In these pages our norm is to give visitors reasons to escape urban life and immerse in nature, join conservation initiatives, support communities at home and in faraway places alike. When we need a brief getaway from all that, we occasionally do it in reverse. In places where we can be reminded of mankind’s occasional flashes of genius. One of my favorite critics has me thinking about being in a big, dark room in New York City in the coming days:
This is how you should attend the forthcoming retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville movies at Film Forum: Tell nobody what you are doing. Even your loved ones—especially your loved ones—must be kept in the dark. If it comes to a choice between smoking and talking, smoke. Dress well but without ostentation. Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless of whether there is rain. Any revolver should be kept, until you need it, in the pocket of the coat. Finally, before you leave home, put your hat on. If you don’t have a hat, you can’t go.
Melville was born almost a hundred years ago, on October 20, 1917. The centennial jamboree starts on April 28th and ends on May 11th, followed by a weeklong run of “Léon Morin, Priest” (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo in the title role. (Thanks to Godard’s “Breathless,” released the year before, Belmondo was at the time the coolest Frenchman alive, so what did Melville do? Put him in a dog collar and a black soutane.) In all, the festival, which after New York will travel to other cities, comprises twelve features and one short. Only a single work is missing, a rarity entitled “Magnet of Doom” (1963).
Melville was far from prolific, and his death, from a heart attack, in 1973, came too soon; he was only fifty-five. On the other hand, he compensated for the modest tally of his films by insuring that pretty much every one is a gem. String them together, and you end up with a necklace to die for—a necklace, let us say, like the one in “Bob le Flambeur” (1955) that a croupier named Jean (Claude Cerval) lays proudly on the pillow of his wife, whom he is striving to please. She immediately asks where he got the money to buy it. We don’t see the conversation that ensues, but we don’t need to, because we know what will happen. In Melville country, all slopes are slippery, some of them fatally so.
The safe at the Deauville casino, where Jean plies his trade, is rumored to contain eight hundred million francs, and a heist is in the offing. He is the inside man, who is paid in advance for his troubles, only to blow his money on the trinket. A classic error, this: the minor gesture, often well meant, that gives the game away. Thus, in “Army of Shadows” (1969), set during the wartime struggles of the French Resistance, the heroine is serenely efficient, fearless, and discreet, save for one tiny weakness. In her handbag, against the advice of a comrade, she carries a picture of her daughter. When the Gestapo arrest her, they find it and use it, promising to send the daughter to a brothel on the Eastern Front unless her mother complies with their demands. Such is the price of love.
One thing to know about Melville is that he was not Melville. He was somebody else. No wonder camouflage came so naturally. He was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, in Paris, to a Jewish family from Alsace. Early on, he adopted his nom de plume, or what became his nom de caméra, because of what he called “pure admiration and a desire to identify myself with an author, an artist, who meant more to me than any other.” That would be the creator of “Moby-Dick,” although it was another Melville novel that triggered the awe of his French namesake, who described “Pierre: or The Ambiguities,” published in 1852, as “a book which left its mark on me for ever.” The peculiar title, you feel, could have been dreamed up by either man.
Melville was given his first movie camera, a simple hand-cranked machine, at the age of six or seven, although the obsession that colonized his childhood was not making films but watching them. They crowded his nights no less than his days; he remembered—or chose to remember—going to the cinema at nine in the morning and not emerging until 3 a.m.
As a teen-ager, he ran with a loutish gang, before military service intervened. He was conscripted into the Army in October, 1937, and was still there at the start of the war. In 1940, he was evacuated to England from Dunkirk; returning to France, he joined the Resistance in the South. Details remain hazy, but we know that he served with the Free French forces, first in North Africa and later in the campaigns to liberate Italy and France. Now and then, in interviews, bright recollections suddenly break through the haze:…
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