by Ruairí McCann
Jean-Pierre Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, 1917-1973) was, to quote Dave Kehr, one of the great eccentrics of French cinema. The act of surveying this brief but strong flare of a life and its work is, like that of any stubborn iconoclast worth their weight in salt, to be faced with crossfire. While his cinema was one born and sustained off secondary sources — in that he drew from a deep, insatiable obsession with Hollywood cinema, noir and gangster movies in particular, as well as other transpontine imports such as jazz and American literature — his attention did not end there. His stiff upper lip gangsters, their apparel, codes, and loneliness, were not just the spawn of a brain drunk on movie-filtered images of American urban life. They arose too from his own, direct experiences, growing up in a working-class Parisian milieu. When he did take up filmmaking, he did not begin with hoods and heists either, but with two adaptations of French literature. The first, Le Silence de la Mer (1949), introduced that dark patch of history, the Second World War and the French Resistance, as the other, central concern of his art. Reflective too of an integral period in his own personal history, with his wartime spent in the Maquis and the Free French forces.
Melville began as an independent, a self-consciously autonomous artist, during a time in French cinema when the industry was particularly hostile to outsiders and upstarts. But by the time the late ‘60s rolled in, and the industry had been infiltrated further by the New Wave along with other rebels and out and out independents, his reputation among many had soured. The critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, including those like Godard who had become filmmakers, disowned him, as a suspect establishment figure, when they once worshipped the very ground he walked upon, while they walked a route that, in his view, he paved for them. This mutiny was political in nature, in a sense beyond just moviemaking. Cahiers increasing left-wing turn jarred with Melville’s pronounced apoliticism, or rather a right-leaning, even chauvinistic, perspective. His films however, like the dialogic, psychodrama Léon Morin, Priest (1961), often work around or complicate, not just reflected, this worldview.
All of this and more is chewed over in a single, compact text; Honor Among Thieves: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, authored by Andrew Dickos and published by Contra Mundum Press. Writing in a lucid but not too clipped prose style, Dickos has synthesized an astute, pocket compendium on the man and his art. Rather than take a straight linear approach, the book’s fleet, 150 or so pages — excluding a further hundred pages of endnotes, a filmography and other back matter material — is divided into two primary sections. The first 54 pages come under the title ‘The Guy in the Trench Coat’. A birth-to-death critical biography, which gives a rundown of his background, his influences, his career, its production contexts, and his legacy, with short assessments and readings of each of his thirteen features. The remainder of the book proper is non-linear, looking at his artistry in clusters, from various different angles; from an analysis of his early years; his first short and feature adaptations of Vercors and Cocteau, to his wider standing as a French artist, to the influence of his war experiences, his treatment of the noir genre, the standing of women in his work and his favourite male muses.
It is a multi-lensed treatment then, with Dickos taking up and flitting between auteurist, industrial, feminist, historical and genre-minded readings, fleshing out several truisms in order to build a positive, three-dimensional portrait. Melville, as the transatlantic whisperer is complemented with an examination of his French influences, or his all-around Gallicism, and Dickos adroitly describes his cinephilia as deeply felt, but as a determinant in his work, more ambient than overtly present. His cinema took American moves, “digested” and then variegated them with other memories and preoccupations. A process distinct from the non-illusionist, “annotated” references of his former disciple, Godard.
Dickos perceives not only Melville the aesthete but Melville the ethnographer, of an unconventional sort. To watch his movies is to experience a cartography of the rhythms and textures of Paris circa 1950s through the early 70s, and a record of the hunted and haunting experience of being an agent of the resistance, minus any retroactive glossing. As Dickos summates, in reference to the masterpiece Army of Shadows (1967), the rebel’s reward is not laurel wreaths but omnipresent fear culminating with the “sombre glory” of a merciful death, if you are one of the lucky ones, that is.
Sombre is the note of the day for many of Melville’s men. For Dickos, the primary mien of his masculinity personified is a serious, melancholy but artful professionalism. All of this focus on men has long laid the charge of misogyny on Melville’s stead. Dickos largely acquiesces when it comes to the gangster films but is most committed, and convincing, in overturning that conception when it comes to the wartime films. These films are streaked and bustled by the presence of women like Simone Signoret’s Mathilde, the tough as nails and tragic operative in Army of Shadows, or Emmanuelle Riva’s conflicted, single mother in Leon Morin, Priest, at an entwined political, spiritual and sexual impasse. You can go right back to the near-beginning with Le Silence de la mer and find Nicole Stéphane’s nameless, young woman. Her obstinate silence outpaces and overwhelms both Howard Vernon’s chatterbox of a Nazi lieutenant, who has all the power but plenty of neuroses and naivety too, or even her uncle. Determinedly mute on the surface, but stumbling and timid within his dark interior.
That film, with its unusual interposition of two running monologues, one exterior and the other interior, its expressionistic lighting as well as its camera moves, staging and performance styles reminiscent of Dreyer and anticipatory of later Bresson and Duras, is for Dickos, evidence of how inventive a formalist Melville was from the get-go. And while he was often off-hand or non-communicative when it came to his approach to directing actors or casting, describing it essentially as an unconscious, automatic process, there are some unusual, inspired choices in his career. Most notably the casting of sinewy, ex-boxer Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose persona was that of a roguish, amoral charmer, wonderfully against-type as the eponymous, intellectual Leon Morin, Priest. Both Melville and Belmondo had the inspiration and daring to suggest that, as forbidden fruit, there is mutual magnetism between the tough and soulful vagabond and the unexpectedly dissident and virile man of the cloth.
If there is any dissatisfaction, it’s nagging, not substantial, and located in the tension between the text’s comprehensive character and its brevity, just a hair above monograph length. It doesn’t have the burrowing depth of a lengthy biography or of a more specific reading. At times, against my better judgment in my attempt to be a more neutral reader, I found myself wishing that this very well-planned and maintained path was strayed from more. For instance, Melville’s influence on Hong Kong cinema is essentially limited to the mention of a dedication at the beginning of John Woo’s The Killer (1989) and a couple of scant quotes from Woo himself. On the other hand, his star shines brightly over the cinema of Ringo Lam and, especially, Johnnie To. It could be argued that his influence has penetrated more deeply into the style and philosophy of a To than Godard or Truffaut. And yet for obvious, historical reasons it makes more sense to spend a greater share of the word count on his rocky relationship to the Nouvelle Vague, than any other group or single filmmaker. Even if that subject has become a tad overtread. Regardless of such qualms, Honor Among Thieves: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville is a well-researched and written primer for one of French cinema’s greatest mad mercenaries and lionhearts.
Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]