Master Melville

The director Jean-Pierre Melville is idolized as an auteur today and I can see why.  The opening black-and-white shot of his 1962 film Le Doulos, of a man walking under a train bridge, goes on for several minutes, in one take; and despite the grim terrain, you’re never bored watching. Melville varies what you see by use of dark and light (e.g., the man crosses beneath an overpass), by textural changes (stone walls against steel girders), and by the slow, deliberate rhythm of the walking man, unchanging in the foreground, forming a hypnotic contrast to the background shifts.  You’re drawn to watch, as you would watch a seemingly moving landscape from a car or train. It’s cinema at its essence: motion and change as a window on life itself.  The camera’s eye is our Eye, it’s what we would see if we could only observe with the kind of passion and intent that Melville has.

Melville can use his camera for more than virtuoso contrast, however, creating dramatic tension with the choreography of figures in a frame. In a sequence in a police station, where Jean-Paul Belmondo (the ‘doulos’ or ‘snitch’ of the title) is being questioned, Melville films, again in one long take, the police walking away from and then back to Belmondo, the camera following the cops as they pace back and forth or tread in a circle, while Belmondo stays in one place.  It’s an amazing bit. As the police question and badger Belmondo, Melville controls the scene’s rhythm with both the actors’ movements and his moving camera, the tension rising and falling with the cops moving to and fro, but then, with the camera, always returning to Belmondo as the still, central point. The scene is a mini-movie in itself, highlighting the relation between snitch and cops, their underlying, mutual hostility and dependence, the barely concealed contempt each has for the other, laid out in the pursuing camera. One cop keeps chewing on a toothpick, which I think is an homage to the toothpick-chomping Sterling Hayden in the classic noir Crime Wave. It’s a nice touch; you sense that Melville knows where he’s coming from, which gives the film the added assurance of knowing where it’s going.

Melville’s knowledge of such classic cinema, as exemplified in Le Doulos, is impeccable. His eye for composition, how he’ll use depth of screen, the shape of objects, the placement of figures, the use of centered and off-kilter framing, is gorgeous, old-style filmmaking at its best (who uses deep focus anymore?).  To me it felt not just like ‘Cinema,’ but like a movie, one that looks at the world through a framing lens and then watches it move. I don’t see it in today’s films, with their narcissistic emphasis on closeups and on action at the cost of story and character.  Melville lets us see his people, he gives them time and space, allows them to settle in and occupy a scene.  And he gives us actors who fulfill his vision, especially with his two leads: Serge Reggiani as Maurice (the man in the opening), whose sad-monkey face, with its big, doleful eyes and long, down-drawn mouth, tells you all you need to know of this man and his past; and the delectable Belmondo, with his beau-laid features and breezy screen presence, but just that hint of danger in the gleam of an eye, the curve of a lip, evoking a movie stardom that harks back to the Hollywood golden age.

The film’s plot is also classic, that of the fall-out of thieves—first working together, then, with the discovery of deceit, plotting revenge on each other, then, too late, discovering their now-lost loyalty, each to each. It’s the subject of many a heist film and often of film noir itself. We have the group, the criminal band, united against the world of law, order, and convention, but which cannot unite within.  The criminals behave professionally, like a team of athletes or warriors, and need to stay tight and work as a team; but their essential criminal nature will destroy the group, via greed, paranoia, anger, betrayal. Despite their interdependence, no one member of the group can trust another.  It’s self-reliance taken to sociopathic extremes, a dive into the dark, existential abyss, with no way to climb out.

Still, the film has an almost exaggerated solemnity, its makers taking its sordid story almost too seriously, as if it were a stark comment on the Human Condition.  You’re left wondering how we’re supposed to view these men outside their vicious concerns; could the solemnity be a joke, an ironic comment on these creatures and their animal habits?  To his credit, Melville doesn’t shy from that viciousness but lays it out.  The main character, Maurice, just out of prison, shoots another thief, a long-time friend, for having killed Maurice’s former girlfriend (apparently to prevent her from snitching).  Another thief named Jean beats up Maurice’s current girlfriend Therese (it turns out she’s a police informant), then sends her hurtling over a cliff in a car, as revenge for her snitching. If the film is solemn, the thieves, and what they do, are not; their brutality is clear and constant, almost overwhelming.  The constant, unquestioned savagery, the unthinking eye-for-an-eye cycle of vengeance, has the awful weight of tribal ritual, one that’s been absorbed into these thieves’ actions, feelings, their very bones.  The behavior is set and determined, as unthinking, and inevitable, as a squeezed trigger.

This dark and twisty ritualism of violence also spurs the film’s plot. No action (killing, robbery, assault) can go unanswered, no wrong, real or not, can be left unavenged.  The narrative descends almost into incoherence, as the criminals keep revenging themselves on the wrong thugs.  It’s tribalism stretched to extremes of illogic: it’s done because that’s how it’s done, and no one stops to think.  Belmondo’s snitch shoots two men because he thinks they murdered the thief actually killed by Maurice; and Maurice hires a hitman to off Belmondo because he believes Belmondo snitched on his latest job, only it was actually Therese.  Then Maurice, regretting what he’s done, tries to halt the hit, only the hitman shoots Maurice by accident and then shoots Belmondo in the back, but not before Belmondo pumps him with lead.  It ends with a bleeding Belmondo staggering to a phone to call his girlfriend and tell her he “can’t make it tonight,” before dropping dead. No doubt, that’s a level of cool most of us will never attain.  But it’s seems inserted in the film just to be cool; I’m not sure what it means.  Are we to admire Belmondo’s call as the height of stoicism? (It seems SO French.)  Or is it an ironic joke on such characters, who, come what may, won’t forget to cancel appointments?  Even in death, a thief will remember his manners.

These are quibbles, though.  The film is beautiful to watch (especially on the Criterion DVD), beautifully photographed and staged, if a little too drawn out and deliberate in its Gallic melancholy and weighted fatalism.  Melville brings a kind of sentimentality to these characters, seeing nobility in their weariness and resignation to their destiny.  I prefer the cold-blooded insouciance and speed of Howard Hawks or the clinical coldness of Joseph Lewis; they would not have romanticized these thugs as Melville does.  Nor would have the American B-noirs of the late-1940s/early-1950s, which were tough and mean and efficient and didn’t seek for mythological echoes.  The French took these uncomplicated thrillers and tried to layer in Meaning, but the stories and characters can’t carry such Importance—they’re too small and petty, these guys are just crooks, after all.  “Why don’t you get a job?” a robbery victim snaps at Maurice.  Which was just what I happened to be thinking myself.

Bonus Clip: here’s an excerpt from a filmed interview with Melville and Belmondo, apparently done around the time of Le Doulos‘s release, in which Melville explains his inspiration for his film.  “A good old gangster film,” says the interviewer.  Well, a bit more than that:

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