Who does that for anyone?
- Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Solitaire by Bertrand Teissier
Fayard, 272 pp, €22.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 2 213 70573 6
- Jean-Pierre Melville, une vie by Antoine de Baecque
Seuil, 244 pp, €32.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 2 02 137107 9
In August 1943, Jean-Pierre Grumbach, a former soldier in the 71st artillery regiment in Fontainebleau, arrived in London. Grumbach, an Alsatian Jew from Paris, 25 years old, wanted to offer his services to the Forces Françaises Combattantes (FFC) – de Gaulle’s Free French. His journey had begun seven months earlier in Marseille, where he had distributed pamphlets for the Resistance under cover of his work in the textile trade. After crossing into Spain through the Pyrenees, he had presented himself at the British consulate in Barcelona, where an official arranged for him to stay in a clandestine hotel until he could be transported to Gibraltar. But on the night of 1 December, Grumbach sat with a group of ten other passengers in a fishing boat whose motor wouldn’t start. At 3 a.m. the captain left to find a mechanic, but by the time he returned the air tank was empty. He went off again, ordering the passengers to stay put. Minutes later, the boat was seized by a Spanish patrol. Grumbach was detained for more than a month on suspicion of being a spy or a commando, then transferred to a naval prison, where he remained until late May, when he was cleared after an investigation. A month later he boarded a ship to London with a group of eighty other French citizens. ‘The volunteer Grumbach produced a very good impression,’ his interrogator in London wrote, and issued him a Number One visa. To the left of the photograph on his FFC visa, Grumbach wrote: ‘I wish to serve under the name of MELVILLE, Jean-Pierre.’
Herman Melville had been Grumbach’s literary god, alongside Poe and Jack London, ever since he’d read Pierre, or The Ambiguities as a teenager. He ‘made the war’ with his new name, and by the time it was over so many people knew him as Melville that there was no question of going back to Grumbach. Even Melville found himself getting confused: ‘I forget that when I say Melville, it’s not me.’
Yet Melville did not merely lift the name, he made it his own. In his 13 films, Melville created an austere, sombre aesthetic: even his colour films appear to be in black and white. His protagonists, whether resistants, gangsters or priests, are solitary ‘men without women’, in the words of Volker Schlöndorff, who worked as his assistant in the early 1960s. Driven by duty, they move inexorably towards their fate, which is often death. Paris is usually their home, and it’s depicted as if it were always night, a city of slick cabarets, backroom poker games and garages where you can get a makeover for a newly stolen car – or a gun. In their fleeting appearances, even the city’s monuments acquire a desolate air. In the words of the director Philippe Labro, Melville’s films are suffused with ‘solitude, violence, mystery, a passion for risk and the aftertaste of the unpredictable and the inevitable’.
Melville was a loner and a curmudgeon, with more than a touch of Bartleby. He built his own studio so that he wouldn’t have to take orders from anyone, and lived there with his wife and three cats. (The staircase from the studio to the flat upstairs features in nearly every Melville film.) He hated shooting because he had to wake up early and change out of his pyjamas. He could be charming but on set was often a tyrant; he considered it a betrayal when his actors became romantically involved. He was a great talker, with a deep, velvety voice, but he hated cliques and industry schmoozing. One of the fathers of the Nouvelle Vague, he soon fell out with his ‘children’. ‘I desire only one thing in life: to be left alone,’ he said. Individualism was something he revered, especially as portrayed in American gangster films and westerns. He described himself as an ‘anarchist of the right’, but was in no way a political reactionary. ‘If I had been profoundly on the right, I couldn’t make the films I make,’ he told the Portuguese critic Rui Nogueira in Le Cinéma selon Melville, a book of interviews published two years before his death in 1973. What he was, he explained, was ‘backward-looking. I shun the world of the present, which I never manage to love.’
Melville’s refuge was his desk, where he wrote his scripts and edited in the middle of the night, with his sunglasses on and all the windows and shutters closed. He believed art was ‘possible only when the creator is alone, when he isolates himself from the rest of the world’. (He preferred the term ‘creator’ to ‘director’ since he considered writing and editing to be the most important aspects of his work.) Several of his movies, including his three great films about the war, were adaptations of novels. In the first scene of Le Silence de la mer (1949), a man leaves a suitcase on the street; another man opens it to find, underneath some pressed shirts, the 1942 novel of the Resistance by Vercors on which the film is based. The pages of the novel reveal the credits: a device, as André Bazin noted, that Robert Bresson borrowed for his 1951 adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest.
