Filmmaker Retrospective: The Controlled Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville

4. Bob le flambeur aka Bob the Gambler (1955)

Bob le flambeur film

Before The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven, Reservoir Dogs, or any other heist film, we should remember Melville’s Bob the Gambler. Rather ignominiously, the film does not appear in any list here in Taste of Cinema, neither in “Best Heist Movies” nor in “French Crime Films” or “Underseen Gangster Movies”. Nevertheless, as expected, Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Un flic were chosen as examples by those writers.

Bob the Gambler is a cornerstone in French cinema. And Melville, as the director and writer (this is the first time he comes up with an original story, which he also narrates), is a pioneer in a style that was later developed under the talents of the Nouvelle Vague.

With Bob the Gambler, Melville seasons his forthcoming motifs; he presents the streets and the night life in Montmartre, a district of Paris full of neon signs, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs; he displays the coolness of his leading man, Robert Montagné (Roger Duchesne), known to all as Bob, or Bob the High Roller, with a “real hood’s face” according to himself.

Moreover, Melville knows and follows all the ingredients of a heist film that, though today it may seem cliché, it is prepared and served well. Appropriately, the plot is structured around a very impressive and remarkable character, who has a plan that, if it is to succeed, demands a good team; indeed, one of them is a man who is retired but well-regarded in his particular line of work. They prepare for the heist, rehearse, and hang around with each other, since some of them are close friends.

Bob le Flambeur

The film is not missing another important detail: a beautiful dame. And, true to form, the characters make a blunder common to heist films: they tell the dame about the heist. Also, there is a cop (Guy Decomple) who is, ironically, Bob’s pal. Even though the narrative follows a predictable thread, spectators may have a hard time figuring out the end in advance.

More important, though, is how Melville develops his mise-en-scène, using black and white plaid patterns in floors and walls, as well as shooting scenes in the streets, something quite innovative for that time. The editing, like that of his previous films, uses dissolves and wipes; it has been reported that this film has a single jump cut.

Bob the Gambler is a kind of warm-up and prototype to Melville’s later films, such as Doulos: The Finger Man; The Samurai and The Red Circle; and it was, without a shadow of a doubt, a huge influence on well-regarded filmmakers: it is Godard’s favorite Melville film and Tarantino’s favorite gangster film; besides being influential to movies such as the aforementioned Ocean’s Eleven (both of them), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, and it also resulted in a remake, The Good Thief (2002). Jean-Pierre Melville was certainly “born with an ace in [his] palm.”


5. Deux hommes dans Manhattan aka Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Deux hommes dans Manhattan

Two Men in Manhattan delves into the noirish mood established by Melville in his previous film. The influence of noir and gangster films of the 1940s (and the 1950s) on Melville is manifest; yet, there is something lacking in Two Men in Manhattan beyond its hardboiled plot, which follows the investigation of a United Nations diplomat’s disappearance, and Melville’s style.

The two men in question are two Frenchman, Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset) and Moreau, who is played by Melville (who also wrote the script) and is the first and last time he acts in his own films. Both men work for the newspapers; the former is a photographer and the latter is a journalist.

Melville shot the film in New York City, and he encompasses the urban environment just as he did in Bob the Gambler, making his audience familiar with the streets, the neon signs, the subway, the skyscrapers, and so on. Accordingly, as the two men are looking for clues that lead them to the diplomat’s disappearance, scenes that take place inside the car and in nightclubs are quite common; Melville also works with low-key lighting in order to achieve his noirish mood throughout the film.

Two Men in Manhattan also comments on the scruples of a journalist or anyone in the news media; moving a body in the crime scene can render a good picture, which can render good money. At present, the best example of commentary in this vein is Nightcrawler.


