a failing boxer (Jean-Paul Belmondo) converge; then, a diverting flight to New York for secretive meetings and scheming (and never has the interwar skyscraper at One Wall Street been more attractively shot); finally, a bizarre road-trip-on-the-lam toward New Orleans, as the film devolves into a hothouse bromance (here latent homosexuality bubbles to the surface), with Ferchaux concluding as Cajun-inflected amour-fou, half Tennessee Williams, half Mississippi Mermaid (Truffaut’s 1969 film, in which Belmondo is the one who is desperate, smitten, and mistreated). A film with many charming touches (why not stop while on the run to see Frank Sinatra’s birthplace?), it is Melvillian not only in its fine first two sections but also with its meditations about what makes an honorable man.
Finally, there is Bob – as in Bob le Flambeur (1956) – usually said with a smile and a French accent, as it is perhaps Melville’s best-known and most fondly regarded movie. (Neil Jordan remade it in 2002 with Nick Nolte as Bob.) Nominally a caper film, it was made in the shadow of the enormous influence of The Asphalt Jungle (Huston 1950) – one of Melville’s favorite films – and arrived on the heels of two highly esteemed French heist movies, Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Becker 1954) and Rififi (Dassin 1955). Touchez boasted a pitch-perfect Jean Gabin in the title role; Dassin’s film was widely acclaimed for the tense, silent, near half-hour of its set-piece safecracking. And all three features ended, fittingly, with death and despair. Melville thus felt a bit scooped – in 1954 he had been slated to direct Rififi. In lieu of that he hired its writer, August Le Breton, and transposed his composition of Bob to a slightly more lighthearted key. Ultimately, as a gangster-in-winter fable, it more than holds its own with the celebrated Rififi; Becker’s Touchez, however, still sets the standard.
Bob is much beloved; it was also hugely influential. Made on a shoestring budget over the course of eighteen months in fits and starts whenever cash was on hand, with its naturalistic street scenes, it was an important precursor to the French New Wave. Its cinematographer, Henri Decae (then early in his illustrious career), would again take to the real streets – and at night – to shoot Elevator to the Gallows (Malle, 1958), as well as Chabrol’s first two films, and then Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959). The young Turks of the nouvelle vague revered Melville, whose filmmaking lived the liberated sensibilities they had championed in print. Tipping his hat, Godard showcased Melville in an extended cameo in Breathless (1960); walk-on bits in the early films of Rohmer and Chabrol were similarly inspired. (Of course, inevitably, Melville had a falling out with his one-time acolytes; he disowned them, and they returned the favor.)
In the context of his own filmography – with its gangsters, gambling dens and night owls, deep affinities between honorable cops and crooks, and shadowy money-men-behind-the-scenes navigating the grey area between crime and big business – Bob is also notable for pointing the way toward Melville’s noir trilogy. Indeed, his first noir-inflected picture would be up next.
Two Men in Manhattan is draped with glorious, jet-black, night-for-night photography (often sharply contrasted with the hot lights of the busy city at night), deep shadows, and genre-appropriate (though unassuming) tilted camera angles. Over the course of its brisk eighty-four minutes, there is a dead body, a man inexplicably gone missing, mysterious surveillance, an attempted suicide, a desperate chase against the clock, and characters with secrets to protect. And it ends with a character on his hands and knees in the gutter at dawn, in the desolation of Pike Slip underneath the Manhattan Bridge, with the great downtown skyscrapers of Forty Wall Street and the City Services Tower looming as witnesses in the distance.
In addition, the film is not without its intensities. A long, disquieting hospital sequence raises the stakes of the action; competing ethical schemes are sharply debated (at one memorable moment, in the rooftop garden above a duplex apartment overlooking the city); and at another point Melville stops the film in its tracks for a two-minute soliloquy reviewing one character’s personal sacrifices and heroic derring-do as a member of the French resistance.
That said, ultimately Two Men is noir more in style than substance. Melville describes the movie as “a love letter to Manhattan,” adding that “love letters are only written at night.” Thus despite the mysteries of the plot, and the dazzling, high-contrast shots on the streets of Times Square at night that recall the virtuoso cinematography of James Wong Howe in Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick 1957), Two Men, in contrast to that bitter, cynical take on the urban jungle, has a much lighter tone; it exudes the impression of a filmmaker having a wonderful time. The plot is wafer thin: the disappearance of a French diplomat provides the rationale for journalist Moreau (played by Melville himself) and his friend, an unscrupulous, alcoholic photographer (Pierre Grasset), to retrace the missing man’s steps, from location to location, and from woman to woman: secretary, actress, singer, madame, stripper.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that – who wouldn’t want to take a trip with Melville at night through the best of hip, jazz-inflected, late-bohemian Manhattan? The location work is irresistible: anchored in the shining movie marquees of Times Square, the movie gets around, hopping on the subway, touring Rockefeller center, visiting the UN, pounding the pavements, and setting the Empire State Building in the background to anchor the physical orientation of the action. A foray to Greenwich Village smiles at the ethos of one witness and her dripping-wet female roommate (“the never-ending problems of men and women don’t concern me”); a visit to the “Mercury Theater” nods to Orson Welles; a stop at Capitol Records brings the film’s jazz soundtrack into the foreground. The scenery drips with booze, cops, and nightclubs; a detour to a Brooklyn diner is said to have been modeled after the one featured in The Asphalt Jungle (perhaps, but a double-check reveals more differences than similarities). Nevertheless, the reference to Huston’s great film is an apt one – the tone of Melville’s pictures would increasingly move toward the despairing fatalism of the noir classics.
