Together Alone: The Outsider Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville
And to Melville, the fate of the gangster-movie hero is inseparable from his style or his morality: it’s part of the form he occupies, just as his Cadillac and his chivalrous manners are. A man has no choice; if he’s in a gangster picture, he looks at certain way, behaves a certain way, and dies a certain way. Genre is destiny – and ethics. In fact, Melville’s films express a philosophy that only a Frenchman could have dreamed up – and only a movie-mad Frenchman at that: it’s genre existentialism. (1)
I believe that you must be madly in love with cinema to create films. You also need a huge cinematic baggage. (2)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s highly influential and playful 1955 gangster film, Bob le flambeur, contains a scene in which the central protagonist, Bob Montagne, a nocturnal, worldly gambler and intermittent criminal, returns home to his apartment some time just after dawn. Earlier in the film it has been established that a young woman has become somewhat smitten by Bob and that he also has a protégé who attempts to copy his actions, attitudes and tastes; actions and occurrences characteristic of Melville’s ‘world’ which is full of sincere copies, templates, pared-back archetypes, silhouettes and seeming ‘cut-out’ patterns. On entering his apartment Bob glimpses the young woman and man asleep together in bed. In most films this would be cause for a dramatically charged scene in which mentor confronts protégé, putting into question the status and role of both the original and its copy. Melville approaches this ‘encounter’ in a fashion both more deeply existential and explicitly tender than is the convention. Bob does not even disturb the couple but gently tip-toes out of the room after drinking in the scene set before him.
In 1963, Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters’ perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline.” (3) Durgnat’s astute reading of Melville’s work nevertheless over-emphasises the purely detached and relatively amoral perspective that it offers. The subtle scene described above is one of many moments in Melville’s cinema in which his mostly male characters appear to be both within and outside of a dramatic situation, able to engage in the emotion of the moment while also stepping outside of it to contemplate a configuration of events, actions and bodies. Bob recognises his complicity and involvement in the coupling he sees staged in his bed but he also recognises the beauty of this staged composition, its ‘rightness,’ in a way. In a similar fashion, the lone assassin protagonist of Melville’s most celebrated film, Le Samouraï (1967), both enacts his crimes and observes the patterned compositions he creates through his meticulous movements and steely actions. There is another moment in Bob le flambeur where Bob looks, as many of Melville’s characters do, at his unshaven face in the mirror. Though this provokes a momentary shock of existential awareness – the notation of age and a concomitant world-weariness – it is also a moment of pure contemplation; the character simultaneously sees both from within and outside himself. Typical of Melville’s aesthetic style (and his ethical perspective), we are shown these moments and events through a mixture of seeming point-of-view shots and a vast array of detached perspectives (which rarely repeat camera set-ups). Thus, while the characters are both ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ to the situation, we are also both inside and outside their view of it, engaged in the film’s action while also observing it. It is this combination of direct engagement and distanced contemplation, of feeling character and observing actor, as well as the joining of real-time observation – which Colin McArthur describes as a “cinema of process” – and aesthetic abstraction (heightened or drained colours, self-consciously staged compositions) that defines Melville’s cinema. (4)
The precise detail of action and composition is important to both Melville’s rendition of popular genres (most often the gangster film) and to the peculiar way in which he treats time and space. As a result, the atmosphere, locales, places and actions of Melville’s films can seem both actual and totally imagined. For example, the lovingly sketched Montmartre of Bob le flambeur is both a realistic geographic environment and a cartoon of the milieu of two-bit criminal Paris. His films often create a dream-like, almost clandestine sense of geography, place and period which sits alongside equally evocative but austere observations of the realistic minutiae of a particular historical moment or generic situation: the conditions of occupation in war-time France (Léon Morin, Prêtre, 1961); the slate-coloured, damp feeling world and meticulously repeated actions of a lone wolf assassin (Le Samouraï); the meticulous build-up and execution of a daring jewel robbery (Le Cercle rouge, 1970). It is often this sense of a particular place, space or physical sensation that stays with you after experiencing a Melville film. For example, when reviewing Les Enfants terribles (1950) François Truffaut felt that the places and situations created by Melville were as much sensorial as physical: “one of the few olfactory films in the history of cinema (its odor is of children’s sickrooms).” (5) Even such lesser films as Deux Hommes dans Manhattan (1959) and Un Flic (1972) build a concrete but moodily sparse world from a collection of sounds, shades and colours observed from multiple perspectives and angles.
