Category Archives: Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Silence de la mer (1949)

When Jean-Pierre Melville released his first movie, he was 32 years old, a veteran of the French Resistance, and had never had any formal training in film-making. Le Silence de la mer, however, displays the supreme confidence of an artist who knows he has found a story only he can tell. Jean Bruller’s iconic short novel, which was written during German occupation of France, and dedicated to Saint-Pol-Roux, “the murdered poet,” could not have been adapted to film by a graduate of NYU or the Lodz Film School. Too much cinematic technique would have spoiled it. Only a French patriot and a member of the resistance, more importantly, only a man who loved French literature, someone who understood narrative and internal monologue, could have brought the story to life. Nobody fit that description better than Jean-Pierre Melville.

Jean Pierre Melville — He was Jewish. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. — displays almost no personal animosity towards the Germans. Patriotism, for Melville, is not jingoism. While he certainly wants to see France liberated from the Nazi occupation, he has no desire to see France, or the United States, crush Germany. What’s genuinely striking, in fact, about Le Silence de la mer, is the way Jean Bruller, who wrote under the name Vercors, and Melville almost seem to predict the European Union. Try to imagine a war between France and Germany — or either country and the United Kingdom — today. There’s a reason America liberals, American jingoism notwithstanding, look to Western Europe as a better, more civilized, more prosperous version of the United States. The idea of a united, democratic Europe, which would inevitably be dominated by the French and the Germans, worked, at least for a time. But it’s not a French resistance fighter who articulates the higher ideal of a united Europe. It’s the German occupier.

It’s 1941.Werner von Ebrennac, a Wermacht Lieutenant, is quartered in the house of an elderly Frenchman and his 20-something niece. This is the very definition of repression. The Quartering Act of 1774, after all, was one of the main causes of the American Revolution. But the old Frenchman and his niece are not the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. They’re too weak to fight the Germans openly. The Battle of France is over, and the resistance is still tiny. They could, of course, murder von Ebrennac in his sleep, and they’d be well-within their rights to do so. But, as we see as the film progresses, von Ebrennac doesn’t really deserve to be murdered. So the old man and his niece opt for a different strategy, passive resistance.

They refuse to speak to von Ebrennac, not a word, not a “hello” or a “good morning,” not a “good night,” not even a “go fuck yourself you fucking Krauthead.” They simply pretend he doesn’t exist. You might point out that compared to what people in eastern Europe were going through at the hands of the Germans, the French had it easy. I’ve heard John Merriman, for example, the Yale professor of French history, poke fun at the idea of “passive resistance” in the form of a French bourgeoisie who pats himself on the back for being rude to a German at the Paris opera house. But Vercors and Melville are artists, not historians. Melville was well aware that, as a Jew and a member of the resistance, had he been captured by the Gestapo, he would have been tortured for weeks before being sent to Auschwitz. What Vercors and Melville are interested in are the effects of a military occupation on an occupied people and on their occupier. What does it do to your soul to realize that your occupier is not a monster at all, but a sympathetic human being? What does it do to the soul of the occupier, who’s an educated and cultured, if deluded and propagandized man, that the people he rules over obey him not out of love or respect, but only through fear, that while he may win their compliance, he will never win their “hearts and minds.”

For a sadist, the fear is part of the appeal. Vercors had no illusions about how most of the German officer corps in 1941 was made up of men who enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. The novel Le Silence de la mer is, after all, dedicated to Saint-Pol-Roux, “the murdered poet.” Saint-Pol-Roux, who was 79 in 1941 and his daughter are the model for the uncle, played by Jean-Marie Robain, and the niece, played by Nicole Stéphane, a member of the Rothschild family and a future companion of Susan Sontag. What happened to Saint-Pol-Roux is too horrible for words. Every Frenchman reading the novel, and its dedication, would have been well aware of Saint-Pol-Roux’s fate.

“During the night of 22 to 23 June 1940,” Wikipedia tells us, “a drunken German soldier invaded the manor, killed the family’s faithful governess, raped Saint-Pol-Roux’s daughter Divine, and seriously injured her in the leg with a revolver bullet. Saint-Pol-Roux miraculously escaped death in the incident, but was later taken to hospital in Brest on October 14, where he died of a broken heart when he heard that the manor had burned down with his unpublished manuscripts inside.”

