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The Essentials: The 10 Greatest Jean-Pierre Melville Films

The Essentials: The 10 Greatest Jean-Pierre Melville Films

When sifting through the catalogue of illustrious French filmmakers, the pioneers and precursors to the French New Wave, those creators of a new cinematic language, immediately pop out. You know the ones; Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson, et al. Put them in a single room and somewhere in a shadowy corner, wearing a rain-slicked trench-coat, his eyes obscured by the brim of his fedora, sits Jean-Pierre Melville. Unlike many of the others, he didn’t go out of his way to bend the rules of cinematic convention — he did it casually, like one of his gangsters. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and adopting the moniker “Melville” after his favorite American author, he fought as part of the French Resistance during WWII, and started making independent films in the late ’40s after he was denied an assistant director’s license. His experience during the war, coupled with a high admiration for Hollywood gangster pictures of the ’30s and ’40s, fused together a filmmaking style that thrived most vividly in the crime genre. The same genre that would be redefined by films like Le Samourai,” “The Army of Shadows,” and Le Cercle Rouge” — the cornerstones of his lasting legacy.

So while he may not be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of the French New Wave, it was he who introduced Godard to the idea of jump-cuts, for example. In fact, Melville became something of a godfather to the movement, and as a result was homaged in one of the most famous director cameos in cinema history; the philosophizing Parvulesco in “Breathless.” But Melville distanced himself from the politics of cinematic and ideological movements, and transformed French cinema in his own, individualistic, way. Honing his skill for dialogue so hard-boiled it could cracks skulls, for palpably gritty atmospherics, location set-pieces that ingrain themselves into the mind, and a soulful approach to the tragic arc of the doomed anti-hero, Jean-Pierre Melville mastered an evergreen cinematic tradition that influenced countless filmmakers, and continues to today.

To mark this week’s re-release of “The Army of Shadows,” which plays for a week at Film Forum in New York from this Wednesday, we dedicate our essentials series to this master of mood and criminal netherworlds. So dim the lights, pour yourself an inappropriate amount of whiskey and explore these 10 must-see Melville films.          

“La Silence de la Mer” (1949)
This debut feature is a distant relative to the atmospheric crime films that would ultimately carve his name among the greats, yet even so, “La Silence de la Mer” is vital in any conversation about Melville. It’s a film that relies so heavily on narration, and is so spatially limited (taking place mostly in a single living room), that it should revokes its right to be cinematic but ends up being so regardless. This beautiful disregard for convention and tendency to go against the grain would go on to become part of Melville’s signature. Moreover, the film is a key introduction to the director as cynical humanist; it’s a story about a humble uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and niece (Nicole Stéphane), who are forced to house German lieutenant Werner von Ebrennac (a towering Howard Vernon) in 1941, choosing silence as their weapon of defiance. This leaves room for the cordial and romantic Ebrennac to soliloquize on his love of French culture with charisma and intellectual grace, revealing himself as something of an anti-Nazi, and patriot with delusions of sympathetic grandeur. With incisive black-and-white cinematography from Henri Dacaë, angles that grow more immense with every cut, a grandfather clock that chips at the tension with every tick, and a softly pulverizing climax that contains all of its power under the surface, “La Silence de la Mer” was a bold introduction to a new, invigorating cinematic voice. A silent bond is formed, not only between the three principle characters, but between director and audience; a trust that, no matter how minimal the narrative or sparse the setting, cinema can within even the narrowest confines.          

“Les Enfants Terrible” (1950)  
If his first film has little relation to his gangster pics, “Les Enfants Terribles” is a complete stranger in Melville’s oeuvre, a deformed statue looming gloomily amongst his collection of more refined sculpture. But, what compelling gloom! Written by legendary poet-filmmaker Jean Cocteau, the film closely follows the relationship between a sister, Elizabeth (Nicole Stéphane, a ferocious performance that rotates about 540 degrees from her role in “La Silence de la Mer”) and her brother, Paul (Edouard Dermithe, devoured by his on-screen sister in more ways than one) as they move from their claustrophobic urban apartment and into a grotesquely lavish villa. Along the way, they laugh in the face of decency and embroil two innocent friends, Gerard (Jacques Bernard) and Agathe (Renee Cosima), in their debaucheries. Cocteau’s own exalted narration of this morbid world hangs over the entire picture like sweetly-scented poison, as gender (especially through Paul’s crush on schoolboy Dargelos, also portrayed by Cosima), death, innocence, and sibling rivalry are redefined through Melville’s lens and Cocteau’s fascinating imagination. Melville’s go-to cinematographer Decaë does some of his finest work here, especially once the story shifts to the mansion, and Vivaldi is all abrasive magnificence on the soundtrack, at times almost too overwhelming. The characters’ personalities make it a tough watch, but “Les Enfants Terrible” remains an awe-inspiring collaboration between two enormous filmmakers, and an unforgettably poetic exorcism of the spirit of youth.          

