people

Jean-Pierre Melville

Jean-Pierre Melville

Though remembered now primarily for his intense, spare 1960s gangster films, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville had a startlingly varied career, encompassing wartime dramas, psychosexual character studies, and a collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Jean-Pierre Grumbach (he would eventually change his name to Melville to honor the American author of Moby Dick) fought during World War II, first in the French army and then in the Resistance; those experiences would often inspire his work to come. After the war ended, he pursued his love of film with dogged obsession. Though a lover of classical studio directors (William Wyler and John Huston among them), Melville worked mostly independently, even building his own studio. It was this fierce do-it-yourself attitude, and such startling, uncompromising films as Les enfants terribles and Bob le flambeur, that appealed to the filmmakers of the French New Wave, who adopted Melville as a godfather of sorts (Godard even famously gave him a cameo in Breathless). During the New Wave, however, Melville went his own way, making highly idiosyncratic crime films—classically mounted if daringly existential—that were beholden to no trend, including Le doulos, Le deuxième soufflé, and Le samouraï. His most personal movie was Army of Shadows, which, though misunderstood upon its initial French release in 1969, is now widely considered a masterpiece. Melville died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of fifty-five.