Criminal Record #3 – The Devil is in the Detail – Jean-Pierre Melville

From police procedurals to heists, American film noir and French policiers via South Korean serial killers, Criminal Record is a column delving into the rich and heady cinematic history of crime film and TV. This week, a love letter to Jean-Pierre Melville, France’s patron saint of laconic cool.

The only feelings man could ever inspire in the policeman are ambiguity and derision” – The opening title of Un Flic, repeated by the film’s protagonist, policeman Edouard Coleman

The films of director Jean-Pierre Melville are pretty much kryptonite to this writer. Give me a man looking grim, with a cigarette in one hand and a gun in the other, donning a trench coat and a hat in the night-time rain and you will have my undivided attention. Melville’s films are pretty much just that.

In a career lasting only 25 years  and 13 features before his premature death at the age of 55, the man born Jean-Pierre Grumbach took that uniquely American invention – the movie gangster – and Gallicized it. He planted a firm French flag in what we today often interpret as the apotheosis of cinematic ‘cool’ – torn, silent characters, drenched in shadows and gunfire, but not yet ready to complain.

Yes, such iconography has existed aplenty both before and after, even in France’s own rich history of crime cinema, and the countless Melvillian imitators that came in the director’s wake (Michael Mann being perhaps the most famous). But Melville took to this iconography to its absolute endpoint, stripping his cinema of all extraneous flash. This column will probably return to the director’s films at some point, so rich and multifaceted is his style and development, from the heist movies Bob Le Flambeur [Bob the Gambler] (1956) and Le Cercle Rouge [The Red Circle] (1970), to the hitman film Le Samouraï (1967), and even entire sidesteps into a wartime romance in Leon Morin, Prêtre [Leon Morin, Priest] (1960), starring Emmanuelle Riva and an emasculated Jean-Paul Belmondo as the eponymous character.

But for today, we’re just going to take a scene from three of his heist films that represent a distillation of what makes his cinema unique – a love letter, if you will, to the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of his filmmaking.

Bob Le Flambeur
Bob Le Flambeur – leading star Roger Duchesne regards the casino table

Bob Le Flambeur – 1956

Spoilers ahoy in this one – though everyone’s fates are predetermined in the MCU (Melville Cinematic Universe), so it doesn’t matter.

Bob Le Flambeur follows its eponymous gambler and criminal (Roger Duchesne) as he assembles a team for one last heist. Though that’s a story we’ve seen a million times before, Melville digs deep into who Bob is. With the plan set and the traps rigged, Bob’s role in the heist is to casually enjoy himself at the casino they’re robbing, serving as a lookout. Despite the character’s experience and unflappable cool, he is at heart a gambling addict, and he finds himself on a hot streak, winning millions. The night drags on and he forgets entirely as to the reason he’s here in the first place, leading to tragic consequences for his best friend and protégé waiting to start the heist outside.

Melville lingers on Duchesne in the casino, with its elegant chequered floor, perpetual cigarette smoke and high-tension onlookers. He finds a man trapped by his compulsion and his fate, both keenly aware of what he’s doing and fretfully forgetting everything in the heat of the moment. It’s as if he knows exactly the gravity of his mistake as he makes it, but he carries on, urged by his darkest impulses.

It’s Melville’s career-long obsession with fate and the consequences of our actions summed up in one shot – of Duchesne regarding the gambling table as if both a lifelong friend and a lifelong enemy.

Le Cercle Rouge 2
Le Cercle Rouge – Alain Delon enjoys a cigarette. 

Le Cercle Rouge – 1970

The easy option here would have been to pick out the heist that forms the near-climax of this film – a masterpiece of tension performed with no dialogue. But I’ll pick out an earlier scene. Corey (Alain Delon) is just released from prison and is driving from Marseille to Paris. At a countryside pitstop, a fugitive, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté) sneaks into the trunk of his car. Corey sees him but does nothing, and both men narrowly miss being arrested at a police checkpoint hunting for Vogel. Later, Corey stops in a field and the two men talk.

The two men are career criminals and no strangers to facing the barrel of a gun. The scene finds them studying each other, attempting to suss out whether the other is trustworthy. Though it’s basic shot/reverse shot, the camera raises the stakes by cutting closer and closer each time, until leavening the tension as the two opt to trust each other with a wide shot. But there are unanswered questions – we never really find out why Corey decides to ignore Vogel’s presence in the trunk in the first place – he sees him get in, he overhears the radio warning of a fugitive on the run in the area, and he’s already been stopped once by a police checkpoint, and he chooses to do nothing. He risks an immediate return to prison. Delon’s impassive face and simplistic answers don’t give much away. Perhaps it’s because both men recognising each other philosophically. To turn the other man in would break their ‘code’ (and everybody in Melville’s films has an unshakeable code).

It’s Melville’s career-long obsession with the question ‘What makes a criminal’? – why do people commit crimes? Are they born to do so? Melville was never concerned with a sociological perspective of crime, but always seems to regard it from a deep, existential distance. We never enter the interior psychological world of his protagonists – we only ever know them by their actions, and so we can only ever guess at the answers.

Un Flic
Un Flic – the train/helicopter heist – admittedly, the model is a bit obvious…

Un Flic – 1972

Simon (Richard Crenna) and his fellow thieves Paul Weber (Ricardo Cucciolla) and Louis Costa (Michael Conrad) perform an audacious helicopter-assisted heist on a drug smuggler on a train, in the film’s 20-minute centrepiece, done almost entirely silently.

The heist involves Simon dropping down from a helicopter onto a moving train, sneaking into the carriage, knocking out the drug smuggler, hoisting his contraband onto the helicopter, and then taking off himself. It reads like something out of a Bond film, but here’s it’s played completely without fluff. In an earlier scene – the obligatory planning scene – Simon makes it clear that they have exactly 20 minutes to complete the heist, so the audience knows the clock is ticking from the word go. And what does Melville do? He elects to spend what feels like ten of those minutes depicting Simon in the train’s bathroom, changing out of his overalls and sneakers and into the smart evening wear beneath to blend in. It’s one real-time long take.

It’s Melville’s career-long obsession with detail. Melville’s films up to this point had long been concerned with the minutiae of heists and criminality, of the minor, specific things that can go right or wrong. Here, he distils it into the simple, everyday occurrence of a man changing clothes. And it’s fraught with danger and fear, the viewer hanging on every second. And that’s really what you want from a crime film, isn’t it?