Much of the joy of watching Melville’s work is seeing where so many masters got their inspiration from. Throughout Melville’s filmography, I kept spotting things that would later influence Michael Mann, David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and countless others. There’s something to be said for going back to the source. For exploring the films that inspired the movies you love. That’s Jean-Pierre Melville. The man quietly changed the game, and I cannot believe it took me this long to discover him.
(Please note that some Melville films are seemingly impossible to find. I explored every option to track down When You Read This Letter and Magnet of Doom, but to no avail. Typically, if I can’t complete a director’s body of work, I don’t cover that director in this series. But Jean-Pierre Melville is simply too good to pass up.)
Melville’s first film is an 18-minute short capturing a day in the life of famed clown, Beby. We watch Beby finish a show, head home, gripe with his wife, rest, wake up, and do it all over again. It’s an amusing little piece – not offering too much, but not asking a lot either. There’s a nice scene when Beby enters his bedroom, and the camera pans around to reveal all of his mementos, not unlike the first time we see Eddie Adams’ room in Boogie Nights. Even with Melville’s first ever short film, the director’s lasting impact is revealed. B-
Melville’s first feature film is a quiet movie about communication and understanding. In the early days of World War II, a German officer named Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon, astounding in his idealism) is sent to live in the home of a noble Frenchman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his silent niece (Nicole Stéphane). Because Germany is occupying France, the Frenchman and his niece have no choice in hosting von Ebrennac, so they defy his presence by not acknowledging his existence. Von Ebrennac understands this, yet night after night, he gently tells stories, talks literature, and muses about his life, all while the Frenchman and his niece patiently ignore him.
Von Ebrennac is a Nazi by circumstance, but not by heart. He’s smart, kind, and considerate, but, ultimately, terribly naive. He has a romanticized vision of the war; he genuinely believes that WWII will result in a beautiful marriage between France and Germany. But things change when von Ebrennac visits Paris. As he arrives, he is immediately taken with the city. He walks around proudly, as if the city was his own. Harsh reality soon sets in, however, as von Ebrennac learns the Nazis’ true intentions, and is utterly devastated by them. Von Ebrennac shares his troubles with the Frenchman, and an unspoken understanding is born between them.
Le Silence de la Mer is based on a book by Jean Bruller. Melville filmed the movie in Bruller’s own home, and the result is a film of lasting, endearing importance. This is a remarkably confident film debut, both thematically and culturally. The film is a staple of mental war resistance, one that illustrates the value of communication. This is a film about listening, understanding, and peace. Le Silence de la Mer is also a film about accepting inevitable fate, no matter how terrible that fate may be. B+
What is most immediately noticeable about Melville’s second film, Les Enfants Terribles, is how polar opposite it is in tone to Le Silence de la Mer. Nicole Stéphane, the near-silent niece from Le Silence de la Mer, plays the controlling and aggressively crass Élisabeth in Les Enfants Terribles. The film centers around Élisabeth’s uncomfortably close relationship with her brother, Paul (Édouard Dermit), who is bedridden due to a recent injury. Élisabeth and Paul are odd. They make fun of each other, sleep in the same room, and rarely let the other out of their sight. When new people come into their lives, Élisabeth spends every waking moment trying to make the others suffer, while maintaining her curious love for Paul.
Élisabeth is a loathsome human being. She’s nasty, controlling, and jealous, and even if no explicit reason is stated for her behavior, it’s clear to me that she is in love with Paul. This incestual desire fuels Élisabeth’s spiteful motives, resulting in a film that is at times slapstick farce, and other times Shakespearean melodrama. The film gets better as it goes along, resulting in an emotionally powerful ending. And while I do respect Melville for changing tone so drastically, I prefer his more serious takes on human behavior. B
Bob le Flambeur may not be Melville’s most notable film, but its impact is massive. Roger Ebert suggested that because Bob le Flambeur preceded the films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, Melville’s film, in effect, started the French New Wave. Ebert’s suggestion appears to be correct. Bob le Flambeur is a confident mini-noir that implores handheld camera movements and editing jump cuts, techniques that would later become staples of the New Wave. The film’s plot heavily influenced both Ocean’s Eleven movies, not to mention Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. And Neil Jordan directly remade Bob le Flambeur in 2002 as The Good Thief. So, yes, Bob le Flambeur’s stamp on cinema speaks for itself.
It’s safe to call Bob le Flambeur Melville’s first cool film, of which there would be several. It’s Melville’s first dive into the seedy underworld of back-alley crime, with loyal thieves, steadfast cops, and a go-to nightclub setting. The film is about a charismatic convict named Bob (Roher Duchesne) who’s been straight for two decades, but now finds himself broke and looking to make good on one final score.
The conception, preview, and execution of the score (the latter gloriously bucks all convention), in which Bob and his cohorts plan to nab a casino safe, are indelible scenes in cinema. We’ve seen these scenes repeated and replayed dozens of times over. This being a great Melville film, there is far more to Bob le Flambeur than the heist itself, resulting in as cool, twisty, and exciting a film from the 1950s as I can recall. A
After a French diplomat fails to show up to a UN vote, a French journalist, Moreau (played strongly by Melville himself), is assigned to track the diplomat down. Moreau enlists the help of a hip photographer, Delmas (Pierre Grasses), and the two set off for a night-long search across Manhattan.
