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GEOFF ANDREW ON JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE
Simon Hitchman, July 2017

Geoff Andrew
Geoff Andrew, BFI Head of Film Programme

Taking place throughout August and September, BFI Southbank will present VISIONS OF THE UNDERWORLD, a comprehensive two month season dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), in this, his centenary year. In anticipation of this major retrospective, newwavefilm.com interviews the season’s curator and Programmer-at-large at the British Film Institute, Geoff Andrew about the influences that shaped Melville and the defining characteristics of his cinematic vision.

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Le Doulos

Yes, we’re showing everything, including a short he made about a circus clown, which was long thought lost. Melville’s career seems, I think, to split fairly clearly into two parts. There are his early films, which are quite varied in style, seemingly quite ambitious and arty, a little uneven perhaps, but they’re all interesting. And then he suddenly changes gear and with Le Doulos, he starts making, I wouldn’t call them austere, but very pared-back stylised crime films, which he regarded as commercial films because a lot of his early films didn’t do very well. He’d been revered by the Nouvelle Vague critics, who liked the fact that he was shooting on location when he made films like Bob le flambeur and Deux hommes dans Manhattan, which are sort of crime films, but only marginally so. And they liked his rather throwaway approach. But then when the Nouvelle Vague became popular he suddenly changed his style as if to say, ‘I don’t want to be categorized’. Although he then made films that a lot of people could categorize, or felt they could, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple myself.

I think there were two really great influences, well three perhaps. One was America. He eventually took the name of the American writer Herman Melville [Ed: Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach], mainly because he needed it during the war when he was with the resistance, but he kept it anyway, and he was very much in awe of American culture. And then the second influence is American movies, and particularly the movies of the Thirties. He famously made a list of sixty-three great Hollywood directors, leaving out Chaplin who he thought was God, and leaving out Raoul Walsh who he didn’t like at all. But he was very much a cinephile before the Nouvelle Vague became renowned for that. And then the third influence was the war and his time in the Resistance, which I think really shaped him. Because when you look at his crime films, indeed nearly all of his films, they’re nearly all about trust and betrayal, and of course, those were the things that mattered when you were in the Resistance.

Le Silence de la mer

I think the most distinctive of those three is Le Silence de la mer, and that was made under rather strange circumstances. He set up his own studio because he was not happy with the French unions – I think he felt they were a bunch of commies – and he wanted to make it his own way. He also didn’t bother getting the rights of the novel by Vercors and went ahead and shot it anyway. It’s basically a very interior film, with three characters and a lot of voice over, and two of the characters don’t really speak. It’s really about people’s thoughts and emotions regarding one another, but those emotions are largely unspoken. And it sort of paved the way for a lot of films that followed, particularly those of Bresson. It’s a rather wonderful film, though quite strange. Les Enfants terribles is also very interior, in the sense of claustrophobic. And Quand tu liras cette lettre is somewhat different; it’s more of a melodrama. But it’s rather interesting, because it does have some depiction of the underworld in Provence at the time, which is slightly Americanised because it’s a Melville film, but it’s not one of his best.

Bob Le Flambeur

I think because he loved American movies. And I think he was seduced by a certain romanticism about these people: they’re outsiders and loners, most of them. But Bob le flambeur is a strange one because it doesn’t have the rigour of the later films – it feels very relaxed. And it’s also like a love letter to Paris, particularly Paris at a certain time of day – either very late at night, or early morning, when most people have gone home and the reprobates are still out on the streets. It’s an interesting film but not actually one of my favourites. I mean it’s nowhere near as good as the later crime movies, but it’s not really meant to be a crime film in the same way they are.

Well most of them were cinephiles themselves, but also, I think, they were slightly in awe of Hollywood films. It may have been a love/hate relationship – particularly with Godard – but in Melville they saw an older person who was a bit like they were. I also think they must have admired him because of his compete independence -- even when he was working with Cocteau, he stood up to Cocteau. Les Enfants terribles doesn’t feel like a Cocteau film, even though it’s based on material by Cocteau. It feels much more like a Melville film. And he formed his own company and his own studio right from the beginning, and stayed that way until his death. So I think they would have envied that and admired it.

Melville

I don’t think he was overly interested in women. It’s interesting when Godard cast him in Breathless he plays a writer called Parvulesco, and he makes some fairly outrageous statements about women in that – although they may seem outrageous to us, I’m not sure they would have seemed outrageous to Godard. But it was a long time ago.

Certainly their iconography – I mean these men are always in trench coats and hats, and they nearly always carry a gun, and they’re nearly always very laconic. They’re not like real criminals at all; they’re like movie criminals. And they’re not even like American criminals; they’re sort of like a French version of American gangsters. It’s all about style and mythologies. The look is incredibly important, but there are some other things. There’s a very melancholy tone to these films. A lot of them take place at twilight, and they’re about people who are not feeling great about their position in life. They’re often a bit desperate and usually trying to do one last job before going on to doing something else. So they are a bit melancholy in a very fatalistic, romantic way.

