Filmmaker Retrospective: The Controlled Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville

9. Le deuxième souffle aka Second Breath / Second Wind (1966)

Le deuxième souffle

The screenplay of Second Breath is compelling. Adapted from José Giovanni’s Un reglement des comptes, this is the first film Melville made with many characters and subplots. The film opens with a dialogue-free prison break; Melville’s leading man is now Lino Ventura, one of the most popular actors of French cinema, just like Belmondo.

In Second Breath, the repeated shifts in time and space are indicated with on-screen text (e.g. “Marseille, 20 Novembre, 23h…”). Furthermore, Melville decided to shoot Second Breath in black and white, highlighting the noirish aspects of the film; more important, his style in composing and executing his scenes becomes more and more idiosyncratic, even moreso than before. We see nightclubs, mirrors, shooting and killing, and then a long take of five minutes introducing Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse) as he reconstructs the incident, making inferences full of ironies.

The rest of the film shows how resourceful Blot is; he heads an investigation after Gustave “Gu” Minda (Ventura) escapes from prison. Gu is a tough man, merciless with his enemies or anyone in his way, but he has the support of his lover, Manouche (Christine Fabréga) and her loyal employee, Alban (Michel Constantin).

As the police are after him, Gu adopts a disguise and, before fleeing the city, decides to perform one more job that will grant him 200 million: he will intercept an escort carrying twenty 55-pound crates of platinum. This specific scene in the film is beautifully composed with extreme long shots, stressing the outlines of the mountains and the road and, at the very least, preparing spectators for the big moment.

Besides, this is the first time Melville makes use of zooms (both in and out), which will be better employed in The Red Circle. Timing and precision are indispensable in order to succeed.

The narrative of Second Breath is marked by the distrust and intrigue of both the gangsters and the police; the methods used by the latter are as ruthless as Gu’s, or they at least try to be. Death, for Melville, may not act as a moral or ethical admonition for the hoodlum, but it serves a perfect narrative purpose.


10. Le Samouraï aka The Samurai (1967)

le samurai film

One may easily argue that The Samurai is Jean-Pierre Melville’s first true masterpiece. His previous films — such as Bob the Gambler, Doulos: The Finger Man, and Second Breath — are quite important in his filmography and represent the output of an auteur.

However, with The Samurai, Melville develops something relatively different. His leading man is Alain Delon, the good-looking French actor who rose quickly to stardom; Delon had worked previously with renowned filmmakers, such as Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard) and Antonioni (Eclipse).

In The Samurai, Delon plays Jef Costello, whose coolness seems to be inherited from Bob Montagné the High Roller. Jef is a hitman and is the loneliest of all Melville’s characters: “The is no greater solitude than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.”

The opening shot shows him lying in his bed, smoking a cigarette; the bleakness of the place is followed by the chirping of a little bird, his only companion. The camera moves a little; it is Saturday, 4th April, 6 pm. Jef stands up, says hello to his bird, hides some money in the fireplace, puts on his trenchcoat and fedora, and looks at himself in the mirror: there is a job to be done.

But first, Jef needs a car, which he easily manages. With a bunch of keys, he tries them one by one until finding the one that starts the car. Jef is cool as cucumber (especially when he becomes a suspect). He goes to a scrap garage and does some business with the owner, who changes the car plate and gives Jef some notes and a gun.

There is no dialogue for almost ten minutes, until he goes to the apartment of a woman, Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), who will provide his alibi after he performs his first killing in the film. He then goes to a gambling room, where he will return at 2 o’clock. Men in Melville’s world are full of themselves; it is no different with Jef, who “never lose[s]. Never completely.”

le samurai

All these sequences depend on what is soon to follow, the aftermath of Jef murdering Martey, the owner of a nightclub (a key setting in Melville’s oeuvre). Jef’s getaway is quite interesting: it is noteworthy how, among his many cuts, Melville includes the looks and glances of those who are there for work or simply for fun.

These people are eyewitnesses and will cause as much trouble to Jef as the Commissaire (François Périer) does — the role of Commissaires in Melville’s films is another firmly-set pattern, and they often receive long takes when they seek information or confessions.

The atmosphere in The Samurai is different from that of Melville’s previous films. Jef does not merely experience the commonplace dangers which could strike anybody; instead, he undergoes a much more intense level of danger.

Solitude, the grayness of his room, the cold and rainy weather – all these elements are skillfully captured through the lenses of Henri Decaë, who was an important collaborator to Melville, having worked with him previously on five films.

Decaë also worked with Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, such as Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Louis Malle. The work of Melville and Decaë in the streets and in the Métro of Paris is astonishing; the compelling setting is a must. The list of filmmakers influenced by The Samurai is long: Scorsese, Tarantino, and Refn may be the most obvious names; it is also the favorite film of Johnnie To and John Woo, among many others.


11. L’Armée des ombres aka Army of Shadows (1969)


We see an extreme long shot: Paris, Arc de Triomphe, soldiers marching. They come towards the camera, and then there is a freeze frame. This is the opening of Army of Shadows, the third picture of Melville’s (unofficial) trilogy of war films, which includes The Silence of the Sea and Leon Morin, Priest.

