Jean-Pierre Melville's brooding cinema surveyed on FilmStruck | Bleader

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Jean-Pierre Melville's brooding cinema surveyed on FilmStruck

Posted By on 07.31.18 at 06:00 AM

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click to enlarge Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai
  • Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai
French director Jean-Pierre Melville is featured this week on the streaming channel FilmStruck. Beginning in the 1940s, he created a body of work that furthers the brooding quality of American film noir, and his films influenced everyone from the French New Wave directors to Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino. Check out these five key Melville features:

The Silence of the Sea
Melville made this film, his first, in 1948 on a minuscule budget and without securing the rights to the famous resistance novel (by Vercors) it was based on. It's an allegory of French-German relations during the occupation, played out largely in a single sitting room where a German officer (Howard Vernon) bares his soul in endless monologues for his silent, unwilling French "hosts" (Nicole Stephane and Jean-Marie Robain). The minimalism of the material anticipates Bresson, while the theatrical dash of the staging suggests the strong influence of Orson Welles. Though too often abstract and rhetorical, the film is sustained by mood and visual resourcefulness; it's a strong debut for Melville, who went on to become one of the great eccentrics of the French cinema (Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai). In French with subtitles. 88 min. —Dave Kehr

Bob le Flambeur
This light, breezy 1955 heist film is probably the least characteristic movie Melville ever made. It replaces his sternly fatalistic philosophizing with a benign, genuinely comic spirit, and his rigidly classical style yields to a pleasant informality. Yet the characters—professional gamblers, craftsmanly safecrackers—and their code are recognizably Melvillian, and the portrait of Pigalle after dark is superbly evocative and romantic. The plot—a gambler on a streak of bad luck plans the robbery of the Deauville casino—is largely lifted from The Asphalt Jungle, though the suspense has been wittily inverted: we're made to hope that the robbery doesn't come off. In French with subtitles. 100 min. —Dave Kehr

Two Men in Manhattan
Melville brings his particular brand of moral rot to New York City for this hard-boiled mystery (1959), which feels like a Hollywood release but trades in such taboo elements as prostitution, lesbianism, and full-frontal nudity. A reporter from the French press agency (Melville in his only starring role) is dispatched to track down a vanished delegate to the United Nations; accompanied by a greedy and unfeeling paparazzo (Pierre Grasset), he follows a trail of sexually available women back to the missing diplomat, but the truth is unpublishable. The story is full of Melville's ethical shadings and complications, and the nighttime street scenes, shot by Nicolas Hayer, are dazzling, a foreigner's delirious vision of Manhattan after dark. 85 min. —J.R. Jones

Le Samourai
Melville's 1967 story of a lonely hit man (Alain Delon) is stylish and elegant, though not really the holy writ that Quentin Tarantino and John Woo have claimed. Though Melville sustained himself with American-style thrillers in the last decade of his life, his best versions of American noir arguably remain the earlier ones in black and white (my own favorite is 1966's Le Deuxieme Souffle). This one certainly has its moments (particularly the coordinated police chase through the Paris Métro), but its women characters are faintly ridiculous, while the men are mainly suave icons. Henri Decae's brilliant color cinematography finds something metallic blue gray in virtually every shot, and the film is alluring as long as one remains captivated by its mannerist and slightly monotonous style. Despite a hefty (and fabricated) quote from The Book of Bushido about the loneliness of the samurai, this is all about attitude and machismo rather than soul, which is why it winds up feeling somewhat flat. Based on Joan McLeod's novel The Ronin. In French with subtitles. 101 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Le Cercle Rouge
Melville's austere heist film, made in 1970, was his next to last; it opens with a Buddhist aphorism about fate binding two men to meet again, and ends with a police chief pronouncing all men ultimately guilty. Two prisoners return to society—Corey (Alain Delon) has served his sentence and is released, while Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) escapes from a speeding train. They team up with a sharpshooting ex-cop to mount an exquisite jewel theft. Melville renders the taciturn crooks and corrupt inspectors with the nocturnal blue palette that is his signature. Key action points are edited with finesse, but the denouement, with its dutiful hail of gunfire, is heartless and mechanical. With Yves Montand, André Bourvil, and François Périer. In French with subtitles. 140 min. —Bill Stamets

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