Why this might not seem so easy
The Stetson-wearing godfather of the French crime film, Jean-Pierre Melville has a very particular reputation as a tough-guy purveyor of genre cinema. His macho gangster films of the 1960s and 70s often met with huge commercial success, but detractors were never far behind. Some said he was all style and no substance, a copycat artist stealing from an American genre. But while it’s true that he adored classic Hollywood crime movies, his work went far beyond mere imitation. Melville’s exacting frames, cool-toned hues and alienated male protagonists built a murky philosophical world around the gestures of criminality.
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Melville’s characters are often stoic men of purpose who behave according to rigorous professional codes, whether he’s depicting the French resistance (The Army of Shadows, 1969), the monastic existence of a hired assassin (Le Samouraï, 1967) or even the life of the cloth (Leon Morin, Priest, 1962). In some respects, Melville operated like a choreographer: every movement in his films seems deliberate and even ritualised, with elements of his Parisian policiers – guns, hats, leather-gloved hands, steering wheels – taking on a totemic importance.
While his films may seem dreamlike in their pacing, they take place in a grimly realistic world. Melville, who had fought for the Free French Army under De Gaulle during the Second World War, had considerable experience with violence. After the war, he began to independently produce and direct his own films, taking a hands-on approach that saw him as interested in costumes as he was in the job of writing and directing.
In spite of his fame as a popular director of crime films, Melville was never oriented purely towards the commercial. He had spent his formative filmmaking years in company with figures such as Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau, and as such he understood the power of pared-down simplicity and visual symbolism. His films employ icy longueurs, abrupt jump cuts and intractably vacant protagonists – formal devices that deviate considerably from the mainstream.
Thus, Melville was a paradoxical figure. He was a commercial filmmaker without much commercial intent, and a lover of the American cinema who was as abstractly European as they come. He was a friend and influence to the French New Wave filmmakers, before later becoming their sworn enemy. Yet, in spite of all that contradiction, his films have a minimalism and purity that give them a genuine auteurist sweep.
The best place to start – Le Samouraï
In its meticulous approach, laconic violence and man-out-of-time existentialism, the 1967 classic Le Samouraï encapsulates what Melville’s cinema is all about. It stars Alain Delon as the solitary Jef Costello, a loner hitman whose fierce assassin’s code is as self-defining as his throwback 1940s-style trenchcoat and snap-brim hat. This killer for hire lives in a tiny, sparse apartment, designed to reflect his own internal sense of protocol. Outside, meanwhile, the slate-grey, rain-washed streets of Paris are cast in a pale blue filter, said to be chosen specifically to mirror the colour of Delon’s eyes. The economy of the director’s style in Le Samouraï is breathtaking: whether in a wordless car theft sequence or in a carefully orchestrated hit in a nightclub, there’s not a moment wasted.
Similar pleasures are offered by the director’s two immediate follow-ups, also featuring megastar Delon. Heist thriller Le Cercle rouge found an enormous audience on release in 1970, in spite of an entirely silent 30-minute robbery sequence that tests the boundaries of narrative film, while 1972’s Un flic extends Melville’s preoccupations even further into near-abstraction, with semi-silent action sequences, imposingly grey modernist cityscapes and expressionless hoodlums orchestrating their crimes with the grace of dancers. This was to be Melville’s final film: he died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 55.
What to watch next
A perfect rejoinder to any accusations of stylish superficiality, Melville’s 1969 film The Army of Shadows focuses on the anti-Vichy operatives of 1942-43. Lino Ventura stars as Philippe Gerbier, the head of a resistance splinter group who make an incredible escape from a PoW camp.
If this sounds like traditionally action-oriented war film territory, the result is far less comfortable. With its dreary colour scheme and morose characters, the film has a poisonous sense of doom hanging heavy over proceedings. The heroism therein is undergirded by a sense of moral compromise and a total lack of recognition. Against this muddy, wintry palette, Melville emphasises the sad fact that many resistance fighters went to their deaths without knowing if their sacrifice had made the slightest difference to the war effort. Of the film, Melville later said: “For the first time, I show things that I have seen – that I have experienced.”
Another Melville not to miss is 1956’s Bob le flambeur, his third feature film. With its DIY street scenes and jump cuts, this fine and influential gangster flick was a precursor to the freewheeling aesthetic of the French New Wave. Cameraman Henri Decaë would go on to work for François Truffaut, while Melville famously got a cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) partly because of the film’s inspirational effect.
In turn, Breathless star Jean-Paul Belmondo went on to take the lead in Melville’s Le Doulos (1962), another of the director’s indispensable policiers. Belmondo plays a young man with a mixed-up past who may or may not be working as a police informer.
Where not to start
Melville’s first two postwar films – one on the subject of the resistance (Le Silence de la mer, 1949) and the other written by Jean Cocteau (Les Enfants terribles, 1950) – are excellent and distinctive films, but feel atypical alongside the later crime films that made him famous. Similarly, his other wartime France picture, 1962’s Leon Morin, Priest is a fascinating outlier but not an ideal place to begin. Hinging on the unlikely comradeship between a young, handsome priest (Belmondo again) and a bone-weary widow (Emmanuelle Riva) who is tired of the war and clinging to survival any way she can, it offers a seamy sexuality and small-town setting that are far from the sterile modernity the director is most celebrated for.