What’s so interesting about that film is that you never really know what tone it’s going for. Is it a comical farce of a man disappeared? Or a loathsome character study of a friend gone? In the wrong hands, this lack of defined tone could be frustrating, but Melville somehow makes it wildly refreshing. Melville plays with our genre expectations with each passing scene, as if he is daring us to go for the ride.
Two Men in Manhattan isn’t as reflective as Le Silence de la Mer, nor as cool as Bob la Flambeur, but it moves, it works. The film is full of worthy reveals, and its final act gains a significant bit of unexpected momentum. Throughout Two Men in Manhattan, you may have an idea of where you’re going, but you never really know for sure. Hell, isn’t that part of the fun? B+
Léon Morin, Priest, Melville’s most reserved and thoughtful film, concerns itself with Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a frustrated young woman who forms an unlikely bond with a patient priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Barny and Morin initially meet when Barny attempts to insult the priest during confession. But because of Morin’s thoughtful insight, Barny’s attempted mean deed fails, and she ends up learning something about herself. The two begin to meet regularly, discussing faith, love, identity, and sexual desire; asking questions and providing respectful answers. It’s an amiable friendship that both enjoy, all with Germany’s occupation of France serving as a backdrop.
What a joy it is to watch Riva (perfect as ever) engage in these exchanges with Belmondo, who, as Morin, delivers an astounding performance of quiet resolve; the tonal reverse of his turn in Breathless a year earlier. Riva’s work could be the most emotional performance Melville ever captured. Indeed, the core conflict in the film is based on emotion. Barny’s desires begin to consume her, forcing a rift between she and Morin. Yet, this isn’t as thrilling as it may sound. It’s far more honest and organic than that. Léon Morin, Priest is meditative Melville. There is no sleek coolness to the film, but there doesn’t need to be. Much like Le Silence de la Mer, Léon Morin, Priest evolves at a patient pace, which proves to be exactly what the material needs. B+
I’m going to start with the technical, because there is a marvelous scene in Le Doulos that cannot be buried. Midway through the film, three detectives interrogate a criminal name Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, cool as cool can be). What makes this interrogation stand out is that it is captured in one unbroken shot lasting nine minutes. Throughout the scene, the camera slides around the office seamlessly, circling the characters, weaving between them. Think about this. How, especially in 1961, could a film crew pull this off? During the nine minutes, the camera gracefully exposes every corner of the office. This means there was no crew sitting idly behind the camera, nor were there lights set up directly off camera. If a shot like this were captured today (without the use of special effects), it would be a technical marvel. But the fact that Melville did it in 1961 is extraordinary. And, to be clear, this is not a showy long take. I didn’t even realize the scene was one shot until the scene was over. That is the essence of a true stealth oner.
I mention that scene because it’s a great launch point to discuss Le Doulos as a whole. This is a carefully laid out film, full of twists and turns, of double and triple cross, of good men and bad. To summarize the movie effectively in just a few sentences would be impossible, but know that it is one of Melville’s finest crime thrillers. I had to watch the damn thing three times just to get a workable handle on it. And I loved it more with each passing minute. The film’s reliance on pulp dialogue is a clear influence to David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of which once declared Le Doulos as his favorite screenplay of all time. This isn’t an easy film to find, but one damn well worth the effort. A-
One of the most important themes of Melville’s crime movies is honor among thieves. Some of the men in Melville’s underworlds may be bad, but almost all of them follow a code. Their name is their name, and to have it smeared is unacceptable, no matter the circumstance. Of Melville’s work, this idea is best realized in his crime drama, Le Deuxieme Souffle.
Gu Minda (Lino Ventura) is such a loyal, dedicated criminal that he will risk his life to prove that he isn’t a rat. Even as Gu sets up his final score, there is a nobility to his criminal purpose that is amusing to watch. Yes, Le Deuxieme Souffle is a One. Final. Job. movie, but the entire film is executed with Melville’s trademark precision. Gu has busted out of prison and even though an honorable cop (in Melville’s world, cops and robbers often look the same) is tracking Gu, the thief has plans to knock off a security van full of platinum bars. The heist, captured with Melville’s acute attention to detail, is one of Melville’s finest set pieces.
Le Deuxieme Souffle has serious criminals, wise ass cops, pulpy women (“Aren’t those rods a little heavy?” a dame asks two thugs at one point), and inherent danger throughout. No one in the film is safe, all the way up to its thrilling end (of which Quentin Tarantino is clearly an admirer). Le Deuxieme Souffle blurs the line that distinguishes honor among thieves and honor among police. Hell, maybe it’s the same. A name is a name, after all. A
The impact of Le Samouraï cannot be overstated. It is a searing, patient, engrossing character study that has influenced modern filmmaking in a way few movies have. It has confidence in its style, and exactness to its tone, that is endlessly compelling. Le Samouraï was a watershed film moment for me. After I finished it, I knew it was one of the finest films I had ever seen.
