Jean-Pierre 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. Jean-Pierre Melville)
Bob le Flambeur (1956 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
Léon Morin, Priest (1961 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
Le Doulos (1962 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
Le Samouraï (1967 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
The Army of Shadows (1969 dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
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. Jim Jarmusch)
The American (2010 dir. Anton Corbijn)
Drive (2011 dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)