But the other thing is – and this is what makes them so interesting – is that although they work beautifully as crime movies with wonderfully executed action sequences, robberies, whatever – what really animates them, and makes them so special, is his interest in the ethics of what these people are up to. He’s not saying crime is wrong, or crime is great, but it’s all about professionalism and a sense of honour, loyalty to your friends and colleagues, distrust, betrayal and traitors. Again that’s coming from his time in the Resistance. So much time is spent in these films, not exactly discussing these things, but the characters are obsessed with the question of – am I doing the right thing? And, are my colleagues and partners doing the right thing? Often Melville makes it quite explicit in captions at the start of the films about the importance of the right way to live, the right way to die. And that’s what makes them special, because most crime films are not actually about ethics, but these are in almost an obsessive way.

Melville

Well, for instance, in Le Deuxième souffle, the main character Gu Minda, played by Lino Ventura, is somebody who’s escaped from prison and wants to get out of France. He has to do one last robbery to get the money, and after that he wants to retire. Of course, we know from the start, it’s probably a doomed dream on his part. But it’s all about who he can trust, and it’s about him doing the right thing towards his friends and colleagues. Now towards the end he’s tricked by the police into betraying one of his friends. He didn’t do it knowingly, he didn’t do it intentionally, but when he finds out that he has betrayed his friend – even though he didn’t mean to – even though there’s no way he could have avoided it – he goes completely berserk, and erupts in guilt and shame and anger because his action was wrong, even though his intention was perfectly good. I think that’s very typical of what happens in a lot of these films. In Le Samourai – it would be spoiler to tell you what happens at the end of the film – but the Delon character, Jeff Costello, his actions are what define him. And they’re not even rational actions towards the end, but they’re actions he feels he must carry out because that’s in his character.

Yes, in a way, they’re like a characters from a Howard Hawks movies. If you think of films like Only Angels Have Wings – there’s a similar concern with professionalism, and doing the right thing for one’s friends and colleagues.

Well, because he started making different sorts of films. He made films that they saw as much more mainstream, much more commercial – industrial product as opposed to these quirky arty things that he’d been making previously. I would imagine that they wouldn’t have got on that well anymore anyway, because Melville does seem to have been a slightly difficult person and not easy to get along with.

army of shadows

Yes, I think it’s the film where everything came together: his interest in genre filmmaking, his interest in questions of loyalty and betrayal, dignity and honour. But also it coincided with his own experience, which must surely have been – as the war was for so many who had to live through it – the defining experience of his life. He was decorated for his activities during the war, and it was clearly something that he was very proud of and something that meant a lot to him, but he’d probably lost friends too. I mean my two favourite Melville films are Le Douxième Souffle, which I think is his finest crime film, and L’Armée des ombres. And I think L’Armée has an emotional depth to it that the others don’t have.

Yes, that’s right. And it’s true that it has something in common with his best crime movies – the interest in betrayal, and loyalty, and a certain sort of iconography – but it’s not actually that close to them. Not even with Le Deuxième souffle, which is the most so-called realistic of his crime films. Even there it’s a sort of idealised depiction of the underworld, where they have these ridiculous bars that you always get in Melville films, with women prancing around smoking cigarettes and goodness knows what else. But in L’Armée des ombres there isn’t that fantasy level, there isn’t that stylization; it’s much more pared away, and you feel he was really trying to recreate how it must have been for them.

Le Silence de la mer

Yes, his reputation did suffer a little bit, but in Britain L’Armée des ombres was revived at the Camden Plaza, and it played to very good audiences and very good reviews in the late 70s. Following that, the cinema I then worked at – The Electric Cinema – did a small Melville season. We couldn’t do a complete one, but we must have done seven or eight of the films. So I think people were regularly revisiting Melville’s films. It was difficult because in those days both Un Flic and Le Circle Rouge were only available in dubbed and cut versions, but there were still quite a lot of people who thought he was a master. Certainly Le Samourai was always around, and people wanted to see it, so I think, you know, Tarantino may have liked it – but there were plenty of people before he came along who were perfectly aware that Melville was a pretty great filmmaker. You can detect his influence in films such as The Driver by Walter Hill, and some of Michael Mann’s films, like Thief and Heat and The Insider. Any director interested in making crime films who came after him probably absorbed some of his influence.

A number of venues across the UK will, thanks to support from the BFI Film Audience Network, screen films by Jean-Pierre Melville in August and September, including Park Circus’ re-release of Le Doulos (back in cinemas from Friday 11 August); venues will include HOME Manchester, Edinburgh Filmhouse, and Watershed Bristol.

Interview by Simon Hitchman, © July 2017 - please do not reprint or reuse without permission.

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