Jean-Pierre Melville (née Grumbach) took his nom de guerre from the American writer Herman Melville during his time fighting in the Resistance. The Moby-Dick scribe was popular in France, thanks in part to Jean Giono’s fawning translation of that mammoth cetacean opus, though it was the psycho-sexual eccentricities of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities that inspired the name change. The filmmaker’s exacting minimalism bears few obvious aesthetic similarities to the writer’s voluble, serpentine prose, and he lacks Herman’s circuitous sense of dark humor, but they did share an affinity for the details of method, and (lonely souls both) for the lives of solitary men. Working usually within constructs of the mystery and thriller genres, the filmmaker obsessed over details, finding small, particular insights in the ephemera and trivialities of routine. He focused on process and technique, on the importance and ontological insinuations of habit and rules and codes and the consequences of breaking them. (In this regard, Michael Mann is a descendent of Melville. See: Thief.) The way Melville the writer discussed, in astounding detail, the system for flensing a whale or collecting sperm, Melville the filmmaker dwelled on the systems of the underground: criminals acquiring guns, swapping license plates, communicating with their consorts, et cetera. He was fascinated by the craft of criminality, and by the men who choose to live such lives.
Melville was one the most precise and clinical filmmakers active during the French New Wave (which he preceded by over a decade, and foreshadowed with his use of handheld cameras and jump-cuts in Bob le flambeur in 1955). Like his characters, he was voyeuristic, observant. He learned his vocation from watching films. He was given his first camera at the age of six or seven, and often spent entire days at the cinema, as if watching films was a 9-5 job. In the darkness of the theater he sought solace. (The Occupation interrupted this regimen, and replaced it with another.) When he couldn’t get into the film Technicians Union, due to what he considered “party politics,” he made his own production company in 1946. He observed formula with a near reverential astuteness. He could almost be called “traditional,” perhaps stubbornly so. He mostly elided the formal daring and experimentation of Godard, lacked the tenderness of Truffaut, and had little of the metaphysical curiosity of Resnais. (In 1970, the year Godard started work on a pro-Palestine film as part of the Dziga Vertov Group, Melville directed Le cercle rouge, another crime movie.) He rejected what was currently fashionable: in Leon Morin, Priest, he emasculated the super chic Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had just starred in Breathless, by swaddling him in a soutane.
He tended to expunge from his films anything superfluous, sometimes even eschewing the parts of conversations that reveal important information; in Bob le flambeur, he jettisons the conversation between the croupier (Claude Cerval) and his wife, after she asks where he got the money for a decadent necklace, cutting away right as the croupier has to come up with an answer. This pregnant absence brings to mind the use of negative space in the films of Robert Bresson, another efficient fatalist with assiduous precision. (Melville had a bit role in Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne.) The way Bresson chose to not show or reveal visually, Melville withheld information, streamlining narratives to their essence. A severe, almost frugal filmmaker, he used a tape measure to make sure his reverse shots were just right. He stripped dialogue down to the marrow. At times nearly ascetic, his formal dexterity focused on the meticulous employment of minutiae as a weapon, on the devil in the details.
His time in the Resistance hardened him, and purged any trace of sentimentality. He grew distrustful. He withdrew, and again found consolation in the flickering images of the cinema. “Why do you think I have chosen solitude?” he mused during a 1971 interview, two years before his death at the age of 55. “Commerce with men is a dangerous business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone.” One sees obvious shades of Alain Delon’s somber killer from Le samouraï in such a belief. Melville’s leading men tend to be the strong, silent types, men who could keep their mouths shut during an interrogation, who lived spartan or abstemious lives, and who adhered to self-imposed principles. In Bob le flambeur, the film that inaugurated Melville’s crime genre spree, Roger Duchesne’s former gangster has the insouciant discretion of Jean Gabin, whose mix of macho and melancholic birthed a new type of tough guy in French cinema. Again, in Le cercle rouge, there are hues of Gabin in Delon’s stoic, contemplative menace and desperation; Gabin’s periodic volatility was usually spurred by necessity, whereas Delon’s is, in Melville’s calmer depiction of lowlifes and criminals, quotidian, just business as usual. Violence is inevitable. With his icicle-blue eyes and a face so immaculate it almost resembles a mask more than a human visage, Delon was the prettiest of Melville’s actors. By the time he appeared in Le cercle rouge, ten years after he appeared as the mendacious Tom Ripley in René Clément’s Plein soleil, his prodigious smoking habit had dragged his face down a little, etched wrinkles into his forehead. His was still an enviably handsome mug, but he now appeared human. He could be hurt.