Melville himself has been careful to place his work within the context of a composed or synthetic tradition of filmmaking: “I am careful never to be realistic.… What I do is false. Always.” (6) But this statement encapsulates only ‘half’ the story, as John Flaus suggests: “He [Melville] does not seek to simulate the world but to create anew from the materials of the world. The severe form, the precise detail, the delicate effect are part of a style which shows rather than refers to its subject.” (7) Essentially, Melville’s cinema is a highly complex and regulated thing within which nothing, not an edit, a gesture, a sound or a camera movement, is wasted (though it is also a cinema that is often also stylistically adventurous). His films present a collection of minute observations and actions played out in what seems to be real time, while also reveling in self-conscious displays of what could pass for pure style. Melville combines this with an overwhelming sense of lived experience. His films are often, all at once, highly personal, non-naturalistic (full of attenuated shades and colours or self-consciously fake back projections), dream-like fictions, and documentary-like narratives. His style often also revolves around the meticulous placement and withdrawal of certain cinematic techniques. For example, despite the head of the character of the niece being consistently framed in Le Silence de la mer (1949), she is never given a close-up until the penultimate point of the film. (8)
Jean-Pierre Melville made a total of 13 features during his 25 year career. Though never exactly in or out of critical fashion, Melville’s gangster films can be seen as a major influence on many of the crime films from the 1960s onwards, while Le Silence de la mer, Les Enfants terribles, and Bob le flambeur can be regarded as fairly direct antecedents to the nouvelle vague. (9) Nevertheless, Melville was always a reticent, fringe-dwelling and independent figure within French cinema who routinely rejected claims of his complicity in or membership of any such movement: “If… I have consented to pass for their [the nouvelle vague's] adopted father for a while, I do not wish to anymore, and I have put some distance between us.” (10) It is probably more accurate to suggest that he belongs to no particular time or any one cinematic tradition – though the ‘sensibility’ of his work can be traced through the formative influences of existentialism, surrealism, classical American cinema, French poetic realism, Herman Melville, his war-time experience as a Resistance fighter in France, amongst other things. (11) For all his Americanophile affectations, extraordinary knowledge of 1930s Hollywood minutiae (including his own Bazinian pantheon), and much-cited fascination with the gangster genre he should still be regarded as a quintessentially French filmmaker. (12) Thus, at heart, Melville’s career and films are movingly paradoxical; romantic in effect and example his films and broader career are defined by a pragmatic, austere and rigorous approach. (13)
Melville is a filmmaker that almost everyone seems to admire, but few know what to do with (other than those who attempt to slavishly copy or evoke his work). Similarly, many accounts of his cinema focus only on his gangster films, finding it difficult to encapsulate the trio of films he made about the war-time occupation of France into an overall understanding of his work; particularly any ‘summary’ which attempts to present a teleological narrative that moves from the initial ‘literary’ works such as Le Silence de la mer to the explicitly cinematic genre and audio-visual abstraction characterising his last film, Un Flic. (14) Critical discussion of Melville’s work is also obsessed by the American affectations of his films and his personal style (the car he drove, the Stetson he wore, the Coca-Cola he drank, the evocative New York-based or influenced films he made such as Deux Hommes dans Manhattan and L’Aîné des ferchaux ), as well as his status as perhaps the first truly self-conscious cinéphiliac director. (15) It is in these obsessions that most critics see Melville’s talismanic importance to the nouvelle vague, as an exemplar of particular critical proclivities and independent production processes. Nevertheless, Melville seems to belong to a separate generation or movement (closer to other singular figures of French cinema like Robert Bresson, Georges Franju and Jacques Becker). (16) His valediction of such highly classical directors as William Wyler, John Huston, Robert Wise and Charles Chaplin points toward an unflinching, or aspirational, classicism in his own style; expressed in his films’ attention to detail, deployment of iconographic objects and often restricted emotional, tonal and aesthetic palette. But his films, particularly from Le Doulos (1962) onwards, also seem to belong to an explicitly modernist tradition in which the world created appears predetermined, patterned, almost geometric – and such patterns or geometries emerge as key themes and visual preoccupations of films such as Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge. Thus, although Melville would like to be connected to names such as Huston, Wyler, William Wellman and John Ford, he belongs as much to a formalist cinema defined by its compositional clarity and spatio-temporal experimentation, and thus should be examined equally alongside such directors as Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Bresson and Jacques Tati. (17)
Many accounts of Melville’s career divide it into two distinct parts with Léon Morin, Prêtre often being regarded as the first film of his maturity, symbolising a break from the low-budget aesthetics and free-wheeling stylistic experimentation of earlier works stretching from Le Silence de la mer to Deux Hommes dans Manhattan. This break is also often conceptualised as a self-conscious refutation of the nouvelle vague, as well as an attempt to reach a larger audience. Melville himself has suggested that “After the failure of Deux hommes dans Manhattan, I decided only to undertake films intended for a mass audience, and not purely for a small number of enlightened film buffs.” (18)
