MUBI UK has streamed some of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville over the last couple of months. They have tended to be the better-known titles but at least it has given the opportunity for new younger fans to see what all the fuss is about. Le cercle rouge still has 3 days left I think and, if you miss it, you will still have the chance to catch Un flic (1972) which as around 10 days to go.
Melville died in 1973 so these were his last two films. His later films suffered in UK distribution by being cut and sometimes dubbed for release in circuit cinemas and it wasn’t until a successful re-release of Le samouraï in 1993 that Melville began to get proper treatment in the UK. Like the other two titles mentioned here, Le cercle rouge is a polar and a film imbued with Melville’s unique combination of American gangster tropes, French policiers and East Asian philosophies, the latter contributing to a code of sorts among criminals and some police officers.
Le cercle rouge refers here to a Buddhist reading (possibly written by Melville himself) which appears at the beginning of the film in the credit sequence. This suggests that men who meet, albeit randomly, are destined, even if they take separate paths, to all end up within the red circle. The plot is relatively simple for a narrative that extends over 140 minutes. A prisoner handcuffed to a Police Commissaire is taken to a Marseilles station one night where they board a Paris-bound sleeper. Early the next morning the man makes his escape. That same morning a second prisoner is released from prison, having been told by a warder about how a jewel robbery could be successfully carried out in Paris. After a series of incidents this man, Corey (Alain Delon) hears about the escaped prisoner when he is stopped at a road-block in his newly acquired car. He parks at a diner near where he thinks the escapee, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) might be hiding. When he leaves the diner, Vogel is in the car. There are more incidents before the couple arrive in Paris. Meanwhile Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil) has come to the attention of Internal Affairs and is under severe pressure to re-capture Vogel. The robbery is accomplished with the help of a former police marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand). There is one other significant character, a nightclub owner and underworld fixer, Santi, played by François Perier.
There is no real mystery about what will happen – Melville revealed his hand in the opening credits. The focus is instead on the heist – completed in just under 30 minutes in a bravura dialogue-free sequence – and on the relationships between the characters who will all end up, one way or another in the ‘red circle’. Le cercle rouge follows the rules of previous polars from Melville. Corey drives an American car and has Japanese prints in his apartment, much like his character in Le samouraï . He wears a hat (a fedora) and a trench coat with the belt tied. When Corey meets Jansen for the first time in Santi’s club, he is already seated, in his trench coat, when Jansen descends the stairs from the street. We see his feet in shiny black leather shoes, dark trousers and then a coat – a long blue-grey tweed coat – and on his head a grey fedora. We perhaps remember then that in the preceding scene Mattei also wore a grey fedora – but all the other plain-clothes police were bare-headed. Jansen is immaculate with a neat dark tie and a button-down striped shirt. Corey is without his hat at this point. His trench coat is grey and crumpled, his tie is slightly awry and his shirt collar is crumpled. As he and Jansen talk, we see the arrival of two plain-clothes police, hatless but one has a light-coloured ‘shortie’ trench coat. They’ve come to escort Santi to the police HQ. When he is summoned from a back-room, Santi emerges with his long coat and, of course, his fedora. He glances very quickly at Corey and Jansen. Everything is communicated by costume and looks in this scene. The nightclub itself which features in three separate scenes with a different dance routine in each, is another convention lovingly explored by Melville. The club features a raised square dancing platform on which a group of immaculate dancers, all beautiful women, perform.
All of this creates an almost timeless ‘dance’ of crooks and cops. The characters seem ‘out of time’ to me with their hats and trench coats, more early 60s than 1970. I am aware though that in 1970 I was more influenced by hippies than middle-aged guys in suits. But I do think that Melville creates his own universe governed by codes of honour. I’m tempted to say that the codes resemble those that Peckinpah’s Western characters display in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The triumph of a Melville polar is usually based on pacing, attention to detail and performance. All are on display here. Alain Delon was one of Melville’s regulars with his good looks (slightly challenged here by his moustache?) and deadpan expressions. There is no Lino Ventura unfortunately but Gian Maria Volonte is a good replacement with his curly hair (so he does match the times tonsorially). What a year it was for him. In 1970 he was also the lead in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy) and Godard-Gorin’s Le vent d’est (Italy-France-W. Germany), the one as a fascistic Italian police chief (with the neat, oiled hair), the other as a Latin American bandit type in the Dziga-Vertov’s group’s best-known ‘political’ film. Yves Montand, fresh from his two successful leading roles in the Costa-Gavras political thrillers Z and L’aveu seems to me to have been perfect casting. The surprise for me this time round was Bourvil. I last watched the film about 15 years ago and I remembered thinking that the almost imperceptible comic air about the Commissaire was a brilliant touch – Melville nearly always seemed to ‘play’ on the relationship between cop and crook. I hadn’t at that point realised that ‘Bourvil’ as the star tended to be known was the same star of the 1950s comedy films that used to be imported and shown in the UK. That was clearly a time when there might have been less titles distributed in the UK but we saw a wider range of French films.
