Jean-Pierre Melville, My Father in the Art

Jean-Pierre Melville, My Father in the Art

At first glance, Jean-Pierre Melville’s body of work might seem to display a schizophrenic split between two currents or tendencies. The first is in total symbiosis with the history of France and is rooted in the filmmaker’s own life, notably in his involvement in the Resistance from the beginning of the Occupation, his participation in Gaullist networks, and his clandestine work under various pseudonyms (Cartier, Nono). He reached England after a punishing odyssey: in the Pyrenees, he lost his brother, who was abandoned by his guide and died in the snow, only to be imprisoned in Spain before managing to board a ship. He joined the army and fought in the Italian and French campaigns. During the years I knew him, he always said that “the army and the war were the best period in my life,” overlooking his ordeals and suffering and the death of his brother. He would jokingly tell me that he crossed over to England to see Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, repeatedly describing the film’s initial scenes and dwelling on that first flashback in the Turkish bath: “one of the most beautiful flashbacks in the history of cinema, dear boy, along with the one in Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High.

Melville’s life in the Resistance inspired three of his masterpieces: Le silence de la mer; Léon Morin, Priest; and Army of Shadows, which in the United States are often unfairly eclipsed by his series of gangster films. Despite its imperfections and the deplorable casting of Edouard Dermithe, one could also add Les enfants terribles, adapted from Cocteau, who speaks the film’s magnificent voice-over and whom Melville described as “a French ambassador to France.” It should be added that Melville admired Clouzot and Becker. He wrote a superb article on Le trou shortly after Becker’s death.

The second current appears to be the exact opposite of the first and is shaped by a fascination with the United States and American culture. Let’s not forget that Jean-Pierre Grumbach chose the pseudonym Melville after reading Herman Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, paying homage to the author of Moby Dick, a novel whose sublime first sentence he loved to quote: “Call me Ishmael.” I could as easily have referred to his love of Anglo-Saxon culture, for Melville also venerated Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, David Lean, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. But the United States and American cinema played a defining role. This was a cinema he had learned to love not in school but by discovering the films in a movie theater with the public, in his youth, notably thanks to the double programs (most often of Warner productions) at the Apollo theater at 20, rue de Clichy, which had a retractable roof and was inaugurated in 1932 with a run of James Whale’s Frankenstein. On the day the program changed over, one could see the two new films added to the bill at the last screening—four films in one evening! Lino Ventura, the star of Melville’s Le deuxième souffle and Army of Shadows, also nostalgically told me about the Apollo theater eventually shuttered by the Germans for screening Litvak’s Confession of a Nazi Spy. It was in pre- and postwar movie theaters that Melville developed his passionate love for Huston, Stevens, Robert Wise, Ford, Capra, and especially William Wyler, filmmakers who were sometimes disdained by the very critics who championed his own films (it’s fair to say time often proved Melville right). Melville could be extremely violent in his rejection of certain films; he never forgave me for taking him to see Lang’s Moonfleet and especially Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. On the other hand, he loved Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd and its near total absence of camera movements.

One finds traces of this American cinema in Melville’s films: Bob le flambeur is a friendly, relaxed homage to The Asphalt Jungle, without the moral tragedy, while the plot of Le samouraï is inspired by that of This Gun for Hire (the cat is replaced by the canary). Melville also loved Odds Against Tomorrow, which was constantly being screened at his film studio (I saw it with him eleven times). He had the wallpaper of its hotel rooms reproduced both in Léon Morin and Le doulos, and closely imitated the series of shots and camera movements in the waiting sequence that precedes the film’s holdup. I was with Melville at the Triomphe theater when he discovered André de Toth’s The City Is Dark (a.k.a Crime Wave), which we saw twice. He would twice pay tribute to this remarkable film noir, with the toothpick chewed on by the detective in Le doulos and the broken cigarette Paul Meurisse pulls out of his pocket at the end of Le deuxième souffle.

While the political gravity of his life in the Resistance and the thrills of American genre filmmaking may seem like contradictory influences, they are peripheral if not superficial, and they in no way compromise a body of work striking in its coherence, consistency, and unity of tone and style. It is as if Melville managed to unify his sources of inspiration, to rid them of any superfluous elements, through visual rigor, dramaturgical sobriety, and narrative economy. No patriotic tirades, no ostentatious declarations here, but a restrained, stripped-down plot, which benefitted from the economy of Melville’s means of production. He produced his first films on a shoestring: Le silence de la mer is basically a single-set film, shot in the Studio Jenner, which he had just founded in 1947, and in real outdoor locations, with a bare-bones crew that outraged contemporary unions (in this respect, he was anticipating Steven Soderbergh). In subsequent projects, I saw him manage to create a beautiful set with two flats, a few props, and an inventive use of light. In my documentary My Personal Journey Through the French Cinema—in which I describe my first encounter with Melville for the interview that would lead to our friendship and, several months later, my appointment as his third assistant director on Léon Morin—I show how each of Melville’s films finds him reusing the door to his studios, whether as the entrance to nightclubs in Le samouraï and Le deuxième souffle or to a New York building in Two Men in Manhattan. You can also spot the staircase at the back of the big soundstage at Studio Jenner in nearly all the films he directed.

