Once you've read Imogen's piece, you may see how film criticism has been infected by a variable set of "alienation effects" that enter into the writing, where the attempt to create a "poetic" narrative thread loops back on itself. Due to the advantages of time, Imogen had access to the one film Marc did not in 2011, when his article was written--the truly fervid melodrama Quand du liras cette lettre--but she is not able to do much more with it than give a description of the action.
Imogen is clearly uncomfortable with exploring the duality in Melville's oeuvre, something that Bertrand Tavernier does masterfully in his A JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH FILM (which, BTW, will soon be available on an American DVD with English subtitles...do NOT miss it). Rather, she decides to follow the lead of another Melville scholar (Ginette Vincedeau) and minimize this dualism, which is intermittent in Melville's work. Though she acknowledges the quality of these films, Imogen (like Vencedeau) works rather transparently to subsume these films into the ostensibly more encompassing malaise aesthetique that both prefer to concoct in order to focus on the fetishistic, haunted world of Melville's heist films.
Marc's work--though in retrospect I think he is too easy on the ideological intransigence and distorted aesthetics of the New Wave--is more openly acknowledging of this dualism, and thus is closer in spirit to Tavernier's take, which is to exalt the filmmaker who did not abandon hope or humanism or solidarity even in the face of wartime chaos (LA SILENCE DE LA MER, ARMY OF SHADOWS) or doubt (LEON MORIN, PRIEST) or psychoexotic complications (LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES, QUAND DU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE). Though he doesn't come out and say it (as Tavernier does), Marc would likely agree that it possible for one to prefer this side of Melville to the one that has been so fetishistically embraced by a certain component of film critics.
And while Marc does not possess the lyrical patina of Imogen Smith, it is also possible to prefer his approach, which does not "swirl" but creates its own sectionalized structure: legendary work, life story, the "other side" of the oeuvre, critical reception, humorous coda with Melville's own words.
JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE: Film Noir 2.0
by Marc Svetov
Special to the Sentinel
I was reduced to despair by the realization that producers didn’t have faith in me because, they said, I was much too intelligent to be a filmmaker. One day Ray Ventura, who was a very important film producer at the time, told me quite frankly: ‘But, Mr. Melville, you obviously aren’t a film director, because film directors shouldn’t be intelligent!’ I was so thrown by this that I decided people shouldn’t be allowed to think of me as intelligent or intellectual—which is far from proven anyway. They must be made to see once and for all that I was a showman, full stop.
Jean-Pierre Melville did not approach creating his film noirs in the naïve, mostly unarticulated manner that had been the case for his predecessors in Hollywood. From the very outset, he was reflecting upon the aesthetics and style of American film noir and transposing its elements to a new level of awareness as an art form. Melville represents the second phase of creating film noirs that includes both imitation of what had been created before and a shift in content and message—all while adhering to the stylistic paradigms.
All Melville’s film noirs—from Bob le flambeur (1956) to Le Samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970)—are abstract and mannerist, existential dramas in a completely fake world. “I never work in realism,” the director claimed, “and I don’t want to. […] I am not a documentarist. And since I am careful never to be realistic, there is no more inaccurate portraitist than I am. What I do is always false.” Emptying the American noir and gangster epics of content and context, he creates refinements and extensions of them, translated into French. His films are never slavish copies and quotes from American noir models, instead he distills a noir essence to drizzle on his unreal French settings, in which the gangsters wear American clothes and drive big American cars.
The Theater of the Absurd, mainly Beckett’s plays and novels, whose heyday overlaps with Melville’s great creative period in noir, entered through the back door in the filmmaker’s stylish existential noirs. His silent, death-driven and, in the case of Le Samouraï, outright suicidal heroes are in tune with an existentialist, absurdist philosophy. And, especially in the case of Delon, all of Melville’s hoodlums are dandies, very much French dandies despite the Cadillacs, Buicks and other Detroit-made sedans they motor around; sartorial elegance and display of taste, even extending at times to their apartments (Le Doulos, Le cercle rouge), are their hallmarks. As though to say: It is all about style, this crime career. Even though American film gangsters of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s wore fancy clothes and kept themselves neat, they wore them and maintained physical appearances in the same sense as the wearing of uniforms. Melville’s French counterparts do follow this pattern, but Delon is significantly more narcissistic than Paul Muni and George Raft in Scarface (1932) could ever be.