Le Doulos opens with a sequence that is, simply put, as good as anything we have in the noir canon. This is no small feat. The initial passages can be compared with – even arguably surpass – both in style and substance, the iconic early moments of The Killers (Siodmak 1946). The murder that opens Melville’s film is more startling, and weightier, than William Conrad’s icing of the empty, impassive Burt Lancaster. And the shadows and light that follow the first shots fired in Le Doulos are thrown by the best swinging lightbulb since Le Corbeau (Clouzot 1943) – both scenes, it should be noted, were shot by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer (he also shot the interiors of Two Men in Manhattan).
Of all of Melville’s crime films, Le Doulos is the darkest – pitch black, all the way down – a world of shadows and staircases, hats and trench coats, expressionist framing, and saturated with a fatalism that gestures toward Out of the Past (Tourneur 1947). A notable (and perhaps telling) omission from Doulos are the femmes fatale that drive the action in Killers and Past; instead, here, the responsibilities of male friendship – especially the one between Maurice (Serge Reggiani) and Silien (Belmondo) – motivate characters’ choices. Also notable in the cast are Michel Piccoli, a year before his breakout role in Godard’s Contempt, and Jean Desailly, who would soon star in Truffaut’s The Soft Skin. (Desailly’s Commissaire Clain is often seen sporting a toothpick, which Tavernier identifies as an homage to the toothpick-gnawing cop (Sterling Hayden) in Crime Wave (De Toth 1954), an obscure low-budget noir – another of Melville’s favorites, and well worth seeking out.)
A key theme of the similarities between the crooks and the cops, never far from the surface in Melville’s films, is routinely foregrounded here. When the police first pick up Silien on the street, no establishing shots or context are provided, just a bunch of thuggish-looking fellows in a car, slowly approaching their prey – on a first viewing, instinct anticipates a kidnapping or drive-by shooting. And the cops don’t just look like gangsters, they act like them. Dishonest and menacing, they extort Silien’s cooperation by threatening to have the vice squad search his place for drugs. Protestations of innocence matter little. “We all know there’s nothing there,” one detective explains matter-of-factly, “but we can always find something.”
That interrogation scene, the centerpiece of which is a virtuoso shot more than eight minutes long requiring complex maneuvering and featuring a 360-degree turn, shows a master’s command of the camera that becomes increasingly apparent on multiple viewings. A second interrogation (of Maurice) provides a modest reprise of the first; the machinations of Silien’s scheme are relayed in five minutes of riveting silence; characters, early and late, regard their fates with resigned looks in the mirror, framing the narrative and underscoring its suggestion of the unshakable destiny of predetermined paths.
Le Doulos is less well known for its consummate filmmaking than for the fact that the entire film turns on a disclosure – a complex and sophisticated twist that speaks to the language and power of cinema. Melville first presents – or, more accurately, suggests – one consistent version of the truth, the missing elements of which the audience mentally fills in; but late in the game his rearrangement of the cards reveals another. Unnerving at first, the power of Le Doulos is that this reconstruction is not a cheap trick, or a gimmick, or a breach of faith, à la Hitchcock’s “flashback that lied,” in Stage Fright (1950). Rather, it is a revelation that requires a reassessment of the facts, similar to the moment in Chinatown (Polanski 1974), in which things that looked very much one way, now reassessed, sum to something fundamentally (and tragically) different.
It is a powerful move, and it works. But it also exposes Le Doulos, and, more to the point, Melville, to accusations of misogyny that chased him for much of his career. And in this instance, those charges stick. In my view, the problem here follows from one of the most shocking scenes in the film, when Therese (Monique Hennessy, Melville’s secretary, who also played the despairing Broadway actress in Two Men in Manhattan) is bound, beaten, and humiliated. But in retroactively revising the meaning of that scene, the movie is trying to have it both ways: first, the audience can recoil in horror from the shocking brutality of the moment, but it is subsequently invited, if implicitly, to conclude “she had it coming.”
This observation can be pushed too far in characterizing the overall tenor of the film. Le Doulos may mistreat its women, but, more than anything, it is indifferent to them. It is a movie about bad men bound by a code of honor, and how they must, as one character describes, do “anything for a friend.” Or, ultimately, everything.
