Tuesday, July 13, 2010

#9: Jean-Pierre Melville

- "I believe that you must be madly in love with cinema to create films."

I love the title of the Ginette Vincendeau’s biography of Jean-Pierre Melville – Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. While such an epithet might be a little too constraining in assessing the work of such a great director, I bring it up here because it is one of the qualities that first attracted me to Melville. When I first started to branch out and familiarize myself with films from around the world, Melville was one of the first directors that I turned to. Everything I read about and from the man fascinated me. His obsession and encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood cinema intrigued me, as he was known to worship so many of the same directors, films, and actors that I had grown to love. It wasn’t just cinema either, but his complete love of American culture fascinated me. And in the first films that I watched, I saw the fingerprints of this love of all things American. I was instantly amazed at how he adapted conventions from classic Hollywood noir, gangster films, and crime drama to the streets of his native France – and almost had to pinch myself when I realized that not only did he adapt them, he improved upon them.

But to look at him solely as an American in Paris overlooks how important his French heritage, and the era in which he came of age, is in much of his best work. Melville may be regarded as the greatest director of “gangster pictures,” but his work centered on the French Resistance is just as impressive. Perhaps the two facets of Melville’s work shouldn’t really be separated, though, as he infused a noirish element into these war films, making Army of Shadows an experience unique from any other similar movies of the era.

I began taking stock of all of the Melville that I had seen shortly before this series began, when Doniphon began his wonderful series on Melville at The Long Voyage Home. I encourage everyone to check out Doniphon’s insights into the cinema of Melville, as he provides far more astute observations than you will find in this piece. What I realized in reading Doniphon’s work, and in gathering my thoughts for my own entry here, is why Melville’s work is so durable for me. By durable, I mean the way that it simply stays with you – his are not movies that are viewed for two hours and then cast aside as you move on to the next film. A Melville stays with you, forcing you to ruminate on it, begging you to return to it. Why do his films have such an effect? I attribute it to the unmatched ability of the director to create enveloping moods. There are certainly technically brilliant elements on display in many of his films – the great cinematography in Le Doulos immediately comes to mind, as does the wonderful use of drab colors in Le Samourai – but none of those individual technical achievements are as memorable as the moods and tones Melville creates. Just thinking about Le Samourai makes me think of steamy Parisian streets and a jazz club. Le Doulos instantly has me picturing fedoras and gangsters. Le Cercle Rouge brings to mind the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse. Bob le Flambeur transports me to a casino of some sort. No one has ever been better at creating moods.

There is not a bad movie on my list.

1. Army of Shadows (1969)
2. Le Samourai (1967)
3. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
4. Le Doulos (1962)
5. Le deuxième souffle (1966)
6. Bob le Flambeur (1955)
7. Le Silence de la Mer (1949)
8. Un Flic (1972)
9. Les enfants terribles (1950)


  1. Melville's the man. He is what makes genre cinema so cool. Couldn't agree with you more, Dave.

    01 Le Samouraï
    02 The Red Circle
    03 The Silence of the Sea
    04 The Finger Man
    05 Army of Shadows
    06 Leon Morin, Priest
    07 Un Flic
    08 Two Men in Manhattan
    09 The Second Breath
    10 Bob the Gambler
    11 Les Enfants Terribles

  2. It's good to see Melville place so high. He's so unique in having been discovered so recently by Americans and having his reputation soar so dramatically in such a short period of time. I especially like the point about Melville being such a hybrid of French and American cinema sensibility. Haven't seen all of these (yet), but of the ones I have seen I would place them in the following order:

    1. "Bob le Flambeur"--for me the quintessentiall Melville film
    2. "Army of Shadows"--what a surprise that the conventions of the crime genre worked so well when grafted onto a tale of the Resistance
    3. "Le Samourai"--his most surprising work in its minimalism and lack of narrative embellishment, close to the cinematic equivalent of Camus, and Delon's most unusual and striking performance
    (These are all masterpieces and pretty much equivalent to each other in quality. Any ranking is strictly subjective.)
    4. "Le Deuxieme Souffle"
    5. "Le Cercle Rouge"
    6. "Le Doulos"