A good example for the game of deception Melville liked to play, for the strange palimpsest of American and French texts, is the oscillation between “realism” and reality is L’Ainé des Ferchaux (1963), where Melville took pride in having shot parts of the film in France, fooling viewers into believing he had filmed the entire movie in America. In 1971, he was asked about how he shot certain scenes:
Q. Where did you shoot that scene in the bank?
Melville: In a bank.
Q. Yes … but what I meant was, in France or in America?
Melville: In America. Why? You look as though you didn’t believe me.
Q. Not at all.
Melville: Well, you shouldn’t. As a matter of fact, I shot that scene at the Société de Générale in the Boulevard Hausmann because all banks look alike. […] I was therefore obliged to shoot certain exteriors in France: the sequence with the hitchhiker, the scene at the river and so on. Not that this prevented the American Tourist Office of the United States Embassy from sending me a letter of thanks and congratulations for the way I had shown the Appalachians and in particular the bridge over the river.
Q. What is there of America in the film then?
Melville: Only things that are typically American. […] Obviously, I didn’t film “the streets of New York” in the rue Jenner, but all the scenes on the highway were shot in France. If you look carefully, however, you will see that none of the cars are French, because I’d lined the Esterel autoroute with American cars.
Melville’s noir cycle
Strangely, Melville’s films about the underworld created their own mythical milieu. But the myth wasn’t French, it was inspired by the mythology of American film noir. He was steeped in America, it influenced him profoundly.
—Bernard Stora, assistant director to Melville in Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
“Melville was a great American filmmaker, lost in France.”
Melville’s film noir career begins in the mid-1950s with Bob le flambeur. “A real hood’s face,” says Bob while looking at himself in a mirror on the street. Bob is played by Roger Duchesne, a minor film star known to French cineastes from the 1930s; Melville chose him specifically, for the actor was also “over the hill.” Set in Paris (Montmartre, Pigalle) and a gambling casino in Deauville, the film shows us Bob’s last coup, a heist in Deauville, professionally planned and carried out—but, unfortunately for Bob and his criminal companions, it is foiled at the final moment by Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), who has warned Bob repeatedly not to do anything that would put him in jail and who wants to protect him. It’s obvious to both men that at Bob’s age, he won’t survive another stint in jail.
The film offers an ironic twist at its conclusion, as Bob succeeds in making the killing of his life at the roulette table in Deauville before the robbery actually takes place: he didn’t even have to commit the robbery since he is so flush with cash. The police inspector catches everybody in the act. Bob’s young protégé Paulo (Daniel Cauchy) is shot and killed as Bob emerges from the casino, winnings in hand. Ledru arrests him and the others, allowing Bob to stash his gambling winnings in the trunk of the police car. As they ride back together to the police station, Bob and his safe-cracker pal Roger (André Garet) in the backseat, Bob jokes with Roger and Inspector Ledru that now he can get a good lawyer, due to his winnings, and the likelihood is good that he will get off with a light sentence—he may even sue for damages!
Two Men in Manhattan (1959), in which the director himself took a role as the French journalist Moreau working for Agence France Presse in New York, who is investigating the mysterious disappearance of the French U.N. delegate Fèvre-Berthier. Moreau goes to search for the missing man along with a friend, the disreputable tabloid photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset), a cynic as well as a drunk. They find the diplomat on a couch, dead from a heart attack, in his American mistress’ apartment. Delmas rearranges the death scene by dragging Delmas’ body to the bed, places a framed photograph of the girlfriend next to him and takes several lurid shots to sell to the newspapers.
Moreau calls his boss, who arrives and tells them about the man’s previous career as a Resistance fighter. Delmas agrees to return the spool of film but does not actually do it; he keeps it, instead handing over a film roll that had nothing to do with the scandal. Moreau condemns Delmas to his face, shortly thereafter realizes what Delmas has pulled off after they have parted and chases him down to a bar. Eventually, Delmas throws the film into the gutter, throwing away his big break, the coup that would made his career, and laughs.
Le Doulos (1962), with Serge Reggiani and Belmondo in the main roles, is a complexly plotted noir involving an apparent betrayal by the police informer Silien (Belmondo) of his friend, the burglar Faugel (Reggiani). The title is the French slang term for a hat as well as the word for an informer himself. Based on a Série Noire French crime novel, for the greater part of the film one believes that Silien is betraying Faugel, selling him out to the police; Silien kills Faugel’s girlfriend Therèse (Monique Hennessy) to boot.
