April 8, 2012

Top 9 Jean-Pierre Melville Films

I made a decision out of the blue to seek out and watch as many films as I can by French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. This idea came to me when doing research on heist films and noticing a couple of Melville's films mentioned as noteworthy titles of the crime sub-genre. Two weeks later, here I am with a Top 9 list of Melville films. Of the fourteen films in his back catalog, only nine of them are readily-available in the United States - eight of which were given the Criterion treatment. I'd like to make this a monthly thing, where I pick a director, watch a bunch of that person's films, and rate them all, but we'll see how that goes; you all know how quickly I lose interest in shit.

#9 LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE (1966) - A criminal named Gu escapes from prison and hides out with his former colleagues, including an old flame named Manouche. Gu looks to move out of the country and settle down with Manouche, but he decides to dip his toe back into a life of crime before doing so in an attempt to make some money. He's recruited by a crime boss to partake in an exceptionally risky but seemingly well-planned heist, but with the persistent Inspector Blot on his tail, Gu's time as a free man could be coming to an end sooner than he thinks.

One thing I've noticed with Melville's films (a majority of which - if not all - he also wrote the screenplays for) is that he doesn't really go out of his way to explain what's going on. I normally appreciate it when a filmmaker just lets things establish themselves as the movie progresses, but in this case it's more confusing than anything. Often times a character's name will be mentioned, but you have no idea who they're talking about, so you're waiting for "Joey the Plumber" and "Frankie the Bricklayer" (I just made those names up) to come into the picture, but you have no idea it's them when they finally do. Does that make sense? As a whole, the is tedious because of its pacing and unnecessarily lengthy run-time. I struggled. Stellar performance from lead actor Lino Ventura, though, who worked with Melville on some other films as well.

#8 LÉON MORIN, PRIEST (1961) - Popular French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who worked with Melville on more than a couple of occasions, plays Father Morin - a priest in a small town in German-occupied France during World War II whose path crosses with that of a widow and atheist named Barny. In an attempt to protect her daughter, Barny gets her baptized despite her lack of faith. Seemingly out of boredom, she picks Father Morin at random and begins questioning the logic behind religion and essentially testing the priest, who responds unhesitatingly with answers that put the single mother in her place. Drawn to Father Morin because of his wisdom, Barny begins having private conversations with the priest in his quarters and soon converts to Catholicism, only to fall in love with him while knowing that a relationship will never materialize.

The first hour or so of LÉON MORIN, PRIEST is pretty outstanding because of the back and forth between a devout Catholic and an atheist and how it raises unbiased questions regarding religion. The fact that it's set against the backdrop of a Nazi occupation during World War II makes it all the more fascinating. However, once the second half of the film basically turns into a love story, it becomes rather uninteresting, or at least not nearly as interesting as the first half of the film. The romance aspect of the plot would have been much more effective, in my opinion, had the first half of the film not been as strong as it was. Long story short, the film just fell apart for me in the back end and lost me quite frankly. Jean-Paul Belmondo is great, though.

#7 LE DOULOS (1962) - According to some title cards at the beginning of the film, "Le Doulos" is the term for a snitch. The film begins by establishing a burglar, who eventually goes on to be involved in a robbery that goes horribly wrong. The burglar escapes with his life, but unfortunately it's not the case for his friend and colleague whose body is found by the police. The cops get involved and bring their informant into the picture; apparently the snitch knows the identity of the missing burglar but, for some reason, decides to cover it up and pretends he doesn't know who it is. This is a film where director Melville gives you just enough clues to get the gist of what's going on but leaves out enough information to force the viewer to pay attention and think. This is also a film that, like a majority of Melville's works, suffers from fairly slow pacing, which makes the "pay attention" part a bit of a task. The film is notable for a nine-minute, dialogue-heavy interrogation scene that was shot in a single take, but I admire the film for how effectively Melville applies misdirection in terms of the characters and the plot. A good film and one that Melville enthusiasts would probably consider one of his best, but it just didn't grab me.

#6 UN FLIC (1972) - Melville's final film before he died just a year after it was made. If you were to do some research on what some would consider to be the better heist films of the 70's, you'd probably see this film mentioned somewhere alongside Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE as noteworthy European entries. Here, Melville teams up with actor Alain Delon once again, with Delon playing a role on the other side of the law for once as a cop who attempts to track down a group of daring thieves. The catch (not a spoiler by the way) is that Delon's character is friends with one of the thieves, who he knows through his "day job" as the owner of a club. Unfortunately another surprise is ruined in the synopsis of the film depending on where you look. I wasn't blown away by this film as a whole, but it does feature one of the most tense and amazing - though somewhat ridiculous - heist sequences I've ever witnessed in a film. Also, Delon further proves with this film that he's quite possibly one of the coolest motherfuckers to ever set foot in front of a camera, and his character's tendency to slap people (which he does a lot in this film) is quite amusing.

#5 LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1950) - In terms of enjoyment, this film would probably be closer to the bottom of the list, but it's such a gorgeous and wonderfully-crafted film that I couldn't bring myself to place it anywhere near the bottom. Probably the most atypical of Melville's films and his second feature-length as a director, LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES is about terrible children indeed. A brother and sister spend the entire movie fighting, bickering, and playing a "game" that involves treating each other cruelly, in which the winner is simply the one who comes out unbroken by the harsh treatment. When their mother passes away early in the film, they isolate themselves from the world and exist within their own universe of melodrama, incestuous romance, and heartbreak.