Most of Melville’s films prior to Léon Morin, Prêtre share many of the subsequent characteristics of the loosely configured movement we call the nouvelle vague: a somewhat clouded but conscious rejection of the French studio system (or ‘tradition of quality’); low budgets; a demonstrated fascination with B-grade American genres; a preponderance for particular, non-classical techniques; an encyclopedic fascination with auteurist cinema (even if Melville’s ‘canon’ was quite different). Melville’s independence as a filmmaker – evidenced by factors such as his working without a union card and various shooting permits on Le Silence de la mer, the studios he had built and lived above, the lower budgets he worked on, and the multiple creative roles he occupied on many of his films – as well as the avowed stylistic influence of his work on directors such as Truffaut and Godard (who featured him in a cameo in À bout de souffle ), further this connection. Surface evidence in the film backs up claims of such a break, as Léon Morin, Prêtre features by this time established stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva, in its central roles (though both are also associated with key works of the nouvelle vague), and follows more closely the general thematic and stylistic parameters of European art cinema of the period (with a far more contained palette). Looking back on this film forty years later, it is much more difficult to recognise how it separates itself from Melville’s earlier work – other than through its obviously more expensive budget, characteristic of Melville’s work from this point onwards – and even some works of the nouvelle vague. To be found intact are the powers of observation that Melville always brought to bear on a particular time and place, and the subject of an evolving friendship that emerges between two characters seemingly incompatible in terms of life choices, political allegiances and moral perspectives. It is this play between seemingly incompatible characters, social roles and aspects of cinema (the artificial and the realistic) that is amongst the key preoccupations of the director’s work. For example, Le Silence de la mer, L’Armée des ombres, Bob le flambeur and Un Flic all revolve around sets of characters who are linked and opposed, faithful and potentially disloyal, together and alone.
Tom Milne has suggested that the key themes of Melville’s work are the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself.” (19) Milne’s ‘thematic’ reading gets us some way towards understanding and ‘capturing’ the sensibility of the director’s work, but it does not come near to suggesting the range of this work, nor the gentle, stoic melancholy (with bursts of often stylised brutality) that best defines the emotional state of many of Melville’s characters. Neither does Milne’s summary account for how such terms exist in time (and duration is a key to Melville’s distinctive universe). Love, friendship, communication, self-respect and “life itself” are not impossible in Melville’s cinema but they are explicitly finite or time-bound. The bittersweet and deeply felt quality of the director’s work suggests that his preoccupation is less with feelings of contemporary isolation – common in the art cinema of the 1960s – and the opportunities that sounds and image ‘situations’ offer for compositional abstraction, a la Antonioni, than with the melancholy contemplation of the play of intimacy and inevitable betrayal.
Milne’s discussion of the serious existential themes in Melville’s work is seemingly undermined by many of the comments made by the director himself: “It may be the business of other film-makers to discuss the big questions; personally, though I don’t mind touching on them, I have no wish to explore them.” (20) Melville’s suggestion that his work only touches upon the “big questions” is misleading, and undervalues the emphasis his films place on the observational detail of everyday life, the specificity of a particular time and place, and the ritual actions and movements of bodies placed in specified contexts – all of which are “big questions” for the cinema. His statement is also misleading because it does not recognise how such elements or qualities can be synthesised to produce profound dissertations on the kinds of questions he suggests his films shy away from. It is the relative indirectness of Melville’s approach, combined with the intensely studied emphasis he places on significant – or ‘insignificant’ – gestures, actions, elements of mise-en-scène and stylistic devices (such as fades, wipes, close-ups and precisely deployed camera movement) that most commonly leads to such readings of his work. Melville’s films have the precision of a scalpel and the intensity of full-blown melodrama without being defined or ‘restrained’ by the coolness of one or the histrionics of the other. They are contradictory works in which the pulse of life appears to be pumped in and withdrawn at the same time.
Thus, as I have suggested elsewhere, Melville’s cinema is essentially tonal: a sensibility (melancholy, poetic, unhysterical) which is founded upon a ‘purity’ of style, performance and narrative action. (21) It is this ‘sensibility’ or ‘tonality’ – existential, ritualistic and formed around the incapability of the individual and their community – that preoccupies most critical accounts of Melville’s cinema. (22) John Flaus has suggested that Melville “is a self-confessed addict of the structure & ethos, but not the tone, of the Hollywood crime genres.” (23) Thus Melville’s films often appear as intricately choreographed shadow plays in which the elements of genre become isolated, detached and abstracted. This abstraction goes hand-in-hand with a career long fascination with totemistic objects brought either to the foreground of a shot or arranged purposely in the background of the frame. Melville’s films are full of moments in which characters fix on a particular object or fetishise certain keepsakes or elements of mise-en-scène. This isolation of individual shapes, objects and actions is playfully noted in the scene in Le Samouraï where the character of Weiner is asked whether he can identify the man (Jef, played by Alain Delon) he passed in the foyer of his lover’s apartment block. Not being ‘observant,’ he cannot recognise the ‘person’ of this man but constructs a readily identifiable composite; he points out a hat, a coat and a kind of face that he remembers brushing past.