In the end, it turns out that all along Silien has been protecting Faugel, trying to clear his friend of a murder charge. Faugel misunderstands Silien throughout most of the film; he vows revenge on him while being held for a time in jail cell, sharing it with the German Kern (Charles Studer), whom he contracts to kill Silien. In a rather spectacular shootout at Silien’s home at the film’s conclusion, both protagonists die in a hail of bullets. Silien’s hat rolls off his head on to the floor, the doulos, and the film ends.
Melville released L’Ainé des Ferchaux (The Oldest Son of Ferchaux) in 1963, casting in the main roles the young French star Jean-Paul Belmondo and the aging Charles Vanel (of Wages of Fear fame). Filming in color, Melville shot extensively in America for the exterior shots. L’Ainé des Ferchaux is a rather perverse tale of a banker (Ferchaux/Vanel) who must flee France owing to a vague financial scandal as well as some crimes in his past—the murder of “three Negroes” in Africa; as he is preparing to flee, Ferchaux hires the ex-boxer Maudet (Belmondo) as his secretary and assistant to go to America with him. Driving from New York to Caracas, Maudet picks up an American hitchhiker, taking her along part of the way, has sex with her, and Ferchaux appears jealous, the psychological warfare between the older man and the younger one escalating from there. They drive south to Louisiana, trailed by two FBI agents, who at a critical point tell Maudet they will not extradite Ferchaux, but Maudet and Ferchaux will not be permitted to leave the continental United States. Maudet keeps this important bit of information to himself.
Maudet is playing sadistic psychological power games with the older man; Ferchaux submits to Maudet, pouts like a jilted lover—the homosexuality is implied but not made explicit—and the now clearly aging Ferchaux grows ill. Maudet leaves him, taking the valise full of money. When Ferchaux is robbed and beaten by two Americans, Maudet returns. Ferchaux dies in his arms. Before he expires, he hands Maudet the key to his Caracas safe, and the film ends ambiguously—for Belmondo has obviously come back to save the older man; he could not just leave him there, despite Belmondo’s character being the consummate sadist and tough guy.
Le deuxième souffle (1966), featuring Lino Ventura in the title role of Gu Minda and Paul Meurisse as the Police Inspector Blot, offers a rather complicated plot involving the themes of male friendship, betrayal, professionalism. It is a heist film, with multiple killings. Lino Ventura perfectly embodied the “honorable” gangster who is willing to die to save his reputation, to prove he is not an informer. It is hard not to admire Ventura’s physical presence as an actor, even though Ventura himself denied he ever was one—he claimed he was only playing himself.
Ventura’s Gu Minda is doomed from the start, a loner who is nonetheless capable of eliciting fierce loyalty from his friends and comrades: we see people willing to go to any lengths to help and save him, like Alban the barman (Michel Constantin), the bodyguard of Gu’s lover Manouche (Christine Fabrega); Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), the epitome of a smartly dressed professional killer; Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin); Manouche herself, who seems to be Gu’s long-suffering wife-lover but with whom Gu most definitely does not want to be bound—the man wants to remain in his strange doomed Melvillian loneliness; Gu can even elicit a form of loyalty from Inspector Blot, in whose arms Gu dies. The bond between Blot and Gu is unspoken yet is acknowledged, and Gu’s honor is saved in the end. This is a Melvillian universe where women play no part. It is the pact between men that counts.
Le Samouraï(1967) commences the trilogy in which Alain Delon starred. The film is loosely based on This Gun for Hire (1942), both stylistically and in terms of plot, constituting a hommage to the American model. The opening shot of Delon smoking a cigarette while lying on his bed is a tour de force owing to the color schemes employed by Melville, for Delon has “disappeared” into the aesthetics of the cool noir “landscape,” like a chameleon who changes color to suit an environment. It is here that we read the post-credit text at the beginning: “There is no more deeper solitude than the samurai’s … unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle,” which is allegedly a quote from the Bushido (The Book of the Samurai) but was actually made up by Melville himself for his film. Melville’s use of color in Le Samouraï, his deliberately muted combinations of gray, green and light blue interiors—a strategy that extends to the outside world and even to the color schemes of clothing—points thematically to a “coolness” that is striven after, the cold state of someone who has accepted death’s thrall and has no use for any trace elements of vibrant life.
The second Delon film, Le cercle rouge (1970), is again a heist film, beautifully shot in color. It was Melville’s most widely seen film in France, his most commercially successful one, and he was acclaimed for it by the French critical press (the exception being the Cahiers group, who believed the director had “sold out.”) Melville’s last film was Un Flic (1972). It was badly received by the critics and put Melville in the doldrums due to the attacks on it. It again starred Delon, with Catherine Deneuve in a lesser role. Stubbornly, self-reflexively, Melville had again made a heist film.
