The Melville Variations

Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin's new video essay looks at 13 recurring elements in the work of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin
The Notebook is proud to present this video essay in coordination with TRANSIT magazine, where you can find the Spanish version of the piece.
13 variations for 13 films, accompanied by the musical theme composed by François de Roubaix for Le samouraï (1967): the cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville condensed into a series of motifs that travel from movie to movie, reiterating and transforming, finding their full meaning only when they are put into relation. A non-exhaustive collection1, but filled with recognisable images that clearly obsess this filmmaker.
1. Jef Costello’s second murder in Le samouraï, Maite’s devastating death at the end of Army of Shadows (1969), the shooting of Mattei and Vogel in Le cercle rouge (1970) or—the most paradigmatic example of all—of Maurice, Silien and Kern in Le doulos (1962). It is the matter of a rule with few exceptions, a pattern that is rarely broken: whenever Melville’s characters are not holding an empty gun, they almost always shoot twice. The second shot seems like a tragic echo of the first; when we put these scenes in series, they form a strange, musical choreography, a dance of death. 
2. In the metaphoric title of his first feature film, it is evoked in its silence; in When You Read This Letter (1953), it is presented in gorgeous black and white, like a set whose wild bountifulness competes with the agitated passions of the characters, and even robs the foreground from them; in Army of Shadows, it amounts to a nocturnal, Allied raft that swallows and spits out a phantom submarine; in the opening of Un flic (1972), it is a clear, diluted blueness, a swirl of wind, rain and waves that fiercely crash against a dike, prefiguring the tormented destiny of the characters … The sea is a powerful presence in Melville’s cinema, and the director revels in cataloguing its chameleonic transformations, showing it in all its diverse states.
3. “Any other man stops and talks / But the walking man walks” (James Taylor). Melville’s heroes walk, always alone, in a determined, pensive, unbroken, but never hurried or troubled way, keeping their inner thoughts to themselves. They measure out their destined itinerary in the steps they take, and Melville plots his mise en scène likewise. He respectfully and patiently films this action in many ways: from a static position, in a panning shot, backwards tracking, lateral tracking. The action exists, too, to reveal the carefully chosen fragments of urban space: by a bridge, along a tunnel, back streets, main streets.
4. Shoes—like gloves and overalls—constitute the work uniform of Melville’s men; they are not part of the same style/image code as the hats and coats. The shoes, moreover, have a specific purpose: they are for robbing places (bank, house, casino, train), not for making a kill-hit. So they are designed, and used, to ensure absolute silence on the job: a ballet of noiseless steps. Where hats, hairstyles, cigarettes and other indices differentiate Melville’s men, these on-the-job shoes—always the same kind—blend them, indistinguishably and interchangeably, into a perfect working unit.
5. In his famous interview book, Rui Nogueira asks Melville about the white gloves that Jef uses when he is about to fulfil a murder contract. The director declares: “They are editor’s gloves”.2 This affirmation—in the guise of a playful but categorical mise en abyme—immediately suggests the self-conscious dimension of his cinema, as well as the fine, ironic sense of this creator obsessed with the thematic of destiny and tragedy. Melville’s response is that of a grand conjurer, displacing the magic proper to cinema into the world of the fiction. Because, in fact, when the heroes of Le doulos, Le samuraï or Le circle rouge slip into their white gloves, they too are playing with the linear chain of events, erasing characters from the frame, altering the arrangement of the pieces, and splicing fragments together without leaving a trace. 
6. After the car, the train is the most important means of transportation in Melville’s cinema. In Le cercle rouge there is the scene of the spectacular escape from a guarded prison, and in Un flic an elaborate heist that takes up one-third of the film. In Les enfants terribles (1950), a train carries the siblings off on their one and only adventure outside the house where they are usually secluded; and in When You Read This Letter, a train functions as a death machine, secretly guided by the protagonist’s desire. In these two films, united by their central roles for women, both heroines are found in a surprisingly similar gesture: they wipe their hand across a train window, as if it were a windshield, in order to demist the glass.
7. A truly Melvillian image: a shot filmed from outside a car, with its front or side window acting as a reframing device. Sometimes, when the car stops, the camera remains static, and tension builds through waiting. At other times, the image is transformed into a paean to the artificiality created by those rear projections, old-fashioned but always lovely, that allow us to observe the illusion of movement and the unreal telescoping of different layers. In some of the films (Le samouraï, Le doulos), it is a purely poetic image—the characters trapped within, as the raindrops slide down the window’s exterior—that emanates something at once indifferent yet claustrophobic, beautiful yet cold.
