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Jean Pierre Melville, Two Films
Jean Pierre Melville
Jean Pierre Melville (1917-1973) is perhaps the one of the most under appreciated directors in the history of film. Certainly he is the most under appreciated director of the French New Wave, a period of innovations in cinema that began in the 1950s and 60s and forever changed the way we look at film. Born Jean Pierre Grumbach, Jean Pierre adopted the surname "Melville" in honor of his favorite writer Herman Melville, using the name first as his code-name in the French Resistance then as his stage name. Although Melville's contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Goddard, Francois Truffaut, and even (to some extent) Claude Chabrol enjoy far greater reputations among film buffs, Melville was the genius behind many of the innovations of the French New Wave, including such techniques as jump-cuts. The two films I review here, Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai, are the ones I consider essential viewing for anyone interested in the French New Wave, or indeed, movies in general. I do not mean to suggest they are a higher grade (in fact, I heartily recommend any film Melville directed), however, it is in these films that Melville's art is most clearly demonstrated.
Bob Le Flambeur
"You always lose."
Bob le Flambeur is a film everyone interested in movies should see. It is significant not only as a genre piece that set the tone for heist films up to the present day but as a film that kicked off the French New Wave (along with Breathless). Robert Duchesne stars as Bob Montagne, a thief and gambler who lives the seemingly effortless life of an affluent idler. Robert Duchesne possesses the same effortless charm and sense of "cool" George Clooney would later take to the role of Danny Ocean in Ocean's 11 (a film that was loosely based on Bob le Flambeur). Bob's carefree lifestyle, however, proves to be illusory. Just as his closet conceals a slot machine, Bob's smooth veneer conceals a serious problem, Bob is a compulsive gambler. What is more, Bob is a bad gambler. Early on in the film, Bob's cash has run dry and he begins plotting one big robbery to set himself up once and for all. His plan is to rob the Deauville Casino on its busiest night of the year. Melville takes great care to show the planning and complexity involved. Bob recruits a financial backer, a group of stickup men, a safe cracker, and finally corrupts a croupier inside the casino. Once the team is recruited, Bob walks them through the steps of the robbery, first on a blackboard, then in an empty field using painted lines for a life-sized diagram of the casino. "We'll be just like commandos" he tells his men. One can almost sense Melville's joy as he carefully sets up the heist, down to the last detail. As one might expect, the robbery does not go as planned, and Bob's gambling habit is more than partly to blame. The night before the robbery, a fellow crook reveals the plan to the police. After some indecision, Bob decides to go ahead anyway. It is a gamble that leads to a series of gambles. Once the dust settles, it is hard to say whether Bob won or lost in the end. The robbery fails horribly, but it is because Bob experienced a once-in-a-lifetime winning streak at the baccarat table. Bob the congenital loser finally won, but we wonder whether it was worth the cost.
The pedigree and legacy of this film are equally impressive. The film is based on John Huston's 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle, a film that also concerned a robbery gone awry. Bob le Flambeur in turn inspired a 1960 remake Ocean's Eleven which starred Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. This film led to the successful Ocean's Eleven films, starting in 2001. While all of these films make interesting viewing, none match the same precision of Bob le Flambeur. Melville's careful treatment of his characters sets it apart. The camera follows Bob not just into the gambling dens and night clubs of Montmarte, but into his apartment kitchen where we watch as he pours himself a glass of wine and goes about his chores after a long night out. Most filmmakers would disdain taking the time to present trivial details but for Melville, this is where the heart of a film lies. By showing us his characters going about their daily routine, Melville draws us closer to them. We see how close they are to us.
"I never lose. Not really."
It was Roger Ebert's wonderful book Great Movies (the first in his series) that first put me on to this movie. I had little experience with foreign films but as a film noir and gangster movie fan I was immediately interested in it. I was not disappointed. Le Samourai is one of the best films of its kind and remains one of my personal favorites.
The film follows Jeff Costello (Alain Delon), a professional hitman, as he deals with the police and his employers. The film has far less dialogue than Bob Le Flambeur which actually makes it more accessible for non-French-speaking viewers, especially those unused to watching films with captions. Much of the drama develops from the actors (all of them solid professionals) and Melville's skillful presentation. Again, Melville's attention to detail makes the film a treat as seemingly minor aspects of the film develop greater significance or become reinforced as the film progresses.
From the first to the last frame, Melville's artistry in the film is evident. Although the film is in color, Melville's use of a grey filter gives most scenes a muted tone creating an effect of gritty realism that is at once stark and beautiful (overall the effect is not unlike that of a Vermeer painting). Film noir is a genre famous for its style and Le Samourai does not disappoint. The Criterion Collection describes the film as "the epitome of cool." The characters, particularly Jeff, move with a sense of self-awareness that is often absent in other movies. They bring to their acting the same thing that Melville brings to his movies, a precise attention to detail. This sense of "cool" and attention to detail make up the "Melville Touch" and are the forces that drive this film.
Apart from the artistry of the film, another reason to watch it is the existential debate it raises. If Bob le Flambeur is a film about a "loser" who finally wins, Le Samourai is about a winner who finally loses. Just as we are forced to question whether Bob's victory was worth it, this film forces us to question whether Jeff really loses. Early on, when Jeff walks in on a poker game, he tells the players "I never lose. Not really." If Bob's victory seems hollow, Jeff's defeat seems to be a triumph of sorts.