Jean-Pierre Melville (October 20, 1917 – August 2, 1973) was one of film's true iconoclasts. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he renamed himself after the Moby Dick author during WWII, when he served in the French Resistance. After the war. Melville adopted a similarly underground approach to filmmaking, self-financing his features beginning with 1949’s LA SILENCE DE LA MER. Based on a popular novel by a fellow Resistance fighter (and largely shot in the author’s home), the film also marked the feature debut of cinematographer Henri Decaë, who would team with the director five more times. Melville would return to the French Occupation in later years for such acclaimed films as LÉON MORIN, PRIEST and ARMY OF SHADOWS.
But for many cinephiles, the director’s reputation rests on his film noir classics; as Quentin Tarantino once put it, “Melville did for the crime film what Leone did for the Western.” During the 1950s and 1960s, American gangster movies were all the rage in France; when a new wave of directors tried their hands at the policier genre, they tipped their fedora hats to Hollywood crime flick iconography while building on specifically French film and literary traditions. Melville’s first masterpiece in this vein was BOB LE FLAMBEUR, in which a compulsive gambler bets on a casino heist.
“Melvillian” characters stood as beautiful loners willing to die for a gesture, “to preserve a sort of purity,” and some of France’s top stars played them in these minimalist, hyper-stylized crime films, including Jean-Paul Belmondo (LE DOULOS), Lino Ventura (LE DEUXIÈME SOUFFLE) and perhaps most memorably, Alain Delon (LE SAMOURAÏ, UN FLIC and LE CERCLE ROUGE). Part of a nationally touring program in honor of the director’s centennial, these two Melville weekends include both beautiful DCP restorations and rare 35mm prints imported from France.
Series compiled by Gwen Deglise. Program notes by John Hagelston.