With the birth of the gangster genre during the early part of the twentieth century, the figure of the gangster protagonist has suffered the same fate in countless pictures, good and bad: to die an ignominious death or be locked up forever removed from society’s purview, yet even though the template for the gangster genre hasn’t changed since the time of Griffith. The genre’s adoption and re-appropriation by filmmakers from all over the world has led to several unique strains of the gangster archetype. Whereas the American gangster follows a rise-and-fall narrative, usually employing an immigrant or minority protagonist, the Japanese yakuza is torn between the contradictory values of duty and personal loyalty, while the Gallic version of the gangster archetype was a blend of American genre tropes and existentialist angst. Our French cousins injected Camus and Sartre into characters that wouldn’t be too far off from the early Warner Bros. gangster pictures of the 1930’s. And while there have been many contributors to the Gallic strain of crime pictures the most important of these is French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. A man that not only dabbled in making gangster pictures he invented the image of the hip, cool, laconic gangster. An image appropriated by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Johnnie To, and Jim Jarmusch.
Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach to a family of Alsatian Jews, his literary nom de plume would come much later. The young Grumbach became obsessed with cinema, an interest that would also fuel his growing Americanophilia. As film scholar and professor Ginette Vincendeau remarks in a video interview entitled Authors on Melville, “Melville was one of the first French filmmakers to educate himself by watching movies.” Yet, what makes him more than just a footnote in the history of French cinema is that as Vincendeau states in the same interview, Melville was one of the few filmmakers in cinema’s history that straddled the twin peaks of auteurist personal cinema and popular bread and circus style films. And in turn he bridged the gap between classic Hollywood and the more guerilla-style filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague.
In the span of 13 films, one short, and a career that lasted more than twenty years Melville transmuted his celluloid dreams into cinematic gold. Yet, his start in the industry was anything but smooth. The first obstacle, the German Occupation of France, delayed his cinematic aspirations as he worked with Charles De Gaulle and the French Resistance. During these few short years, Melville was forced to grow up. He lost a brother who was fleeing to Franco’s Spain and witnessed countless civilians being butchered, all under the purview of the French authorities at Vichy who willingly collaborated with the Nazi’s. This fact, brushed under the rug by many of the French after the war, lingered in Melville’s mind for the rest of his life and informed the stories he told.
The second obstacle came after the war as Melville’s attempts to get a professional film license was blocked by the mainly communist Film Technicians’ Union. Despite this setback, plus the issue of money and the lack of film stock, he plodded on and adapted/directed “the single most famous Resistance story” on screen, took a shot at turning one of Cocteau’s plays into a film, and had great success with an overheated melodrama. None of these early pictures, aside from his first, Le Silence de la mer (1949), exhibited the tropes that would identify Melville as an auteur, a torchbearer for the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd. Yet, these three productions allowed him to finally get what he wanted: total independence in the form of his own personal studio.
Melville’s rue Jenner studio was modest by any standard. There was room for two sound stages, a small wardrobe room, a place to edit, and a screening room. Add to that on the second floor an apartment for Melville, his wife, and their two cats to live. Ironically, independence did not come with freedom, and the workaholic director who hated holidays spent every waking moment working to realize his ideas into viable films. He lost many battles during his career, and struggled with financiers to get the money he needed to make his pictures. Yet, as the saying goes, limitations give way to great art, and Melville embraced a Spartan visual aesthetic: a Burberry trench coat, a lit cigarette, a fedora, a dark lit street, and a gun.
From frame one Bob le flambeur(1956), his first great masterpiece crackles and revels in its influences: hard-boiled fiction and French poetic realism. Shot mainly using hand-held cameras the picture has a documentary feel as characters move from the dark seamy world of Pigalle to the Bohemian quarters of Montmartre to the opulence of Deauville casino. While the “Tradition of Quality” still reigned in French cinema, Melville and Henri Decae, the DP on more than half of Melville’s films, shot outside and constantly reminds the audience that the effects of war still linger in the City of Love.
Starring Roger Duchesne as the titular Bob of the title, the character is like all Melville protagonists, charming. From the grey mane on top of his head to the poker-face expression that he wears throughout the picture, and even the way he smokes a cigarette, Bob the gambler, the thief, and the high roller is the epitome of cool. And like most knights-errant he is governed by a personal code: Never hit a woman, Never kill a cop, and, most importantly, never betray the people you work with. This code separates him from the real criminals and the story makes sure to clarify that the antagonist are not the cops, but the pimps and thugs who break this chivalric code.
Categorized as a heist film, the idea for Bob le flambeur came to Melville in 1950, though the genre’s origins can be traced to the genesis of cinema itself with Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). With that said the 1950’s was a boom time for the genre starting with John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), while Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) were playing in French theaters. The heist film was at its apotheosis that by 1958 it began being parodied in countless pictures. So, Melville was working within a very specific mode and he doesn’t invent out of whole cloth. He picks and chooses and marries his sensibilities within the context of film history. What makes Bob le flambeur unique and canon worthy is the filmmaking craft on display, be it Henri Decae’s work behind the camera, Eddie Barclay’s melancholic soundtrack, or the actor’s deadpan delivery. Add to that, Melville’s sincere appreciation for genre you get something familiar but distinct. Melville’s auteurist touches are hidden within a line of dialogue, the execution of a scene, or the way action is cut.
Nowadays, auteurist cinema is relegated to the film festival ghetto and genre has splintered into a handful of categories: comedies, Oscar bait, adaptations of YA novels, and superhero films. Jean-Pierre Melville’s sincere and unpretentious method of making films may now be considered quaint or idealistic. Especially since films must compete with so many other mediums for audience attention. Yet, art cannot be quantified by box office or number of awards received, time is the real judge and as the decades roll on Jean-Pierre Melville’s pictures continue to grow in popularity as each new generation stumbles on his work; oftentimes cribbing narratives and visual tics wholesale for their own projects. Yet there is only one godfather of cool, the pater familias of the Nouvelle Vague, and the great inheritor of American film noir, Jean-Pierre Melville.