Early life, the war years and the other Melville oeuvre
The war period was awful, horrible and—marvelous! I suffered a lot during the first months of my military service […] Then, one day, thinking over my past, I suddenly understood the charm that ‘unhappy memories’ can have. As I grow older, I look back with nostalgia on the years from 1940 to 1944, because they are part of my youth.
—Jean-Pierre Melville, in conversation with Rui Nogueira
Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris in 1917. His Jewish parents had moved there from Alsace. From an early age, Melville—a name he took while fighting in the French Résistance during the war, in honor, he said, of the American writer—was obsessed with film. He described his family as petit bourgeois, small tradesman, and his father as a socialist.
At the age of seven, he received a Pathé Baby camera and soon thereafter a small projector, on which he could view films on 9.5mm. Beginning in 1925, the boy shot a few films—mostly of family—during his early years. He claimed that he had shot around thirty “features” in diverse non-commercial formats by 1939.
Jean-Pierre entered the military in 1937, aged twenty, serving in the colonial cavalry. In September 1940, the unit he was serving in was trapped in Belgium. He took part in the evacuation at Dunkirk, came to England and was repatriated to France, where he moved to the southern part of the country and joined the “Liberation” and “Combat” Resistance groups. Following the landings in North Africa in 1942, he tried to get to London on a ship, which was seized, and was imprisoned for a couple months in Spain. This was the time when his older brother Jacques, who was also active in the Resistance, was killed while attempting to cross the border from France into Spain.
Melville eventually reached London, where he was active as an agent for the Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations, working for DeGaulle’s Free French Forces. He got to Tunisia in 1943 and became a member of the First Regiment of Colonial Artillery in DeGaulle’s forces, taking part in the fighting to liberate Italy and the invasion of France by the Allies. His fighting unit was given the medal of the Croix de la Libération for its services in 1945. (Melville’s wartime service has been scrupulously uncovered and detailed in Olivier Bohler’s incisive 2008 documentary Code Name Melville).
Melville’s first commercial feature was a short entitled 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown, in 1946. He tried to work as an assistant director but was rejected by the heavily unionized French film industry. He thereupon opted to make movies on his own, by whatever means were handy. Having been demobilized in October 1945, he founded a company to create films only a month later. He built his own studio on the rue Jenner in 1947.
Melville’s experience of the war and activity in the Resistance was an immense influence on his outlook and amounts to a “second oeuvre” as gripping in its own way as his noirs. His films about the Résistance and life in France under Nazi German occupation each possess an unusually detached, ahistorical quality. Melville always claimed this was the impression he wanted to make; and perhaps due to his own home-brewed variant on Brechtian alienation effects, they have not dated. In many ways, they are the inspiration for present-day politically-inspired filmmaking (such as Olivier Assayas’ Carlos).
His first Resistance reminiscence, Le silence de la mer (1949), based on a novel by Vercors (the pseudonym of Jean Brullers), centers around a farmhouse where a refined, intellectual German officer is housed in the company of an older Frenchman—also an intellectual—as well as his niece, whom the German officer seems to fall for. Melville shot the film without the permission of the author of the book, which was a famous tome published clandestinely during the Occupation Years. Vercors and some others from the Resistance had feared Melville would sully the honor of their cause. Melville had promised to show the film to Vercors and other in a first viewing before releasing it. Persuaded by the finished product, they gave Melville their seal of approval. Its subsequent success launched Melville’s career.
One major chance for asserting himself as a film director came when, in 1950, he shot Les Enfants Terribles, under the auspices and approval of Jean Cocteau, the author of the novel on which the movie was based, and managed to keep the reins of directorship in his own hands, showing a stubborn degree of independence despite the gap in stature between him and the world-famous Cocteau.
Melville would return to the war in 1961 with Léon Morin, Prêtre, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmaunelle Riva. It is an astonishing intersection of politics, religion, war, secrecy, and seduction. The movie proved popular in France, doing well at the box office.
Army of Shadows (1969) stars Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier, key member of an isolated Resistance group fighting the Germans in France. It is an extremely somber film. The movie follows its protagonists, who are doomed and acting in a perilous environment; their actions and interactions with each other are marked by remarkable friendships in the face of betrayal and death (as with the fate of a young informer, portrayed in a very graphic scene in the opening minutes). When it was released, the Cahiers crowd (which had turned on him) attacked Melville for being “right-wing” and “Gaullist.” Today, it is seen as a classic.