The jewel heist is a stunning piece of work, a masterwork in constructing suspense and using the details of the security system. But what do we make of the nearly complete absence of women in the narrative? There is a brief reference to Corey’s ex-girlfriend but she has no ‘agency’ whatsoever. The dancers in Santi’s club are there seemingly as icons for a certain sense of style in much the same way as the fedoras and trench coats. This is a film about masculine codes of honour. The characters could be samourai or Western gunfighters. It may just be about style but there is romance (in its ‘knightly’ medieval meaning) as well. And there is always Alain Delon for the female gaze.
The original French trailer:
Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation and a major influence on those who followed. A retrospective of much of his work was shown in New York earlier this year where Keith was able to see three films and in a BFI touring season in the UK a few months later. I couldn’t get to any of these screenings in Melville’s centenary year but I have finally managed to get hold of his last film, Un flic from 1972 (he died in 1973).
The Optimum PAL DVD released in 2007 delivers a screen image that seemed a little ‘blue’ and washed out to me. DVD Beaver’s report suggests that this is likely to be an accurate presentation and certainly the tone of the film is suited to a ‘cold’ aesthetic. Melville’s crime films – polars in France – had a chequered history in UK distribution. Researching Un flic, I discovered that it was given a BBFC ‘X’ certificate as The Cop in July 1971 after unspecified cuts. The certificate went to Gala, yet the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1974 – in a dubbed version distributed by Columbia-Warner. There is a review by Tony Rayns in the September 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The DVD offers a print in 1.85:1 ratio but IMDb suggests the original was 1.66.1. An alternative English title Dirty Money appeared on UK dubbed cinema prints and US DVD releases at a later date. Melville’s polars appeared in the UK when ‘popular’ European films were often dubbed and released through commercial ‘chain’ cinemas. What is now considered a ‘specialised film’ (or still ‘arthouse’ by some) like Un flic, in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in Odeons and ABCs alongside spaghetti Westerns, Italian horror and Scandinavian soft porn.
Dirty Money is not a bad title for the film whereas Un flic is arguably misleading. Alain Delon (who featured as the criminal in Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970) for Melville) is this time the cop. His adversary is played by the American actor Richard Crenna (dubbed into French for the accent despite being able to speak French) and Cathy, the woman who has a relationship with both men, is played by Catherine Deneuve. Delon gets top billing but I suspect that Crenna has more screen time and it often feels like he is the focus of the narrative. Simon (Crenna) runs a Parisian night club but is planning two major robberies – the first to raise money to finance the second.
The narrative structure of the film is unusual. Melville offers us not one but two long robbery sequences and between them these take up a significant amount of the film’s running time. Neither of the two sequences could be described as ‘action-packed’ but they are both very well thought out and, by including every painstaking stage in the procedure, Melville is able to make them gripping. The opening bank robbery is being set up as the credits appear on screen. It’s set on the windswept promenade of a town in La Vendée on the Atlantic coast. Not a soul is in sight (it’s December and raining heavily) but when the robbers in coats and fedoras enter the BNP building on the corner there are several customers already being served just before the bank closes. The getaway from the robbery is quite novel. The cut from the deserted beachfront into the inviting bank interior signals the ‘artificial’ nature of the mise en scène. During the robbery Melville cuts away to central Paris where Commissaire Coleman is setting out on his evening shift and he gives a voiceover from his car about the tedium of his work. Meanwhile the robbers in an American Plymouth car exchange cars for a Mercedes during a clever getaway procedure.
This artificiality is present in many of the scenes that follow. In one, Simon and Cathy leave the club in a car driving towards what looks suspiciously like a painted backdrop of a Paris street ahead. A cut then takes us into a Van Gogh street scene with the camera pulling back to reveal that the painting is in a gallery (the Louvre?) where three of the robbers are meeting. The gallery too appears to have a painted backdrop to represent an extension to the gallery space. I was amazed to realise that this Melville film made in 1971 vies with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as a cause celèbre of matte painting – and model work. When the second robbery occurs on a train, Simon is lowered onto the moving train from a helicopter and this is accomplished with a studio mock-up of the flying ‘chopper and models used extensively for the train and chopper shown in long shot. It is so obvious that you feel it must be deliberate and the crudity of the presentation clashes with sophistication of the script. (The sequence lasts around 20 minutes.) I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to sleep on a train again given the way that Crenna breaks into a locked apartment.