  3. I have only seen three Melville's so far and like all have said not a bad on in the bunch. A great article!

    Army of Shadows
    Le Doulos
    Le Cercle Rouge

  4. Another one of my favorites! I am not a big fan/connoisseur of French cinema -which is somewhat odd I guess, being French myself- but Melville is a filmmaker whose films I greatly admire and enjoy, for the same reasons you mentionned. I have yet to see them all, but here's my list:

    1. Le Samourai (1967)
    2. Le Doulos (1962)
    3. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
    4. Army of Shadows (1969)
    5. Bob le Flambeur (1955)
    6. Le deuxième souffle (1966)
    7. Un Flic (1972)

  5. Well Dave, I expected this placement, and can't disagree at all. As the esteemed Mr. Finch has rightly asserted his reputation has soared in recent years to the point that he is probably the most popular French director stateside. Of course our good friend Donophon is putting the finishing touches on his landmark series on the iconic helmer, and you Dave have championed him throughout your annual and noir countdowns, with excellent reason. While I do support (mightily) his acclaimed masterpieces, I also think both LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES and LA SILENCE DE LA MER are superlative films. No European director modeled his work or his focus on American cinema as did Melville.

    1 Le Cercle Rouge
    2 Le Samourai
    3 La Silence de la Mer
    4 Army of Shadows
    5 Les Enfants Terribles
    6 Bob le Flambeaur
    7 Le Doulos
    8 Leon Morin, Pretre
    9 Le deuxieme Souffle
    10 Un Flic
    11 Deux hommes dans Manhattan

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  7. I like Les Enfants Terribles a lot, though it's hard not to see as a Cocteau film as well - is that why it's relatively low on your list? If nothing else, it certainly speaks to the quality of his output that that film can be last!

    Good timing too (for me and my - ahem - self-promotion). I just put up a post this morning that concludes with an image from Melville:

    http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2010/07/in-beginning.html (Feel free to participate, incidentally)

    Particularly with the American release of Army of Shadows (alongside a number of Criterions), I think we can call Melville THE re-discovered director of the past decade, at least from the U.S. perspective (not that he was forgotten or anything, but the buzz definitely grew).

  8. Dave:

    Truly a splendid choice. And the reasons for your initial path to Melville were similar to my own. Imagine a French filmmaker who not only revered our films but also our culture. I am anxious to read the long essays that you recommend but will hold off until I record my initial thoughts.

    1. Le Samourai (1967)
    2. L'armée des ombres (1969)
    3. Le Doulos (1962)
    4. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
    5. Le deuxième souffle (1966)
    6. Bob le Flambeur (1955)
    7. Un Flic (1972)
    8. Les enfants terribles (1950)

    I came late to Melville, so I have little history with him. I first saw Le Samourai at MOMA less than twenty years ago. Its beauty, its precision and its portraying of Jef Costello’s compelling code proved to me a truth implied elsewhere by Scorsese. No matter one’s age there is always another masterwork to discover.

    I first saw L'armée des ombres only within the past four years. It was a Melville masterwork that was not readily available for years in the United States. My only regret is that I have not yet seen it in a theater on a properly sized screen. Perhaps that is the only reason I have left it at two. It could surely be number one. (The opening sequence alone on a large screen would stun – it does already in smaller viewing environments.)

    World War II was a watershed experience of my young life, as it was Melville’s. But I was but a boy, safely far away and he was a participant. This was his memory of the Resistance based on what he called “the” Resistance novel. He was five years in the army by October 1942 and the heavier sledding was yet to come. Given his credentials and his talent, who better qualified to tell this tale of such profound subject matter? And look at the result. It is near perfect.

