The philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors (dir: Woody Allen, 1989) considers the universe to be a Godless place, and that it is only we humans who invest it with warmth and feeling – if we choose to. It’s a noirish point of view, and fittingly, for Crimes and Misdemeanors gives us a world in which a character is murdered for daring to get too close to the powers-that-be. A similar sense of higher moral silence or indifference runs through all of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, from his wartime story La Silence de la Mer (1947) to his final film, Un Flic (1972), made the year before his untimely death at the age of 55. It’s this waiting silence which gives his films their pervasive melancholy, and which allows them to stay fresh and not date.
It’s not as though he’s ever exactly been out of fashion, but at the moment Melville is subject to a lot of renewed interest. Ginette Vincendeau’s book Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, published by the BFI, is the first substantial critical book about the director ever published in English, and the BFI have also released three of Melville’s movies on DVD: Leon Morin, pretre (1961), Le Doulos (1962) and the smash hit which came late in his career, Le Cercle rouge (1970). In all of these, and the terrific commentaries – courtesy of Vincendeau – which accompany them, we can get a handle on the man who directed only thirteen features. Melville’s is a cineaste’s cinema par excellence, and yet it doesn’t wear its scholarship on its sleeve. He developed and maintained – and believed in – a fatalistic world, and this thematic constancy saves his movies from, say, the type of overly-intellectual cinephile’s polemic which marred some of Godard’s mid-career work (and which was one of the sadder legacies of the American indie scene of the mid nineties).
The overriding impression left by Le Samourai (1967), for instance, is the stillness of the camera as it gazes on the equally passive features of Alain Delon, playing a gangster driven to carrying out an assassination in order to preserve an obscure but rock-solid code of honour. The camera is not always still – the form is not quite as singular, or as rigorous, as that in, say, an Ozu movie – but it’s essentially a camera which observes the necessary indifference of the world, the downbeat tempo to which we all walk. It wouldn’t be right to see this stillness of the camera’s gaze as relentless or unforgiving, or sadistic, or masochistic for that matter. Rather, it is driven by compassion coupled with a cineliterate construction of a fictional noir world.
This preoccupation makes Delon the ideal actor for Melville’s world. Melville was not the first director to spot how such a pretty face was so suited to acting as a mask to contradictory – and often far from pretty – feelings: Rene Clement had pounced on the young Delon and used him as a terrific Tom Ripley in Plein soleil/Purple Noon (1959), while Luchino Visconti elevated Delon’s natural grace to something like iconography in Rocco e suoi fratelli (1960) and Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (1963). But Melville took this star persona further, and in Le Samourai and Le Cercle rouge Delon is all there on screen, often centre stage, but remains unknowable and endlessly intriguing. The early scene in the pool hall in Le Cercle rouge shows how behind that mask there was a character capable of anything in the name of self-preservation, an instinct not innate but learned from the coldness of the world.
Melville’s career was already on the go by the time the Cahiers critics turned up and began spouting forth against the crushing limitations and complacency of so much classical French cinema of the time. They didn’t include Melville in that assessment, though: Melville was a lover of Americana (he took his surname from the author of Moby-Dick), and in him they saw a kind of father figure (although he was only about fifteen years older than Godard and Truffaut). For Godard he played the author at the press conference in A Bout de souffle (1959); that brief appearance says so much about how the Nouvelle Vague crowd saw Melville, and perhaps how he saw himself: in sunglasses and sardonic close-up, he holds forth, every line an aphorism, the whole press conference a pretext for his performance.
Even so, something in him seemed to resist easy, crowd-pleasing artistry: he could probably have gone to the US and had a terrific career in the seventies, if he’d wanted to (and if he’d lived), but he stayed at home with his brand of regretful honesty. Le Cercle Rouge, for example, is blessed with Delon, Andre Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonte and Yves Montand (giving a nice character performance), and yet they all seem truly unhappy, not with being in the film, but with the lot that their characters are given. Heist movies are, of course, generically rather downbeat – don’t we feel an abiding sense of sadness in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Du Rififi chez les hommes (1955)? Melville’s sensibility is in the same place: his work is penetrated by the loneliness of deserted city streets at dawn.