8. The trademark of Melville’s much-remarked Americanism is his love of ritzy nightclub settings—usually built in and around his own home/film studio. Their titles take the American rather than the French possessive form—Martey’s, not Chez Martey—and they each have their special showgirl choreography inside. Almost all these places—with the exception of The Cotton Club—blares the name of their owner (Santi, Ricci, Simon …); and that owner is either associated with criminals, or a criminal himself. Melville, a master at making so many Parisian street locations seem interchangeable and almost dull backdrops to the intensely focused action, reserves his showbiz fanfare for character’s entrances, and the lit-up entranceways, into his proudly invented clubs.
9. We find, especially in Bob le flambeur (1956) but also in Les enfants terribles, Leon Morin, Priest (1961), Le doulos and Army of Shadows, the black and white squares of a chess board, transformed into a scenic pattern for the design of floors, walls and other elements of the décor. A graphic model that might be incidental, or could have arisen purely because of a particular period’s fashions—but which can hardly go unremarked, since it anticipates, almost subliminally, “some of the constants accumulated by Melville’s cinema: symmetrical trajectories, opposed characters, and strategic mobility.3
10. In the recent Companion to François Truffaut, Arnaud Desplechin observes that the hardest thing to incorporate in a movie is a newspaper: if it’s too real, too specific, too politically partial or slanted, it risks throwing the story (and the spectator) off-course. Inserts of newspaper items are central to Melville’s cinema, and are completely integrated into his universe: brutally factual announcements of crimes and deaths (‘fatal accident’, ‘bloody hold-up’, ‘sensational jewel theft’), comprising headlines, text and an occasional mugshot—the identity of the newspaper itself rarely matters, or figures. Plot intrigue, at these moments, is flattened out to the indifferent, ephemeral level of daily news reporting—while also marking, in this long-gone, pre-digital media sphere, one of the few ways in which information travels, to criminals and law enforcers alike.
11. “If to direct is a glance, to edit is a beating of the heart.” Godard said it well (in 1956), but every director gives the immortal shot/reverse shot exchange of glances their own, powerful inflection. The exchange of looks in Melville captures the two, stark poles of the intersubjective logic that structures his entire cinematic universe. There is the cold, blank look (of Alain Delon, especially): the look that can be returned, but never penetrated, and that provokes a short-circuiting of desire (Le cercle rouge). Then there is the look that signals an abysmal turning-point, the complete suction of power out of one character and into the other: such is the crucial moment in Le samouraï, when Jef glimpses the woman who now holds the key to his tragic destiny; or also the charged ending of The Silence of the Sea (1949), where the heroine’s look marks almost a surrender to the German officer, putting an end to their war. Then there is a bonus: the strange, permutational, vertiginous free-play of looks between  a threesome of characters in Un flic: this is an uncontrollable histrionics of the look, which seems to mime suspicion and doubt, when in fact everyone involved has always known more than they appear to know.
12. Characters seeing their image in mirrors form dramatic instants of pause, of punctuation, in Melville.4 On one level, their meaning is conventional: they signal moments in which characters truly see—or have a chance to grasp—themselves. But the pictorial insistence of this motif, plus Melville’s mania for tracing frames within frames for such portraits of stillness, suggests something graver and more secretive: a gesture in which his characters are both monumentalised and immortalised, even if only fleetingly, and in the perfectly domestic, banal prop of a piece of glass above a sink.
13. Synecdoche, Melville: a man is his hat. His heroes are normally never apart from their hats (which they wear so perfectly, so elegantly); if they ever do part, whether through the heroes losing them, leaving them behind, or somehow being separated from them, it is a certain sign of approaching death. In Le samouraï, the moment that Jef leaves his hat but does not take his check number signals that he will never be coming back for it; likewise, in Le doulos, the unlucky number of 13 placed into the ribbon of a headless hat spells doom for its former wearer. In the end, there is only ever the hat: mute, static, frozen, inhuman.
1. For further motifs and patterns in Melville, see Roland-François Lack, “Un flic: art and artifice (and also cars and hats and blondes)”,
2. Rui Nogueira, Melville on Melville (London: Secker and Warburg, 1971).
3. Cristina Álvarez López, “Hermetismo de un cineasta”, Caimán. Cuadernos de cine, no. 18 (July-August 2013), p. 72.
4. For a detailed analysis of the role of mirrors and hats in Melville’s mise en scène, see Carlos Losilla, “El teorema del espejo y el sombrero. La madurez de una puesta en escena”, Nosferatu, no. 13 (October 1993), pp. 48-57.
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin August 2013


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