By Ray Pride
The handsomest Frenchman on earth, swaddled in an outsize yet epaulet-perfect trenchcoat, hiding deep blue pools of blankness under the brim of a fedora, stares into Parisian drizzle through a rain-blurred windshield, inserting keys from a huge ring until he finds the one that fits. A steel-haired, middle-aged, world-weary gambler comes up with the grandest con of his day while cruising the nightspots and fleshpots of backstreet Montmartre, but his moment of deepest melancholy comes from a single gaze upon the bare back of a young girl he’s sheltered as she sleeps with his young protégé. A bald, stocky Jewish Frenchman, wearing a Stetson and sunglasses at night, barrels his Cadillac convertible down the Champs-Élysées in search of diversion. Alain Delon in “Le Samouraï,” Roger Duchesne in “Bob the Gambler,” the great filmmaker of action and attitude Jean-Pierre Melville in life.
In June, with “Jean-Pierre Melville: Criminal Codes” and eleven of his thirteen poetic, sometimes breathtaking features, the Siskel Film Center is mounting the kind of revival Melville’s magisterial movies get only once a decade. Many of his films are available via Criterion, but the exquisitely measured, distillate beauty of movies like “Le Cercle Rouge,” “Army of Shadows,” “Le Silence de la Mer” and “Le Doulos,” are must-sees on a larger screen. You’ll recognize the elegance of his filmmaking from other directors who followed in his big boots, not limited to Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and the slow-burn male-bonding operatics of Michael Mann’s “Heat.”
Melville, an unapologetic admirer and collector of Americana and American crime movies, took his ethos from gangsters and brooding tough guys in Hollywood pictures of the 1930s and 1940s. Melville characters, like Melville, mutter sour-sweet epigrams about trust and loyalty, like “If there are two of you, one will betray.” In the book-length interview “Melville on Melville,” one of the most amusing of filmmaker self-portraits, Melville mused, “What is friendship? It’s telephoning a friend at night to say, ‘Be a pal, get your gun and come over quickly’– and hearing the reply, ‘O.K., be right there.'”
Working with and against genre conventions, Melville’s movies are hushed, deadpan abstractions of space and gesture, restrained, refined, a palette reduced to essential colors and compositions, and his blunt, efficient cutting of shootout scenes are among the glories of machine-tooled filmmaking. And his characters, often smoking, pensive, contemplative, each gesture graced with effortless panache, move through dreamy landscapes and interiors, somehow ascetic and glossy at once. They’re too cool to live, and most will die. Among his great fans are filmmakers: John Woo worships Melville, and for years nurtured the notion of a remake of “Le Cercle Rouge.”
Working outside of French studio auspices, building his own facilities, often shooting on the fly on locations, Melville also inspired the nouvelle vague, and before that, as he often insisted, Robert Bresson nabbed his ascetic style. (“I say Bresson is Melvillian, not the other way around.”) Melville’s own movies don’t have to answer for their sources or what they inspired. They’re simply great—sublime acts of artifice that manage to entertain as storytelling and edify as witty expressions of existential philosophy. “I don’t know what will be left of me fifty years from now,” he said in 1970. “I suspect that all films will have aged terribly and cinema probably won’t even exist anymore. I estimate the disappearance of cinemas… around the year 2020, so in fifty years there will be nothing but television. [I’ll] be happy if I have one line devoted to me in the Great Universal Encyclopedia of the Cinema… I’m not ambitious, I don’t want to be something; I have always been what I am, I haven’t become anything; but I have always had this feeling that ambition in one’s work is an absolutely, justifiable thing. This must give pleasure, that’s my ambition, you see, to fill cinemas.”
In Godard’s “Breathless,” which homages “Bob the Gambler,” there’s also a cameo by Melville, as a pretentious novelist, asked by Jean Seberg, “What is your greatest ambition in life?” “To become immortal,” Melville’s character answers. “And then die.” For a month, Melville lives again, or at least for the eleven nights I’m set to again savor electric cool.
See siskelfilmcenter.org for complete showtimes for “Criminal Codes.” A 35mm archival print of “Le Samouraï” will be shown, while “Léon Morin, Priest” will be shown in an extended digital restoration. Other films may be on 35mm or on DCP.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.