Nevertheless, unlike Godard, Melville’s films are less pastiches or collages of other films and genres than slightly displaced but ‘fully’ formed examples of the cinemas or genres they refer to. Melville’s films in this mode have the quality of after-images, apparitions of established models fueled by a ghostly world-weariness and the characters’ self-consciously ritualised actions. Thus, Melville’s characters often appear trapped within a particular moral framework or aesthetic design. For example, the police prefect’s repeated statement that “Man is guilty – he is born innocent but it doesn’t last,” casts a pall over all actions and characters in Le Cercle rouge, while the restricted tonal palette of Melville’s last four colour films helps establish a mood of inevitability; characters must act within certain frames of reference, completing roles which inexorably lead to their deaths.
Though often considered amongst Melville’s least successful films, Un Flic takes this creation of a hermetic and completely defined world to its furthest level. The film is suffused by a blue light, to the level where some of its opening shots take on the extreme tonal abstraction of a late Turner painting. This melancholic and metallic blue sheen imbues the film and its characters with a death-like pallor (highlighted in the extraordinary montage between Delon’s pasty face and that of a corpse at one point in the film). The film’s, at times, explicitly artificial sets and back projection only further this sense of painterly composition and control, as well as of characters who are trapped in the half-light of somnambulistic actions and events. Un Flic is perhaps Melville’s most extreme experiment in genre abstraction in which the characters appear to sleep-walk through a set of predetermined gestures, actions and situations. In this sense it is an ideal, if relentlessly pessimistic, final testament.
These types of stoic, often joyless and strangely sacred rituals are for Melville’s characters a way of distancing themselves from the world, of maintaining an impossible purity or of simulating a rigorous professionalism. It is in the moment when this ritual, professionalism or purity breaks apart that the characters’ demise is prefigured or marked. In Le Samouraï, for example, it is when the protagonist breaks from his routine and swerves minutely toward some kind of personal involvement, that his fate is sealed. Despite the blank amorality and explicit anti-humanism of his murderous actions it is the ‘purity’ of his existence and work that enables his character to survive. In keeping with this, Melville often eschews conventional character psychology and motivation, refusing to provide back stories or explanations for his characters’ actions. For example, we never know precisely why particular individuals (particularly Simone Signoret’s seemingly unimpeachable Mathilde) inform on their comrades in L’Armée des ombres, and yet his handling of characters (including those who necessarily break these codes) still has a rare sense of balance and grace. (24) Typically, Melville’s characters are unwavering in their commitment to a particular moral code or mode of action. Melville’s characters rarely change or transform – they have an understanding of the world and their place within it – but the relationships between them and their milieu evolve gradually through a process of acceptance and dawning mutuality. Thus, Melville’s films are mostly concerned with the rigor of any character’s attitude to being in the world, the moral, experiential and ritual codes that make sense of their actions (and life). These codes are attached to all of Melville’s central characters, granting their actions and attitudes a “sort of purity,” whether gangster, assassin, German officer, Resistance fighter, communist sympathiser, or priest. (25)
In many ways Melville’s first feature film, Le Silence de la mer, establishes the key thematic and aesthetic preoccupations of his cinema. The basic idea of the film is something of a poetic conceit: a soldier of the occupying German army is billeted at the home of a French man and his niece. Atypically, the German soldier is a cultured man and openly pontificates about the strengths and weaknesses, and necessary conjoining of French and German culture. The officer speaks throughout to his hosts’ unbreakable ‘silence.’ In its mixture of the everyday and the patently artificial one can see what might have attracted Jean Cocteau to Melville’s film (they worked together on Melville’s next project, Les Enfants terribles). The play of lighting, particularly on faces, the framing of bodies and body parts are both strikingly subtle and, at moments, strikingly expressionistic. The world of the film is necessarily regulated and controlled and yet it exhibits something less than a rigid scheme. In Le Silence de la mer the relationships between characters remain unspoken, they lie in silence, and are only expressed through abstract gestures, the systematic use of particular cinematic devices, and, to some degree, the retrospection of the voiceover. Though it contains an air of ephemerality the film also highlights a precise if muted physicality that is a key of characteristic elsewhere in Melville’s cinema. For example, during Gu’s escape from jail in the opening of Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) we feel the physical sensation and tension of his actions. In fact this muted but palpable physicality is often all that we can grasp onto in the murky half-light of the compositions.
