“Melville is the Godard I haven’t grown out of”
– Quentin Tarantino
Jean-Pierre Melville (originally Grumbach, but changed because he was a big Herman Melville fan) was really the director who in his own way made the French New Wave possible. He preceded it, of course, having served in the Resistance and then started making films in the post-war era. The ideas were already in the air in those early years, but all of those later directors looked up to him so much—he even appears in Breathless.
Crime films had been around in France for a long time, and the whole poetic realism era of the 1930s and ‘40s also included quite a few crime films, though not always contemporary ones, but Melville created something new in that film genre. He worked mostly outside the established French studio system, including with Jean Cocteau. He even built his own film studio at one point. Many of his early films were war films, and he came back to that genre occasionally, as with Army of Shadows, probably his finest film.
The set opens with Bob Le Flambeur (with Roger Duchesne in the lead), one of his most popular films. Melville was a fan of John Huston at the time and of American cinema in general, and it shows here. The main character, Bob, is a well-liked local gambler who even the police find affable, but his luck turns and he decides that has to rob the local casino.
The characterisation, the shooting style (which even includes a jump cut) and the scenario are very much like what you would expect from the New Wave. There’s a lot of crossover in Melville’s choices of actors as well. While it wasn’t a hit at the time, Bob Le Flambeur was well received critically and gave Melville more chances to make films.
The next is Léon Morin, Prêtre, the odd film out in this collection because it’s about a woman called Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a militant communist who decides to go into a church and provoke a priest, who is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. She is surprised when instead of taking the bait, the priest engages her in a serious conversation. They develop a friendship, and he ends up giving her advice. Belmondo was nominated for a Bafta for his role.
It’s followed by Le Doulos, also with Belmondo in the lead but in a typically Melville script filled with burglary and murder and with a seedy Paris underworld setting. It’s a solid noir scenario with all the trimmings you would expect.
Army of Shadows was probably Melville’s best film, but it was not well-received at the time, which is kind of mindblowing. It came out in 1969, and De Gaulle briefly features in the film, but at that time anti-De Gaulle feelings were running high. Also, glorifying the Resistance had become taboo because of the French Algerian war. It was popular in the UK, but It wasn’t even released in the US for 37 years, but when it finally arrived in 2006 in a Janus release it caused quite a sensation. Cahier du Cinema had reappraised it in the 1990s, lending the film a near-mythical status. Its perhaps the best film made about the Resistance, and it pulls no punches, covering the deprivations and infighting as well as the heroism. It’s shot in the style of a crime film.
When the director Terry Zwigoff wanted to show some films to Robert Crumb, Crumb was put off by the haircuts being wrong in Army of Shadows—which they are. According to Zwigoff Crumb doesn’t have the most sophisticated taste in films, he was a big fan of Titanic!
Next is Le Cercle Rouge, one of the films he made with Alain Delon. He worked with Delon most famously on Le Samurai, which is unfortunately not in the box set (the UK rights for it are apparently a complete mess). He plays a criminal called Corey who decides to team up with an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) and a recent escapee from prison to pull off an insane heist, but a cat-loving police inspector is on their tail. The gap between who is a criminal and who is law enforcement is increasingly blurred, as is usual in Melville’s work.
The heist sequence lasts exactly 27 minutes, with no dialogue at all, and is possibly the greatest heist in cinema. It took Melville about 20 years to get the courage to make it—he had written the scene for the first time in the 1950s, but after seeing The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi, he shelved it.
The last film is Un Flic, Melville’s final feature film, with Delon as Edouard Coleman, the police chief. It starts with a heist carried out by Simon (Richard Crenna) and other criminals a few days before Christmas, which is attended by Edouard. But unbeknownst to Edouard, the woman he is seeing, Cathy (played by Catherine Deneuve), is also having an affair with Simon.
It has some great performances and another superb heist sequence. The look is also interesting, as much has been created with backdrops and sets that are clearly fake, and a sequence on train where they used a toy train and toy helicopter, which in a way predates the similar shots that Wes Anderson has done.
The box set is extras-heavy: each disc has at least a documentary or interview with someone connected to Melville in some way, Army of Shadows is accompanied by a feature-length documentary, and there’s another feature-length documentary on Melville. On the bonus disc are Benjamin Clavel’s 2017 film In the Mood for Melville plus one of the director’s short films.