Friday, November 7, 2008
Melville’s Films Defined Cool (for The Recorder)
French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish film noirs are the epitome of cool. Melville’s minimalistic films contain cool, calm and suave gangsters, stylized imagery and a strong emphasis on weapons and accessories like hats and jackets.
Melville, who was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach but used the pseudonym Melville in tribute to American author Herman Melville, began in the film industry as an independent director and owner of his own studios. Melville quickly became famous for his tragic film noirs that to this day stand as some of the most influential and revered work within the genre.
The word cool is overused to hell and back these days. Melville’s pulpy films are the truest definition of the word in my opinion. To explain this one would need to bring up examples straight from the films themselves. In Melville’s influential early gangster film Bob le flambeur, which focused on an aging veteran of the crime business, the main character Bob enters a room in which a woman he had interests in was sleeping with another man. In any other film an event like this would create some kind of violent altercation. Rather than stir up trouble, Bob simply tip-toes out of the room in a calm and cool fashion letting things be as they may. It’s this kind of offbeat thinking and dare I say “swagger” that many of the characters in his films can identify with.
The “cool” nature of Melville’s films extends to the style and imagery of the films as well. Le Doulos, which in French slang translates to hat but in the underground world of cops and robbers means the informant, is an example of the perfect use of shadows in film noir. Noir is heavily distinguished by its chiaroscuro – which is the contrast between lights and darks. Le Doulos, which is a French New Wave inspired film noir, features dark shadows so heavy that it feels suffocating upon the viewer and the characters. The visuals are so arresting and gripping that it alone keeps you interested in the film.
Melville’s films also helped breed a crop of “cool” French film stars. Alain Delon was probably the most connected actor with Melville and became one of France’s most popular film stars of the era. Delon can be best thought of as a French version of Humphrey Bogart. Delon is best known for his career-defining performance as hitman Jef Costello in Melville’s masterpiece Le Samourai. Delon’s charismatic acting style went hand in hand with his character that had the Zen-like approach of a samurai. Le Samourai is one of the most influential films of its kind. The character of Jef Costello has been the main influencer for Agent 47 of the popular Hitman games and John Woo’s hitman in his excellent film The Killer. Le Samourai has been described as “a razor-sharp cocktail of 1940s American gangster cinema and 1960s French pop culture” and is the pure film definition of cool.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of the most recognized actors of the French New Wave generation, also had a strong film relationship with Melville. He starred in the already mentioned film Le Doulos along with a couple more of Melville’s most popular films. Lino Ventura, another popular French actor, also worked in films with Melville at the helm. The combination of major, suave and charismatic actors and Melville’s ability to create untouchable gangland environments around them made for some of the best crime films ever seen.
While Melville wasn’t strictly about films concerning crime and gangsters as noted by his acclaimed films Army of Shadows and Les Enfants terribles he became popular for his remarkable style of filmmaking and attention to detail with his film noir and French New Wave blended films. Melville used real locations for his films and was one of the first French film directors to do so. His work has influenced modern directors such as Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, and more. In a world where everyone and their mother describes meaningless concepts and ideas as cool, nothing will be cooler to me than a wonderfully shot Alain Delon as hitman Jef Costello in a tan trench coat with his signature brim hat committing one of his well thought out and creatively crafted jobs.
Essential viewings: Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Doulos, Army of Shadows, Les Enfants terribles, Bob le flambeur, Le Deuxième souffle