He started off with an utterly crazy gamble. Unable to obtain the rights for the novel Le silence de la mer by Vercors (a pseudonym for Jean Bruller), which had been written in 1942 while the author was in the underground, he managed to move forward with production by committing to show the completed film to a jury of leading members of the Resistance and to burn the negative if they did not agree with it. I can only admire this wild audacity, which also reflects Melville’s extreme confidence in his own artistic abilities. An audacity that breathes life into this magnificent and demanding film, allowing Melville to shoot it as a long monologue spoken by a German officer who never succeeds in getting a reaction out of the old man and young girl he addresses. The listeners’ silence becomes a form of resistance, a refusal to compromise with an enemy, no matter how seductive. A magnificent theme, for an unbelievably ambitious film. Along with Guitry’s The Story of a Cheat, it is one of the only films in the history of cinema to dare to attempt this style of narrative. One finds the same originality in Léon Morin, Priest, another masterpiece, which deals with the Occupation through the character of a communist woman (not bad for a Gaullist director!). Women are rare in Melville’s world, but Léon Morin’s Barny is strong and independent. And she falls in love with a priest who is in the Resistance. A meditation on the meaning of the practice of one’s faith, Léon Morin is also a subtle chronicle of a dark period, with its yellow stars and denunciations, one of the only films to show various forgotten episodes such as the replacement by German soldiers of the Italian troops who had occupied certain parts of France. Army of Shadows, another Resistance film, includes a few autobiographical details that are not found in Kessel’s novel, such as the nocturnal boarding of a ship. In a certain way, it merges and reconciles the two tendencies. This reflection on commitment and courage (a courage one also finds in the protagonists of Léon Morin and the grandfather and granddaughter in Le silence) is filmed like a thriller; the masterful photography by the late Pierre Lhomme is no less remarkable than that of Decaë in Bob le flambeur and Nicolas Hayer in Le doulos.

Melville’s style diverged from the American movies he loved in crucial ways. Of the American influence, Melville keeps neither the enthusiasm and momentum one feels in Walsh’s films nor the warmth dear to Ford and Capra. Here, too, he privileges the clean, minimal style Wyler favored and the pared-down approach Wellman adopted in The Ox-Bow Incident. He focuses his dramatic structures on a few obsessions such as betrayal (in the Resistance films), apparent commitment to promises made, and solitude. Like the filmmaker himself, the Melville hero lives in a room without windows (or with a cramped view, like Delon’s in Le samouraï). Melville often goes against Hollywood principles, as with the drawn-out length of his shots, the importance of silences, and especially his rejection of omnipresent music. He often had problems with his composers, rightfully rejecting Michel Legrand’s score for Le cercle rouge (Eric Demarsan’s score is a better fit) and John Lewis’s for Le deuxième souffle. Someone should try to find Lewis’s score: what I’ve heard of it shows that he refused to imitate what he had done for Odds Against Tomorrow. But in all the films, one remains struck by the intelligent parsimony with which Melville uses music.

Another violation of a Hollywood code: the refusal to use certain explanatory reverse shots. In Le doulos, Serge Reggiani is burying something near a streetlight. He hears footsteps and stops. The steps fade into the distance. In any American film, the studio would have forced the filmmaker to show this passerby. But Melville stays on Reggiani and creates an incredible tension by explaining nothing. From a vigorous, tumultuous cinema full of sound and fury, he invented dark, morose worlds, with characters who seem on their last legs, imposing a tone close to that of Robert Bresson. Le doulos, Le deuxième souffle, and Le samouraï are undeniable successes. While I admire the acutely intelligent way in which he adapted the novels he selected, I find his original screenplays—Two Men in Manhattan, Le cercle rouge, Un flic—more conventional, perhaps even simplistic. There is one out-and-out failure among the adaptations, Magnet of Doom, in which Melville tones down and betrays Simenon’s novel and bungles the entire American part. Perhaps it was better to dream America than to film it. 

Melville was also a real tyrant on the set, terrifying me throughout the shoot of Léon Morin, Priest before convincing his producer to take me on as a publicist. In life, though, he was a warm raconteur who dragged you around Paris recalling a thousand memories. 

I had wanted to be a director since the age of thirteen, and both Melville and Claude Sautet went to see my parents, who wanted me to study law and politics, to tell them they should let me work in film. Melville was a surrogate father with whom one fell out the better to reconcile. Happy are those who got to know Studio Jenner.

Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott.

The Complete Jean-Pierre Melville is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through February 29, 2020.

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