6. Léon Morin, prêtre aka Leon Morin, Priest (1961)

Léon Morin, prêtre

Melville’s 1960s debut tackles religious matters. It is quite difficult to imagine such a film, but Melville makes his point. Then the film’s concept becomes even more surprising once you find out that Leon Morin, the priest, is portrayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo! He who would later become a major symbol of the Nouvelle Vague and would mostly be known for playing mobsters, as he did one year earlier in Breathless and Classe Tous Risque.

The inter-textual connections between characters become thicker with the lead actress of the film, Emmanuelle Riva, who portrays Barny, a woman dealing with inner religious conflicts that she expresses in her encounters with Leon Morin — two years earlier, Riva starred in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, a great film exploring the boundaries of documentary, war, drama, and romance.

Adapted from Béatrix Beck’s The Passionate Heart, Leon Morin, Priest, despite its religious theme, is honestly not so atypical in terms of style (or even content) for Melville’s oeuvre. In the screenplay, Melville opts once again to use voice-over as an expository device, this time provided by Riva’s character, mainly when she is in the streets, working in her office, or in the church.

Again, another homoerotic innuendo: Barny is very fond of Sabine Lévy, the director’s personal assistant, and, according to her, she “took wing through time and space” and “handsome beings [like Sabine] should have the right to command.”

The camera follows Sabine and then plays ping-pong between her and Barny, employing sexy raccords: “I took a keen pleasure in crossing ocular swords with her, until… unable to sustain it any longer. I had to lower my eyes, delighting in her victory.” Barny, however, does not want to sleep with Sabine, she just admires her because Sabine fascinates her like “a young man” who is “gifted with singular charms, virility tinged with femininity.”

Later on, she becomes very fond of Léon Morin, the priest she chooses to confess to because his name does not sound bourgeois. They are the same age, and, in their first meeting, she tries to provoke him with atheistic remarks.

Léon Morin, prêtre film

The scene in the confessional booth is an interesting one: Melville not only uses shot-reverse-shot, highlighting the division between characters, he changes the perspective using medium shots, showing at one and the same time both characters, as if their distance and differences were not there.

Melville’s peculiar way of constructing mise-en-scène (and reflection) is especially noticeable around thirty minutes into the film, when a German officer enters the frame and, reflected in a window in the same frame, we see two men from across the street and, behind them, a truck full of hidden soldiers who quickly hop out and arrest the two men on the sidewalk.

Leon Morin, Priest is a film that shows the perils of war and how faith can be positive, not only for adults, but for children. If Belmondo ever labored under a stereotype, he dispels it here; and Riva is as fragile, lovely, and excellent in her performance as in Hiroshima, mon amour. This is Melville depicting again the hardships of the war and the delicate people who lived it.


7. Le Doulos aka Doulos: The Finger Man (1962)

Le Doulos

Melville gets better and better as he tackles crime and the mob in his films. Doulos: The Finger Man, informs us from the very beginning: “In underworld slang, ‘doulos’ means ‘hat’. But in the secret language of police and criminals, ‘doulos’ is also a name given to a man ‘putting it on’… The police informer.” The camera, in a tracking shot, follows a man, dressed in a trenchcoat and a hat, down a subterranean passage — light, dark, shadows, and silhouettes collide: a noirish atmosphere is thus established.

It is a long tracking shot and when full light appears, leaving the darkness behind, the man stops walking and the camera moves toward him, revealing his face and his inquiring look. More text appears influenced: “One must choose. Die… or lie?” Whenever “tracking shots are a question of morality”, or vice-versa, Melville’s morality is that of a hoodlum. And this statement is quite self-explanatory in this film.

Les doulos is a world of thugs: thugs who kill in cold blood, betray partners or take advantage of them, but above all summarize the duality of man, the good and the evil, for better or for worse. This very duality resides in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character, Silien, who is an informer working for the police, a doulos.

But before any character study, which has to be carefully carried out and would go a little further than this filmmaker retrospective, one thing should be made clear: the duality of Melville’s character goes back in The Silence of the Sea (e.g. the German officer).