Melville, as aforementioned, was a member of the French Resistance, and now he portrays the harsh days of his comrades, people like him, who were fighting not only against the Germans, but for freedom in general. Adapted from Joseph Kassel’s 1943 novel of the same name, the film stars Lino Ventura again, even though he and Melville had had an argument while working on Second Breath.

The plot progresses chronologically, marked by onscreen text, spanning from 1942 to 1944. Furthermore, the pace of Army of Shadows is somewhat slow, the camera movements are timid, and the cinematography reflects the challenge of working in unpredictable weather. In the story of political rebels living on the run, Melville depicts how men may uphold loyalty at great cost to themselves. Army of Shadows is another true masterpiece.


12. Le Cercle rouge aka The Red Circle (1970)

Le Cercle Rouge film

If not Melville’s finest chef-d’oeuvre, this is at least his best heist film. The Red Circle encompasses the ambitions of an auteur, the intrinsic concerns of an aesthete and, most of all, the conceptualization and the finest expression of Jean-Pierre Melville’s hoodlum cinema. It is also, accordingly, the film that explores the duality of man par excellence.

Since The Samurai, it is easy to note Melville’s inclination for Eastern philosophy; hence, in the very beginning of The Red Circle, there is a passage that reads: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.”

As matter of fact, the Buddha never said any such thing; Melville made it up entirely, just like The Samurai’s epigraph, which purported to be a Bushido quotation. Does a man have to forge his own philosophy? Maybe. And if so, Melville certainly achieved his own.

The red circle will contain three men: Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), Corey (Alain Delon), and Jansen (Yves Montand). Melville truly is the mastermind who drew this circle in red chalk. Red is a color which carries a myriad of symbols and associations: violence and blood, passion or wrath, or simply a red traffic light, a red billiard ball or a red rose.

Even with the red motif, the film emphasizes a grayish, bluish, cold weather. Henri Decaë’s cinematography is chilling, not only outdoors, but indoors as well. The pace is not frenetic; even though Vogel is a escapee, he manages, in due time, to join the red circle. Ex-cons are Melville’s #1 leading figures, or, at least, their background provided reliable and easy atmosphere for him.

Corey matches the usual description, but he gets out of prison legally. Furthermore, members of the police also populate the picture as usual; they add balance to a story centered upon the duality of man, the yin yang. Corey, in his cell, is offered a job by a cop; he has the proper credentials that it calls for. Suspects should always be considered guilty; The Red Circle does not allow a breath of trust.

Le cercle rouge

“No one is innocent. All men are guilty.” One might ask, “Even policemen?” “All men,” the film retorts with certainty, and this will prove to be true in the end. The film may entertain a Rousseauian viewpoint, in which men are born innocent, “but it doesn’t last.”

Besides, men easily change, and they often change for the worse. The words of the Inspecteur Général de la Police (Paul Amiot) sound like the final verdict of Melville’s oeuvre and his portrayals of hoodlums, summarizing the director’s perspective: “Crime lurks within us.”

In addition to Melville’s underworld of policemen and hoodlums, there must be a nightclub, dancers, and of course a shady owner. They are all together in an environment much larger than that of the red circle. Or does the red circle contain all of them, after all? Yves Montand’s character, Jansen, seems to best reflect the duality of man. He was a renowned marksman, “one of the best shots on the force, but the corruption of his work environment finally got to him.”

Jansen suffers from delirium tremens, and, in a way, the job he is offered saves his life. His bullet perfectly hits the jewelry store’s security alarm button, on which one sees the letters “JPM”, the director’s initials appearing as a cameo. The climactic heist scene lasts 25 minutes, with no dialogue. Who needs words when you have such great action?


13. Un flic aka A Cop / Dirty Money (1972)


“The two only feelings men give rise to in us detectives are ambiguity and derision.” Melville’s last film is the final shot of an auteur.

Un flic sets forth Melville’s themes and style, once again in the genre he most tackled throughout his career, the crime story. We see the familiar elements: the (under)world of policemen and gangsters, women in minor roles (now there is even a transvestite), informers, a nightclub, mirrors, meticulous heists, and the duality of man. The latter theme, as the above epigraph suggests, should not be taken for granted as a masculine concept; woman, just like man, plays the same game (as seen with Catherine Deneuve’s character).

Alain Delon plays Commissaire Édouard Coleman (the only beautiful and young Commissaire in Melville’s oeuvre), twice a bad guy, now a cop, a “flic.” Henri Decaë was not the cinematographer, but the atmosphere of Un flic is like that of The Red Circle.

Un flic

Moreover, the heist scenes are, for the most part, as bold as those performed by Corey and his team; the efficiency of Melville’s shots and the performance of the characters are flawless. The train scene is remarkable, lasting for many minutes.

Among all Melville’s films, maybe Un flic is less remembered than his previous masterpieces, and it may also seem repetitive; nevertheless, one must admit that Melville was a bona fide expert in crime films and a spokesman for the hoodlum. He therefore closes a cycle, or rather, his red circle, in masterly fashion. Death, for Melville, may not act as a moral or ethical admonition for the hoodlum, but a perfect teleological upshot.

Author Bio: Matheus Massias is a Brazilian MA student who is working on the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. He is addicted to lists since an early age and tries to follow Truffaut’s formula of three films a day and one book a week.