Le Deuxieme Souffle is based on a novel by Jose Giovanni, a character of some intrigue. After a shady youth rubbing shoulders with the Corsican underworld, the nature and extent of his experiences during the war are murky and contested. In 1945 Giovanni was caught up in an extortion scheme that ended violently and landed him on death row. Ultimately the sentence was commuted to eight years of hard labor, but his prison experiences – especially the months he spent on death row, where he absorbed the stories of France’s most notorious criminals, including killers from collaborationist gangs – informed his subsequent writing.
That Melville would be eager to adapt one of Giovanni’s books is of little surprise; in 1960 two films based on his writings were released within a week of each other: Le Trou, Jacques Becker’s prison-escape masterpiece, and Classe Tous Risques, the story of an aging gangster seeking to return from furtive exile, directed by a then-unknown Claude Sautet. Le Trou was shot in Melville’s studio, and it quickly found a place in his pantheon of the greatest films ever made. Melville also championed Risques (which upon its initial release met a disappointing commercial fate), showering it with his highest praise. “Imagine for an instant that the story took place in the United States,” he insisted, “and tell me if, thus transposed, Sautet would not be one of the greats over there,” his films standing alongside Odds Against Tomorrow, The Hustler, and The Asphalt Jungle. Revealing a keen eye for talent but a poor command of cultural currents, he predicted that within five years, Sautet would be one of the giants of French cinema.
It took several years for Melville to assemble all of the key pieces of Le Deuxieme Souffle: Giovanni’s novel and coveted players including the invariably superb Paul Meurisse, Michel Constantin (star of Le Trou), and, crucially, Lino Ventura, who, as in Risques, would bring his singular, stoic intensity to portray a weather-beaten outlaw in search of one final score. A very complex film in the service of basic Melvillian themes, it is possible to get lost in the intricacies of the plot – but more or less it is the story of overlapping schemes that come to entangle interconnected criminal groups operating in Paris and Marseilles. At the center of it all, of course, is a perfect heist, followed by its inevitable unraveling and the honor-bound obligations that follow.
Souffle is characterized and carried by its magnificent sequences and set pieces, starting with the silent prison break that opens the film – shot with one eye on the standard set by A Man Escaped (Bresson 1956) – that springs the notorious Gu Minda (Ventura). Other highlights include the five-minute, single-take reconstruction of a restaurant shoot-out by Commissaire Blot (Meurisse). Blot’s intelligence and sophistication are visually buttressed by the smooth, artfully choreographed long takes associated with him. And of course, there is the magisterial articulation of the heist: fourteen minutes at the heart of the film, it clocks in much shorter than the one in Rififi, but is nevertheless brilliant in its cinematic execution – had the movie been a big American hit, the shot of four conspirators staring down into the abyss would be considered one of the iconic images of the films of the sixties.
An enthusiast could easily walk through any number of other moments-that-linger – I’m especially fond of the way Orloff (Pierre Zimmer) studies the layout of an apartment that will soon host a dangerous sit-down – but to contemporary eyes (and for key Melvillian themes), the Marseilles interrogation stands out. Here the police rough up two gang members, trying to pit one against the other. It’s a pretty tough scene, but tamer than intended and initially shot. As Vincendeau describes, originally one prisoner was tortured by funneling water down his throat, but that brutal technique, associated with the French Gestapo and the army during the Algerian war, hit too close to home for the censors, who demanded its deletion. (Remnants of the water and references to the viciousness of the police measures remain.)
All of the business attendant to the Marseilles interrogation also underscores a foundational concern of the movie: the singular importance of codes of honor among respectable men. The imperturbable Gu loses his cool only once: when it appears that others might think – erroneously – that he has broken his word. That possibility packs an emotional punch leagues beyond anything seen in his oddly chaste encounters with his lover. In fact, Manouche (Christine Fabrega) is referred to, in gangster slang, as Gu’s “sister.” Melville told one interviewer, “If I’ve let it be understood that Manouche is Gu’s sister, it’s because of the Enfants Terribles part of me,” that is, to toy with a suggestion of incest. But those encounters are better read conversely: the film is not portraying Gu and Manouche as siblings who are lovers; rather, Melville shoots their encounters with an innocence that would not be inappropriate were they actually brother and sister, if with an undercurrent of repressed sexual attraction between them.
What matters to Gu (and, one suspects, to Melville) is the respect of men who are worthy of respect. The men of Le Deuxieme Souffle are not just men without women, they are lone wolves – men on their own. Alban (Constantin), Manouche’s faithful bodyguard, is driven by his loyalty to Gu. Orloff is also a singular, intensely loyal figure who works on his own but stands behind his friends. Even Blot – Gu’s determined pursuer, but not his nemesis – falls into this category, and his gesture at the end of the film shows that he too, even on the opposite side of the law, knows the code and adheres to it.
Three years later, Ventura and Meurisse would reunite, this time on the same side, for Army of Shadows. Only two more Melvilles would follow. Twenty-two of his unproduced screenplays were lost to a fire that swept through his studio in 1967; Melville boasted that he could rewrite each one from memory, in perfect detail.
What films he might have made, with twenty more years.