Jean-Pierre Melville | Bob le flambeur
| Le Samouraï | Un Flic
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Jean-Pierre Melville is a French film director.
Bob le flambeur
Circular Camera Movements
Long take camera movements in Melville can move in a 360 degree
circle. For example, the wonderful shot showing the drive around
the casino building in Bob le flambeur (1955). It makes
a nearly complete circle, around the four sides of the building.
It shows in an intricate way the architecture of the casino, combined
with the camera movement parallel to the building sides.
Also, the long take in the police station in Le Doulos (1962).
This take repeatedly circles around the entire police office,
exploring its elaborate architecture. This shot is part of the
best scene in an other wise problematic movie.
Backgrounds and Patterns
Much of Bob le flambeur is visually brilliant. Melville
often shoots against complex interiors. He likes richly patterned
backgrounds on his walls, such as grill work and wall paper. These
areas provide different "colors" in this black and white
film. The checkerboard background of one gambling room is dazzling.
Influence on Godard
One can see the influence of Bob le flambeur on
- The whole "look" of the film anticipates Godard. It
is shot in the streets of Montmartre and Deauville, just like
Godard's later films, and is very evocative of its locations.
- There is a gentle melancholy, a sense of sadness that engulfs
everything, that anticipates such Godard classics as
Band of Outsiders (1964).
- Melville even narrates the film himself, just as Godard will do later.
A Remake of This Gun For Hire: Emotionally Damaged Men
Le Samouraï (1967) recalls in its story the American
pioneer film noir, This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942,
based on a 1936 novel by Graham Greene). That film dealt with
a contract killer, played by Alan Ladd, who is double crossed
by the men who hired him, after he executes a hit. He meets a
glamorous stage magician, played by Veronica Lake, with whom he
falls in love. The hit man is deeply alienated from society and
all human ties, and his encounter with the magician is an attempt
to unfreeze a man who is otherwise icily devoted to his job, and
whose feelings are entirely repressed.
Melville's film keeps almost
all of these elements. Delon's hitman is as emotionally damaged
as Ladd's, and just as divorced from being able to either feel
or express his feelings. In both films, this look at the man's
feelings is one of the principal interests and attractions of
the film. Many men feel repressed by the process of male socialization,
feel they have been turned into robots to perform their job. This
story allows men to examine such feelings, but in a macho way
- after, who could be tougher than a hitman?
The woman he meets is not as emotionally central in Melville's remake,
however. Here she is a jazz pianist at a nightclub.
An Implacable Hero - and his Processes
The style of Melville's film is very different from Tuttle's.
Tuttle's film is a full film noir treatment, with dazzlingly
complex shadowy photography by the great John B. Seitz, and as
much spectacular imagery as possible - trains for the finale,
stage shows, shadowy buildings.
Melville's film looks very different. It recalls the films
of Robert Bresson. It emphasizes
the methodical unfolding of processes, first the hit man planning
his kill, then the police performing their investigation. There
is a strong "police procedural" feel to Melville's work.
The style recalls similar dispassionate, relentless unfoldings
of plans in Bresson's great A Man Escaped (1956), and other
Bresson films. In both Bresson and Melville, we are made to feel
the great emotion and passion seething under the surface of the
protagonists, as they icily carry out their methodical plans.
Both men seem like tremendous forces of nature that have been
unleashed. Bresson and Melville both have superb visual styles,
as well. Every image in both films is carefully, creatively imagined,
to achieve maximum interest.
Gestures and Postures
Melville is especially good with hand gestures and postures for
his hero. They just reek of a sensational personal style - his
hit man has tons of cool, style and glamour. Watching his hero
adjust his hat brim in a mirror, or leave money on a counter,
is to see a teenager's image of the total cool man he would like
to become. One suspects that Melville developed all of these gestures,
then passed them on to his actors, but I am not sure, of course.
Another thing noticeable about Melville's film is how well dressed
everyone is in it - always in coat and tie. At one point the police
round up several hundred suspects from all of Paris, suspicious
men with mob connections and police records. All are immaculately dressed
in white shirts and ties. In a 1998 American movie, such men would
all look like the scum of the earth - and so might the tough guy
police who interrogate them. Here, everyone is dressed up, and
exudes macho pride in their appearance. I have no idea if Melville's
film simply reflects a better dressed era, or whether Melville
has polished up everybody for the screen.