“Bob Le Flambeur” (1956)
This is the grand opening of Jean-Pierre Melville’s seedy criminal underworld. Silver-haired gentleman and compulsive gambler, Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) is down on his luck and dangerously close to being completely broke. Together with a team of thieves, including young Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), long-time chum Roger (Andre Garet), and foreign commandant McKimmie (Howard Vernon), he cooks up a plan to steal 800 million francs from the Deauville casino safe. The narration, by Melville himself this time, is sparse compared to the previous two major entries of his career, almost as a sign of things to come; it’s a world best left to speak for itself. “Bob le Flambeur” is the first taste we get of Hollywood’s influence on Melville’s stories; the mood evoked by America’s gangster pictures gets a sly and witty reinvention here, held together by Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer‘s nostalgic saxophone (hugely pleasing to the ear), Duchesne’s debonair portrayal of a criminal holding on to his reputation with stoicism, and Melville’s compassionate modus operandi when it comes to criminals and their demimonde lifestyles. It’s something of a love-letter to the Montmartre district too, and interestingly enough has a romanticized conclusion (with one of the more brilliantly saucy final lines of the period) that seems perverse compared to the tragedies of Melville’s later crime films. Remade into “The Good Thief” starring Nick Nolte, influencing the likes of “Ocean’s 11” and Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Hard Eight,” ‘Bob’ is also assured of its place in history for being an essential precursor to the French New Wave, with its use of chic swipes and jump cuts leaving an indelible impression on a young Jean-Luc Godard.      

“Leon Morin, Priest” (1960)
Referring back perhaps to “La Silence de la Mer” in terms of its intensely personal nature, this intimate picture really sees Jean-Pierre Melville bearing his soul. “Leon Morin, Priest” is set in a small nook of the French Alps, during German occupation, and tells the story of Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), a widowed single mother with a carefree attitude towards pretty much everything. After baptizing her half-Jewish daughter as way of protecting her from the Nazis, the atheist Barny decides to give a sort of mock-confession, a way to confirm her belief that churches are “living off false currency.” She walks into the booth of young Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and is knocked off her high horse by the handsome priest with his impregnable morals and wits quick enough to dodge every barb she throws at him and his church. And so, “Leon Morin, Priest” examines a relationship that evolves into something complex, intimate, and life-changing for both (but, one gets the impression, especially Barny). It’s a cinematographically torpid picture, not unlike ‘La Silence,’ because of the long stretches of dialogue and single-room setting, and while Riva radiates in her role, Belmondo looks like he’s winging it after a hard night of partying half the time. As their relationship grows, however, his performance sobers up, and by the time the climax creeps up on us, the emotional and psychological weight is almost too much to bear, and certainly unlike anything else in Melville’s career. The theological debates massage the intellect while the tension of forbidden love ignites emotions, and here the two collide to deliver the filmmaker’s most intensely provocative picture.                          

“Le Doulos” (1961)
When it comes to the French master’s crime flicks, one could argue that “Bob Le Flambeur” and “Two Men in Manhattan” are a little rough around the narrative edges, and that it’s not until “Le Doulos” when Melville fully answered his true calling. A hardened criminal, in iconic trench-coat and fedora getup, walking under a shadowy pass-way and through the opening credits, confidently signals to anyone who’s watching that Jean-Pierre Melville is the boss of the underworld. Freshly released from prison, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani, nailing the casually cool demeanor) visits old friend Gilbert (Rene Lefevre), kills him, and steals his stash from a recent heist. The plot unravels when Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, criminally charming as usual) is introduced as another thief who is suspected of being a police informant (‘doulos’ is slang for ‘rat’), and a wounded Maurice goes into hiding after a bungled burglary ends with him killing a cop. Famously influencing Quentin Tarantino‘s “Reservoir Dogs” when it comes to gangsters who love a good chat, “Le Doulos” has unpredictable violence lurking in every shadow, and finely-tuned characterization of the unwritten code of honor amongst thieves that Melville would go on to perfect in the late 60s and early 70s. It also contains one of the more marvelous shots of Melville’s career; a clandestine super long-take of a conversation in police headquarters, where the camera follows Jean Desailly‘s Commissaire Clain as he attempts to turn Silien. It’s a technical highlight in a film full of uncompromising personalities and tragic plot twists, adding further proof that what we’re watching here is Melville’s first pulpy masterpiece of crime.      

Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)
Titled “Second Breath” or “Second Wind” in English, Melville’s ninth film is really more the story of a desperate last gasp. But in another way, the name is apt: as theorist Adrian Danks suggests in his excellent Criterion essay, “Le Deuxième Souffle,” Melville’s most commercially successful film to that point and yet one of his most underseen today, marks an interesting pivot point between the pulpy investigation into codes of masculinity and criminality of earlier pictures like “Bob le Flambeur” and “Le Doulos,” and the terse, philosophically ambivalent atmospheres of his later crime films. In fact, without ever compromising its linearity, it feels like several films: a prison escape movie, a policier, an underworld crime flick, a heist movie and occasionally even a lovers-on-the-run narative all rolled into one seamless, evocative whole. A wordless prison break sequence happens before and during the titles, as Gu (Lino Ventura) escapes jail in a series of shots so angular and asymmetric they’re almost abstract. Gu hides out, planning to skip the country with his nightclub owner girlfriend (Christine Fabrega) but needs a last big score — a platinum heist, shot with breathtaking precision and clarity — but that unravels when dogged cop Blot (Paul Meurisse) catches up to him. Melville attains a flawless lack of sentimentality: Gu may have an oddly noble code of loyalty — indeed it’s his fatal flaw — but he is a remorseless killer at the same time, not to mention a fool for pride. A neglected masterpiece, ‘Souffle’ was also Melville’s last film in black and white and is stunning farewell to monochrome, featuring some of the most consummately, coolly beautiful shotmaking (DP: Marcel Combes) of his career. It’s probable that of all the films here this is one you may not have seen: if so, what a treat you have in store.       

“Le Samourai” (1967)
A celebration of style, cool and, above all, meticulous craft, “Le Samourai” is still, after all these years, one of Melville’s definitive films. It’s a coiled, immaculately controlled piece of juicy crime-movie storytelling that remains especially notable for its spartan narrative, unglamorous depiction of crime and its consequences, and the iconic, star-making performance from leading man Alain Delon, who plays the baby-faced killer Jef Costello. Costello is an assassin for hire who lives in a single-room Paris apartment that is pretty much empty, save for the perpetually singing canary that sits in the corner. Over the course of the film, Costello arranges his murderous tasks with the painstaking thoroughness of a Swiss watchmaker: there is no detail, however seemingly insignificant, that he has not considered. Costello creates an ironclad alibi, murders a nightclub owner and evades the pursuit of an overzealous police inspector (Francois Perier) who wishes to see him brought to justice. As a pure mood piece, “Le Samourai” is nothing short of intoxicating, like a dream with its own insistent and bizarre logic — one you don’t want to wake up from.  It is uncluttered, bereft of unnecessary exposition, as lean and dangerous and unsentimental as its hero. Melville’s crime classic has gone on to influence countless other films, including Jim Jarmusch’s loving hip-hop pastiche “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s gory neo-noir “Drive” and practically every movie Michael Mann has ever made about a tortured badass who must adhere to a code of duty. And yet few of these subsequent films, as great as some of them are, can capture the majesty of this picture, which sees Melville operating at the peak of his powers. This is sinuous, powerful, crime storytelling: as sharp as the edge of a switchblade, and just as deadly.

“Army Of Shadows” (1969)
The final installment of his French occupation triptych (which includes “Le Silence De La Mer” and “Léon Morin, Priest”), Melville’s “Army Of Shadows,” belatedly released in the U.S. 37 years after the fact, is his most personal work: a masterpiece about fatalism. Fictionalized, but based on a true account of underground French resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, it is an excruciatingly tense yet superbly minimalist film. Rigorous, economical, and cloaked in cinematographer Pierre Lhomme’s gorgeously bleak penumbra of desaturated blues, browns and shades of gray—anticipating the groundbreaking detached, fascistic look of  “The Conformist” by a year— it is also exquisitely crafted: elegance juxtaposed with brutality. But if Melville is often considered emotionally detached based on the cool, aloof gangsters of his crime films, the heartbreaking “Army Of Shadows” provides massive contrast. Led by a who’s-who of contemporary French actors, many of them returning for Melville— Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel (even Serge Reggiani gets a little cameo)—‘Shadows’ centers on Philippe Gerbier (Ventura), the intrepid head of a French resistance chapter who makes a daring escape, and then with his group, moves between safe houses, murders informers and tries to evade capture. One by one their members are captured, tortured and killed, and while they try to keep moving forward, underneath their stoic mien is the toll that resistance takes on their dignity. An overwhelmingly humanist film about brotherhood, struggle, loyalty and betrayal, “Army Of Shadows” is both profound and tragic. And while it must be near-unbearably sad for those who came of age during this era (as Melville did), its startling bookending gives it universal, historical resonance: opening with a beautiful Arc de Triomphe shot interrupted by German soldiers goose-stepping by, its final sequence details in somber text the cruel fates of each of its players.