Although Le Silence de la mer moves between locations freely – including one astonishing flashback to the tank-bound officer in sight of Chartres Cathedral – it is the claustrophobia and limited spatial dynamics of the house’s sitting room which dominates the film. Thus, although the implications and even space of Melville’s films are often vast – particularly in a film like L’Armée des ombres – they predominantly communicate a sense of intimacy, restricted space and controlled movement. For example, the most intimate moments in Le Cercle rouge and Le Samouraï feature characters wandering around their apartments attending to the small details of everyday existence. It is in these moments, and those where characters drive through the night streets, that one sees a pretty clear autobiographical connection to the kind of life that Melville often describes as leading. (26) In these intimate moments from Le Cercle rouge one can also see three of the cats that Melville doted upon throughout his life. It is this curious combination of the artificial, archetypal and the personal that also marks Melville’s cinema. (27) Melville highlighted this aspect when he pointed out the home-movie-like quality of his films: “In my films I like preserving images and memories of my friends, of the people who have worked with me.” (28)
Another of the most striking and experimental aspects of Melville’s films are their use of sound. For example, the voiceover narrations of Le Silence de la mer and Les Enfants terribles have a detached, almost circumstantial tone which washes against the intense sea of words of the German officer in one film and the intimate dialogue of brother and sister in the other. It is important to note that Melville’s cinéphilia is rooted in a love of early sound cinema and the soundtracks of his films – though often highly sophisticated and breathtakingly synthetic – do share this cinema’s routine juxtaposition of silence and clatter, as well as its tendency to isolate individual tones, voices and ambient noises. It is in his late films that Melville takes this experimentation with sound to a further, almost purely abstract level. For example, the opening seven or eight minutes of Le Samouraï contains virtually no dialogue, creating an aural world in which isolated ambient sounds and snatches of diegetic music jockey with a variety of non-diegetic or attenuated sounds (an over-dramatised score, the heightened sound of the bird in its cage). Many descriptions of Melville’s films highlight their silences or the mutedness of their aural range, but their soundtracks more accurately have the quality of a kind of concrète poetry – shifting willfully from doom-laden score to isolated sound effects to aphoristic dialogue. Thus the abstraction that is found in Melville’s images is often matched by his soundtracks. For example, the physically palpable atmosphere established in the opening scenes of Un Flic is created as much by the wash of various sounds – waves crashing, seagulls crying, cars on wet roads, the alarm after a bank raid – as it is by the film’s spookily attenuated visuals. Melville’s cinema is one of almost pure sonic and visual signs. These signs are isolatable but also form part of a synthetic system or world (the sound in his films often has the quality of a sculptured, somewhat experimental soundscape).
Melville’s films increasingly develop and sustain a kind of aphoristic worldview. This is explicitly foregrounded in the short quotations which are placed at the opening of many of his films. For example, Le Samouraï begins with a long take of the film’s protagonist stretched out on his bed accompanied by a unsettlingly pulsating score, the rhythmic tweeting of a caged bird and a written quote attributed to the Book of Bushido (actually composed by Melville): “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, except that of the tiger in the jungle… perhaps….” This opening sets the tone for the film, the quotation establishing a framework to understand the actions of the character (the ersatz Japanese origins of the quote also suggesting one of the film’s main stylistic reference points). This opening shot also establishes and reiterates one of the key peculiarities of Melville’s films. Though the shot – reminiscent of an Ozu film – remains resolutely outside of the character’s perspective and point of view it nevertheless, through specific camera techniques which create a dream-like sense of fluidity and even subjectivity, manages to feel both distanced and extremely intimate. Most of the shots in Le Samouraï are somewhat distanced from the visual perspective of the lead character and yet everything still seems filtered through his detached and ritualised response to the world. This concomitant sense of seeing and hearing things from both within and outside character is one of the most fascinating facets of Melville’s style. In the process, Melville’s films constantly throw up new perspectives, cross-cutting between multiple points of view. Thus, his films don’t exclude the optical point of view of characters but they don’t privilege it either. An exemplary instance of this is the opening of Un Flic; the last great thing he did and a kind of demonstration of the plastic and emotional strengths of Melville’s cinema. This opening moves between two evocative geographies: the near deserted stormy sea-side landscape in which a bank robbery occurs and the night-time streets of the Parisian suburbs wearily traveled through by Delon’s ashen-faced police inspector. What is remarkable about the style of this opening is that although it introduces us to various characters, and their view of the world, it hardly ever repeats a camera set-up. Thus, individual shots (and sounds) are both part of a system and separable from it. This style reiterates what is the key motif of Melville’s cinema; elements (or characters) which belong to a system or pattern while also being separable from it. Even the most extreme coupling in Melville’s cinema, the brother and sister who want to retreat to their own hermetic world in Les Enfants terribles, is constantly challenged by real and imagined forces of division. In death they are both joined and coolly separated. Melville’s is a strangely earthly world of acceptance, contemplation and the calm which comes with self-knowledge, but never of spiritual transcendence. Though his films are often compared to Bresson’s, they never offer an equivalent possibility of even a hard won faith.