The same artificiality manifests itself differently in the performances of Delon and Deneuve in particular. Delon is almost expressionless in his scenes, a cold and deliberate law enforcer. Deneuve is in her immaculately coiffured ice maiden mode. Perhaps it is Crenna’s Hollywood background that makes him appear slightly warmer. One of the strongest elements of Melville’s polars is the relationship between the investigating lawman and the principal criminal. In Un flic the two characters are mirror images of each other – a situation compounded by their shared interest in Cathy.
The film begins with the quote above from Vidocq (1775-1857), the founder of the French national police force. The subtitles translate this as “Man has only ever inspired ambiguity and ridicule in a police officer”. So Coleman is shown as peremptory in his treatment of the routine cases brought to his attention and shows little emotion even when faced with the murder of an attractive young woman. Coleman seemingly treats everyone coldly (and this seems also true of his relationship with Cathy). The other two contacts that he makes are with a gay couple, an older man and an under-age youth who has attempted to steal a valuable sculpture, and with his own informer, a transgender character who is beautifully dressed and carefully made up. This person is treated badly by Coleman. Because Simon is a mirror image of Coleman, does this mean the flic is ambiguous about himself? Melville doesn’t give us any clues. It’s as if he wants to explore the terrain of the polar, drawing on its American cultural links, primarily in terms of its locales and mise en scène as well as its usual scenarios – the carefully planned crimes, the police procedures and the wordless communications about friendship and betrayal. Significantly, the key scene between Simon and Coleman is mainly about the eyes.
I need now to rewatch the earlier films, but for the moment I’ll be investigating other 1970s thrillers, political thrillers, as part of a new major season at HOME. Before I leave Un flic, however, I want to comment on the reviews and synopses for the film in the archives and on the web. When I found David Overby’s review in Sight & Sound Autumn 1974 I was amazed to see that he transposed the two central characters and also situates the bank raid at the beginning in the Paris suburbs! I respect Overby’s work and I know how difficult it was in the days before internet resources to check cast lists and locations, but these mistakes seem extreme. Tony Rayns in his review gets the train robbery wrong thinking the train is going to Italy via Marseilles. Even HOME’s programme notes (presumably using BFI notes) sets the bank robbery on the ‘Riviera’. There seems to be an almost pathological desire to misrepresent what is actually on the screen. I doubt this is deliberate but it must mean something – perhaps the dubbed print is the problem? In reality, Melville’s script is finely detailed. So the train heist is planned for a stretch of railway line, “the oldest electric line in France, dating back to 1963”, which is being upgraded and therefore diesel-hauled. The robbers have twenty minutes to complete their task before they run the risk of being entangled in overhead lines when the helicopter attempts to retrieve Simon from the train. Whatever one might think about the strange triangle at the centre of the film, the robberies are presented in incredible detail. I think film students could learn a great deal from Melville’s work on this film narrative. He remains for me the past master of the crime film.
I was recently visiting a friend in New York and by happy chance the Film Forum multi-screen in ‘the Village’ was running a retrospective of this ‘cool auteur’, as one plug commented. Melville was born on 20.10.1917 and the programme celebrated his centenary. His films nearly always centre on crime or gangster stories, known as ‘polar’.
The Film Forum started up in the 1970 and moved to its present location in Houston Street in 1989. It has three screens and its programme offers
“two distinct, complementary film programs – NYC theatrical premieres of American independents and foreign art films, programmed by Cooper and Mike Maggiore; and, since 1987, repertory selections including foreign and American classics, genre works, festivals and directors’ retrospectives, programmed by Bruce Goldstein. Our third screen is dedicated to extended runs of popular selections from both programs, as well as new films for longer engagements.”
It is a compact but well designed cinema. I only saw one auditorium, seating about a hundred, with a reasonably large screen and proper masking. The rake was shallow so one had to judge one’s seat when films involved sub-titles. The cinema has a policy of offering 35mm prints whenever possible and I enjoyed three films there on reasonably good prints. The adverts are only promos for the cinema followed by trailers, impressed.