Melville’s early films were bookish, and rather talky. But in the early 1960s he began to hone back his dialogue. The first seven minutes of Le Samouraï (1967), in which Alain Delon plays the hitman Jef Costello, unfold silently; the heist in Le Cercle rouge (1970) goes on for half an hour without a sound, until Yves Montand’s character disables the security system of a jewellery store with a single rifle shot. Men, almost always men, are quietly, diligently at work in Melville’s films: they break safes and rob banks, organise escapes from prisons and moving trains, prepare themselves to commit murder. These wordless longueurs aren’t entirely silent. Melville orchestrated ticking clocks, footsteps, barking dogs, rain and wind. He also used music sparely to brilliant effect, working with some of France’s best film composers, including Martial Solal, Paul Misraki and Georges Delerue. But there was sometimes so little dialogue that his assistants wondered what the actors were supposed to do. ‘On va dilater,’ he would tell them – ‘We’re going to stretch out’ – like a jazz musician discussing how to improvise on the basis of a sketch. According to Bernard Stora, his assistant on Le Cercle rouge, the point of ‘stretching’ a short passage of dialogue, or a scene, was to heighten its power, and slow down time. Melville’s acts of ‘dilation’ sometimes seem superfluous, even perverse, only to acquire meaning later on, like the languorous shot in Le Cercle rouge of a barmaid handing a red rose to Corey, the robber played by Delon, just before he falls into a trap laid by the police.
The minimalism of Melville’s films – and their indifference to psychological motivation and melodramatic convention – provoked comment that he was imitating Bresson. Melville testily pointed out that he had used ‘Bressonian’ techniques before Bresson himself: so it was Bresson who was ‘Melville-ising’. The observation was accurate enough, but even Bazin, who acknowledged its truth, credited Bresson with carrying Melville’s innovations to their ‘final conclusion’, as if Bresson had made art out of a lesser filmmaker’s tricks. Melville isn’t even mentioned in Paul Schrader’s canonical account of the ‘transcendental style’ in cinema, though Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), based on a script by Schrader, owes much to Melville’s vision of the underworld. The unflattering comparison with Bresson suggests genre prejudice – and perhaps other prejudices as well. Melville, an atheist Jew, made polars, policiers and political thrillers, while Bresson, a fervent Catholic, made arthouse films with spiritual ambitions. The grace which occasionally falls on Bresson’s characters never finds the underground conspirators in Melville. They live in a fallen world from which the only sanctuary is brotherhood, and the only escape death.
What did Melville really know of the world he put on screen? He described the war as the ‘rare time when one encounters virtue’, and as ‘the most beautiful years of my life’. But he remained discreet, even secretive, about his experiences, and ruled out ever making a movie of them, though he flirted with the idea of writing a novel about the battles inside the Resistance. When Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as his assistant on Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), asked him what he did during the war, Melville said he’d ‘gone to England so he could see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. He was so cagy that some of his closest colleagues – including Schlöndorff, whom the childless Melville regarded as a son – wondered if his Resistance past was a myth, all part of the same persona as his Stetson and Ray-Bans.
Thanks to two recent books – Bertrand Teissier’s biography Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Solitaire and Jean-Pierre Melville, une vie, an unusually illuminating coffee-table book by the film critic Antoine de Baecque – we have a much fuller picture not only of Melville’s war, but of the ways it shaped his films. As de Baecque writes: ‘Melville would remain a man the war had fashioned, faithful to a vanished time.’ While the sets of his films were expressionistic confections, not faithful recreations – Melville aimed for authenticity, not realism – their themes, especially brotherhood and betrayal, came directly from the war. As he told Nogueira, ‘what people tend to take for imagination’ in his films is ‘in reality an effect of memory’.
The same observation might be made of Patrick Modiano, whose noirish investigations of wartime Paris, spun from newspaper clippings and phone listings, often recall Melville’s cinema. Their work converges, too, in a shared feeling for Nazi-occupied Paris, their fascination with the underworlds of crime and collaboration, and their obsession with the war’s traces in the present. But the differences are more striking. Modiano, the son of a Jewish wartime profiteer who may have been part of collaborationist networks, was born in 1945, and has written to excavate the suppressed memories of the war, especially his father’s. His novels turn on the trauma of not knowing his own past, of being the child of a war he never experienced directly. Melville, who was born in 1917, told Nogueira that to be a filmmaker, you have to be ‘constantly “traumatisable”’, yet his films show little outward evidence of trauma: they have a defiant serenity, the cool logic of dreams. Melville had no interest in shattering the silence around the war. He was not a breaker of taboos, like Marcel Ophüls in his scathing documentary of French complicity, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), or, in a different way, Louis Malle in his ambiguous portrait of a collaborator, Lacombe, Lucien (1974). If he was silent about what he had seen, he shared that silence with everyone who had lived through the war, whatever side they had been on. Melville himself made no secret of his friendships with former collaborators. ‘I have friends in the SS,’ he said, adding that he liked people who ‘get wet, who do something, and I believe that people who risk their life for a cause, bad or good, are interesting people. I don’t like neutral people very much.’ For Melville, the silence of former combatants did not signify repression or shame, but rather a kind of honour among those who had lived in the shadows.
