Across the 13 movies he made until his death aged 55 in 1973, Jean-Pierre Melville created a world that has been rarely matched in the history of cinema – for its pessimism. No one ever really smiles in Melville’s movies. Indeed, his characters rarely display any emotion other than a kind of clenched-jawed resignation. Few people escape the downward spiral of their destiny. Music and colour are almost entirely absent, not least in the films that he actually shot in colour. Dialogue is used sparingly and even then purely as a motor for the plot. It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that he found himself on the ‘approved’ list of filmmakers that the French New Wave directors acknowledged as an influence, but the uncluttered purity of his vision means that his films will never date. With the notable exception of 1956’s Bob le flambeur, which spends its first 40 minutes exploring and documenting the criminal demi-monde of Paris’ Montmartre, his gangster movies could be set in any city in the world at any time since the 1920s.
Melville started making films at the end of a period that seems quaintly remote today, a time when the Parisian intellectual elite were open and effusive in their reverence for American pop culture. Melville took this reverence further than most, changing his surname from Grumbach in tribute to Herman Melville and constantly wearing either a private eye’s fedora or a Stetson in homage to the Howard Hawks and John Ford movies that he loved.
Roughly speaking, his films can be split into two groups: the more personal and reflective Second World War Occupation films (Melville was a member of the French Resistance) and the gangster pictures for which he is today most famous. The latter took his obsession with Americana to extremes, boiling down the traditional tropes of film noir until they became little more than a series of fetishes – trilbys and handguns, betrayal and belted mackintoshes. His greatest works – the loose trilogy of Alain Delon pictures that started with 1967’s Le Samourai, through Le Cercle rouge and his final film, Un flic – are remarkable for their emotional and visual murkiness. He famously described his vision for Un flic as being ‘to make a colour film in black and white, in which there is only one tiny detail to remind us that we really are watching a film in colour’.
Amidst this almost Spartan vision, though, Melville also proved himself the master of the gripping set-piece, something which undoubtedly led to the commercial success of his films from Bob le flambeur onwards. Le Cercle rouge is based around the robbery of an upscale jewellery shop, while Un flic actually features two separate heist sequences. Like, say, Dashiell Hammett’s novels, Melville’s pared-down style was actually the result of a supreme craftsman jettisoning anything unnecessary to the motion of his movies – so if you just want Melville’s films to be entertainment, they’re certainly that. But if you also want them to be art, you’ll be well rewarded.
Throughout August and September 2017, BFI Southbank in London presents a comprehensive two month season dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, to mark his centenary year.
To enjoy 2 tickets for the price of 1 on all screenings in this season simply quote MELVILLE241 online, in person or over the phone 020 7928 3232. For more information and to book tickets online, visit BFI website