Jean-Pierre Grumbach was born in Paris on October 20, 1917, into a family of Alsatian Jews. Like his contemporaries of the Nouvelle Vague, he fell in love with cinema at a young age. Apart from some early home videos, however, it would be some time before he had the opportunity to take his place behind the camera.
In 1937, he was conscripted into the French Army but following the German occupation in 1940 he fled to Britain. It was at this point that he adopted the pseudonym Melville, in honour of the writer of Moby Dick, Herman Melville. Like him, Jean-Pierre Melville was said to have identified as a Communist, although evidence supporting his allegiance is largely anecdotal.
While in Britain, Melville joined the Free French Forces, the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle. As part of the movement, Melville participated in ‘Operation Dragoon,’ fighting to take back regions of southern France, as well as in campaigns across Europe.
Melville returned to France after the end of the war and it was at this point that he started to pursue his love of cinema. He got off to a rocky start, however, when his application to the French Technicians’ Union was rejected. Undeterred, he would go on to start his career as an independent film-maker.
In 1946, Melville established his own studio and after his first short film, 24 heures de la vie d’un clown (1946), he produced his first feature, Le Silence de la Mer (1949). Based on a book by a fellow Resistance fighter, Jean Bruller (writing under the pseudonym Vercors), it tells the story of a family whose home is commandeered by the Nazis during the war. As the film was made independently and without the rights to the source material, Melville was forced to take precautions when making it to avoid being shut down. Many producers had already approached Vercors for the rights to his work, but he refused them all, claiming the book belonged not to one person, ‘but to all of France.’*
Undaunted, Melville continued with his adaptation of Le Silence de la Mer. After hearing about this, Vercors said he would decide the fate of the movie, threatening to burn the negatives if it displeased him. Thankfully, the film amazed Vercors and the career of one of the greatest directors of all time was well underway.
Le Silence de la Mer was the first of several films which would draw upon Melville’s wartime experiences. It is a tense, furtive critique of mid-century fascism. Notice how easily the Nazi lieutenant Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) assumes the position of master when he commandeers the home of a humble French family. The homeowner (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) hardly move from their chairs throughout the film (intentionally, it should be said. Their refusal to acknowledge the Nazi is their own form of resistance), while von Ebrennac prowls around the room like their sovereign master. The line between Le Silence de la Mer and the state of occupied France is not difficult to draw.
Melville followed this film with another adaptation, this time of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible (1950), featuring narration from the author himself, before making one of the more minor films of his career, When You Read This Letter (1953). After this, Melville struck artistic gold again, however, with Bob Le Flambeur (1956), about a broke gangster who attempts to rob a casino. The film was the first in which Melville made use of the now-iconic trenchcoat, just one aspect of the effortless style that would characterise much of his future work.
Melville found that he still had artistic ghosts to exorcise in regards to the war and the Resistance. Starring two titans of French cinema in the lead roles, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo, Léon Morin, Priest (1961) tells the story of a young, precocious widow (Riva) who, through her own frustration, tries to incite a priest (Belmondo) to anger but finds his composure – and his faith – unshakeable.
It was eight years later that Melville made his most graphic, resonant wartime film. In between, he produced several more gangster movies, all building on the aching cool of Bob Le Flambeur but rarely treading new artistic ground. He recruited Jean-Paul Belmondo to star in Le Doulos (1963) and Magnet of Doom (1963), but it was Le Samouraï (1967), the first of his collaborations with Alain Delon, that proved to be his most well regarded. Melville had found his niche and made it his own.
With Army of Shadows (1969), Melville takes his experience – and enduring affinity – with the French Resistance and combines it with the backstreet espionage that made his gangster films so iconic. The night-time chases through city streets and brutal drive-by shootings wouldn’t have been out of place in a film like Le Samouraï, but here they are wrapped up in the noble pursuit of resistance.
Lino Ventura, previously seen in Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) stars as the inscrutable, ruthless Resistance leader, Philippe Gerbier. If Melville did still identify with the wartime resistance movement, he certainly didn’t romanticise it. Their methods in Army of Shadows are brutal. Traitors to their cause are despatched mercilessly and, in one of the film’s most challenging scenes, a young, naïve resistance agent is painfully strangled when Gerbier and his henchmen can’t devise a better way of killing him.
Melville drew deeply on his own time in the French Resistance for Army of Shadows. An opening scene of Gerbier in a French internment camp is based on the experiences of one of Melville’s Free France compatriots, Jean Pierre-Bloch. Gerbier’s escape from Gestapo headquarters, a breathless flight through the streets of Paris, was inspired by an incident described to Melville by another Resistance fighter, Paul Rivière. While it is a stretch to say that these experiences were directly Melville’s, his proximity to some of the most notable personages in the French Resistance meant he could create Army of Shadows with unerring veracity.
Melville’s next, penultimate film saw him return to the gangster genre with which he found fame. Le Cercle Rouge (1970) is almost like Melville’s tribute to his own career. The unshakeable confidence of his characters is reflected in the way the film is made, most notably in the protracted, complicated heist, which proceeds in absolute silence. Alain Delon once more takes the lead as the master-thief Corey, his ice-cool demeanour perfectly suited to the part.
Delon and Melville worked together one more time, on the director’s final film, Un Flic (1972), but it didn’t quite match the effortless style of Un Cercle Rouge and all those gangster films that went before it.
Jean-Pierre Melville died of a heart attack in 1973, at the age of 55, having cemented his legacy as one of the greatest film-makers of all time.
*The Cinema of France, Powrie (ed.) 2006, pp.127
Le Cercle Rouge (1970) – For his penultimate film, Melville recruited Alain Delon to be the lead once more in this slick heist thriller. By this point, Melville had perfected his formula, but certain stylistic choices, in particular the audacious heist that is conducted entirely in silence, mark this film as one of his most special.
Le Samouraï (1967) – Alain Delon’s first collaboration with Melville was the fourth in a string of gangster films made by the director through the 1960s. It is also one of the best, largely because Delon’s implacability is perfectly suited to the kind of character that leads these films. It was the start of a fruitful relationship.
Le Silence de la Mer (1949) – Melville’s first feature faced a lot of problems in production, most notably the lack of rights to adapt Vercors’ source text in the first place. Upon seeing the film, however, the author was pleased by what Melville produced, so gave it his blessing. It is an astounding debut film, made with the confidence of a director who already knows his craft inside-out.
Army of Shadows (1969) – Melville’s experiences in the French Resistance during World War II fed into this, one of his most personal films. It is also one of his most ruthless, graphic depictions of politically-motivated violence, as Lino Ventura’s Philippe Gerbier blurs the boundary between hero and monster.