Friday, January 10, 2020

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Conclusion and Ranking

I have always considered myself a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville – and yet, oddly, I had only seen three of his films before embarking on this re-watch – so if nothing else, I am thankful for the Criterion Channel for including all these films on their streaming service (I would be more grateful had they included When You Read This Letter for those of us in Canada like it was in America).
What is remarkable looking back on his career is how short it really was – just 23 years from his first film until his last film – seven of them in the last decade, which include his most well-known films. I appreciated his earlier films – how varied they seemed to be as Melville was finding his voice, and just trying to stay afloat in an industry who never seemed to embrace him. He was French New Wave before the New Wave – then rejected by them as he wanted commercial success, and then saw his masterpiece barely get released anywhere, and greeted with a shrug. It’s undeniable that Melville didn’t get the attention he deserved in his lifetime – he was an absolute master filmmaker, and when he was at the top of his game (the top 6 films on this list at least) – he was a true master filmmaker. I’m glad he’s gotten the attention he deserved – even if it came a few decades too late.
12. Magnet of Doom (1963) – This is an odd film for me, right in the middle of Melville’s best known films, but more like something Wim Wenders would make a decade later, Melville never quite finds the right tone for the film, and it meanders – but it’s something odd and interesting, even if it isn’t successful.
11. Two Men in Manhattan (1959) – This one feels like something Melville tossed off quickly and cheaply – outdoor scenes shot in New York, indoor scenes in Paris in a studio – it’s an interesting little film, quirky and entertaining – a B-movie, which seems happy to be just that, and nothing more.
10. Un Flic (1972) – It can of feels like with Un Flic, Melville’s last film, he made a film about a cop and crook just going through the motions, while Melville does the same behind the camera. It is certainly the work of the man who made many of those earlier masterpieces – but there’s just something lacking here. I wonder if Melville would have reached a different stage of his career had he not died after making this one.
9. Les Enfants Terribles (1950) – An uneasy collaboration between a then young Melville and the veteran Jean Cocteau, where clearly Melville didn’t have complete control. Still, as a cross between two great filmmakers, it is of interest – and has a great performance by Nicole Stephane – and is genuinely weird.
8. Leon Morin, Priest (1961) – Oddly, Melville, a forerunner of the French New Wave, cast two of its biggest stars – Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva – and yet also angered the New Wave, when he admitted he made this one in part to make money. Odder still, this film is a long conversation – a debate – between a hot priest, and an atheist woman, during WWII which is a push and pull between the two of them and it works wonderfully.
7. Le Silence de la mer (1949) – Melville’s debut film is a story of the French resistance – essentially a three hander, about an old man and his niece, forced to take in a Nazi officer into his home – but refuse to talk to him. The Nazi officer envisions a world after the war in which they will all get along – and is crushed by his slow dawning realization of just what his country is. A fascinating, engrossing thriller – a film in which a single line of dialogue upends the whole film.
6. Le Cercle Rouge (1970) – For most other directors, Le Cercle Rouge would be their crowning achievement – but coming on the heels of so many great, similar films from Melville, it feels like more of the brilliant same from him. The impact would probably be greater had I not seen all of his films so close together – because this is a brilliantly directed and paced film, with so many amazing sequences – that it is clearly the film of a master.
5. Bob la Flambeur (1956) – The first truly great film of Melville’s career, Bob la Flambeur is the film that really marks Melville as a forerunner to the French New Wave – and a clear influence on films like Soderbergh’s Oceans films. It is a film of effortless cool – of an old school gambler and criminal, living by a code. It also showed where Melville was going next.
4. Le Doulos (1962) – Perhaps the most entertaining film Melville ever made – this film has so many twists and turns in the plot, in its story of no honor among thieves, as we think Jean-Paul Belmondo is a rat, but then we keep having that undermined, or confirmed, and back and forth. Just a marvelously fun film – with a steel core of what Melville was about to start doing.
3. Le Samourai (1967) – Perhaps Melville’s most famous, most celebrated film – and it is a film of simple perfection. It really boils down everything Melville had done before, and boiled it to is essential elements in its story of its hitman, who time is running out. The great Alain Delon secured his legacy here – and the final scene adds even more depth.
2. Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) – Perhaps my hottest take here is that Le Deuxieme Souffle is every bit the masterpiece that Le Samourai is – the story of an aging criminal who knows his time is done, and heading done the path to his inevitable death. This is the classic “old man” movie – but made when Melville was in his 40s. Just an absolute masterpiece.
1. Army of Shadows (1969) – In 1969, Melville’s masterpiece was completely written off – barely seen in France, who decided it was too old fashioned, and politically out of step, and never released outside of France at all. Now, we recognize Army of Shadows as one of the greatest of all films – the story of the French resistance, which completely drains the glamor out of it. It is about people who know they will die, and do what they have to anyway. I am saddened by the fact that Melville never got to see his masterpiece recognized for what it was in his lifetime.

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