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From the Melville Archives

Today, we’re celebrating what would have been Jean-Pierre Melville’s ninety-ninth birthday. In a filmography that ranges from psychosexual dramas and bracing chronicles of the French Resistance to the elegant crime films that solidified his reputation in the 1960s, the iconic director developed an instantly recognizable style that combined meticulous craftsmanship with a mood of existential dread. In his honor, we’ve gathered a selection of our essays, photos, and videos that showcase the best of his varied oeuvre.

  • Luc Sante hails Melville’s 1956 gangster film Bob le flambeur as “one of the greatest caper movies in any language.”
  • In Gary Indiana’s appreciation of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s performance in Léon Morin, Priest (1961), the author writes that “Belmondo’s droll, pummeled-looking gorgeousness and catlike athletic prowess (evident even in liturgical frock), combined with a vow of chastity, make him one of the most alluring priests in cinema . . . It’s hard to imagine this film without Belmondo, since its central drama depicts a ‘spiritual crisis’ more or less hopelessly entangled with the strong draw of Morin’s physicality.”
  • In the below clip, film scholar Ginette Vincendeau discusses how Melville broke the rules of classical filmmaking in his 1949 debut, Le silence de la mer:
Ginette Vincendeau on <i>Le silence de la mer</i>
  • “In Le doulos, Melville makes his genre move with a vengeance,” writes Glenn Kenny on Melville’s 1962 crime drama. “For all its atmospheric touches, it has a relentless forward movement unprecedented in any of his prior films. Which is at least slightly paradoxical, as all of Le doulos’ characters are living in the past.”
  • Scholar Adrian Danks describes Melville’s 1966 heist film Le deuxième souffle as “a kind of ‘minimalist epic’ that has the precision of a scalpel and the intensity of a full-blown melodrama, without being restrained by the coolness of the one or the histrionics of the other.”
  • In Melville’s ultra-cool 1967 film Le Samouraï, Alain Delon stands out as an “enigmatic angel,” writes critic David Thomson.
  • Enjoy a series of color-test images from the set of Army of Shadows, Melville’s 1962 historical drama about the French Resistance:
  • Composer Eric Demarsan reflects on his experience scoring 1970’s Le cercle rouge: “To guide my inspiration, Melville [had] me listen to a 35 mm tape of the mixed soundtrack to Robert Wise’s movie Odds Against Tomorrow, which was an original score by [John] Lewis. ‘That’s the color I need!’ he said. Hence the main theme for Le cercle rouge: brass chords, and a jazz quintet for a simple melody drawn back into itself.”
  • In this brief tribute, John Woo praisesLe cercle rouge and its tough romanticism: “Jean-Pierre Melville, a gentleman who believed in the philosophy (very much like the Asian philosophy) of the code of honor, could edit a film and work a camera like no other . . . His movies had a coolness and a style that separated him from other filmmakers of his time.”
  • In a 1971 interview originally published in Melville on Melville, the director predicts the demise of film and says, “I would be happy if I got one line in the Great Universal Encyclopedia of the Cinema, and I think that’s the sort of ambition every filmmaker must have.”

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