One fine afternoon, while watching Film Companion’s YouTube video titled “A Tour Inside Anurag Kashyap’s DVD library”, I first discovered Jean-Pierre Melville. This incident is a throwback to the time when I first started watching world cinema. Being someone who puts Anurag Kashyap’s recommendations on a very high pedestal, I distinctly remember him saying ambiguously, “Melville is the best… thriller… chase… the films that he has made.” This made me feel the excitement in his unspoken words.
Being a fan of thrillers myself, I had seen Fincher, Hitchcock, Greengrass, and works of other contemporary directors but never heard about Melville. And why did “Melville” sound so familiar? I remembered Herman Melville the author and, with a little Google search, I found that Jean-Pierre Melville’s last name was an adopted pseudonym as a tribute to his favorite American author. Over the last year, I have seen four Melville films: Two Men in Manhattan, Le Doulos (The Finger Man), Le Samouraï and Un Flic (A Cop). An interesting fact about watching these films is that I happen to remember the watching experience clearly, which is not a frequent case with me.
There is a unique style for all the main characters in his films. They wear trench-coats and fedora hats, carry their guns inside, and portray an inquisitive look. The way Alain Delon fixes his hat in Le Samouraï brings out the gravity of his character. Melville’s films build on top of each other, as the ideas and concepts are shared across the films. One can say that what Yasujirō Ozu is to portraying family relationships, Melville is to portraying grey characters in thrilling situations. He was the dynamic new voice for French cinema and has inspired generations of directors since.
Two Men in Manhattan is an amalgamation of Melville’s admiration for American cinema and his expertise in making French crime films. Apart from being the director, he also takes on the role of a French reporter searching for a missing French UN Delegate on a fateful night in New York City. Shot in black and white, it goes into the undiscovered places of the city (a jazz studio, a high-class brothel, a shanty bar) and shows you things that you would not notice from a tourist’s viewpoint. One might expect it to be a crime-to-be-solved film, but it moves away from that, solving the crime midway and asking what is next. Specifically, about the ethical questions of how to report the crime with some odd circumstances. You realize that the film gave much more to you than you were expecting from a crime film.
His craft improves over time, becomes more subtle in his next films but the complexity of the characters and the bewildering situations they face remain the same. Melville was a part of the French Resistance during the World War and that becomes evident in his films. His characters are fully conscious about their surroundings, being very careful not to make mistakes and plan elaborately based on their motive. Le Doulos is the epitome of the grey character’s journey, where you can’t decide whom to trust even after the film gets over. Tarantino cites the screenplay as the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. The protagonist is just released from prison and is looking forward to another heist. Things go wrong and he blames his accomplice for it. But was his accomplice a rat? This is what you keep wondering about even after the film ends. It stopped being a thriller but more of a character study on how to trust people in the crime business.
Le Samouraï is perhaps one of his most celebrated works. Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive shares key characteristics with Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in the film. There are not many dialogues and the frames are drained of vibrant colours. Jef is an impassive killer for hire who does his job with utmost perfection. Sadly, his contemporary criminals are not as good as him and try to bring him down. A very simple plot becomes very engaging as it builds up. Alain Delon’s poker face and his meticulous precision in adjusting the brim of his fedora brings out the coldness and seriousness in him. One thing to notice is how Melville crafts the suspense without any forced action scenes; he lets the tension build up and the situation unfolds when the cup is full. One can write a book about Jef Costello’s character, his origin story perhaps, but that information is not required to watch the film. In the first few scenes, you get a whiff of who he is.
You can see Melville’s work at its finest in his final film Un Flic. It starts with a well-planned robbery, which proceeds with some hiccups. All the action happens naturally, but the characters do not show any emotions barring pain and discomfort, which shows how long they have been in the business. There is a wonderful train robbery scene with an actual helicopter which is perfected and stylised to the point where the robber finds his way into a first-class cabin and changes into a night suit with shoes to prevent any suspicion. All this seems to be divorced from reality but never unreal. Melville, who has also written all his films, knows how to build up to surprising events without the back story but with the nuances of his characters and the environment.
Watching his previous films, I feel that I have also evolved with them. The after-effect of his films lingers for a long time. Notably, Melville uses similar locations again and again. An isolated safe house (Le Doulos) and the police station (Le Samouraï) used in “Un Flic” were very much similar to their usage in the previous films making one believe that all his films are from parallel universes where with a chance of luck the characters found different motives for their lives. He portrays his discreet charm with stylish characters who have meticulous behavioural traits foraying through the world of wrongdoing. Isn’t this very similar to our lives where we are the protagonist trying to solve the mysteries of life?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.