The endings of Melville’s films tell us much about the moral codes and frameworks that they set up. In many of his films the majority of the central characters end up dead. These endings – which often have the feeling of ritual – reestablish the intimate connections that have been created between characters whose relationships are made impossible by a variety of legal, social, moral and criminal codes. In this sense they have much in common with the cycle of ‘chamber’ Westerns made by Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott; in fact the moral climates, dilemmas and group dynamics of Melville’s films often seem closer to the Western than film noir. (29) It is also in respect to this focus on the relativity of social roles and functions (often with characters on either side of the Law), as well as their explicit revision and abstraction of the crime genre, that one can see the clear influence of Melville on directors such as John Woo, Johnny To, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is also in these endings, particularly in his last five films, that Melville tells us something about the end of a kind of classicism; of a classical world of archetypes, moral and physical integrity, and ritualised ceremony that is passing from view. (30) They also prefigure the end of a cinema that Melville considered to be a “sacred thing.” (31)
Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my ‘heroes’ – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I’m only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself. Egocentric, paranoiac, megalomaniac? No: quite simply the natural authority of the creator. (32)
This article was refereed.
Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown (short, 1946) Also plays a bit part
Le Silence de la mer (1949)
Les Enfants terribles (1950) Also plays a bit part
Quand tu liras cette lettre (1953)
Bob le flambeur (1955)
Deux Hommes dans Manhattan (1959) Also plays lead role
Léon Morin, prêtre (1961)
Le Doulos (1962)
L’Aîné des Ferchaux (1963)
Le Deuxième souffle (1966)
Le Samouraï (1967)
L’Armée des ombres (1969)
Le Cercle rouge (1970)
Un Flic (1972)
Les drames du Bois de Boulogne (1947) Dir: Jacques Loew (short)
Orphée (1949) Dir: Jean Cocteau
Un amour de poche (1957) Dir: Pierre Kast
Le signe du lion (1959) Dir: Eric Rohmer
A bout de souffle (1960) Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
Zazie dans le métro (1960) Dir: Louis Malle
Landru (1962) Dir: Claude Chabrol
L’homme à la Buick (1967) Dir: Gilles Grangier
Armes, Roy, “Jean-Pierre Melville.” International Film Guide 1971. ed. Peter Cowie, London: The Tantivy Press, 1970, pp.33-8
_________, “Jean-Pierre Melville: Appearance and Identity.” The Ambiguous Image, London: Secker and Warburg, 1976, pp.42-55
Baron Turk, Edward, “The Film Adaptation of Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles.” Cinema Journal, 19.2 (Spring 1980), pp.25-40
Breitbart, Eric, “An Interview with Jean-Pierre Melville.” Film Culture, 35 (Winter 1964-5), p.15-9
Danks, Adrian, “L’Armeé des ombres.” Treasures from the French Embassy, ed. Clare Stewart, Melbourne: National Cinémathèque, 1998
__________, “The Sound of Silence.” Metro, 119 (1999), pp.96-7
Film Dope, 42 (October 1989), pp.15-6
Flaus, John, “Melville: Le Samouraï.” Cinema Papers. 1.1 (January 1974), pp.56-7
Hoberman, J., “Father and Sons.” Premiere, 7.1 (September 1993), pp.43-4
Hogue, Peter, “Melville, the Elective Affinities.” Film Comment, 32.6 (November-December 1996), pp.16-22
McArthur, Colin, “Mise-en-scène degree Zero: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967).” French Film: Texts and Contexts, 2nd edition, ed. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp.189-201
Milne, Tom, “L’Armeé des ombres.” Monthly Film Bulletin. 45.532 (May 1978), pp.83-4
_________, “Le Samuraï.” Focus on Film, 4 (September-October 1970), pp.3-5
_________, “Jean-Pierre Melville.” Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers, ed. Richard Roud, New York: The Viking Press, 1980, pp.681-6
Nogueira, Rui and François Truchaud, “A Samurai in Paris.” Sight and Sound, (Summer 1968), pp.118-23
Nogueira, Rui (ed.), Melville on Melville, trans. Tom Milne, London: Secker and Warburg, 1971
Overby, David L., “Dirty Money.” Sight and Sound, 43.4 (Autumn 1974), pp.245-6
Roud, Richard, “Melville.” Rediscovering French Film, ed. Mary Lea Bandy, New York: MOMA, 1983, pp.161-4
Schlöndorff, Volker, “Hommage to a Master.” Time Out, 654 (4-10 March 1983), pp.27-8
Schiff, Stephen, “Bob le Flambeur (1955).” Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, ed. Kathy Schulz Huffhines, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991
Wakeman, John (ed.), “’Melville,’ Jean-Pierre.” World Film Directors, vol. II 1945-1985, New York: H.M. Wilson, 1988, pp.670-5
Articles in Senses of Cinema
L’Armeé des ombres by Adrian Danks
Léon Morin, Prêtre by Adrian Danks
Compiled by the author and Albert Fung
New York State Writers Institute
Le Samouraï film notes.
