A new wave of his own mak­ing

Los Angeles Times - - CUL­TURE MON­STER - ken­neth.tu­ran @la­times.com

cases fea­tures from both sides of his cre­ative per­son­al­ity, play­ing in ei­ther DCP restora­tions or rare 35mm prints. The film­maker’s nephew, Remy Grum­bach, will in­tro­duce many of the se­lec­tions.

Melville, who was a hero of the French Re­sis­tance dur­ing World War II, used psy­cho­log­i­cal acu­ity and stylis­tic daz­zle to cel­e­brate make-be­lieve brav­ery in his films. He made movies about moral dilem­mas as if they were thrillers and treated his thrillers like ex­er­cises in moral­ity. He died of a heart at­tack in 1973 at age 55, but he’s never been more pop­u­lar than he is to­day.

While the moral films, which tend to have the Re­sis­tance as a setting, are more pro­found, the crime films, where hard and lonely men live by their own un­wa­ver­ing code as they walk the mean­est streets in town, are inevitably more di­vert­ing.

The great­est of the moral films is ar­guably 1969’s “Army of Shad­ows,” star­ring Lino Ven­tura as a key Re­sis­tance op­er­a­tive. It em­pha­sizes the un­heroic na­ture of hero­ism, its un­dra­matic mat­ter of fact­ness.

Shot in bleak, muted color, “Shad­ows” gives a sense of how sav­age and un­re­lent­ing the de­mands of wartime can be, and of how alone and hope­less those who com­mit to ac­tion can feel. His­tory may glo­rify them now, but at the time, these in­di­vid­u­als de­spaired of their frail­ties and wor­ried that they were not do­ing enough.

Also set dur­ing the war is Melville’s first pic­ture, 1949’s “Le Si­lence de la Mer,” based on a novel whose au­thor al­lowed the film­ing only if Melville promised to de­stroy the neg­a­tive if a jury of for­mer Re­sis­tance fight­ers dis- ap­proved of it. “Si­lence” is a strange and mes­mer­iz­ing movie, tak­ing place al­most en­tirely in a ru­ral French house. A Ger­man of­fi­cer is bil­leted there with a woman and her un­cle, but the pair refuse to speak to him.

Grad­u­ally, as the film com­bines im­ages and sounds but avoids con­ven­tional di­a­logue and ac­tion, the re­la­tions be­tween these peo­ple change in a way that is as dra­matic as it is al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble. Be­cause this pre­cise, aus­tere movie pre­dates the cel­e­brated work of Robert Bres­son, Melville could jus­ti­fi­ably claim, as he did, that “it’s Bres­son who has al­ways been Melvil­lian.”

Per­haps the most un­usual of Melville’s moral tales is 1961’s “Léon Morin, Priest,” star­ring Jean-Paul Bel­mondo, the hottest ac­tor in France af­ter 1960’s “Breath­less,” as a con­fi­dent, charis­matic, way hand­some priest. No won­der Com­mu­nist and athe­ist Bar­ney (Em­manuelle Riva of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and, much later, “Amour”) can’t get him out of her mind.

An ex­am­i­na­tion of the in­ter­twin­ing of the great pas­sions of ro­mance and re­li­gion, “Léon Morin” is taken up with what can be de­scribed only as a re­li­gious flir­ta­tion, with priest and parish­ioner en­gag­ing in the­o­log­i­cal dis­cus­sions that al­ways have an un­der­cur­rent of sex­ual ten­sion about them. Bel­mondo is cast more to type in “Le Dou­los.” It’s not the first of Melville’s gang­ster films (that would be 1955’s lighter, more ro­man­tic “Bob le Flam­beur,” the story of a pro­fes­sional gam­bler who wants to cap his ca­reer by rob­bing the casino at Deauville), but it’s one of the most in­volv­ing.

Writ­ten by Melville from a French crime novel, “Le Dou­los” has a plot of fear­some com­plex­ity, con­tain­ing be­tray­als and coun­ter­be­tray­als as every­one won­ders who the in­former in their midst might be. Star­ring Bel­mondo along­side veter­ans like Serge Reg­giani and Michel Pic­coli, “Le Dou­los” be­gins with an un­ex­pected death and spe­cial­izes in ac­tions that defy im­me­di­ate ex­pla­na­tion.

Also reap­pear­ing from the moral tales is “Army of Shadow’s” Ven­tura, who stars as an es­caped gang­ster who wants to restart his life of crime in “Le Deux­ième Souf­fle,” Melville’s most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful thriller. But the di­rec­tor’s most fre­quent star, es­pe­cially as his style got in­creas­ingly pared down, was Alain Delon, an ac­tor with the beau­ti­ful, blank face and dead eyes of a killer an­gel. Delon is in three of Melville’s movies, in­clud­ing 1970’s “Le Cer­cle Rouge” (costar­ring with Gian Maria Volontè and Yves Mon­tand in an icy tale of jewel thiev­ery, be­trayal and re­venge) as well as the last pic­ture Melville made, 1972’s “Un Flic.”

Costar­ring the un­likely duo of Richard Crenna and Cather­ine Deneuve, “Un Flic” boasts not one but two knock­out rob­bery se­quences, the first, at a French sea­side town in the de­serted dead of win­ter, un­fold­ing as rit­u­al­is­ti­cally as a Ja­pa­nese tea cer­e­mony.

Delon is also the star of what is likely Melville’s gang­ster mas­ter­piece, 1967’s “Le Samouraï,” an aus­tere poem of crime so ad­mired that it’s the only fea­ture the Cine­math­eque is show­ing twice.

“Le Samouraï’s” plot re­turns to a fa­vorite Melville theme, the links be­tween crim­i­nals and law en­force­ment, and the in­tri­cate me­chan­ics of their par­al­lel op­er­a­tions. An at­tempt by the po­lice to trap Delon’s Jef Costello on the Métro, a sys­tem he knows as in­ti­mately as the Phan­tom knows the cat­a­combs un­der the Paris Opera, is one of the film’s most bravura se­quences.

Never an ef­fu­sive di­rec­tor, Melville pared his style as far as it could go in “Le Samouraï,” mut­ing the col­ors to the point where he chose the bird that is Jef ’s only friend be­cause of its black and white plumage and keep­ing the di­a­logue to terse ex­changes: “Who are you?” “It doesn’t mat­ter.” “What do you want?” “To kill you.” El­e­gant, daz­zling and to­tally in­di­vid­ual, it will, like all the best of Melville, end up leav­ing you breath­less.

Co­lum­bia Pic­tures

“BOB LE FLAM­BEUR” was the first of di­rec­tor’s gang­ster films.

Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion

“LE SAMOURAÏ”: The gang­ster mas­ter­piece starred Alain Delon.

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