1949 La Silence de la Mer
1950 Les Enfants Terribles (Criterion) *****
1953 Quand tu liras cetta lettre
1956 Bob le Flambeur (Criterion) *****
1959 Deux Hommes dans Manhattan
1961 Leon Morin
1962 Le Doulos (Criterion) ***
1963 Aime de Ferchaux
1966 Le Deuxieme Souffle (Criterion) *****
1967 Le Samourai (Criterion) *****
1969 Army of Shadows (Criterion) *****
1970 Le Cercle Rouge (Criterion) *****
1972 Un Flic ****
Jean-Pierre Melville has made some noir masterpieces. I would not call this a masterpiece (I've rated the Melville films that I have seen above, the ones without stars are ones I haven't yet seen) but Melville and film noir fans will find enough here (Melville's stoic tough guys in trenchcoats and hats, the self-conscious homages to the American cinema of the 1930's, and the cold as nails world view accented by a cool jazz score) to keep them glued to the screen for 1 hr and 49 minutes.
The plot: Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) is a thief whose fresh out of jail. One of the old gang, Gilbert Varnove, is helping Maurice out until he gets back on his feet, but Maurice doesn't know who he can trust anymore. He suspects that someone set him up years ago, and he suspects that that someone might just be Gilbert Varnove. Additionally, for some inexplicable reason, Maurice has befriended a new kid named Mr. Silien (a fresh faced Jean-Paul Belmondo). Though it is never explained where or how they met the two seem to have some unspoken bond that exists only in noirs and westerns between old outlaws and new. Since everyone knows that Silien has "friends" on both sides of the law, the old gang doesn't really trust the new guy and Maurice agrees to keep Silien out of the loop on the upcoming heist.
When this latest job also goes bad and another of his friends ends up dead as a result, Maurice is hellbent on exacting revenge. But who finked? The evidence all seems to point to Silien but can Maurice be certain?
To further complicate matters Maurice has a girlfriend named Therese and Silien has an old flame named Fabienne who is now attached to Cotton Club owner Nutthechio (Michel Piccoli). Nutthechio's resume of underworld projects includes a major heist of the Avenue Mozart jewels. The fence for this heist was none other than Gilbert Varnove.
The cops know all of these career criminals by name and they know whose in which gang so when Gilbert Varnove ends up dead one night the cops know exactly who to talk to. Or so they think. They know Maurice had a motive, but so did Nutthechio. So which one did it? The cops decide that the evidence points to Maurice, but can they be certain they've got the right guy? While in custody Maurice plots his revenge but is he plotting to get the right guy?
Its a tightly knit community but no one trusts anyone and the truth remains hidden from view (until the very end).
Melville is known for his intricately shot heist scenes. The disappointment here is that the major heist happens offscreen and we only get to see a minor break-in. But other Melville pleasures are scattered troughout including several indoor shots of cramped hideouts and prison cells and several outdoor shots of both the seedy and the seemly side of Paris at night seen mainly from the windows of large American automobiles. Interestingly, Melville does not attempt to capture the Paris that Chabrol so memorably captured in Les Bonnes Femmes or that Malle captured in Elevator to the Gallows, rather he shoots the city as if it were just another backdrop for yet another New York noir. And since Melville loved New York (and shot two of his films there) and classic American film noir theres nothing too surprising about that.
The crux of the plot, as always with Melville, involves underworld relationships and betrayals. The criminals may conspire together in order to pull off jobs but they also each exist alone in their own universe of one and this is really the most compelling thing about Melville's films, the way men read and misread each other's private codes. While watching a Melville film one knows that these are men of few words but one also recognizes that if they spoke up a little more they could maybe avoid some of the inevitable confusions that arise when communication is limited to a shrug or a nod.
The real surprise here is the way Silien handles Therese when he needs to get information from her.
The other surprise is the elegant locale of the ending.
But the best sequence is not the interrogation sequence which is forgettable but the intricately manufactured crime scene.
Ok, enough said about the plot.
Should you see it? If you love Melville already, then by all means yes. But if you are new to Melville I would start with Le Samourai, Army of Shadows, Le Cercle Rouge, and Un Flic. And then go back and see the earlier films such as Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos. Les Enfants Terribles is also great but just be informed that its not a noir but the story of two incestuous and art-obsessed teens.
I am very much hoping Criterion continues to fill out its Melville catalog. Hopefully, Le Silence de la Mer is next on the list.
DVD extras: Insightful interviews with Tavernier & Schlondorff who discuss Melville the man (irascible, bullying), his lifestyle (he was an insomniac who lived above his own private film studio), his taste in film (William Wyler, Robert Wise), films he quoted or borrowed from in Le Doulos (Crime Wave, Odds Against Tomorrow), his incompetence with actresses and female characters (according to Belmondo who argued with him over his choices for the female leads), his love of Manhattan and wish to make Paris look like Manhattan, the artificialty of his film noir universes, the claim made by Rivette and others that Melville's attempts to find tragedy in the life of French criminals ignores the fact that the French underworld collaborated with the French Gestapo.