Nationality: French. Born: Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris, 20 October 1917. Education: The Lycées Condorcet and Charlemagne, Paris, and Michelet, Vanves. Military Service: Began military service, 1937; evacuated to England after Dunkirk, then served with Free French Forces in North Africa and Italy. Career: Founder, O.G.C. (Organisation générale cinématographique) as production company, 1945; built own studio, Paris, 1949 (destroyed by fire, 1967). Awards: Prix René-Jeanne for Le cercle rouge, 1970; Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur; Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Died: In Paris, 2 August 1973.
Films as Director:
Vingt quatre heures de la vie d'un clown (+ sc, pr)
Le Silence de la mer (+ pr, sc)
Les Enfants terribles (+ co-sc, pr, art d)
Quand tu liras cette lettre (+ sc)
Bob le flambeur (+ pr, co-art d, sc)
Deux hommes dans Manhattan (+ pr, sc, role as Moreau)
Léon Morin, prêtre (+ sc); Le Doulos (+ sc); L'Ainé desFerchaux (+ sc)
Le Deuxième Souffle (+ sc)
Le Samourai (+ sc)
L'Armée des ombres (+ sc)
Le Cercle rouge (+ sc); Un Flic (+ sc)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson) (role)
Orphée (Cocteau) (role as hotel director)
Un Amour de poche (role as police commissioner)
A bout de souffle (Godard) (role as the writer Parvulesco)
Landru (Chabrol) (role as Georges Mandel)
By MELVILLE: articles—
Interview with Claude Beylie and Bertrand Tavernier, in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), October 1961.
"Finding the Truth without Faith," in Films and Filming (London), March 1962.
"Léon Morin, prêtre: Découpage intégrale," in Avant-Scène duCinéma (Paris), no. 10.
Interview with Eric Brietbart, in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1964/65.
"Le Doulos: Découpage intégrale," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 24.
Interview with Michel Dancourt, in Arts (Paris), 25 April 1966.
"A Samurai in Paris," interview with Rui Nogueira and François Truchaud, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1968.
"Apres Un Flic, Jean-Pierre Melville a-t-il besoin d'un deuxième souffle?," interview with R. Elbhar, in Séquences (Montreal), April 1973.
Interview with F. Guérif, in Cahiers du Cinématheque (Paris), Spring/Summer 1978.
On MELVILLE: books—
Wagner, Jean, Jean-Pierre Melville, Paris, 1964.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema since 1946: Vol.2—The Personal Style, New York, 1966.
Nogueira, Rui, Melville on Melville, London, 1971.
McArthur, Colin, Underworld U.S.A., London, 1972.
Nogueira, Rui, Le Cinéma selon Melville, Paris, 1973.
Zimmer, Jacques, and Chantal de Béchade, Jean-Pierre Melville, Paris, 1983.
Bantcheva, Denitza, Jean-Pierre Melville: De l'oeuvre à l'homme, Troyes, France, 1996.
On MELVILLE: articles—
Chabrol, Claude, "Saluer Melville?," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1956.
Beylie, Claude, "Melville le flambeur," in Cinéma (Paris), no. 40, 1959.
Domarchi, Jean, "Plaisir à Melville," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1959.
Ledieu, Christian, "Jean-Pierre Melville," in ÉtudesCinématographiques (Paris), no. 6 and 7, 1960.
Porcile, François, "Melville ou l'amour du cinéma," in Cinéma-texte (Paris), January 1963.
Austen, David, "All Guns and Gangsters," in Films and Filming (London), June 1970.
Beylie, Claude, "Quand tu liras cette lettre . . . ," in Ecran (Paris), September/October 1973.
Renaud, T., "Il fut quand même Melville . . . ," in Cinéma (Paris), September/October 1973.
"L'Armée des ombres," in Image et Son (Paris), 1978.
Schlöndorff, Volker, "A Parisian-American in Paris," in VillageVoice (New York), 6 July 1982.
"Jean-Pierre Melville," in Film Dope (Nottingham), no. 42, October 1989.
Kurki, E., "Valitsen itseni, siis kuolen," in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 3, 1990.
Gaeta, Pino, "Jean-Pierre Melville" (special issue), in CastoroCinema (Firenze), no. 146, March-April 1990.
"Le deuxième souffle de Melville" (special section), Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), no. 507, November 1996.
Hogue, Peter, "Melville: The Elective Affinities," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 32, no. 6, November-December 1996.
* * *
The career of Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the most independent in modern French cinema. The tone was set with his first feature film, Le Silence de la mer, made quite outside the confines of the French film industry. Without union recognition or even the rights to the novel by Vercors which he was adapting, Melville proceeded to make a film which, in its counterpointing of images and a spoken text, set the pattern for a whole area of French literary filmmaking extending from Bresson and Resnais down to Duras in the 1980s. Les Enfants terribles, made in close collaboration with Jean Cocteau, was an equally interesting amalgam of literature and film, but more influential was Bob le flambeur, a first variation on gangster film themes which emerged as a striking study of loyalty and betrayal.
But by the time that the New Wave directors were drawing from Bob le flambeur a set of stylistic lessons which were to be crucial to their own breakthrough—economical location shooting, use of natural light, improvisatory approaches, and use of character actors in place of stars—Melville himself had moved in quite a different direction. Léon Morin, prêtre marks Melville's decision to leave this directly personal world of low-budget filmmaking for a mature style of solidly commercial genre filmmaking that used major stars and tightly wrought scripts to capture a wide audience.
This style is perfectly embodied in the trio of mid-1960s gangster films which constitute the core of Melville's achievement in cinema. Melville's concern with the film as a narrative spectacle is totally vindicated in these films, each of which was built around a star performance: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos, Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle, and Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Drawing on his 1930s viewing and his adolescent reading of American thrillers, Melville manipulated the whole mythology of the gangster film, casting aside all pretence of offering a social study. His criminals are idealized figures, their appearance stylized with emphasis on the belted raincoat, soft hat, and ever-present handgun. Their behavior oddly blends violence and ritualized politeness, and lifts them out from their settings. Melville had no interest in the realistic portrayal of life. He disregarded both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume. The director instead used his stars to portray timeless, tragic figures caught up in ambiguous conflicts and patterns of deceit, relying on the actor's personality and certainty of gesture to fill the intentional void.
Le Samourai, a perfect distillation of the cinematic myth of the gangster, remains Melville's masterpiece. Subsequent attempts to widen his range included an effort to transpose his characters into the world of Occupation and Resistance in L'Armée des ombres, as well as a film—Le Cercle rouge—that combined his particular gift for atmosphere with a Rififi-style presentation of the mechanics of a robbery. These films are interesting but flawed works. Melville's frustration and dissatisfaction was reflected in his last work, Un Flic, which completed the passage towards abstraction begun in the mid-1960s. It offers a derisory world lacking even the human warmth of loyalty and friendship which the director had earlier celebrated. In retrospect, it seems likely that Melville's reputation will rest largely on his ability, almost unique in French cinema, to contain deeply felt personal attitudes within the tight confines of commercial genre production. Certainly his thrillers are unequalled in European cinema.