Hardest Boiled: The Many Noirs of Jean-Pierre Melville

Alain Delon stars in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967)

This summer, TIFF’s having a crime wave. French crime to be exact. They’re mounting two programmes, both bursting with criminal intent. I’ll take a look at the second bunch next week, a brilliant collection of flicks called Panique: French Crime Classics. Opening today is a different but related programme, Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean Pierre Melville. It’s a great ride, too, full of cool noirs and hard-boiled thrillers, from the best director named Melville that most definitely did not write Moby Dick.

Jean-Pierre Melville hard at work

Jean-Pierre Grumbach took the nickname “Melville” when he was fighting with the French Resistance during WWII. The young Frenchman was obsessed with American culture growing up, catching countless Hollywood movies of the thirties and idolizing his favourite author Herman Melville. After the war, as he tried to break into the French film business, his “nom du guerre” stuck. The name suited him, an obsessive genius working on the fringes of the industry.

Almost all of Melville’s films are noirs, thrillers steeped in a hard-boiled milieu and unfolding with sardonic detachment. His minimalist realism grounds his stylistic tics, a current of deep pessimism running underneath the surface. He was a huge influence on the French New Wave of filmmakers coming up just after him in the late fifties and early sixties, directors including Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffault. The tropes of his movies are their own lexicon of hard-bitten cool, trench coats and fedoras and clenched revolvers spitting judgment, rarely fair or correct.

Roger Duchesne is the epitome of sardonic cool in Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler)

Bob le Flambeur (1956) is one such influential movie. A wry caper flick whose DNA can be found in the likes of Tarantino and Ocean’s ElevenBob le Flambeur stars Roger Duchesne as a former gangster and high-rolling gambler whose luck is slipping away. He needs a big score to get back on track, and assembles a crew to rob a casino. The set-piece detailing Bob’s plan for the robbery is the template for the many heist montages that have come since, but it’s the film’s ironic morality tale that lingers. Bob takes an interest in protecting a beautiful young street urchin named Anne, played with insouciant hustle by Isabelle Corey. Steering her away from the nefarious pimps of Montmartre, he sets her up with his protege, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy). The two are soon an item, but the twists of their not-quite love triangle give the film much of its kick, coupled with the inscrutability of Bob’s sputtering luck.

(clockwise from top) Paul Crauchet, Lino Ventura, Alain Lebolt a
Army of Shadows is a methodical masterpiece exploring the deep hazards of resistance

Army of Shadows (1969) is a much different film, dealing in the hazy morality and harsh necessities of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Slow-paced and inexorable, the film is a gripping study of war’s violent impact, both physical and psychological. The movie centres around engineer and resistance fighter Philippe Corbier (Lino Ventura). We first meet him being transported to an internment camp, stoically handcuffed in wry conversation with his French captor in the back of a van. After a brief, dismal interlude in the camp, Corbier escapes to Paris, only to be captured again. Held for processing, he convinces a fellow captive to make a break for it, using him as a decoy to facilitate his own escape. Corbier’s combination of weariness and ruthless pragmatism make him a capable lieutenant. As other figures of the resistance drift in and out of his orbit, we witness the grim, decidedly unglamorous necessities of fighting an overwhelming occupying power. Corbier and his accomplices struggle with killing a Nazi mole, settling on strangling him with a towel. It’s agonizing sequence, and Melville lingers on the extended aftermath, as the film’s characters take in what they’ve done. The film’s unusual for a war movie in many respects. There are no big battle scenes, no single face of the enemy for the audience to identify as the chief villain, little by way of victories. Instead there are moments of great danger and then long passages where the members of the resistance simply go about their business, tamping down their fear to deliver a message, or a radio. The greatest hazards occur when one of their number is captured. Should they attempt a rescue, or find a way to kill their comrade, before their secrets can be divulged? By the end, the moral fog of Army of Shadows has grown thick indeed.

Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville starts today, Thursday, June 29th, with the noir gangster classic Le Samourai. The programme runs into August, and it’s chock full of first-rate films. For tickets and info, see here.

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