The first major study of the melancholic Melville in the English language, the aptly and ironically titled An American in Paris largely resists biography to provide an achronological analysis of the thirteen feature films Melville made between 1947 and 1972. Characterised by their minimalist mise-en-scène, their stylish re-workings of the American gangster genre (Melville made little secret of his admiration for John Huston) and an extraordinary focus on codes of masculinity and male existential loneliness (‘a fascinating and disturbing vision that is bleakly sexist and hardly triumphalist’, p.21), films such as Bob Le Flambeur (1956, re-made, badly, by Neil Jordan), Le Doulos (1963), and the recently re-issued and widely imitated Le Cercle Rouge (1970) represent some of the finest films in post-war cinema, French or otherwise. Moreover, with Le Silence de la Mer (1947-9), Léon, Morin, prêtre (1961) and the truly astonishing L’Armée des Ombres (1969), Melville made three of the most outstanding contributions to the cinema of Resistance.
The timing of the book is perfect. During his lifetime Melville’s critical reputation suffered a series of spectacular ups and downs, as Vincendeau adroitly highlights: both in his own country, where his films had nonetheless always met with an enthusiastic response from the cinema going public, and abroad. However, Artificial Eye’s 1996 re-issue of 1967’s hugely iconic Le Samouraï (to many, this writer included, Melville’s most satisfying work) precipitated a seismic re-appraisal with critics and film-makers alike – most notably Jim Jarmusch with 1999’s Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samurai – effusively expressing their admiration for Melville’s work. This year’s comprehensive National Film Theatre retrospective cemented the seal of universal approbation.
Vincendeau explicitly states her main objective as an attempt to provide a thorough critical study and a re-location of Melville’s work within a ‘transnational film culture’ (p.1). Both are expertly achieved throughout, specifically within the final chapter Neither American nor French, but Melvillian in which the author, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick and one of the world’s leading writers on French cinema, convincingly counters the abiding notion that Melville merely copied or appropriated the look and feel of American cinema. However, the biographical details Vincendeau uncovers about the notoriously secretive director in her opening chapter, From Film Lover to Film-maker, serve the book well and are intrinsic to understanding some of the factors which were to influence Melville’s career and the development of the formal and thematic preoccupations which remained more or less constant throughout his films.
For example, the director’s over-stated love of American culture was present from an early age. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, Melville adapted his name in homage to American novelist Herman Melville. The fastidious, self-confessedly ‘difficult’ director (a by-product of his quest for perfection) who established his very own homogeneous film studios at great personal financial cost in order to retain control of his work after an uneasy collaboration with Cocteau on Les Enfants Terribles (1950), would later take to sporting a sartorial Stetson and driving large American cars. Perhaps, and most importantly given Melville’s contribution to French Resistance cinema, Vincendeau reveals Melville’s own involvement with the Resistance and the military activity he saw, first as a member of the colonial cavalry and later as a member of the Resistance networks ‘Libération’ and ‘Combat’.
Exhaustively researched, eloquent and insightful, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris provides a clear, consistent and accessible scrutiny of Melville’s idiosyncratic, original style (with particular attention to costume and lighting) and its relationship to the contemporary films and film-makers of today. Moreover, the grouping of the films is intelligent and charts how this style developed across various genres and in relation to specific moments linked inextricably to French history, i.e. the Resistance films of chapter 3, Melville’s War. Allowing for a concise examination of the Melvillian preoccupations alluded to in this review’s opening chapter (‘The Delon Trilogy’ for example brilliantly dissects Melville’s ‘Franco-American detachment’, p. 179, his ‘melancholy masculinity’, p.181, and his troubled relationship with one of the biggest stars of French cinema); Vincendeau’s approach also serves to locate Melville’s ever-shifting relationship with his peers.
A 1957 survey by Cahiers du Cinéma cited Melville as ‘one of the white hopes’ (p.14) of French cinema and a key figure of the nouvelle vague movement. However, with Léon, Morin, prêtre Melville signalled a move to more mainstream cinema that soon saw the Cahiers critics saluting his talents as an artist but bemoaning the increasingly bleak universe in which his films existed. As his movies were embraced by the French public, enjoying phenomenal commercial success (Le Cercle Rouge enjoyed upwards of 4 million admissions), Melville found himself the subject of vicious attacks by the formerly supportive Cahiers critics and other members of the cinephile press, newly politicised by the events of May 1968 and intolerant of a cinema that placed style and aesthetics above all else.
Liberally illustrated and replete with a series of useful appendices, including the director’s own revealing ‘Pantheon of Sixty-four Pre-war American Directors’, this book enhances the appreciation and enjoyment of Melville’s work and is an extremely valuable, sympathetic and erudite addition to Melville’s oeuvre.