The earliest was a rare film, [which I had not encountered before] Quand tu liras cette letter (When You Read This Letter, 1953). The print had been loaned for the retrospective by
‘the people of France’
via Rialto, the distribution company related to Criterion. This was in black and white and Academy ratio. This was an atypical Melville offering, being essentially a melodrama. The film centred on a Parisian Lothario, Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire) working for the summer in Cannes. His targets included a rich divorcee Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson); several dancers at the local hotel cum night-spot; a young naive teenager, Denise Voise (Irène Galter); and her older sister Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco). Thérèse was the key character in the film. She had left the convent where she was a novice when her parents were killed in an accident. She acted as guardian to Denise and managed the Voise shop, a stationers. As the film progressed the narrative became darker and the sunlight of Cannes changed to the chiaroscuro of night. As one would expect the film’s resolution involved a violent death. In fact the film involved another trope we saw in all the Melville films, the violent death of a woman in a motorcar – by design. The film closed at the Convent followed by slow pan across Marseilles harbour: so that water and the seaside were central motifs in the film.
The print had no subtitles so Film Forum had commissioned a set of English sub-titles which were projected digitally onto the frame [rather than below] in white with a blue tint: this was very effective.
The second film was Le Doulos (1962) in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio and with English sub-titles. This film enjoyed a UK release in 2008. It was a proper ‘polar’ and fairly typical of Melville’s crime thrillers. The main credit was for Jean-Paul Belmondo who played Silien but what impressed me most was Serge Reggiani as Maurice Faugel. He opened the film in a run-down and ‘noir’ location which set the tone for the whole film. The cinematography was by Nicolas Hayer and the chiaroscuro of many settings reflected the troubled and ambiguous lives of the protagonists.
The French title refers to a ‘hat’ but is also slang for a police informant. Whilst the atmosphere was great I felt the plotting was over-complicated and that the motivations were opaque. This was partly because the film wished to offer a violent, unexpected and almost tragic resolution. Like much of Melville the women characters were subordinate and pawns in the masculine chess-like manoeuvres. So Monique Hennessy as Thérèse came off badly. She did though, fit the comment made by Melville on the film:
“all characters are two-faced, all characters are false”
The third film was Le deuxiéme souffle (1966), also in black and white, a ratio of 1.66:1 and with English subtitles. it was also the longest film running for 144 minutes, It did not seem that long because this was the best and most absorbing of the three titles. This was partly because of a splendid cast led by Lino Ventura (Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda) and Paul Meurisse ( Commissaire Blot); both in Melville’s masterwork Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969). Ventura brought his air of fatalism to the film whilst Meurisse imbued his cop with an impassive but relentless pursuit of his quarry.
The film opened as ‘Gu’ escaped from prison, a familiar trope. The film quickly established his violent character but also his circle of supportive friends in the underworld and the competing gangs. There were some great scenes in a Parisian night-club, journeys and crime on the road, and a slow and final violent denouement in Marseilles. The film offered a relatively strong woman character, Christine Faberega played Simone – also called ‘Manouche’, ‘Gu’s sister. The gangsters in the film constantly plotted and double-crossed. ‘Gu’ was a relatively straightforward criminal and there existed a professional respect between him and Blot. The film ended with violence and failure.
Melville, adapting the film from ‘Le deuxiéme souffle’ by Jose Giovanni, not only examined the ruthless nature of criminality but that of the Marseilles police as well. The settings and locations reflected the urban milieu favoured by the gangsters and their actions outside this territory in empty roads and deserted places suggested their alienation from society.
The retrospective also included The Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres) and Le cercle rouge (1970, released in the UK in 2003 and then alongside Le Doulos in 2008). Léon Morin, prêtre (1970) was scheduled for a week long run. A dozen film in all plus À bout de souffle (1960) in which Melville has a role as a writer, Parvulesco. The three 35mm prints that I saw definitely added to my stay in New York. I expect that there will be a UK retrospective for Melville later this year: let us hope they get a national distribution as well as screenings in the metropolis: and 35mm prints.
I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.
The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.
The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.
I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.
The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.
In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.
Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (Army in the Shadows) – what a movie! I love Melville and this is a digital restoration by a French archive of a 1969 film. The colours are muted and the film is relatively slowly paced over 145 mins. But Melville is in complete control. I wish I could think of easy ways to introduce this kind of filmmaking to younger audiences. There are no car chases and little direct conflict in this story about the French resistance, mostly based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, but also on Melville’s own wartime experience. The action as such comprises an escape from custody, a reluctant execution, another escape from a firing squad and a ‘mercy’ assassination. Between these dramatic highs are long periods of tension building,with marvellous performances by the likes of Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret.
Melville is an expressionist rather than a ‘realist’, but I was convinced of the ‘reality’ of the situations that faced the resistance fighters. I particularly enjoyed Lino Ventura’s flight back to France from London. Prepared to jump from an RAF plane with his parachute harness over his overcoat and suit, our hero has his glasses firmly taped to his forehead with elastoplast. It’s those touches of humanity that make this a great film.