But von Ebrennac is no sadist, and no drunken brute. He doesn’t want fear. He doesn’t want simple compliance. In fact, his sense of inferiority to the old man and his daughter gets at the heart of the kind of inferiority complex the German people once had towards the French and English, that kind of psychological inadequacy that would move a nation to declare itself “the master race.” He doesn’t even want their “hearts and minds” or sex with the niece, with whom he falls in love. He wants a “marriage” of Germany and France, a commingling of two nations, the masculine Germans, and the feminine, cultured French, he feel make up for each other’s shortcomings.

For Vercors, a member of the resistance, to explore the idea that a Nazi officer could express a noble, uplifting outlook on life was an act of disciplined creativity. It would have been far too easy just to paint the Germans as drunken brutes and tell the horrible story of the attack on Saint-Pol-Roux and the loss of his unpublished manuscripts. That would have been propaganda, not art. Melville’s masterstroke is in his casting of Howard Vernon, a homely man with a striking resemblance to Eddie Constantine, the star of Godard’s Alphaville. Vernon, who was mainly cast in roles as gangsters or villains –- supposedly his Swiss accent was considered vulgar and common in France –- plays von Ebrennac as a man trapped in a body he hates. His stiff, tentative movements, his mask-like face, his haunted, otherworldly expression dramatize the tragedy of the occupier. Melville doesn’t hate von Ebrennac. He feels sorry for him.

Melville and Vercors don’t hate the German people, but they’re angry at the German people. How could a people with such a grand culture, one capable of giving the world Beethoven and Goethe, follow Hitler into madness and barbarism? The old man and his niece, in effect, by their silence, save von Ebrennac’s soul. France saves Germany. The more they ignore him, the more von Ebrennac digs down into himself for some flash of inspiration, some poetic words, anything that will get the niece’s attention. But the more he tries, the more we see what a deluded, propagandized man he really is. He admires French literature, unaware of how the German government eventually intends to impose a strict regime of censorship on the French people designed to destroy their culture. He tells them the story of Beauty and the Beast, the beast being Germany and beauty the French. He believes that by subjugating the French, Germany, like the beast, will eventually reveal itself to be a handsome prince. He reads them passages from Macbeth, admitting that Germany, like Macbeth, seized power illegitimately and only rules through fear, mistakenly thinking that if a tyrant admits that he’s a tyrant to the people he tyrannizes over he’ll stop being a tyrant. Try to imagine a cop arresting you and whining about how tough it is to be a cop.

Von Ebrennac finally “gets it” when he goes on a trip to Paris and gets to know his fellow German officers. They tell him about Treblinka and the death camps. They brag about how the current occupation is a mild one designed to flatter the French people. France, as the other great nation in western Europe, will eventually have to be destroyed to make way for the 1000 Year Reich. He meets an old friend, who, unlike the old Frenchman and his niece, has in fact been conquered by the Nazis, not only in body, but in his very soul. To his horror, von Ebrennac realizes that Nazism will destroy everything noble about German culture. That it took him until 1941 to realize it may perhaps put him in a bad light, but how many Americans in the 1960s ever realized what their country was doing to Vietnam, and what occupying Vietnam was doing to their country. High level German army officers actually tried to assassinate Hitler. What high level American army officer ever tried to assassinate Richard Nixon?

But von Ebrennac, like any liberal, never goes far enough. He confesses to the old man and his niece that he now realizes how evil the German government is, but instead of joining the French Resistance or flying off to London, he volunteers to fight on the Russian front. Doesn’t he know that, in Russia, he’ll commit war crimes 1000 times worse than any he would commit in France? Does he know that he stands a better chance of dying at Stalingrad than he would in the French Resistance, or as a double agent? Perhaps he does, and, perhaps, he’s suicidal. More likely, von Ebrennac’s decision to go to Russia, and probably die, is Melville’s way of telling us that he never quite gets out from under Nazi propaganda. He’s still a German nationalist willing to “obey orders,” made pointedly obvious by a quote the old man highlights in a volume of Anatole France.

“It’s a noble thing for a soldier to obey an illegal order.”

Or perhaps it’s Melville’s own conservative politics that make it impossible for him to imagine a better alternative for von Ebrennac than going off to the Eastern front to fight communism. Indeed, inside the command post von Ebrennac is assigned to there is a poster. “Le Socialisme contre le Bolchevisme.” Was Jean-Pierre Melville a Gaulist after all?

