Full-on French Noir
The Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective comes to BAMPFA.
"Le Cercle Rouge" (The Red Circle) features a very long dialogue-free heist sequence.
Back in the 1960s at UC Berkeley, I came to love old American gangster movies. In those days, before DVDs or even VHS tape, anti-Vietnam War activists would raise money by showing old movies in Dwinelle Hall using 16-mm projectors. Thus, a whole new generation came to appreciate tough guys like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and James Cagney.
As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones on a voyage of discovery. French film director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) also fell in love with those gritty American films of the ’30s and ’40s. Like a chef simmering beef bones to extract the marrow, Melville hard-boiled the gangster genre to create a new and universally appealing type of film. He helped introduce such stars as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, while becoming known as the father of French New Wave cinema.
It took me a while to discover Melville, because, on the surface, his movies appear to be entertainment flicks with plots borrowed from Hollywood. But when you watch them closely, you discover intimate characters wrestling with the nature of masculinity, love, and of existence itself.
UC Berkeley’s BAMPFA is featuring a retrospective of Melville’s oeuvre on the 100th anniversary of his birth, running through August. I urge you to take advantage of the showings to explore the work of this wonderful but underappreciated filmmaker.
Born in Paris, Jean-Pierre Grumbach changed his name out of admiration for Herman Melville. He fought in the French resistance during World War II, an experience that deeply impacted his later film career.
After the war, Melville sought to make his own films but couldn’t break into the tightly controlled and monopolized French movie industry. So he shot his first film, Le Silence de la Mer (Silence of the Sea) in 1949 on a shoestring budget with little-known actors.
New Wave directors such as Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard later borrowed that production style of low budgets and films shot in contemporary locales. They also mimicked his editing techniques. He used old fashioned swipes, where a vertical line sweeps across the screen to indicate a new scene, and jump cuts, when a jarring edit transitions between two scenes.
Melville made films in a variety of genres, including dramas and comedies. But you can recognize Melville films from the first few minutes of cinematography, just as you can identify a Miles Davis recording after hearing only a few bars of his trumpet solo.
He’s living proof of the French auteur theory of cinema, which posits that directors are the real authors of films and put their unique stamp on the work regardless of genre. Melville’s use of sparse dialogue, shadows, and austere surroundings mark all of his major work.
Melville became best known for his hard-bitten crime cinema. The films are often told from the perspective of the criminal facing an existential crisis.
In Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Wind), a printed coda that precedes the film proclaims that man has control over one aspect of his future—his own death. So we know from the beginning that the anti-hero criminal will die, but we sit transfixed for 2½ hours figuring out how and when.
Melville’s screenplays bear a strong resemblance to the films made from the novels of Dorothy Hughes, such as In a Lonely Place. She created deeply flawed, anti-hero criminals. Through the eyes of these alienated characters, she offered a strong critique of capitalist societies.
In Second Wind, Melville carries forward that perspective as the cops engage in torture and brutality far worse than the criminals who commit murder but nevertheless attract our sympathy.
Most crime films are plot driven. Who committed the murder? Did the gang succeed in robbing the casino? But Melville presents character-driven cinema where we care more about the criminal and his police inspector antagonist than we do about whether the robber is ultimately caught.
That also applies to his 1969 film L’armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), which depicts the lives of French resistance fighters in a story loosely based on Melville’s wartime experiences. The plot consists of a series of defensive actions by the resistance struggling to survive: killing an informer, escaping to a safe house, trying to rescue a comrade from a Nazi prison.
We slowly come to admire the main male resistance leader, played by Lino Ventura, and his equally brave female counterpart portrayed by Simone Signoret. But when the Nazis force Signoret’s character to become an informer, we come to understand why the individual must be sacrificed for the broader good.
Not every Melville film is a winner. He made dialogue-heavy and, frankly, boring films (Léon Morin, Priest, and Silence of the Sea). But you can’t go wrong with his entertaining and insightful gangster flicks like The Samurai, Bob the Gambler, and Second Wind.
Watching movies at UC Berkeley in the old days meant loudly booing the cops and cheering the criminals played by Bogart or Robinson. We appreciated the anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist message delivered subtly by some Hollywood filmmakers. At the BAMPFA retrospective on Melville, I doubt management will allow sustained cheers and boos. But, hey, give it a try. Melville would have liked it that way.
For more details and short reviews, see BAMPFA.berkeley.edu/program/melville-100; BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.berkeley.edu.
This report appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.