Jean-Pierre Grumbach loved Herman Melville so much that he used his name as a nom de guerre during World War II and after the war actually changed his name to Jean-Pierre Melville. That’s how he’s credited on the 13 features he directed between 1949 and 1972, a year before his death. Starting Friday, the Museum of Fine Arts will screen six of them as part of a centenary tribute. Melville was born 100 years ago last month.
Films in the series appear below in boldface.
Besides having the most Franco-American name in film history, Melville also had the most Franco-American sensibility. The American part is easy to see (and savor) in the eight crime films he made. Tough, taciturn men wear trench coats and fedoras, smoke constantly, listen to jazz, drive big cars, and have even bigger plans. Few if any of those plans are legal.
These movies are fever-dream versions of the American gangster film, with Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon, packing Gauloises along with a gat, substituting for Bogart or Cagney. The archetypal Melville title is “Le Doulos” (1963): “doulos” means both stool pigeon and a type of hat, a very Melville two-fer.
Three things keep these films from seeming ersatz or parodic. Melville brings to bear a rare assurance of technique. Note the bravura heist sequences in “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970) and “Un Flic” (1972). The absence of dialogue underscores the terseness of visual grammar. Melville sustains the sequence in “Un Flic,” which involves both a train and a helicopter, for 22 minutes.
Melville also brings to bear an aesthetic commitment to this hothouse milieu that’s absolute. It’s a world that may be as imaginary as the idea of outlaw honor is, but Melville believes in it utterly. That belief suffuses every frame.
Above all, these films are as much morality play as guys-with-guns romance. They’re defined by a fatalism every bit as breathtaking as their stylization. The look is realistic, but they feel like the working out of existential theorems. Melville, who had risked death in the Resistance, earned the right to that most romantic of delusions: Style alone can redeem the doom that awaits us all.
A devotion to style is the most alluring element in the French side of Melville’s sensibility. “Bob le Flambeur” (1955) opens with the camera panning across Paris at dawn, looking down from Montmartre. It’s as absurdly, gloriously French as the title character’s two-tone Plymouth convertible with tail fins is absurdly, gloriously American.
The contrast with the opening of “Le Doulos” is startling. The movie begins alongside some railroad tracks on the city’s outskirts. It’s a kind of null space that’s a cross between Mordor and a Beckett stage set. The pearly view Montmartre offers in “Bob” isn’t so much far away as unimaginable. As with “Bob,” the most glamorous of Melville’s movies, the opening sets a mood for what follows: bleak and barren and, beneath the twistiness of the plot, as inexorable as a locomotive rumbling down those tracks. Such a stripped-down emotional calculus is very French, too: the spiritual equivalent of Cartesian thought.
The remaining films in the series, “Army of Shadows” (1969) and “Léon Morin, Priest” (1961), are very much from the French side of Melville’s sensibility. The former, with its understated account of the Resistance during the Occupation, is in many ways his most personal film. There’s nothing Cartesian or abstract about the sense of tragedy here. Yet there’s also a disconcerting affinity with the gangster films: the sporadic violence, the high stakes, the constant struggle between authority and illegality. The difference is that for once the illegality really is noble.
Morally, as well as visually, Melville liked gray better than black and white. The gangster films are morally murky. The crooks can be less crooked than the cops. There was nothing gray about the Nazis, but even here moral murkiness remains. Melville confronts what W.H. Auden famously, or infamously, called“the necessary murder.” He recognizes that the heroism of real-life heroes can be contradictory and complex as the play-acting heroism of movie-star bad guys never can.
Most of “Leon Morin, Priest” also takes place during the Occupation. Cast against type, Belmondo is surprisingly good as the title character. The real star is Emmanuelle Riva, as the young left-wing widow, a self-professed atheist, who starts out mocking Catholicism and has her faith in the absence of faith challenged by Belmondo’s priest. It’s one of the few instances of a great female role in a Melville movie. Simone Signoret’s Resistance leader in “Army of Shadows” is another.
Melville’s movies manage to be both highly distinctive and reminiscent of other directors. Usually, those directors are American: the John Huston of “The Asphalt Jungle,” the Stanley Kubrick of “The Killing,” the Jules Dassin of “The Naked City” (the heist in “Cercle” bows to the one in Dassin’s “Rififi”). Here it’s Carl Dreyer. There’s a similar emotional austerity and religious intensity. More than that, there’s a similarly profound excitement imparted to those qualities. Which makes sense. The director who made gangster pictures that were like rituals of belief could turn a debate about the sacred into a thriller.
Jean-Pierre Melville Centennial runs Friday through Dec. 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts. For information go to www.mfa.org/programs/film.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.