Melville grew up in a middle-class home in the ninth arrondissement not far from Galeries Lafayette. His father, Jules Grumbach, who came from a family of Polish-Jewish butchers who’d settled in Alsace in the 19th century, sold schmattes (rags). Jules and his wife, Berthe, were fervent believers in the Republic, close to the Socialist Party. Their eldest son, Jacques, born in 1901, went on to become a writer for the party’s weekly, Le Populaire, and the confidant of its editor, Léon Blum, the future prime minister. Jean-Pierre – the youngest of four – was a dreamer, with little interest in school or the fate of the Republic. He made his first movies at six, when his parents gave him a hand-cranked Pathé-Baby, graduated to a 16 mm camera at 12, and as a teenager became a connoisseur of Hollywood movies (French cinema bored him). His first mentor in what he called the ‘fantastic American science of showbusiness’ was his uncle Arthur, an antiques dealer friendly with Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker. Arthur introduced him to the circus, then to nightclubs and music halls. As de Baecque points out, Melville’s gangster films invariably include a ‘fetish’ scene in a cabaret, a place set deep in ‘the heart of Jean-Pierre Grumbach’s native land’.
When Melville was 15, his father died of a heart attack. (He preferred to wear black, he once said, because he was permanently in mourning for his father.) Two years later, he dropped out of school to work as a courier for a diamond company, then as a wedding photographer, but he could never hold down a job since he was always sneaking off to go to the movies. A cad and coureur who boasted of sleeping with the family’s maids, Melville grew more serious after being drafted in 1937. He joined the Communist Party, perhaps as a way of distinguishing himself from his Socialist brother – an infatuation that ended abruptly in August 1939 over the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the only time that Melville said he’d contemplated suicide.
When France fell to the Germans, Jacques, whose name appeared on a Gestapo list, went underground, producing a clandestine edition of Le Populaire. Melville soon joined him and their sister Janine in the Resistance, working as a fur trader in the free zone outside Castres in the Languedoc. The Grumbachs belonged to a tiny minority of resistants, always at risk of a Gestapo raid or denunciation by collaborators. He did not see himself as particularly courageous. ‘The opportunity to distinguish myself by making a choice was never offered: I was Jewish. And for a Jew, being a member of the Resistance was infinitely less heroic than for someone who wasn’t. Who, or what, could prove to me that if I hadn’t been Jewish, I would have made the right choice?’
In November 1942 Melville followed Jacques, who had set out a few weeks before to cross the Pyrenees into Spain, carrying a large sum of cash for de Gaulle. He didn’t learn until the end of the war that Jacques never made it past the frontier. His passeur Lazare Cabrero, a Spanish republican, shot him in the head, took his money and buried his body. A decade later, the corpse was discovered and Cabrero arrested. At the trial, he claimed that Jacques had broken his ankle, leaving him no choice: his orders were to kill the seriously wounded rather than abandon them in the mountains and so compromise the security of the convoy. In May 1953, Cabrero was acquitted; Melville did not appeal the judge’s decision. Forty years later, Cabrero, dying of cancer, offered to send Jacques’s son his father’s watch and the money he’d stolen in return for absolution. He refused the request.
Melville served with the Free French for two years. A month after being dispatched to Algiers in October 1943, he joined the artillery. They were first shipped to Bizerte and Bône, then to Italy, where they fought alongside American troops near Naples. In May 1944, during the battle of Monte Cassino, Melville was part of the first wave of Allied soldiers crossing the Garigliano River, whose waters were said to have run red with blood during the battle. Under an apple tree in Cassino, Melville placed a cigarette in the mouth of a young man who’d been shot. ‘He took two drags and then he died. Imagine, springtime in the Italian countryside … and here is this young man dying at twenty. Reality always surpasses cinema in war films.’
Demobilised in 1945, Melville returned to Paris, moving into a small apartment in Montmartre. He had decided that Le Silence de la mer would be his first film when he read Cyril Connolly’s translation, Put out the Light, during the Blitz. The book tells the story of an elderly Frenchman and his teenage niece who are forced to put a German officer up in their home. Unusually sensitive, Werner von Ebrennac is keen to persuade his hosts of Germany’s ‘civilising’ mission in France, whose culture he professes to love. The uncle and niece put up with his monologues but refuse to respond. Instead of overcoming their silence, he is overcome by theirs, and eventually shamed into a recognition of Hitler’s barbarism.
Vercors was the pen name of Jean Bruller, an illustrator and engraver. Bruller’s family had been forced to house a German officer during the Occupation. When Éditions de Minuit published the novel in February 1942, not even his wife knew that he was the author. He considered the novel to be the collective property of the Resistance; fearful that it would be vulgarised, he initially declined to give the rights to Melville, whose only film credit at that point was a short feature – later disavowed – about a circus clown. ‘You can prevent me from showing a film based on your work, but you can’t prevent me from shooting it,’ Melville told him. ‘I will show it to you, and it will be so faithful you will not be able to refuse me.’
Vercors was persuaded and invited Melville to shoot at his country home in Villiers-sur-Morin, where the German officer had stayed. Jean-Marie Robain, who played the uncle, and Nicole Stéphane, who played the niece, had also been in the Resistance. For the role of von Ebrennac, Melville chose the Swiss-American actor Howard Vernon, who was known for playing villainous Nazi officers. ‘You were so good at playing a Nazi bastard,’ Melville told him, ‘but you’ll be just as good playing a sympathetic Nazi.’ The 27-day shoot was spread out over a year since Melville constantly had to interrupt filming to raise more money. He made the film in near secrecy, as if he were still in the Resistance, mostly to avoid detection by the film studio unions, dominated by the Communist-led Confédération Générale du Travail, which would have required him to work with a crew that he couldn’t yet afford, and otherwise limit what he saw as his independence. (The CGT accused Melville of ‘making a film with the Rothschilds’ money’, because he’d cast Stéphane, the daughter of Baron James-Henri de Rothschild.) On the last day of the shoot, Vercors’s wife returned home early and complained that the German officer had shown more respect for their house than the film crew had. ‘But Madame,’ Melville replied, ‘the German wasn’t making a movie!’