It is then retooled in Les Enfants terribles, especially in the characters of Dargelos/Agathe and Paul’s sister; it is focused on Bob who, despite his hoodlum’s gambling spirit, is a kind man and a helping hand, offering a hearth for a hooker and for his protégée.

In Two Men in Manhattan, the characters hold their scruples in check; and then, in Leon Morin, Melville explores the dichotomy between heaven and hell, peace and war, God and humankind, man and woman. Melville’s way of approaching crime (and its philosophy and codes, involving friendship and loyalty) and the lives of gangsters is not trivial, nor is it for the sake of action or a thrilling climax; he is definitely concerned with the stories he adapts or writes.

Le Doulos film

The plot of Les doulos is well-structured and depicts the deeds of both Silien (Belmondo) and Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani). Guns, jewels, doulos (with its ambiguous meanings), gunshots, dames, and plot twists, they are all there. Melville’s mise-en-scène is increasingly improved: the first scenes of the film in Gilbert Varnove’s house have a Caligari-esque aspect, and the special treatment given to the rest of the film in terms of lighting is rather picturesque.

The camerawork is exquisite; for instance, in the meticulous and dynamic long take (lasting nearly eight minutes) in which Superintendent Clain questions Silien in his office, the camera follows Clain 360º around while he is pondering, framing the other two cops in different corners of the space, as they too question Silien, surrounding him like wolves around their prey, demanding answers and information from him.

One other interesting point about the flim: Les doulos is Tarantino’s favorite storyline and Scorsese’s favorite gangster film. Quite an impressive influence, eh?


8. L’Âiné des Ferchaux aka Magnet of Doom (1963)

Jean-Paul Belmondo

Magnet of Doom is Melville’s first movie shot in color. Adapted from a Georges Simenon’s novel of the same title, it portrays the life of an old banker called Ferchaux who, after a financial incident, leaves France and flees to the United States.

Nevertheless, if unaware of the plot, viewers might at first think that Magnet of Doom is about boxing: the opening sequences beautifully suggest that, with crane shots and Belmondo’s voice-over informing us that “At this period I used to be a boxer. Or more precisely, I was trying to become one.” (It was widely-known that Belmondo was an amateur boxer prior to his rise in moving pictures.)

Accordingly, the style of the shots is amazing as Melville shoots parts of the fight, as well as its breaks, both inside the ring and outside the ropes, almost twenty years before Raging Bull, a film well-known for Scorsese’s cinematography in the fighting scenes. Since this film is not about boxing, the fight is merely illustrative while the opening credits roll.

Magnet of Doom further reinforces that Melville is an outstanding cineaste. Critics who favor auteur-driven film find rich substance, either in mise-en-scène or in themes. The scene introducing Ferchaux strikingly resembles 12 Angry Men.

The later scenes, after he hires Michel Maudet (Belmondo) as his secretary and bodyguard and when Ferchaux’s life as a fugitive takes on a road movie quality, may have been an influence on one of Godard’s masterpieces, Pierrot le fou (1965), but who knows?

The film is rich in its depiction of the skyscrapers of New York, the suburbs of Hoboken (NJ) where Michel visits the house reported to be Frank Sinatra’s birthplace, the highways and their surrounding greenery, the restaurants with jukeboxes full of American surf music, a mischievous hitchhiker, nights in motel rooms, the “jungles” of the South, and so on.

Besides, the English title of the film is a very good one; if understood as a metaphor, “magnet of doom” works quite perfectly when applied to the relationship between Ferchaux and Michel. Whereas the former faces his doom, his downfall (which takes visual form through his body and clothing, his grown beard and his sick appearance), the loss of his money, and pursuit by the police, the latter somehow faces good fortune (taking into account his unsuccessful career as a boxer and the way he used to dress).

Michel is enjoying the ride, he is in good health, and he might still have a future. Trust is the key word of this film (“Always be suspicious”), but it might be a two-edged knife. Melville’s ongoing theme of the duality of man is at its high point.