Jean Pierre Melville was a French film director, born in Paris in 1917. He was born Jean Pierre Grumbach, having chosen the pseudonym “Melville” as a tribute to the author of Moby Dick. Most of his films have become classics of French cinema, having a marked influence on such foreign filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Johnnie To.
His filmography is comprised of fourteen main films, in which he also sometimes appears as actor. Although the full extent of his career far surpasses the production of these projects, two key themes recur throughout his work.
The first of these is a trilogy about occupied France and the French Resistance (Silence of the Sea, Leon Morin the Preacher and The Army of Shadows). They were completed at different stages of his life, each an adaptation of a literary work whose narrative is merged with Melville’s own personal memories. In fact, in 1952, Melville had himself participated in the French Resistance and Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Movement.
Next in Melville’s career as director, came a series of productions critics have described as “cinema of men” – the films Bob the Gambler, The Doulos, The Second Breath, The Samurai, The Red Circle, and A Cop. Personally, as much as I enjoy his other works, these have especially made Melville one of my favorite directors. In many of the other projects he directed, notably, Les Enfants Terribles based on the novel by Jean Cocteau, and Two Men in Manhattan, in collaboration with Cocteau himself, we can already sense Melville’s love of the American myth.
We will now focus our attention specifically on the abovementioned “cinema of men,” which reveals how Melville was a storyteller enamored of both literature and the myth of America. The coherence of narrative, haunting suspense, and solitude of the characters in these films are their most striking characteristics.
The Red Circle is the first Melville film that I had seen, and, in addition to Bob to Gambler, also the one which left the greatest impression on me. Nothing in the screenplay could suggest the originality and modernity of spirit of the actual production. It is the story of the robbery of a jewelry store on the Place Vendome, committed by a man who has just left prison (Alain Delon), and another on the run (Gian Maria Volonte). A former cop, skillfully played by Yves Montand, assists the two. Bourvil, in the antithesis of his famous comedic roles, takes on the part of a restless investigator following their every move, determined to thwart their attempts. In The Red Circle Melville manages to create a movie with an aesthetic that could only be described as “Melvillian” in its treatment of narration and cinematography. We notice the great skill of the director in letting images speak for themselves, drastically cutting dialogue in order to create moments of tension and allowing the unique aesthetic of the film to captivate its viewer. For example, the key scene of the actual robbery consists of a continuous shot lasting more than twenty minutes, during which not a single word is uttered. The creativity of cinematic technique and effect are characteristic of Melville’s filmmaking. While similar scenes can be found in The Samurai or A Cop, the robbery scene in The Red Circle remains the greatest example of the formal style and imagery particular to this director. It was filmed in the boutiques of the famous jeweler Mauboussin, located on 20 de la Place Vendome.
The other fundamental element that runs through Melville’s work is a cold sense of solitude and fatalism, embodied by the main characters of The Red Circle. It is what seems to render characters separate from their actions. It is as if they cannot help but carry out the behaviors defined by their condition as bandit, cop, or cop turned bandit. When Gian Maria Volonte first suggests the robbery to Alain Delon, Delon’s character accepts the idea almost without question, as if he feels there is no real choice in the matter. When Yves Montand is asked to help them in the robbery, he reacts in a similar way. His character stops drinking the very next day, his alcoholism becoming a distant memory in the face of what he must achieve. Bourvil, on the side of righteousness, successfully pursues his case with cunning and insistence. However, one will note that even this character lives alone with his cat. We see in Melville’s world that even those who do not need to represent the solitude of existence in the narrative give off the same air of emotional emptiness.
To conclude, The Red Circle would be in my opinion the best film through which to enter Melville’s universe, not only because it so aptly exemplifies the style of narration and mise en scene of its creator, but because of the accessibility of the narrative. It remains the story of a high stakes heist, far from the heady themes of works such as Les Enfants Terribles or The Army of Shadows. The appreciation of those films, on the other hand, would demand a far greater knowledge of cinematic culture and history.
After having described in detail one of Melville’s more emblematic works, I would now like to talk about of one of his lesser known, but no less beloved films: Bob the Gambler. Filmed in 1955 in black and white, on the south slopes of Montmartre, the story once more concerns the planning and execution of a robbery. However, it is of a casino located in Deauville, as one may have guessed from its title. Robert Montaigner, or “Bob the Gambler” stalks the halls of Pigalle, plagued by his addiction to the game. During one of his nocturnal jaunts, he meets Anne, a young girl about to enter the field of prostitution. Once again, the characters seem alienated and marked by a sense of fatality. For Anne, to become a prostitute, or “working girl” as it was called at the time, is but the obvious next step in her path. Bob himself, who continuously risks his life’s worth as a means to guide his existence, also sees fate as predetermined by the luck of the cards or the slot machines. While tenets of the distinct Melvillian style is very recognizable in this film, Bob the Gambler also stands out in many respects. It is perhaps the film which best provides the link between the style of Melville’s earlier works, whose cinematographic methods inspired directors of the Nouvelle Vague, and the later style of his “cinema of men” series. Despite these distinctive personalities, precursors for characters in films such as The Samurai, the real star of Bob the Gambler is Pigalle of the 1950s, with its truant bars, morally questionable girls, American jazz, and stereotypical cops. The scenes filmed outdoors give the film a realistic aspect, almost approaching documentary. For example, one can see in one scene a bar at the corner of the rue de Douai called the “Pile ou Face” which still exists today. In any case, Bob the Gambler was a film that paved the way for a certain stylistic evolution and turning point in Melville’s career. Bob the Gambler, as a viewing experience without a doubt draws you into its game, able to transport you within a few moments directly into the depths of Melville’s universe. I too invite you to watch these two films, and hope you surrender to the charm of the works of such a distinguished director.
Translation – Ritz Wu