In November 1948, Melville screened the finished film to two dozen Resistance veterans, including Vercors, Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, Claude Bourdet, who wore (in the words of one witness) ‘the severe gaze of those who are right by decree’. All but one of them approved the film. It’s not hard to see why. Le Silence de la mer honours the novel that inspired it, as well as the ideal of Resistance. But it also captures what Vercors meant by his title: the ‘submerged life of hidden and conflicting feelings, desires and thoughts’. The uncle and niece speak only when von Ebrennac expresses grave reservations about Hitler’s war. But Melville suggests that their silence disguises emotions other than noble defiance: curiosity, tenderness, compassion, even love. This is particularly true of Stéphane’s character, who seems to be falling for the officer, leaving the impression that her struggle is as much with herself as with him. What distinguishes her symbolic ‘resistance’ from a more passive attentisme is an inner decision that is somehow visible in her face, filmed by Henri Decaë in contrasts of light and shadow.
Melville said that, in Le Silence de la mer, he wanted to make an ‘anti-cinematic’ film, ‘composed exclusively of images and sounds, from which movement and action would be practically banned’. The film was revolutionary in another way: it was shot by a small crew on location, using natural light and funded independently. After making an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles in 1950, for which Cocteau would take most of the credit, Melville pursued his dream of creating his own studio. He built a flat over a warehouse he found on the rue Jenner, and moved in with his wife, Florence, whom he married in 1952. Florence would tolerate his many infidelities, and was, in Teissier’s description, a ‘woman of the shadows’; no photograph of the couple exists. (When Melville was interviewed in Lui in 1965, the profile was illustrated with a photograph of a nude woman in his office: it wasn’t Florence but his secretary and confidant Annie Méliant.)
The first film Melville made at Studio Jenner was his fourth, Bob le flambeur (1955). Bob Montagné, the ageing ex-thief played by Roger Duchesne, is a gambler on a permanent losing streak who begins to plot a comeback after hearing, on the morning of the Grand Prix horse race, that the safe at the Deauville casino contains 800 million francs. The film ends in a wry joke: Bob breaks his losing streak at the tables on the night of the heist, wins big and forgets to follow through on the plan he’d hatched; the heist’s violent failure ends in his arrest and in the death of his young protégé Paulo. ‘There’s always a Bridge on the River Kwai that dozes at the bottom of my heart,’ Melville said. ‘I love the fact that effort is useless. Climbing towards failure is an altogether human thing.’
Bob le flambeur was not a policier, but rather, as he stressed, a ‘comedy of moeurs’, an affectionate, laid-back study of the criminal underworld of Montmartre and Pigalle: ‘heaven and hell’, as Melville announces in a voiceover at the beginning of the film. Bob is an ex-con, but he’s also a man of dignity, honour and chivalry, a member of a dying breed of noble thugs. He spends much of his time looking after Paulo, showing him the ropes, and setting him up with Anne, a young woman Bob had been too chivalrous, and perhaps too weary, to seduce himself. Even Commissaire Ledru describes him as a ‘friend’, though he fears, rightly, that he’ll have to arrest him again one day. ‘I don’t believe in friendship,’ Melville told Nogueira. ‘It’s one of those things that I don’t believe in, that I don’t know myself, but that I like to show in my films.’ (A friend, Melville said, is someone you can call in the middle of the night to ‘tell him, “Be nice, find your revolver and come immediately,” and to hear him respond, “OK, I’m coming.” Who does that for anyone?’)
The casual style of Bob le flambeur looks forward to the Nouvelle Vague, rather than to the pared-down, meticulous thrillers Melville would go on to make. But it is the first time we see a masculine underground based on honour codes among ‘brothers’, where women are an ever-present temptation and threat: the heist is compromised when Paulo, keen to impress Anne, leaks the Deauville plot. (Isabelle Corey, who played Anne, was a 15-year-old non-professional Melville spotted while driving around the place de la Madeleine.) His partner on the script was Auguste Le Breton, the author of Rififi and a former criminal, who showed him around Pigalle at night. Roger Duchesne, who played Bob, was a regular at L’Heure bleue, a cabaret on rue Pigalle where French stars had fraternised with German officers. Banned from working during the postwar épuration for collaboration, Duchesne robbed a bank of 800 million francs – the same sum Bob tries to steal in Deauville – then cooled his heels in prison writing adventure novels. When Melville tracked him down, he was selling scrap metal in Saint-Ouen. Duchesne wasn’t much of an actor, but he had a sleepy charm. He’d also seen men get shot, and explained to Daniel Cauchy, who played Paulo, that he would jump back, not forward, when he heard gunfire. Melville had no objections to working with a collaborator. ‘Like the former fighters,’ Labro said, ‘he liked to face his enemies … He was attracted to drifters and marginals.’
