This month at London’s BFI Southbank, a two-month season dedicated to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville gets underway. Often imitated but never bettered, the Frenchman is a filmmaker who remains hugely influential on world cinema, inspiring everyone from the French New Wave to John Woo and Quentin Tarantino with his coolly detached, psychologically probing thrillers. A director who adopted his surname after Moby Dick author Herman Melville – his given name was Grumbach – he was prone to stylish affectations, frequently wearing Stetsons and shades. Born in 1917, to a Jewish family from Alsace, his first camera was given to him when he was 6 or 7, and he spent his youth gorging on cinema – a pastime that became a passion.
With 13 films spread evenly across August and September, the season steers audiences from Melville’s debut feature Le Silence de la mer (1949) into the films that made him famous – notably Le Samouraï (1967), which cast Alain Delon in one of his most iconic roles as a hitman who falls for a female witness to one of his crimes. Shaded in steely greys, it’s film noir chilled to the bone.
His early works are just as intoxicating, however. Take a film like Bob le flambeur (1956), remade by Neil Jordan in 2002 as The Good Thief – a more romantic Deauville-set story about an ageing thief-cum-gambler who plans to heist a casino. A film noir typical of Melville’s love for American cinema, in particular the crime movies of directors like John Huston and William Wyler, it’s not to be missed. Famed from gangster pictures, the pioneering director’s world is as full of betrayals, distrust and suspicion as it is smoky bars and men in trench-coats carrying loaded pistols. Style, whether on the streets or created by the camera, is important – but questions surrounding ethics and moral codes are what drives him. The shadows cast here are not just tricks of the light.
Richly evoking criminal networks and underworlds in films like Le Cercle rouge (1970), about the plotting of a jewellery robbery in Place Vendôme, and his final film Un Flic (1972), his work is a fluid and subtle shift between realism and fantasy. “A film is first and foremost a dream,” he once stated, and there’s nothing more intoxicating than falling under one of his spells.
If you start with his crime yarns – Le Doulos (1962) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo is receiving an extended re-release – then ensure you take in his other work too. In real life, Melville fought in the French Resistance and his 1969 masterpiece The Army of Shadows, set inside the organisation, is perhaps the pinnacle of his canon. His most personal movie, it’s harrowing but beautifully executed.
The Jean-Pierre Melville Season Visions Of The Underworld continues through August and September at the BFI Southbank. For more information: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk
1. Two Men in Manhattan – Trailer. Cohen Film Collection.