As I already alluded to, the kids in this film (or rather teens) are absolutely rotten and they fit the stereotype of what most people would probably perceive the French to be like (arrogant, snobby, and fashionable!). Seeing as it's a very dialogue and performance-driven film, I spent a large portion of the movie staring at the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, which contributed to how unenjoyable my movie-watching experience was with this film. As I already said, though, it's a gorgeous film. The screenplay was written by Jean Cocteau who adapted it from one of his own novels, and while watching it, it seems very much like a Cocteau film rather than a product of Melville. The presentation of the film is very theatrical and similar to that of a stage play, and there's even an interesting musical interlude of sorts. Of all the Melville films that I've seen, this one has stuck with me the most.

#4 LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970) - Two criminals - a thief who just got out of prison, played by Alain Delon, and a murderer (Gian Maria Volonte from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) who escaped from prison - are united through sheer coincidence (or fate, depending on how you look at it) and subsequently team up to pull off a daring jewelry heist with the help of a former sharpshooter for the police. The cops, as per usual, come into the picture as a manhunt for the escaped convict ensues, leading the shockingly likable Inspector Mattei to discover his ties to the aforementioned heist which takes place smack-dab in the middle of the film.

LE CERCLE ROUGE was the Melville film I had been looking forward to the most, and while it didn't necessarily disappoint, it didn't fully live up to my expectations as one of the most amazing heist films out here either. Anticipation aside, I still found this to be a solid little heist film, as if its placement on my list wasn't enough of an indicator. This film, to me, was notable for a few things, namely how gorgeous it looks. Melville's color films are absolutely stunning, which is a testament to both Melville as a filmmaker with a good eye and the restoration and treatment that his movies were given by he fine folks at Criterion. Aside from that, the heist sequence is pure edge-of-your-seat cinema and one of my favorite things that Melville has ever shot. I also loved the character of the sharpshooter, Vogel, and his transformation from a drunk and a prisoner of his own home to a cleaned-up, distinguishable-looking man with some obvious knowledge in regards to planning heists.

#3 BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956) - Roger Duchesne plays Bob - a cool-as-ice former bank robber and current gambling addict. Along with two young street kids who he takes under his wing and a group of fellow degenerates, Bob plans to rob a casino. One of the great things about this movie is how it successfully leads you to believe that Bob is a suave cat when he's actually a fuck-up; sure he was a great thief once upon a time, but not great enough to avoid getting caught, and the words "losing streak" can best sum up his career as a gambler. Like I said, though, his failures in life and in crime pale in comparison to how cool he is. To me, this is also one of the better-paced of Melville's films and not as much of a chore to get through as other movies in his back catalog. The three lead actors are great as well. Deuchesne's performance is seemingly effortless. The young male actor who plays his apprentice, Daniel Cauchy, reminds me of Vincent Cassel in terms of appearance and, to a lesser extent, charisma. Isabelle Corey, who was only about seventeen or eighteen years-old when she starred in this, is absolutely stunning, and, coincidentally, her character in the film was discovered by Bob in the same way that she was supposedly discovered by Melville: walking on the streets of Montmarte. Finally, BOB LE FLAMBEUR has one of the best slaps in a film that I've ever seen.

#2 LE SAMOURAÏ (1967) - Melville's first color film sees Alain Delon playing an enigmatic and reclusive hitman named Jef. The film purposely features a lot of parallels to both Japanese cinema and culture for reasons that I needn't necessarily get into - the most blatant of which being a direct reference to "Bushido" at the start of the film. Jef kills a guy at a nightclub and, as always, the cops come into the picture, which leads to one of the most massive round-ups of possible suspects that I've ever seen in a film (the Chief of Police demands at least four-hundred suspects for the line-up!); it's as if Melville wanted to satisfy a trench-coat and fedora fetish while simultaneously breaking the record for the most stereotypical-looking Noir-types in a single scene. What ensues is a film that follows a mysterious hitman who lives in solitude and the determined cop who wants to take him down. It's a quiet film and a slow-burn with tons of similarities to crime films that followed it many years later, like GHOST DOG and DRIVE just to name a few. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is a mind-blowing film, but I do love certain aspects about it and think it could benefit greatly from repeat viewings. I love the look and style of the film and its muted color scheme, but most of all I love Alain Delon in this film. I haven't man-crushed this hard on a 70's European actor since Franco Nero.

#1 ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969) - One of, I believe, three films that Melville made that took place during World War II. Lino Ventura plays a civil engineer who narrowly escapes the clutches of the Gestapo and forms a small-scale resistance. Throughout the film there's a common understanding amongst the titular army of shadows that they're on a suicide mission and that to be captured or killed is imminent, which further adds to the bleak and depressing tone of the film that's perfectly matched with an accompanying aesthetic of muted blues and grays and an occasionally sinister, ominous score. Not the most enjoyable movie, but then again what serious film about World War II is? ARMY OF SHADOWS is a sluggish film that surpasses two hours in length (which is the case for more than a handful of Melville's films) and it's not an entertaining film by any means, but it's far from a chore to get through because of the subject matter. Initially I wasn't planning on putting this at the top of the list, but I'd be remiss to do so because of how well-made and brilliantly-acted it is. Oh, and Vincent Cassel's dad is in it!

1 comment:

  1. I try to get into B&W movies but it's really hard. I don't know why but I get bored very easily in B&W movies. The movie has to have an outstanding plot to keep me in.

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