Film Directors: Articles on the Internet
Many articles here.
Films De France
Brief bio and info on his films.
The Criterion Collection
Citerion DVD essay on Bob Le Flambeur. Some of his films can be purchased here.
Click here to search for Jean-Pierre Melville DVDs, videos and books at
- Stephen Schiff, “Bob le Flambeur (1955),” Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, ed. Kathy Schulz Huffhines, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991, p.186
- Rui Nogueira (ed.), Melville on Melville, trans. Tom Milne, London: Secker and Warburg, 1971, p.20
- Raymond Durgnat, Nouvelle Vague: The First Decade, Loughton, Essex: Motion Publications, 1963, p.40
- Colin McArthur, “Mise-en-scène degree Zero: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967),” French Film: Texts and Contexts, 2nd edition, ed. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, p.191
- François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978, p.223
- David L. Overby, “Dirty Money,” Sight and Sound, 43.4 (Autumn 1974), p.246
- John Flaus, “Melville: Le Samouraï,” Cinema Papers, 1.1 (January 1974), p.56
- This article draws on material I have published in three previous essays on Melville: “L’Armeé des ombres,” Treasures from the French Embassy (Melbourne: National Cinémathèque, 1998); “The Sound of Silence,” Metro 119, 1999, pp.96-7; “Léon Morin, Prêtre,” Senses of Cinema, 10 (2000) http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/10/leon.html. Each of these three articles focus on a separate film from Melville’s war-time or Resistance trilogy: Le Silence de la mer (1949); Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961); L’Armeé des ombres (1969).
- Godard includes direct homages to Melville in films like À bout de souffle (1959) and Vivre sa vie ( the final scene takes place outside Melville’s studio), while the style of voiceover deployed in Melville’s first two films seems a direct influence on that found in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961). Melville’s influence on post-nouvelle vague cinema can be seen and heard in such heist or crime films as The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978), Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch , with its equal reference to Seijun Suzuki’s similarly themed Branded to Kill ) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). Alongside Bresson’s Pickpocket (1958), Melville’s Le Samouraï also appears to be a particularly significant stylistic influence on what could be called the ‘man in a room’ crime film (John Woo’s The Killer  most directly), as well as many other examples of the Asian crime or yakuza genre: Harboiled (John Woo, 1992), The Mission (Johnny To, 1999), City on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987), Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1993). Melville himself appears to have been particularly influenced by such films as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1959, shot in Melville’s studio) and Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un tricheur (1936). In fact the combinatory tone, style and sensibility of these three quite different films could provide a neat pointer to the character of Melville’s cinema.
- Eric Breitbart, “An Interview with Jean-Pierre Melville,” Film Culture, 35 (Winter 1964-5), p.18. Melville went as far as to question the basic existence of this movement: “Everybody was a director: actors, intellectuals, playboys, journalists – everybody! And now most of them have gone back to what they were doing before. The nouvelle vague doesn’t exist anymore and it never existed.” (18)
- Colin McArthur teases out many of these core influences, placing particular emphasis on the existential sources of Melville’s sensibility or world-view: “With their recurrent vocabulary of solitude, choice and death and their underlying theme of the necessity of integrity, of – in Sartrean terms – avoiding ‘bad faith,’ the rubrics [the quotations which open many Melville films] might be passages from a Sartre novel of the 1930s or 1940s.” (p.190) There isn’t much discussion of Melville’s politics, or the cultural and intellectual background he springs from, in English, but McArthur provides a very useful sketch of Melville’s early background as a mix of 1930s Communism, Sartrean existentialism and “Americanophilia.” See McArthur pp.189-91.
