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The director who made existentialism thrilling

How Jean-Pierre Melville made existentialism thrilling

The French director’s films are action-packed and hauntingly bleak

The French director’s films are action-packed and hauntingly bleak

Tim Martin | January 11th 2018

Pretty much everything that’s odd and distinctive about Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema is there in the opening scene to his final film, “Un flic” (1972). As title cards flash silently on the screen, the camera lingers on Atlantic waves, pulling back to the wintry seafront of a hibernating beach resort. Down the road, past rows of shuttered apartment blocks, rolls the distinctive shape of a 1966 Plymouth Fury, boxy and wide-bellied, moving at walking pace towards the only point of light on the seafront, a branch of the Banque National de Paris. In the car, four men stare straight ahead, dressed like gangsters from a bygone era: gloves, overcoats, snap-brim felt hats. One by one, as rain spatters the promenade, they leave the car in silence and enter the bank, where they stand motionless facing the walls. On a signal, they don sunglasses and surgical masks. The leader reaches inside his trenchcoat – “This is a hold-up, nobody move.” The staff wordlessly load money into bags, until one of them trips the alarm. Shots ring out. The gunmen lurch back into their car, one bleeding. In silence, it pulls away.

Action-packed, hyper-cool and emotionally deep-frozen: the sequence couldn’t be more characteristic of Melville’s work, which has just been re-released by StudioCanal as a Blu-Ray box set including six of his best-known films. As well as “Un flic”, which stars Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve (below), it contains “Bob le flambeur”, “Léon Morin, prétre”, “Le Doulos”, “L’armée des ombres” and “Le cercle rouge”. From before the French New Wave until well into the 1970s, Melville’s movies revolved obsessively around men – invariably men – bleakly resigned to their own extinction and grappled to one another by bonds of Arthurian loyalty. “A film is first and foremost a dream,” he once told an interviewer. Viewing his bleak, eerie and meticulous work in retrospect, you can see he meant it.

Hyper-cool Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve in “Un flic” (1972)

Such stories came naturally to Melville. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach to an Alsatian Jewish family in 1917, he adopted his surname (in homage to Herman, whose work he admired) as a Resistance nom de guerre during the second world war. His experiences in occupied France, many of them still murky to biographers, would filter into his films. Some, like “Le Silence de la mer”, adapted from Vercors’ novel about a Nazi officer billeted on a French family, were actually set during the Resistance. Many more are suffused with the mood of occupation, fraught with mistrust, misconception, guilt and betrayal.

It’s there in “Bob le flambeur” (1956), Melville’s first caper movie, in which an incorrigible gambler and a handful of crooks plot a casino heist, watched by a police inspector who owes his life to the architect of their scheme. It’s there in “Le Doulos” (1963), a glitteringly mean noir film in which two criminals may or may not be plotting one another’s demise, and in “Le cercle rouge”, arguably the most exhaustive working-out of Melville’s dogged existential themes, in which a bundle of thieves plot a jewel heist as a police chief tries to hunt them down. But it was also a feature of Melville’s own life, which was largely spent cooped up in his studio or stalking the streets of Paris in a Stetson and sunglasses. He was famous for his quarrels with actors: Jean-Paul Belmondo walked off set on one film, never to return, and Melville’s interviews were full of ferocious broadsides against other collaborators. “I think men were made to live among other men,” he told one journalist, “and I don’t want to, and don’t like to.” Note the “other men” bit. With rare exceptions (Emmanuelle Riva’s character in “Léon Morin”, Simone Signoret’s in “L’armée des ombres”) women are a secondary presence in these starkly masculine films: there, mostly, to be looked at, taken to bed, beaten up or killed. This may once have passed as genre convention; now it looks unpleasantly like misogyny.

The strange shadow-world of his films, in which cop and robber eye each other over the thinnest of moral divides while proceeding to their inevitable doom, was hugely influential on subsequent directors. The disconnected chronology of “Le Doulos” is one of the most noticeable influences on Quentin Tarantino. “I just loved the wildness of watching a movie that, up until the last 20 minutes, I didn’t know what the fuck I was looking at,” Tarantino once said. “Reservoir Dogs”, with its wayward timeline, anachronistic costumes and failed-heist narrative, is an obvious descendant. Michael Mann’s glossy and dreamlike “Heat”, in which Robert De Niro’s bank robber tells Al Pacino’s detective that “I do what I do best: take down scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me,” oozes Melvillian fatalism and style. The early Hong Kong films of John Woo, full of mysterious codes of honour, owe a clear debt to Melville. (Woo has apparently wanted for some years to remake “Le cercle rouge”.)

Unless you can catch them in the cinema, the beautiful Blu-Ray transfers of this StudioCanal set are now the best way to see much of Melville’s best work. Mysteriously, however, his existential thriller “Le Samouraï”, which stars Delon as an inhumanly beautiful hitman, is absent from the list – an omission that feels as insane as issuing a Madonna greatest hits without “Like a Virgin”. Nor is there a sniff of Melville’s more obscure projects: the American-set noirs “L’ainé des Ferchaux” and “Deux hommes dans Manhattan”, his early adaptation of Cocteau’s “Les enfants terribles”, or the mid-period thriller “Le deuxième souffle”. Completists will need to cross their fingers for a more comprehensive set; but for the rest, there’s plenty in these haunting, timeless thrillers to disprove Melville’s gloomy pronouncement about what would happen to his work 50 years hence. “I would be happy if I got one line in the Great Encyclopaedia of Cinema,” he said in 1971. History, fortunately, has done a bit better than that.

The Jean-Pierre Melville Boxset (StudioCanal) is out now