Melville was a French filmmaker celebrated for some of France’s greatest crime
films. He was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach on October 20th, 1917. He
chose the last name ‘Melville’ after notable author Herman Melville, most famous
for writing the epic tale of the sea ‘Moby Dick.’ He started using the name
‘Melville’ as part of the French Resistance during World War II in Nazi
occupied France, in which he fought in an Allied invasion of southern France
called ‘Operation Dragoon.’
When he was only six years old, he was given a small hand-crank camera, which
is when he says that he decided that he wanted to be a filmmaker. He became a
lover of film as a child—citing the first time he saw a talkie called ‘White
Shadows in the South Seas’ as the day he fell in love with cinema. He spent
most of his youth watching around five movies a day.
After World War II ended, he tried to become an assistant director to no avail,
so he started his own studio and made films independently. The genre that he
seemed most comfortable in was noir gangster films—his first being a 1956 film
titled ‘Bob le flambeur’ (or ‘Bob the Gambler’) about a gambling addict who
aids in a casino heist. The film used a great deal of hand-held camera work and
location shooting, which caught the eye of then film critic Jean Luc Godard.
Melville was an early hero to the champions of the French New Wave because of
his aesthetic and is penchant for shooting on location with natural light.
Godard drew a great deal of inspiration from ‘Bob le flambeur’ and Melville
even had a cameo in Godard’s first feature film, ‘Breathless.’ Allegedly, it
was Melville who suggested that Godard use jump cuts in the film which went on
to be one of the film’s most memorable features.
‘Bob le flambeur’ would become one of the main films to incite the French New
Wave—a film movement that strived for truth in the image by taking a documentary
approach to filmmaking. However, Melville once said,
“All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first
and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an
exact recreation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me. I move
from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”
This does not only pertain to subject matter, but production technique as well.
Melville was one of the first to move effortlessly between soundstage shooting
and location shooting.
Perhaps Melville’s most famous film and most influential is 1967’s ‘Le
Samouraï’—starring Alain Delon—about a hitman who lives the code of the Samurai. ‘Le
Samouraï’ is a beautiful convergence of the Hollywood noir with the Japanese
samurai film and all against the backdrop of 1960’s France. Delon’s
intensely cool Jef Costello character has been credited as the inspiration for
the protagonists of such films as ‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,’ ‘The
American,’ and ‘Drive’ to name a few. ‘Le Samouraï’ displays Melville’s mastery
of style and tone and has deservedly earned its cult status.
Melville’s entire filmography is a treasure trove of French cinematic
greatness. Whereas there wasn’t enough time to go over them all, no doubt
whichever you pick, you are in for something special.
‘Les Enfants Terribles’ (1950 dir.
‘Bob le Flambeur’ (1956 dir. Jean-Pierre
‘Léon Morin, Priest’ (1961 dir. Jean-Pierre
‘Le Doulos’ (1962 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ (1966 dir. Jean-Pierre
‘Le Samouraï’ (1967 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
‘The Army of Shadows’ (1969 dir. Jean-Pierre
‘White Shadows in the South Seas’ (1928 dir.
W. S. Van Dyke, Robert J. Flaherty)
‘Breathless’ (1960 dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’ (1999 dir.
‘The American’ (2010 dir. Anton Corbijn)
‘Drive’ (2011 dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Tyler Knudsen, a San Francisco Bay Area native, has been a student of film for most of his life. Appearing in several television commercials as a child, Tyler was inspired to shift his focus from acting to directing after performing as a featured extra in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. He studied Film & Digital Media with an emphasis on production at the University of California, Santa Cruz and recently moved to New York City where he currently resides with his girlfriend.