The film tediously follows a cautious contract killer named Jef Costello (Alain Delon, his first, great performance for Melville), as he prepares for a job, executes said job, and is forced to elude the police as a result. Jef’s methodical tendencies are fascinating to watch. He’s slow but swift, patient but determined. The style of the film fits perfectly with the character. From the film’s first frame, a gorgeous composition that captures Jef preparing for his day, Le Samouraï distinguishes itself from other movies of its kind.
Roger Ebert, a great admirer of Melville’s work, said there is a spell to Le Samouraï that cannot be ignored. He’s certainly correct. The film sucks us in immediately. From the cold production design to the detached cinematography, Delon’s emotive performance to the story’s complex narrative, everything about Le Samouraï plays exactly how it should. The result is a lasting film of utter importance. At the risk of having already oversold the movie, I can honestly assert that Le Samouraï made me look at film differently. And really, how often does that happen? A+
Army of Shadows feels as though it was intended to be Melville’s magnum opus. It feels as though the reason Melville started making films was so he could one day make this movie. It’s that important; it’s that big and personal.
I watched Army of Shadows for the first time immediately after watching Le Samouraï the first time. I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed Army of Shadows would be another extraordinarily detailed but intimate character study of the criminal underworld. But Army of Shadows is different. It’s big and bold and fearless. It’s so massive in scope, yet so grounded in truth.
The film is an epic retelling of a few high-ranking French Resistance fighters attempting to overthrow the Nazis. But this is not heroic resistance cinema. Army of Shadows presents a realistic view of the bleak, often thankless task of risking your life for good. The film is a captivating exploration of the justice and sacrifice it takes to overthrow evil.
Melville gives us many well-defined characters to follow in the film, but our leader is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura, one-upping his superb work in Le Deuxieme Souffle). Watching Philippe work through the system of escapes, killings, hushed meetings, and wicked betrayals make for one hell of a thrilling ride. There are countless set pieces to highlight from the film, namely the terrifying scene in which Philippe is forced to outrun machine gun fire in a dark prison room. If someone were to state that Army of Shadows is the finest war resistance movie ever made, they certainly wouldn’t need to do much arguing to back it up. A+
Le Cercle Rouge is Melville’s grandest underworld crime drama. And that’s something I’ve neglected to dive into with this post: the crimes. Many of Melville’s films contain glorious set pieces of criminals pulling off a heist. Most of these scenes are executed without the use of dialogue. We watch. We watch as criminals enter a space and quickly begin to control it with precision and confidence. Le Cercle Rouge contains, perhaps, Melville’s best heist, in which three men silently rob a jewelry store with grueling accuracy. The scene is a thing of sheer wonder. Watching the film for the first time, I just stared blankly at the screen, in full admiration for how well everything was being executed.
The film begins by crosscutting two storylines: a prisoner (Alain Delon) is released for good behavior, but before he’s sprung, a guard gives him a tip on a jewelry heist job. The prisoner is released and quickly goes about inserting himself back into the French criminal underworld.
The other story involves a prisoner (Gian Maria Volontè) who escapes custody and goes on the lamb. The prisoners (one now free, one in hiding) meet by chance, forge a partnership, and plan to knock off the store together, all while a steadfast cop tracks them both.
At nearly two and a half hours, Le Cercle Rouge would make a great, albeit epic, double feature with Army of Shadows. Where Army of Shadows so expertly details the brutal process of resisting evil, Le Cercle Rouge masterfully chronicles the dedication of criminals. Much like Melville’s best work, the value of Le Cercle Rouge cannot be overstated. A+
Un Flic (aka A Cop) is Melville’s most cinematically entertaining movie. It’s fun, engaging, and breezes by, thanks much in part to its thrilling, 20-minute long heist sequence. This isn’t to say the film is better than Melville’s other work, but it is perhaps his most accessible. All the themes of a great Melville crime film are here – honorable thieves, witty cops, a go-to nightclub, a silent robbery – and it is wildly compelling to watch.
The film opens with four thieves knocking over a bank, but after one is fatally injured in the process, the others are left scrambling with only a portion of their take. That bank robbery, we learn, was executed to fund another, far more elaborate heist of drugs from a moving train. The titular cop (Alain Delon, in a great role reversal) is tracking the thieves the whole time, all while sleeping with main thief’s lady (Catherine Deneuve, born for Melville’s world).
Un Flic moves faster than Melville’s other crime movies, which, again, doesn’t make it any better or worse, it’s just nice to see Melville moving at a breakneck speed. This was Melville’s final film, as he suffered a fatal heart attack in the summer of 1973. A damn shame. Un Flic feels like Melville’s fun film. I enjoy the hell out of it, please don’t mistake, but it’s clear that Melville had more to say. A
Bob le Flambeur (1956)
Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)
Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)
Le Samouraï (1967)
Army of Shadows (1969)
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Le Silence de la Mer (1949)
Léon Morin, Priest (1961)
Le Doulos (1962)
Un Flic (1972)
24 heures de la vie d'un clown (1946)
Les Enfants Terribles (1950)
Two Men in Manhattan (1959)
Just Plain Bad
Just Plain Bad