What you remember about Bob le flambeur, long after you’ve forgotten the plot, is its mood: a vibraphonist playing by himself in a club that’s just closed; an American soldier on a motorcycle, picking up a young woman in a drowsy street at sunrise. Melville filmed these scenes as if he just happened to catch them, with the offhand elegance of Brassaï. The film’s editing was often scrappy, but this, too, charmed the future filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. In Cahiers du cinéma, Claude Chabrol praised Melville for his ‘imperfect cinema’, his ‘art of seizing the unusual or poetic detail’. (‘We could never have made the films we made if it hadn’t been for Melville,’ he wrote later.) This sort of praise would soothe Melville’s wounded ego after Two Men in Manhattan (1959), a caper about the murder of a French UN official, flopped. In Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), Michel Poiccard, the criminal played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, asks for Bob Montagné, and Melville appears in a cameo as Parvulesco, the novelist interviewed by Jean Seberg’s character towards the end of the movie. Godard told Melville to ‘talk about women the way you usually do with me’. Melville drew on Nabokov, ‘whom I’d seen in a television interview, being himself, pretentious, intoxicated by himself, a little cynical and naive’. When Seberg asks what his greatest ambition is, he says: ‘To become immortal, then die.’
Throughout the early 1960s, Melville met Godard every Saturday for dinner at the home of Georges de Beauregard, their producer. As Teissier writes, both hid behind outsized personas and outsized sunglasses, and for a while they were inseparable. Melville was a witness when Godard married Anna Karina; Godard paid tribute to Melville in Vivre sa vie (1962), where the character played by Karina is shot to death outside the Studio Jenner. After Karina miscarried, Godard smashed his television and ripped his own clothes. ‘Why did you destroy your own things rather than hers?’ Melville asked. He was astonished when Godard asked him ‘seriously what was more important: Anna or the cinema?’ (Obviously it was the cinema.) Godard broke off the friendship after Melville raised questions about the direction of his work; as Melville saw it, Godard had been ‘spoiled by Aragon’s flattery’.
Melville was, in any event, coming to the end of his New Wave period, having ‘preached in the desert from 1947-57’. For him, the New Wave wasn’t a style or sensibility, but merely ‘an artisanal system of production’, and he didn’t like being the ‘head of an enormous family of totally illegitimate children whom I didn’t want to recognise. Hence the break.’ After the failure of Two Men in Manhattan (1959), ‘I no longer had the least intention of continuing to make films that didn’t succeed. I’d had enough of being an auteur maudit, known only by a little chapel of the cinema-mad.’
Free of the cinephile chapel, Melville set his next film in the Catholic Church, and hired two of France’s biggest stars, Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva, whom he’d seen in Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. Léon Morin, prêtre, an adaptation of Béatrix Beck’s Goncourt-winning novel, is an anomaly in Melville’s cinema, both for its subject-matter and its melodrama. But it is also one of his most visually ravishing films. Riva plays Barny, a Communist and atheist, a friend of the maquisards and young widow of a Jewish man, living with her young daughter in an Alpine village under German occupation. One day, on a whim, she decides to walk into the confessional chamber of the local church and declare: ‘Religion is the opium of the people.’ The priest’s reply surprises her: ‘Not exactly. The bourgeoisie made it so, distorting it to their advantage.’ A relationship of sorts begins, half conversational duel, half unrequited love affair.
The priest, Léon Morin, is a secondary figure in Beck’s novel, but Melville made him a central character, and turned the story into a contest of wills between the sacred and the profane, faith and eros. (Beck was furious that Melville had focused on ‘what was sexual and scandalous’.) Belmondo, who plays Morin, is a left-wing rebel, a Resistance theologian who hides Jews, but what fascinated Melville was that he ‘loves to excite women and yet doesn’t sleep with them. He’s Don Juan.’ Barny is stirred by Morin’s radical interpretation of the scripture, and eventually converts to Catholicism; but it is his charisma, not his faith, that persuaded her, and what she really desires isn’t salvation but physical love. Melville appears to sympathise with her frustrated longing, but by the end of the film, which ends with Morin’s rejection of her, she is punished for failing to transcend her desires and accept god’s grace. Barny – the widow of one Jew and the employee of another – is as close to being a Jew as someone can be without actually being one. Her world, one is tempted to say, is Melville’s (Jewish, earthly, sensuous), while Morin’s is Bresson’s (Catholic, spiritual, ascetic). Léon Morin, prêtre is an atheist’s tormented – sexist, cruel – homage to the Catholic faith, a film in the transcendental style about the impossibility of transcendence. More than any of his films, it crystallised his distrust of carnal love, his belief that solitary commitment to a cause is preferable to emotional dependence on others.
