Jean-Pierre Melville | Bob le flambeur | Le Samouraï

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Jean-Pierre Melville

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 Jean-Luc Godard. 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.

Le Samouraï

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.

Well-Dressed Men

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 version.

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.