Bob le flambeur established Melville’s milieu of men doing what has to be done, a sort of Bressonian morality play with Renoir’s jaundiced humanism, though it remains something of an aesthetic outsider among his crime films, with its shaky cameras (filmed, according to actor Daniel Cauchy, by the director as he rode a bicycle) and abrupt edits. The film is, as Melville said, a “love letter to a Paris that no longer exists.” Cities, like lives, are fleeting in his films. Bob is also his first “cool” film, with shady character drifting through nightclubs like the final dreams of a peaceful slumber. “In those moments, between night and day... between heaven and hell,” Melville intones during the opening narration. The story is straightforward: Bob Montagne (Duchesne) is a local high roller (or, rather, a gambler who fancies himself a high roller). A reformed gangster, he comes out of retirement to pull one last job and has to assemble a team, but that isn’t difficult—Bob knows everyone. He does favors for people and accrues a coterie of partners and acquaintances. He tends to live more in a fantasy version of life rather than reality; he plans a heist that can’t possibly work, and though he knows that failure is imminent, he goes for it anyway. It dwells on the details of a simple scheme, as Bob takes his associates (and us) through each perfunctory step of the heist, the ill-fate of all involved hanging like a black veil draped over the film.
Ill-fated plans pervade Melville’s oeuvre. The black-as-pitch Army of Shadows, adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel, didn’t see an American release until 2006. It was perceived by the Cahiers du cinéma crowd as overly sympathetic to Charles de Gaulle and was all but buried. As with Moby-Dick, whole change of reputation was never known by its late progenitor; the film garnered much belated praise, and is now considered Melville’s most personal, cathartic work, over 30 years after the director died of a heart attack. It culls from Melville’s memories of the Resistance; in the bleak reality of a city rife with invading murderers (Nazis can be considered the only true “bad guys” in Melville’s films; even criminals and traitors have complications and redeeming moralistic qualities), he finds some austere beauty. “The war period was awful, horrible, marvelous,” he said, shortly after finishing the film. The human spirit triumphs, as they say, even if the bodies are stacked and loyalties erode and their humanity has been compromised through the necessity of evil acts. Civil engineer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), based on Jean Pierre-Bloch, and Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), based on the scholar Jean Cavaillès, become unlikely leaders in the Resistance. Again, one finds shades of Bresson’s cynicism here (as well as a penchant for intimate shots of hands). Melville doesn’t let anyone out alive. Characters pay for their misdeeds, and sometimes for their good deeds. A character forced to betray her friends must be killed; it is now a matter of practicality as well as principle. She’s gunned down with savagery, directed with incredible pathos, a necessary yet painful death. Human lives are fugacious and they leave great holes. The heroes die never knowing that their efforts helped to alter the course of the 20th Century.
The set of Army was, aptly, suffused with tension and resentment; there’s something poetic about the silence between Melville and Ventura, who never conversed with each other during filming, so sour was their relationship. In Melville’s films, silence comes with a threatening air. There is a sublimely, typically tip-lipped sequence of a submarine rendezvous. Crippling quietude punctuates the soundtrack. A rowboat drifts along undulating waves. The camera caroms, the air seems to thicken. The placidity is grueling. In Le cercle rouge, made the next year, the skullduggery of planning a heist gives way to a Rififi-esque sequence of sudorific stillness. One can almost feel the sweat on the characters’ palms. Though he made one more film, Le flic, Melville spoke of Le cercle rouge as if it were his final film, as he began to consider every latest film his possible last. “If I look at myself very objectively, I realize that I’ve become impossible,” he says, in Melville on Melville. “Not egocentric—I’m not in the least egocentric—but, if I may be allowed to coin a word, opocentric; ‘opo,’’ from opus. As I grow older, in other words, nothing matters except my profession and therefore my work, by which I mean the work at hand, which I think about day and night and which takes precedence over everything—I repeat, everything—else in my thoughts…” The film, his greatest commercial success, has a leisurely yet unerring atmosphere, a desaturated and detached feeling. Splashes of color (pool balls and blood) mottle the cool blue scenes, the compositions trapping men between lamps and desks as if they’re being crushed by bureaucracy, their silhouettes set against windows and the anemic countryside sky. There is nothing in this world for these men.
The idea of the film had been gestating since around 1950, before he saw The Asphalt Jungle, before he made Bob le flambeur. In its the apogee of his career, the culmination of his obsessions. It is a film of lost loyalties and broken promises, duplicitous men doing what they have to do. To trust is to become vulnerable, and these are not emotive individuals. With their upturned raincoats collars and gleaming sunglasses hiding always-open and tendrils of smoke coming off their cigarettes, they are men of rigor, of unimpeachable morals, taciturn and dignified, but still not to be trusted. They are products of a broken system, reluctant lowlifes. In 15 years of crafting existential genre films, Melville seems to have ultimately reached a fatalist conclusion. As with his Resistance fighters, his unwitting thieves and involuntary accessories, the heist men of Le cercle rouge do not live to enjoy their victory. “All men are guilty,” intones a police superior. Melville seems to agree, and his men receive their due punishments. It’s as if all men are born sinners and are fated to be judged. By now, viewers should expect nothing else from Melville. The pleasure, and the pain, is in the waiting for the inevitable.