In his great gangster films of the 1960s and 1970s, Melville transposed the aesthetic sensibility of Léon Morin, prêtre – its severity, its admiring portrait of a celibate male loner – onto the criminal milieu of Bob le flambeur. What he left out was no less crucial. The comedy of manners in Bob le flambeur gives way to an atmosphere of almost relentless solemnity: instead of modern jazz, we hear ominous percussion and symphonic chords. Gone, too, is the clash of philosophies and the attention to female experience in Léon Morin, prêtre. Melville’s gangsters (and the cops who pursue them) are almost priestly in their renunciation of worldly pleasures. He said that he had created a ‘cinema without women because, if I may offer my excuses to women (whom I love greatly), man can achieve sublimation only outside his desires, his libido and his complexes’. His focus now was on a different kind of chase, featuring cops and outlaws, hunters and hunted, pushing the genre almost to the point of abstraction.
Melville’s first gangster film was Le Doulos (1962), with Belmondo and Serge Reggiani, based on a polar by Pierre Lesou. It’s a tangled story of brotherhood and betrayal among criminals, revolving around the question of whether Silien, the cocky young thug played by Belmondo, is a saviour or a doulos – an informer. But the most riveting thing about the film isn’t its story but its look. ‘Doulos’ also means ‘hat’, and most of the characters wear fedoras, as if they’ve wandered in from a William Wyler or John Huston film. The sets, too, ‘bear witness to my passion for the American cinema’, Melville said. The phone booth in the métro is an American one; the bar resembles a coffee shop in Manhattan; the police interrogation room, with its Venetian blinds, is an exact copy of the one in Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931), itself a copy of a New York City police station. The point of this ‘fetishistic extraterritoriality’ (de Baecque’s phrase) wasn’t to ‘disorient’ the viewer, Melville explained, but rather to produce a ‘bewitchment … that he surrenders to without remarking on it’.
Melville set four more films in this hardboiled wonderland: Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1973). With the exception of Un Flic, they were hits, though critics complained that Melville had sold out to Hollywood and betrayed the New Wave. Serge Daney dismissed Melville’s thrillers as advertisements for trenchcoats. ‘You are in a cinema which copies or reproduces another cinema, without the slightest relationship with French society,’ Tavernier wrote five years after his former employer’s death. But Melville had no interest in commenting on French society. And while he worshipped classical Hollywood cinema, his love affair with America as a country came to an end during the shooting of L’Aîné des Ferchaux in 1963, a picaresque road movie based on a Simenon novel. The story follows Dieudonné Ferchaux (Charles Vanel), a corrupt banker on the run from justice, and his secretary Michel Maudet, a former paratrooper and would-be boxer (Belmondo), as they drive from New York to Louisiana, chased by the FBI. A buddy film like Bob le flambeur, it’s little more than a curiosity, notable largely for being Melville’s first film in colour. Before leaving for the States, where he shot most of the outdoor scenes, Melville was considering moving there; he had loved America ‘like crazy and without reservation’, he told Nogueira, until he saw American racism up close. ‘Blacks are right to revolt … No one can reproach them for wanting to fight … The reason I didn’t want to live in America is that I would have become a witness of a black sub-proletariat … and I couldn’t bear that.’
He would never set foot in the US again. But far from discouraging him, staying in France freed him to pursue his cinematic dream of ‘America’ unburdened by reality. He continued to pay tribute to Hollywood films: the screenplay he wrote for Le Samouraï was a barely disguised reworking of This Gun for Hire (1942); Le Cercle rouge is a western, only moved to 1970s Paris and featuring cars rather than horses. Still, his films were ‘specifically French’, he insisted. ‘The best proof of the fact that they are not American is that the Americans do not want them. They do not understand my films, the motivations of my characters.’ Revising his earlier, harsh appraisal, Tavernier echoed this judgment in his recent documentary, My Journey through French Cinema: ‘The waiting and the silences are more emphatic. He is finally closer to Bresson than to Wyler.’ Far from copying Hollywood film sets, Tavernier added, ‘he recreated the atmosphere of his studio and bedroom.’
On the night of 29 June 1967, Melville’s studio and apartment burned down. He had been woken up by one of his cats, and smelled smoke. His archives – thousands of photographs and books, as well as two dozen screenplays – were destroyed. He never complained, except when a rumour spread that he’d set fire to the studio in order to collect insurance. (He’d actually forgotten to renew it.) ‘Too busy to give himself over to suffering,’ according to Florence, he went back to work on Le Samouraï, the first of three pictures he made with Delon, and perhaps the purest distillation of late Melville.
The men first met at Delon’s home in the 12th. Delon asked Melville to read aloud from his script. It begins: ‘A pale grey light coming from two sash windows that cut into a dark wall. We see the rain falling through the windows and reflecting on the ceiling, and the shadows of passing cars.’ He continued reading until Delon stopped him. ‘You’ve been reading for seven and a half minutes, and there’s not yet a shadow of dialogue. That’s enough for me: I’ll make the film. What’s it called?’ ‘Le Samouraï.’ Delon led Melville into his bedroom, where there was a leather bed, a spear, a sword – and a samurai dagger.