The idea of “socialism against Bolshevism” isn’t exactly a Nazi idea. It’s the Cold War liberalism of Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, and Western European social democracy. Cahiers de Cinema, in 1968, would bury Melville’s much greater film, Army of Shadows. By the late 1960s, de Gaulle, and Melville, were considered dinosaurs of the old French center-right. Cahier de Cinema would eventually recognize that Army of Shadows is by far and away, a more politically progressive film. But it would take them until the 1990s to do it. Perhaps Melville ultimately paid for his decision to send von Ebrennac to join Hitler’s army of conquest in the Soviet Union, and for his anti-communism. It so, it’s a testament to a stunning debut film by a man who was only 32, and who had never been to film school. Le Silence de la Mer, indeed, will haunt you for years after you see it for the first time.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Bob le flambeur, or Bob the High Roller, an early film by Jean-Pierre Melville, set the template for so many later American “heist” movies that, at first glance, it’s almost difficult to write about. The characters will all seem familiar. You have Bob, the veteran, 50-something gambler who wants to make one big score before retiring, Anne, the teenage girl eager to begin a life as a petty criminal, Paulo, Bob’s dimwitted 20-something sidekick, Marc, the woman beater and ex-pimp coerced by the police into turning informer, and a supporting cast of petty criminals, cops, and bohemian low lifes. The plot will seem familiar to anybody who’s seen one of the Steven Soderbergh “Oceans” films. A crack team of criminals comes together to do a “job” in an exotic, romantic location. Something goes wrong. There’s an ironic plot twist. The ending leaves an opening for a sequel.

If you look more closely, however, you’ll begin to notice how most of the American remakes of Bob le flambeur pulled it out of a political and cultural context that every Frenchman in the 1950s would have understood. Bob Montagné lives in a duplex in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre. It’s not quite what you would call luxurious, but he does have a tall pair of windows that look out over The Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Actually, the view is even better than I’m describing it. The Sacré-Cœur Basilica  fills his pair of windows, a vision of heaven shimmering in the distance. For an American, the The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is “that big white church up on the hill in Paris.” It’s a pretty postcard, nothing more. For an Irish Catholic like Bono, it was a great place to stage a U2 video. But for a Frenchman, The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is the “victory mosque” built by the French ruling class over the mass grave of the Paris Commune. For “Montmartre,” substitute “Berkeley in the 60s” or “Kent State,” then multiply that times one hundred. For an American, Montmartre is a romantic, far off, exotic place. For a Frenchman, Montmartre is the ancient capitol of French radicalism, of the Jacobins, of the Paris Commune, of the militant French working class.

Bob Montagné, a role George Clooney was born to play, may be an elegant, silver-haired, middle-aged gentleman, but he’s no bourgeois. As Melville makes clear when he has Bob take Anne  back to the ratty little shack where his mother lived, Bob is a slum kid. Montmartre isn’t a far-off exotic place. It’s his home town. Well into middle-age, Bob is still scamming his way through life. Anne is no victim. She’s a shameless little hussy, but Bob knows she’s on a dead-end road. She won’t always be young and pretty. Eventually, if she doesn’t change her ways, she’ll just be another saggy, washed-up old whore on the streets of Paris. But how will she, or Bob’s sidekick Paulo, change their ways? The French class system has condemned all of them to the choice between a dull, soul crushing life in the working class, or the ante-purgatory of the Montmartre ghetto. Montmartre, the film’s narrator tells us, is “a little piece of heaven and a little piece of hell.”

I have read critical essays on Bob le Flambeur which have argued that part of Bob’s respect in his little corner of Montmartre comes from the idea that he’s an old school, 1930s crime figure in the 1950s, that he comes from a generation of petty thieves and gamblers that refused to collaborate with the Nazis. I don’t know enough about the history of organized crime in France to make any guesses about how Bob made his living during the German occupation. He did spend time in prison, so perhaps he sat the whole thing out behind bars, but it’s clear that there’s now a workable equilibrium between the French state and the underworld in Montmartre. The police like Bob. He’s a criminal and they’re the police, but there’s never any personal animosity. The cops wink at small time gambling and prostitution. Pimps, on the other hand, are despised equally, both by Bob — who’s quick to offer a loan to Marc, another petty criminal, until he realizes he’s an ex-pimp and a woman beater— and by the police, who put the screws on Marc to become an informer.