    In these past twenty years, I have tried to catch up with Melville. I rate Le Doulos a strong 3. One revisits actors the way one revisits directors and my whole attitude toward Belmondo changed with this film. His subtle approach altered my view of him. I have since revisited his earlier films and see him in a different, better light.

    Numbers 4 through 6 are all special films. I am never quite sure how I feel about the Delirium tremens sequence in Le Cercle Rouge. It is too close to home. My brother died an alcoholic in Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1965. There were things crawling there that you did not have to be an alcoholic to see. I suspect Billy Wilder might yet appear in your series. Just in case, I will watch the equivalent scene in Weekend so that I can compare them. Particularly evident throughout this entire group is Melville’s stated interest in “the futility of effort.”

    I even like Un Flic, which I have seen denigrated. Yet I found little comfort in Les enfants terribles, which seems to be from a different director. (I am aware of the Cocteau connection.) I am sure a Melville expert could show me parallels with Melville’s other work. But though it tired me, I will revisit it now that Melville is fresh in mind.

    Excellent choice and precise, clear reasoning why. Thank you.



    Postcript: Imagine a list where Bob le Flambeur is sixth?

  9. Thanks for the mention, Dave. I've been pretty absent from blogging recently, but will definitely have a review of Un flic up in a day or two. I don't there's much I can say about Melville here I haven't already; I love his films.

    My ten favorite:

    Le Doulos
    Army Of Shadows
    Le cercle rouge
    Le Samourai
    Le deuxieme souffle
    Un flic
    Bob le flambeur
    Deux hommes dans Manhattan
    Leon Morin, Priest
    Le enfants terribles

  10. Melville is fantastic...Your story of finding Melville as one of your first forays into foreign film is similar to my own experience. His ability to mix American genre film elements with French art-house style makes him an easy entry point to introduce anyone to non-English speaking movies.

    I've only seen five, but none are "worse" than **** (out of 5), with the first three in my list being easy masterpieces.

    1) Le Samurai
    2) Army of Shadows
    3) Le Cercle Rouge
    4) Bob Le Flambeur
    5) Le Deuxieme Suffle

  11. Thanks an amazing comment there from Gordon Pasha, though I see all of his are top-rank. Nice.

  12. JAFB - Agreed!

    R.D. - Definite masterpieces all around, which you is proven by the fact that I rank a film like Bob le Flambeur at #6, yet it tops your list. A very good film, but so many from Melville to choose from.

    John - Every one you have seen from Melville thus far is outstanding. I definitely recommend some of the others that are being listed by everyone, particularly Le Samourai.

    Jerome - Great list there and thanks for stopping by!

    Sam - Yes, this is certainly one that people had to expect, considering Melville placed multiple films on my Year's Best countdown. With Le Silence de la Mar and Les enfants terrible, I don't think they are terrible films, just not my favorites.

    MovieMan - I don't hate Les Enfants Terribles, but I just don't think it is at the level of Melville at his best. I will check out your post also when I get the chance.

    Gerald - Once again, as Sam points out a little lower, this is a spectacular comment. Your thoughts and memories of discovering many of these directors are always entertaining. Thanks for continually posting them!

    Doniphon - No problem on the shout out, your series has been great.

    Troy - I absolutely agree that Melville would be a great first choice to get anyone interested in French and world cinema in general. Probably the best choice I could think of.

  13. Dave, the first one I saw was Circle Rouge when it was new in the Criterion Collection and I was eager to experiment with all kinds of genres on my new DVD player. Circle came recommended by John Woo, and after watching it I imagined asking him, "What did you learn from it, exactly?" But this is not about Woo. I still have gaps to fill, but Melville is my favorite French director because he gets the mood right in so many ways.

    1. Le Deuxieme Souffle
    2. Le Samourai
    3. Army of Shadows
    4. Le Doulos
    5. Le Circle Rouge
    6. Bob le Flambeur
    7. Un Flic

  14. Le Samourai (1967) is a really good movie seriously!