Saturday, March 17, 2012

Getting Acquainted with Melville

In my opinion, French New Wave movies and the directors have a certain aura around them. It is perfectly possible that this comes from the fact that movies made during this period and these directors are my blind spots - I almost know next to nothing about them. Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville(1965), which I saw last month might have been my first foray in this area. Even though lot of times I question if I have the ability to understand and even further comment on something done at that artistic level, there is no denying that Alphaville(1965) had me intrigued to explore more of New Wave cinema. Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the influential names in that period. Last week I did a mini marathon of his movies watching 4 of them over the weekend - Le Cercle Rouge(1970), Bob Le Flambeur(1956), Army of Shadows(1969) and Le Doulos(1962). I only wish if I could have seen Le Samourai(1967) as well as that remains to be one Melville I want to see but still haven't seen.

To start with, Le Cercle Rouge(1970) is about the 3 people or 3 criminals who come together to pull out a daring robbery. One of them, Corey played by one of Melville regulars Alain Delon, is freshly out of jail. Second one, Vogel is a fugitive escaped from the custody of police superintendent Mattei. And third, Jansen is a former cop who is been discharged because of his crooked ways. Few days before Corey is to be discharged from the prison, he gets an offer from one of the prison guards to pull a heist job for him. Strangely, we never know what the job is until he actually starts planning for it. Even further, we are not even told if he is going to do it or not because he outright rejects the idea initially. However, after being released, he starts driving towards Paris and picks up Vogel on the way. Vogel successfully escapes by breaking the train window and hides in the trunk of Corey's car. Jansen is former associate of Vogel, who joins hands with them for his sharpshooting abilities. While these men are planning their heist, on the other hand Mattei is being held responsible for Vogel's escape and is on his tail by blackmailing a nightclub owner Santi to capture him. For a heist movie, what is astonishing about it is there is not even a single raised voice throughout the movie and it still captures the thrill of the situation brilliantly. Corey never shows a single strand of emotion on his face throughout, under any condition. For first hour or so, Corey and Vogel's storylines run parallel with no apparent connection and do not hear a word about robbery they are about to pull off. However, second hour is completely dedicated to it and I can say that it is one of the most elaborate and prudent robberies I have seen. 
Next one was, Le Doulos(1962) which I felt was the weakest of all four I saw. Explaining the title with some kind of quote seems to be Melville's trademark. He does it at the start of this movie and He did the same in Le Circle Rogue with one of the quotes by Gautam Buddha. However, In this case I thought to be utterly necessary since it is not what it means directly. As explained at the start, Le Doulos means the Hat but it is also a slang for police informer among mob and that is the meaning intended here. One thing I can say after this is Melville sure knew how to portray the underworld of France really well. This time, we see it from both the sides, criminal side as well as judicial side. There is no easy way to explain the story really, It is about two criminal friends, one of whom is assumed to be Police Informer but the fact that I don't have anything more to say about it should also explain the reason why I think it to be the weakest of 4 films I saw. Basically, my only problem was that it has a lot of focus on violence and it looks like it has put on some serious years on it in the action scenes. It still works fine when it is dialogue oriented and relies on them to build up a tension in the room like it is playing on the home pitch.

Whole French New Wave and particularly Melville took a lot of inspiration from classical Hollywood Cinema. Melville in particular adored everything American - American Culture, Cinema; even his name which he changed from Grumbach to Melville for his favorite author Herman Melville of Moby Dick. Considered as the starting point of French New Wave, Bob le Flambeur(1956) is probably the best example of his love for all American things with a lot of parallels that can be drawn to the film-noir. If it wasn't the first film in French New Wave, it definitely was an inspiration for it. Bob is compulsive gambler who has done time in the past but has turned his life around since then. However, with his losses in the gambling he is pushing his boundaries and at just one of those corners lure of 800 million francs seems like too much to pass on but what he does not realize is this might be his fallout. It comes with its own flaws. Just like Le Doulos, it feels like it has put some serious years on it especially when it comes to action scenes. But, it looks much more comfortable in his own skin with a lot more focus on characters and making a viewer familiar to them rather than focusing on action. In the process, it also works more on planning the heist and putting all the right pieces together than actual heist at the end and this is where it does better than Le Doulos.

The last one to go, Army of Shadows(1969) probably was the best of the lot. It follows the group of resistance fighters as they carry out their resistance hiding from German authorities in occupied France. Adapted from the novel of Joseph Kessel which he based on his own experiences during the resistance, it works mostly because of its minimalist nature to concentrate on their emotions, their actions than honey coating it to make them presentable. Melville himself was a part of this resistance and their experiences give this movie a depth which is evident from incidences in the film such as one scene in London where we see Lino Ventura standing at the door on bar looking at the English soldiers dancing while German plans are bombing the city outside. I am not sure if it says something about Melville but it is only movie out of the four which has a respectable female character, Mathilde. Everywhere else, they either have a very negligible part or mostly they are either used as an object of desire or as femme fatale without any real depth. His immaculate sense of time and space, his attention to the detail was evident in all the movies especially in planning stages of heists, even more so in this one where we can see one of the central characters has his specs secured with a sticky tape to his face before he jumps from off the plane. With it's strong adherence to the genuine emotions from the very first scene, at 144 minutes, it never gets boring even though it portrays the resistance in grim, pragmatic fashion.

So, How many of Melville's work have you seen? Which one's are your favorite? What do you think of those mentioned here?


  1. Haven't seen any Melville stuff but very keen to see Le Cercle Rouge. Sounds awesome!

    1. I am no expert but I think Le Cercle Rogue and Army of Shadows will not disappoint anyone. Thanks for reading.


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