What happens when that equilibrium breaks down?

The police tell Marc they’re not interested in gambling or prostitution. Neither threatens the French class system as it stands. What they want is “something big.” That’s what they get when Bob, after losing his life savings at a fancy, seaside casino in Deauville — imagine the French version of The Hamptons — comes up with the idea of robbing their safe, a high-tech marvel with four locks and a lift that brings it down underground after closing time. The safe, which, supposedly, contains 800 million Francs, is the way out, Bob’s vision of transcending his roots as a Montmartre slum kid. Not only will that 800 million Francs allow Bob to retire, just planning the heist makes him CEO of his own little company. He finds investors. He strong arms a casino employee, another ex-pimp who doesn’t want his employers to find out about his past, into giving him a floor plan, and the make and model of the safe. He hires a technical expert, a master safe cracker who breaks locks with a stethoscope and an oscilloscope.

Then everything goes wrong.

Bob’s sidekick Paulo, who’s deeply in love with Anne — she can take him or leave him — tries to impress her by bragging about the big job he and Bob have planned. Anne, who doesn’t take Paulo seriously, brags to Marc, who she’s sleeping with on the side. Marc promises to tell the cops. Paulo murders him before can follow through on it, more out of jealousy over Anne than to protect the job, but the wife of Bob’s inside man at the casino come up with her own scheme to get her husband off the hook and  Bob locked up. A skilled professional thief, of course, would immediately call off the job, but it’s not that easy. Bob is committed. He’s already got investors. Robbing the seaside casino has the call of fate. It’s now or never. It’s his last chance. So they go through with it. Bob takes his place as a “lookout” at one of the gambling tables. His crews gets in place. The cops prepare a raid. Then Bob’s luck changes, all for the good. But it’s too late, and the movie ends with a question.

What happens when the unstoppable force of a streak of good luck meets up with the immovable object of a cursed fate?

Le Samouraï (1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï has had a profound effect on everything about American culture from Michael Jackson’s look in the 1980s to the Jim Jarmusch remake in 1999, but is it a good movie?

As a technical exercise in film making, to answer “yes” would be a ridiculous understatement. Jean-Pierre Melville is such a master of lighting, pacing, and visual composition that Le Samouraï easily ranks with some of the greatest films ever made. The chase scenes through the Paris Metro make even good American films like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 or The French Connection look amateurish by comparison. The use of technology like car phones, pagers, wireless microphones, and reel to reel tape recorders is integrated so seamlessly into the plot that nothing looks remotely obsolete, even 47 years later. What filmmaker in 2014, French or American, could make something that looks this good?

As storytelling, Le Samouraï is a bit more difficult to judge. Is Jeff Costello, Melville’s contract killer played by Alain Delon, more style than substance? Do we care what happens to him? If Melville has a lighter, more assured touch in Le Samouraï than he does in Army of Shadows, then it’s partly because he has so much less to work with. The stakes are much lower. Army of Shadows asks whether or not it’s moral to kill a man, or a woman in cold blood, even if it means helping to protect the French Resistance against the Gestapo. In Le Samouraï, we either suspend our moral judgment or we don’t. Jeff Costello doesn’t kill a Nazi or a Vichy traitor. He shoots a nightclub owner, and a crime boss. We either accept that a murderer for hire can be a sympathetic human being, or we turn the movie off, and walk out of the theater.

Or maybe we don’t. Perhaps the whole point about Le Samouraï is that style is substance and substance style. Until the very last from of the movie, we have no idea if Jeff Costello is an honorable man or not. But Alain Delon is beautiful to look at. Brian De Palma’s clumsy knockoff of Costello as Frank Nitti in his film The Untouchables captures nothing of his style or existential cool. For that, turn to the classic song by Sade, Smooth Operator. I have no idea if Sade was thinking of Melville’s film when she wrote her ode to her heartless, yet elegant lover, but I do suspect that for a lot of black women Alain Delon was, at one time, an ideal “fancy man,” to use the label the film’s brutal yet intelligent police inspector pins on him.