To the role of Jef Costello – a contract killer on the run from both the police, who want to arrest him, and his employers, who want to kill him before he’s arrested – Delon brought a ‘virility tinged with femininity’, as Barny says of Sabine Lévy in Léon Morin, prêtre. Delon’s serene fatalism is irresistible. Melville imagined the film as a portrait of a schizophrenic ‘made by a paranoid, since all creators are paranoids’. The second of his films in colour, it was shot by Decaë in moody blues and greys. It opens with an epigraph from the bushido that Melville had in fact concocted: ‘There is no solitude deeper than that of the samurai, except that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps.’
There’s a romance, of sorts, in Le Samouraï, between Costello and a métisse nightclub pianist, played by Cathy Rosier, who passes by him in the corridor just after he has killed the club’s owner. Apparently smitten, Costello returns to the scene of the crime to see her again. They drive to her place, a swanky flat that turns out to belong to the man chasing him. When Costello is given a new contract, this time to kill her, he never loads his gun and instead sacrifices himself for her in a hail of police bullets. As Melville put it to Nogueira, ‘Jef falls in love with his own death. Cathy Rosier, black death dressed in white, possesses the charm to capture him, to captivate him.’ Melville himself appears to have been captivated by – or was at least possessive of – Rosier, a petite, elegant former model from Martinique. After discovering that she was having an affair with his set designer, François de Lamothe, he asked Lamothe to come for a drink once the shoot was over. Lamothe walked into Melville’s office and found it covered wall to wall with images of Rosier. For his next film, Melville decided to hire Lamothe’s assistant instead.
Does Jef have an affair with the pianist? I’ve watched Le Samouraï countless times, and I still don’t know. Melville doesn’t spell things out, and, in any case, the pianist is less a character in a thriller than a beautiful phantom in a Melvillian dream of a thriller. This is the paradox of the films that Melville made after rejecting the New Wave. In his efforts to win over the ‘grand public’, Melville became more, not less, enigmatic and, as de Baecque suggests, drew even closer to Bresson: ‘The same radical style, the same taste for the pure, the dry, the concise, the same manner of filming faces and glances. The same relationship, from Pickpocket to Le Samouraï, to filming gestural technique: how do you steal a wallet? How do you start a car that isn’t yours? How do you kill a man you don’t know?’
Costello doesn’t blink when he’s asked to kill someone he doesn’t know. Nor does Corey, the robber played by Delon in Le Cercle rouge. Melville’s film about the Resistance, L’Armée des ombres (1969), begins with a similar situation. Gerbier, the Resistance leader played by Lino Ventura, and his men have a dirty job: to kill an informer, a vulnerable-looking young man with pillowy lips. They’re in a semi-derelict room in Marseille that looks like a Blue-Period Picasso and the curtains are drawn, but they can’t use a gun to finish him off because the neighbours would hear the shot, so they strangle him instead. It’s the first time they have killed someone, and they look ravaged. (Ventura and Melville, who had fallen out while making Le Deuxième Souffle, communicated through a third party on the set, a tension that probably improved Ventura’s performance.) The date is October 1942, a month before Melville had left Marseille for Spain; there are no more than six hundred maquisards and their main struggle is simply to stay alive. We don’t see many Nazis in L’Armée des ombres, but we know they’re there: even before the opening credits, we have seen them marching down the Champs Elysées in front of the Arc de Triomphe – the first time that actors in German uniform had ever been filmed there (Melville hired dancers to get the goose steps right).
Jardie, Gerbier and their comrades ‘Le Masque’ and ‘Le Bison’ ultimately face a moral test more difficult than killing a traitor: killing a friend, Madame Mathilde, played by Simone Signoret. Mathilde, a courageous and resourceful member of their cell, has been arrested with a photograph of her teenage daughter in her wallet; the Germans have released her from custody, but only after threatening to take her daughter to a bordello on the Eastern Front unless she supplies them with names. She ignored Gerbier’s warning to get rid of the picture and has now left them all exposed. The film ends with her assassination by her comrades – at once necessary and futile, logical and horrifying.
L’Armée des ombres was based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, which Melville read in London in 1943 and considered ‘the most beautiful and complete document on this tragic period’. But it’s much more than an adaptation. The film has autobiographical touches, such as a sequence in London where Gerbier and his boss, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), make contact with de Gaulle. Jardie, who is a mathematician in Paris, is composed of several figures, especially the Resistance martyrs Jean Moulin and Jean Cavaillès. When Jardie’s younger brother, Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), joins Gerbier’s cell, he doesn’t tell him: surely his brother, lost in his equations, would never understand. Later, Jean-François has the honour of rowing ‘the Leader’ to a submarine. But it’s too dark for them to see each other, and both will die under torture without knowing of the other’s involvement. It’s hard not to see a parallel in the lives of the Grumbach brothers: Jacques, the intellectual resistant, and Jean-Pierre, who lost his older brother in the shadows of the Pyrenees.