Melville's hitman wears the same costume as Tuttle's hero: a trenchcoat
over his suit. The Tuttle film actually help glamorize this look -
it was a huge hit, and I seem to have read that many men actually started
dressing like Ladd in the film, after seeing how good he looked.
Delon also looks like a million bucks in his trench in the Melville
Perspective Shots and Walled Routes: Processes and Narrow Paths
Melville likes shots that feature long perspectives. One shot
towards the beginning shows a walled street going off into the
distance. Another shot shows the hero advancing toward a representative
of the men who hired him, going towards both this man and the
viewer down a long, elevated walled walk.
In general, his hero is often passing down narrow walled passage ways,
such as the back passage leading to and from the office of the man he has
been hired to kill. Such narrow, walled routes reflect the well
defined processes his hero has to trod, first to execute his hit,
then to evade the police, then to cope with the men who have turned
on him. They also symbolize the emotional repression that has
been inflicted on the hero.
The Customers - and their Glamorous Representative
We never learn much about the hitman's customers.
They are clearly a wealthy and powerful group of men who want
the night club owner dead, and also clearly for cold financial
purposes. Whether they are a group of professional criminals,
or greedy, unscrupulous business men who don't stop at murder,
is not said by the film. They are very well dressed, clearly very
affluent and successful, and are men of power and money. They
have a lush but cold looking office suite. Such a treatment implies
that they are somehow "typical", that their behavior
is by no means unusual in the world of the film. One gets the
impression that lots of such hits go on, perpetrated by the likes
of men like them.
One can suspect that Melville's hitman would like to develop a
relationship with the representative of his clients. This man
is clearly very much like the hitman himself. He is clearly a
hired gun for the customers, some kind of enforcer they have employed,
and not one of the customer group themselves. He too is very well
dressed. He is distinctly better looking than any of the customers,
in fact, as handsome as Delon himself. In many ways, the film
paints him as Delon's double. He also dresses in a style similar
to Delon. Delon's fury after he is betrayed by this man, who is
just carrying out the customers' orders, is also partly caused
by what the hitman sees as a personal rejection by him.
As a figure, the representative reminds one of the villains' hired gun
in Howard Hawks' El Dorado (1967),
made the same year as Melville's film.
This hired professional gunman, played by Christopher George,
is both far more attractive and far more likable than any of the
villains. He earns the respect of the good guys, even as they defeat him.
Un Flic (1972) is Melville's last film.
Richard Crenna is an American actor who mainly appeared in television.
He has never been a "high prestige" performer.
But he mages to exude the panache and stylishness of Melville's leading men in Un Flic.
He wears the trenchcoat linked to earlier Melville heroes, and looks great in it.
A shot of him ritualistically adjusting his hat (while riding in a car)
shows the fetishistic love of Melville heroes for their hats.
During the 1970's he appeared in the works of a few auteur directors:
Un Flic, Shootout in a One Dog Town (Burt Kennedy, 1974),
Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (Curtis Harrington, 1978).
His prestige TV drama series Slattery's People (1964-1965) has not been much studied.
The Bank Robbery
The bank robbery at the film's start is a major set-piece.
A complex camera movement goes along the modernist facade of the bank building.
It echoes the ocean waves we have been seeing. The movement is a sort of
"visual pun", in which one image echoes and suggests another.
Such visual puns can be found in Robert Bresson,
such as the opening of The Trial of Joan of Arc, where
walking feet resemble a bell ringing.
The modernist facade is full of repeating rectangles and modules.
It recalls the police line-up wall behind the hero in Le Samouraï.
Both are full of color that is both subdued and intense.
Key shots shows the automatic blinds of the bank windows lowering.
We see this from both outside and inside the bank.
Such shots of mobile architecture recall Kinetic Art.
Immediately afterwords, a man in a car has his window roll down automatically,
in an echo of these shots.
There is a sympathetic treatment of a middle-aged gay man who has been robbed.
Un Flic is a film that supports Gay Liberation, and at an early date.