Le Samouraï opens in the apartment of Jeff Costello, the samurai, a 30-year-old contract killer living in Paris. That it’s a dilapidated hole with nothing but an unmade bed, a case of mineral water, and a pet bird is testament to Melville’s cinematography. It doesn’t matter. The lighting is so beautiful, it’s hard to imagine not wanting to be his roommate. Costello puts on a tan raincoat and a hat, walks down onto the street, steals a car, a Citroen, the only kind of car he seems to steal, and takes it to a chop shop. There he gets a new set of license plates and a gun before going to work. First he visits Jane La Grange, his mistress. She’s a blonde, Julie Christie lookalike who lives in a luxurious apartment bankrolled by her older lover. Jeff knows all about the older man and the older man knows all about Jeff. Neither of them care, but that, as we’ll see later, is the point. Having established one part of his alibi, Costello drops in on a card game, establishing the second.

Then he does the job. He walks into a nightclub, makes brief eye contact with a black woman who sings and plays the piano, goes to the office, and shoots the owner dead. Why Jeff Costello’s employers wanted the man dead is never explained. Maybe he owed them money. Many he wanted to cut in on their turf, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the piano player has witnessed the murder. While, normally, a careful, methodical hit man like Jeff Costello would just shoot a witness as a matter of course, here he doesn’t. Is it sexual attraction? Is it a sense of honor. The pianist is obviously an innocent woman. Or is it something different? Earlier in the day Costello had made brief eye contact with a woman who looks very much like a white version of the pianist — that there are critics who mistakenly believe they’re the same woman is testament to Melville’s skill as a filmmaker — who was, quite possibly, a real woman, and also, quite possibly, the angel of death.

Jeff Costello, whatever his profession, still has a code of honor. If this code of honor is embodied in his personal style, then so is his behaviour. Why wear a getup that makes him so recognizable, a tan raincoat and a hat that gives him the appearance of a model out of a men’s fashion magazine? Why not just disguise himself as a deliveryman? Perhaps it would make him something that he’s not.

After the police round up the “usual suspects,” a lot of “usual suspects,” everybody in their corner of the Parisian underworld wearing a hat and a trench coat, Jeff Costello is a hunted man. Jane La Grange and her older, sugar daddy provide the alibi, and the cops let him go, but there’s no question that from the moment he arrives at the police station, he’s not the primary, but the only suspect. To make matters even worse, the gangsters who hired him to kill the nightclub owner now want to kill him. Why didn’t he shoot the witness? Why did he get arrested? He escapes an assassination attempt, but knows they’ll be back.

Costello is now alone, on the wrong side of both the police and the underworld. The police know he did it. It’s now only a matter of proving that he did. Why are they so sure? It’s never explained. Maybe it was the older man. Was he tipping off the cops by making the alibi just a bit too good? He’s no competition for the handsome Costello, and he knows it. I suspect he was. What better way to get rid of his rival. But it doesn’t work. The beautiful Jane La Grange, who occupies an uncertain land somewhere between high-class prostitute and kept woman, has no intention of betraying Jeff Costello. However hard the police lean on her, they can’t break her loyalty. So they transfer their efforts to the pianist, who, like Jane La Grange, covered for Costello, even though she knows very well that he was the man who murdered her employer.

Jeff Costello, in other words, owes his life to both a black woman and a white woman.

If some people were surprised when Jean-Pierre Melville turned his attention from gangster films to make Army of Shadows, they should have watched Le Samouraï more closely. Jeff Costello may be a mere killer for hire who killed a corrupt night club owner, but the police mobilize a dragnet and a sophisticated surveillance net as surely as if he were Jean Moulin himself. Indeed, the mass roundup of men with hats and trench coats, the attempt to bully Jane La Grange, the wireless microphones, and pursuit through the Paris Metro are, perhaps, a more vivid depiction of a totalitarian state closing in on a doomed man then anything in Army of Shadows. If Melville hinted at the connection between the Resistance and the underworld in Army of Shadows, it’s difficult to miss it here. Criminals, like members of a terrorist group or a resistance cell, are the only people who can resist tyrany. After the gangsters hire Jeff Costello for a second job, to kill the pianist, we realize they no longer want him dead. If he does the job, he’s off the hook. But how can he? Would Jean-Pierre Melville, a Jew and a hero in an anti-fascist resistance movement, write a film where the hero escapes with a blond, blue-eyed mistress at the expense of murdering an innocent black woman, and one who covered for him, in cold blood? Costello is doomed, A Samurai, the Code of Bushido tells us, has only one purpose in life, to die. Costello knows his time has come. The only thing left is to check out in style, like a gentleman.