L’Armée des ombres is Melville’s best film, fusing the blue-and-grey minimalism of Le Samouraï with the anguish of Le Silence de la mer. The scenes in prisons and torture chambers are matched only by those in The Battle of Algiers. And in the assassination of Madame Mathilde, the film achieves something close to classical tragedy. Like the spurned Barny in Léon Morin, prêtre, Mathilde can’t sublimate her feelings: the one sacrifice she can’t make for the Resistance is to remove her daughter’s photograph from her purse. The difference is that her fate becomes a condemnation of the Nazi occupation, and of the moral deformations it imposed on the Resistance, not of the woman herself. Kessel sobbed at the premiere.
Outside Resistance circles, the response was less enthusiastic. Melville’s soixante-huitard ‘apostles’ at Cahiers du cinéma ridiculed it as Gaullist, as an official work of art. (In his interviews with Nogueira, Melville bemoaned the ‘dialectical terrorism’ of a ‘certain journal of cinema’.) In The Vichy Syndrome (1991), Henry Rousso argues that the film arrived ‘too late’, in 1969, just as the Gaullist myth of a nation united in resistance was crumbling under the impact of May 1968; Ophüls’s film about Vichy collaboration, The Sorrow and the Pity, was released the same year. But for all the Gaullist clichés, particularly in the London sequence, the film portrays France in 1942 as a country of attentistes and collaborators – the Resistance is forever lonely. Moreover, as de Baecque writes, the film’s style ‘has nothing to do with official art: the silences, slowness and duration of the scenes … de-Gaullise the monument.’
After L’Armée des ombres, Melville returned to the policier, with the virtuosic Le Cercle rouge and the fascinating failure Un Flic, his last film. In Le Cercle rouge, Delon’s character, Corey, just out of prison, teams up with an escaped fugitive, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), and an ex-cop, Jansen (Yves Montand), to rob a jeweller’s on place Vendôme. They are pursued by the soft-spoken, dedicated Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil), who lives alone with his cats. The film, for which Melville wrote the screenplay, grew out of his desire to explore every possible situation involving police and criminals (he counted 19 in all). Melville feuded with Volonte, who refused to take direction. He’d had doubts about Montand over his ties to the Communist Party (Melville never forgot the betrayal of the Hitler-Stalin Pact), but put them aside after seeing his powerful performance in The Confession (1970), Costa-Gavras’s anti-Stalinist film about the show trials in Czechoslovakia. In the end, Volonte’s feral energy worked in perfect counterpoint to Delon’s self-restraint, while Montand gave one of his finest performances as an alcoholic who overcomes his demons for the sake of the heist – arguably the most brilliantly choreographed robbery in film history. Something of the tenderness in Bob le flambeur resurfaced, too. Brought together by fate in ‘the red circle’ – a Buddhist notion invented by Melville – Corey and Vogel become fiercely protective of each other. When Corey leaves Vogel behind to sell the jewels they have stolen to Mattei, disguised as a fellow criminal, we see Vogel at the window, clasping the red rose that Corey received from the barmaid, as if he were waiting for a lover’s return.
Writing under the pseudonym ‘Michel Servet’ in a radical journal called J’accuse, Godard denounced Le Cercle rouge as ‘rotten’, but it proved the biggest hit of Melville’s career. He celebrated by buying a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow and tried to repeat the success with Un Flic, released in the autumn of 1972. The film was widely mocked, however, since Melville barely concealed the fact that he’d used maquettes for a long, silent sequence in which a helicopter is used to carry out a train robbery. But the obviously fake shot of a helicopter floating over a train at night is poetic in its artificiality, like Japanese puppet theatre, while the bloody raid on a bank in a rain-swept seaside town nearly matches the intensity of the place Vendôme heist in Le Cercle rouge. There’s also a troubled eroticism just under the surface: Catherine Deneuve’s character appears to be the mistress of both Simon (Richard Crenna), the gangster behind the raid, and Edouard Coleman (Delon), the policeman pursuing him; Coleman exchanges lengthy, longing glances with one of his informers, a transvestite prostitute who’s clearly in love with him, only to inflict an even more brutal rejection than Léon Morin does.
Melville never recovered from the failure of Un Flic, and in August 1973, aged 55, he suffered a fatal stroke while having dinner with Philippe Labro. Delon, who was in Nice, immediately drove back to Paris, and broke down in tears when he arrived at Studio Jenner. After Melville’s death, the studio was closed, and his films were hardly seen in France for the next 15 years. During that period, Melville was at best patronisingly praised as a director of sleek policiers with a colourful personality – but he was no auteur. The rediscovery began abroad, in the places that had inspired him: the US and East Asia. He found other apostles, long after his death, in Michael Mann and Jim Jarmusch, John Woo and Takeshi Kitano, whose stylised noirs not only paid tribute to Melville, but vindicated his judgment that the crime film is a ‘major genre, but one that’s very difficult to pull off’. Today, Melville’s films feel less time-bound than most of the New Wave’s, because they make no effort to capture their era, unfolding instead in a self-enclosed, nocturnal world, as obsessional as the ones of Hitchcock or Buñuel – the world of Studio Jenner. Labro remembers leaving the studio on one occasion after they’d talked all night, Melville standing in a ‘halo of lampposts on his blue and grey street, contemplating the car as it drives away. It’s the final scene of a film that was never made.’