“Le Cercle Rouge” (1970)
Beginning with a made-up Buddha quote about the inevitable meeting of men in a red circle, Melville’s penultimate feature film has the power to outlive his entire filmography as his magnum opus partly because of its anti-spiritual introspection, and its probing exploration of the psyche of the criminal mind. “Le Cercle Rouge” brings together legends of the French screen Alain Delon and Yves Montand, with the irreplaceable Gian Maria Volonte as the escapee Vogel, and Andre Bourvil as the inspector who is hunting them, in a story about a jewelry heist. One last job for fresh-out-of-jail Corey (Delon), a chance of starting over fresh for Vogel, and a rehabilitating exercise for the alcoholic ex-corrupt cop Jansen (Montand); the half-hour-long, wordless, and eternally intense heist has now become the stuff of legend, mandatory viewing for anyone interested in witnessing the purest cinematic distillation of the crime genre. Together with long-time DP Henri Decaë, and editor Marie-Sophie Dubus, Melville’s original screenplay and meticulous direction — nurtured to perfection by 1970 — converge in “Le Cercle Rouge” to create an existentialist picture with the desolate vibes of a spaghetti western and a cynical anarchist’s eye for man’s baser instincts. It succeeds as a masterful film in any of the genres it melds (and deserves a top 5 slot on all-time crime film lists), a lot due to its symphonic shot compositions — think of that magisterial pull-back shot early on from the window of the train. But Melville also effortlessly employs symbolism and procedural detail in the compassionate characterization of his anti-heroes here. The theory that “all men are criminals” resonates long after the unforgettable climax, but the bonds of brotherhood forged between Melville’s crooks is an all-too compelling reminder of the humanity that resides within each criminal.

“Un Flic” (1972)
As far as fond farewells go, “Un Flic” is an interesting one. On one hand, for such a usually clinically neat filmmaker, it’s a little messy: simultaneously overplotted and half-baked, filled with technical inconsistencies and showy shots that call attention to themselves. It’s not without the heart-stopping set pieces and formal invention that its director is famous for, but it’s also a bit more ragged around the edges than we are used to from such a polished filmmaker. And yet, in spite of all this, “Un Flic” is as good a distillation as any of the motifs and preoccupations that have defined Melville’s work from practically his first film. The final entry in the director’s gangster trilogy – which also included “Le Samourai” and “Le Cercle Rouge” – “Un Flic”, or “The Cop”, casts ‘Samourai”s Alain Delon once again, but this time, flips the archetype for which the actor had become known for on its head; this go-round, Delon plays the cop of the title. As weathered lawman Edouard Coleman, Delon seems somehow harder, and even fiercer than he was in the film that made him famous; no matter how you feel about the film itself, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. The film’s narrative consists of the cop’s dogged pursuit of a notorious thief (Richard Crenna, or Colonel Trautman from “First Blood”) whom he knows all too intimately. Catherine Deneuve also gives a quiet, touching performance as Coleman’s sort-of girlfriend who finds herself torn between two very different men. The film’s shows us the grey, cold, depleted flipside to some of Melville’s more lively depictions of urban life and while overall it may certainly be more uneven than, “Army of Shadows” it’s also an essential piece of viewing for anyone who professes to be a Melville fan.

Melville made three other full-length features apart from the films we’ve covered; 1953’s little-seen and almost entirely forgotten “When You Read This Letter,” 1959’s somewhat stodgy “Two Men In Manhattan” and 1963’s “Magnet of Doom” that saw him re-team with Jean-Paul Belmondo but not quite as successfully as in their other two outings.   

We’ve done our best to convince you of this director’s formidable powers and highly influential films, but now it’s up to you, Playlist readers, to continue and add to the conversation. What are your favourite Melville films? Which moments define his cinema for you? Are the three features we skipped more worthy of essential status than any of the 10 we chose? You know where to sound off.

–with Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin and Rodrigo Perez.

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