In his movies about the Resistance and the Nazi occupation, Melville shows the reality of executions: fighting and dying are presented in a direct and brutal manner. In a more indirect way, Melville integrated his wartime experience into his translation and revision of the American gangster genre. One must bear the war years in mind and try to visualize what life as a Resistance fighter meant: the clandestine living, never knowing whom to trust; always in danger; having to make decisions that are life-and-death ones, not only for yourself but for others, some of them friends in an honorable cause.
And it’s no coincidence, actually, that these aspects of life are also the way Melville’s gangsters and cops live—lonely souls in a world without women and children, where there is no room for mundane things like paying taxes and washing dishes. Melville’s heroes do not really care about sex; it’s colleagues who count. “Never betray a friend,” as Belmondo’s Silien in Le Doulos instructs Faugel (Serge Reggiani) toward the conclusion of that film. The dandy, the samurai, the lonely cop: taciturn male friendship transforms into a solidarity that does not depend on whether you really like the other guy, generating a pact of omerta—a code that nice ordinary people (like you and I) cannot penetrate.
In every major noir made by Melville, the chief police inspector has an unspoken pact of honor, though it may seem to us perverse, with the chief criminal protagonist. It doesn’t mean the criminal is spared, only that there is respect and even affection lingering there, if nowhere else, for the men. When, in Le cercle rouge, we watch how Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) goes home to his lonely apartment and is greeted by his three cats, is it any different from the domestic squalor and melancholy existence of Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté) and Corey (Alain Delon)? These knights of the sad countenance are a distant, displaced echo of that desperately pitched battle against the Nazi occupiers, fought by a minority, which cost many lives: its bitter subtext of betrayal and collaboration is transposed without a trace of irony into gangster dramas.
Surviving the nouvelle vague
Commerce with men is a dangerous business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone. […] Yes, but I’m a tremendous believer in friendship … in my films.
The noirs of Melville, from Bob le flambeur in 1956 through Le samourai in 1967, were well received when they were released in France, with each film eliciting a growing amount of critical praise as well as popularity with the public, until the scathing reception of Army of Shadows poisoned the critical atmosphere. A backlash against Melville, originating from his former champions in the Nouvelle Vague, spread to his gangster films, particularly for Un Flic. Yet Bob le flambeur was heavily influential in terms of what the Cahiers de Cinéma crowd initially advocated: a general renewal and purging of French filmmaking from its “quality” standards to more immediate, less commercialized films.
Melville had used real settings in his film; the interiors were shot in his own rue Jenner Studio. The younger Cahiers filmmakers and critics were enthusiastic about such innovations, the freshness and naturalness in the film, citing it and praising Bob as an example of French filmmaking that was getting away from “Grandpa’s cinema.” The New Wave directors gathered around the Cahiers, including Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard and others, were keen on re-evaluating American directors as auteurs who had previously been seen as purely commercial hacks. And Melville loved American films, especially gangster films of the 1930s as well as the film noir era but also the entire professional aesthetics and production values that went into American filmmaking. He was a living encyclopedia on American film history. Melville shot outdoors, eschewing the artificiality of studios; his films avoided the appearance of being slick products; he exuded authenticity. It was not Melville who changed; it was the Cahiers crowd, caught up in the frenzy of 1968, seduced into thinking that the old codes had been swept away.
Melville was impassive in the face of all this. But he did not get a chance to answer his critics in the way that he would have preferred—with a new heist film. In 1973, only a year after the lynching of Un flic by the critics, Melville died of coronary failure. A great revival of interest in his work took place in the 1990s and has continued to this day. His film noirs may not have had the youthful freshness of the first wave of noirs made in the 1940s and 1950s but can be seen as having epitomized Noir 2.0, a self-reflexive second generation of great noirs that were produced by directors who were consciously aware of what they were doing. He has been followed by what we might call Noir 3.0: his obvious, direct heirs are filmmakers like Walter Hill, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson and the Coen Brothers.
* * *
What would Melville want us to make of his gangster universe? He was asked in an interview:
What do gangsters represent for you?
“Nothing at all. I think they’re pathetic losers. But it so happens that the gangster story is a very suitable vehicle for the particular form of modern tragedy called film noir, which was born from American detective novels. It’s a flexible genre. You can put whatever you want into it, good or bad. And it’s a fairly easy vehicle to use to tell stories that matter to you about individual freedom, friendship or rather human relationships, because they’re not always friendly. Or betrayal, one of the driving forces in American crime novels.”
“Do you know any gangsters?”
“Yes, I knew quite a few. But they’re nothing like the ones in my films.”