- For a brief discussion and listing of Melville’s pre-WWII Hollywood pantheon, see Nogueira pp.14-6. This pantheon was restricted to sound films and was based on the criteria that Melville had to love at least one film directed by any of the filmmakers represented. The list includes obvious choices like John Ford, Fritz Lang and Howard Hawks, but also such largely forgotten directors as Richard Boleslavski, Sidney Franklin, Sidney Lanfield and Alfred Santell.
- The paradoxical nature of Melville’s work is explored in some detail in Tom Milne, “Jean-Pierre Melville,” Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers, ed. Richard Roud, New York: The Viking Press, 1980, pp.681-6.
- See, for example, the wonderfully evocative but genre-bound description of Melville’s films cited at the beginning of this article. J. Hoberman’s equally suggestive analysis also falls into this conventional exclusionary approach: J. Hoberman, “Father and Sons,” Premiere, 7.1 (September 1993), pp.43-4. McArthur turns this conventional logic around to suggest that Melville’s gangster films are predominantly about resistance (and, therefore, the Resistance). (p.194)
- Rui Nogueira’s wonderful interview book, Melville on Melville, has been particularly significant in establishing the main critical paradigms for understanding Melville’s work. This is particularly true of the limited English-language scholarship on Melville.
- When discussing the relationship between Le Silence de la mer and Bresson’s work, Melville has been famously quoted as saying: “I sometimes read (I am thinking of the reviews after Le Samouraï and L’Armée des Ombres came out), ‘Melville is being Bressonian.’ I’m sorry, but it is Bresson who has always been Melvillian.” See Nogueira p.27. This attempt to connect Melville to Bresson, and other filmmakers working outside of mainstream French cinema in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, is common in many accounts of the director’s work. See, for example, the links made between Melville and such ‘relative’ independents as Jean Cocteau, Marçel Pagnol, Jean Renoir and Georges Franju in Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of Filmmaking, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1994, pp.330-5.
- A useful summary of the ways in which Melville experiments with cinematic narration can be found in Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: A Introduction, 2nd edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003, pp.381-3.
- This quotation was translated from an interview published in a 1963 edition of L’Avant-scène du cinéma and is cited in Robin Buss, French Film Noir, London: Marion Boyars, 1994, p.70. In contrast to this dominant approach, Alan Williams suggests that a shift in Melville’s work occurs much earlier, after the second of his literary adaptations, Les Enfants terribles. Williams sees his work from this point onwards as being both more personal and more attuned to the commercial realities of the French film industry. See Williams p.334.
- Milne p.686
- Nogueira pp.84-5
- See Danks, “The Sound of Silence” p.96
- For example, Peter Hogue gives the following account of Melville’s curiously hybridised sensibility: “Melville’s sensibility is a unique one that proves capable of embracing the baroque passion of Cocteau, the grave austerity of Bresson, the stylistic impudence of Godard, the generic codes of the U.S. gangster film, and a certain irreverence that is characteristic of the heroic stage of existentialism in post-World War II culture in France.” See Peter Hogue, “Melville, the Elective Affinities,” Film Comment, 32.6 (November-December 1996), p.17.
- Flaus p.56
- It almost goes without saying that Melville’s is a predominantly male world. Nevertheless, some of the greatest performances and most interesting roles are played and given by women in his films: Nicole Stéphane in Le Silence de la mer and Les Enfants terribles; Simone Signoret’s heart-rending performance in L’Armeé des ombres; Emmanuelle Riva and a range of other female performers in the female dominated world of Léon Morin, Prêtre.
- Milne p.682
- Melville, as well as those he has worked with (like his sometime assistant Volker Schlöndorff) have often described his nocturnal habits; in particular his endless scouting of the Parisian streets at night, his immersion in the artificial light of the cinema, and the exclusion of daylight when walled up in his living quarters during the day. See Volker Schlöndorff, “Hommage to a Master,” Time Out, 654 (4-10 March 1983), pp.27-8.
- Tom Milne evocatively describes the more clearly autobiographical L’Armeé des ombres as “impersonally personal.” See Tom Milne, “L’Armeé des ombres,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 45.532 (May 1978), p.84.
- Nougeira p.47
- I am thinking in particular of the close bond which emerges between protagonist and antagonist in The Tall T (1957) and Comanche Station (1960). I would like to thank John Flaus for making me see this connection between the work of Boetticher and Melville. Though he seldom seems to have talked about these two directors together, his discussions of both on 3RRR’s Film Buff’s Forecast in the 1980s remains forever fused in my mind.
- These fatalistic endings are also modeled on the work of John Huston, his crime films such as The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra (1941), in particular. The tone of Melville’s cinema also has much in common with that of Huston.
- Nougeira p.160
- Film Dope, 42 (October 1989), p.16