Jean-Pierre Melville – Existential Cinema

And to Melville, the fate of the gangster-movie hero is inseparable from his style or his morality; it’s part of the form he occupies, just as his Cadillac and his chivalrous manners are.  A man has no choice; if he’s in a gangster picture, he looks a certain way, behaves a certain way, and dies a certain way.  Genre is destiny — and ethics.  In fact, Melville’s films express a philosophy that only a Frenchman could have dreamed up — and only a movie-mad Frenchman at that: it’s genre existentialism. (Schiff, 186)


In an early scene of Le Cercle Rouge, a corrupt prison guard visits Corey who proposes a job. Within their hushed conversation the guard says: “time is short”. Such a remark may as well be a comment on Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster films as a whole. In the later part of his career Melville became consistent with his approach to his protagonists fate; as Stephen Schiff observes, “he looks a certain way, behaves certain way, and dies a certain way” (186). This essay argues that Melville’s obsession with the mortality of his gangsters is not so much a genre consideration, but is instead a reflection on the way Melville understands cinematic time. His characters are all time-bound, routine defines them and time always runs out. The key components of this argument centre on Melville’s world as self-aware as well as his unique approach to time and space where duration is crucial.

Melville’s understanding of time is intrinsic with his understanding of cinema. This is an idea I will return to when I look at the notion of real time in Melville’s world. His films are compact. He provides his characters with situations to explore in a very self-conscious framework. More particularly, he provides his characters with a frame to inhabit by using consistent opening and closing devices. His endings deal with the thematic concerns he introduces at the beginning; often the time of the film coincides with the time of the protagonist. In other words Melville’s cinematic window is existential.

The rubrics that open many of his films demonstrate this. They present the frame in which the film will take place, and introduce the ideas that the ending must address. They support Melville’s view that films are a contained space; characters exist in the time given to them. Furthermore, they give a heightened awareness to the context of cinema. Their content is important too. The rubrics that introduce his gangster films are recurrent with the “vocabulary of solitude, choice and death and their underlying theme of the necessity of integrity” (McArthur, 190). This language is reinforced throughout the film through many techniques, but in particular Melville’s mise-en-scene.

Opening shot of Le Samouraisource

In Le Samourai the rubric introduces the main themes of the film and also addresses the notion of time. The rubric occurs over Jef’s silent apartment that we have been watching while the titles appear. It reads: “There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle”. Jef’s solitude is integral to Le Samourai, and this is visually depicted in the same frame. Jef is seen (although as Roger Ebert notes in his review, it is easy to miss that the room is not empty [269]) reclined on his bed, barely moving while he smokes. There is no movement of light to suggest the passing of time, only the faint sight of smoke emerging from the scarcely visible body. In other words, time is almost standing still for the solitude of this man.

This rubric, as well as others, reflects the notion of fate. The ultimate solitude comes in death; as Jef is in the role of the Samurai, he must be subject to it. Le Deuxieme Soufflé is more explicit: “At birth man is offered only one choice – the choice of his death…” Melville reflects this explicitly. He does not let us forget throughout his gangster films that what we are watching are depictions of fate because of his adherence to the gangster genre and framing. Fate itself is finite. It will enforce a conclusion. His gangsters’ fates are as inevitable the conclusion of the film. Hence, Melville’s films are frameworks that often open with words that state a concern with time’s influence.

The rubrics are not the only device used to suggest the imminence of time. As mentioned before his use of genre and mise-en-scene allude to fate and time, but also significant is the dialogue. Though sparse throughout his films, there are important moments where what is said positions the protagonist in a temporal frame. Jef’s second visit to the mechanic, and the only with dialogue, contains a statement that firmly announces Melville’s intentions. The mechanic says, “this will be the last time” as Jef hands over the money. In this there is a confirmation that the film, and Jef’s existence is coming to a climax. The two mechanic scenes efficiently bookmark Jef’s cinematic existence, and in turn remind us of his imminent fate.

If Melville’s understanding of time is influenced by mortality and existentialism, what emphasis does Melville place upon the past? If one is to believe Adrian Danks, that “Melville’s cinema is essentially tonal” (6), that style premeditates his narratives about feelings rather than continuity (Groves), then the characters that inhabit them are clearly not classically constructed. Melville’s narratives are details located in the present. The past is of no interest to Melville, neither is the future beyond the death of his protagonists. Existence is fundamental. Because of the restricted cinematic framework that Melville lets his characters occupy, the past therefore has little importance.

7ff2d57fe42563e0bfb399319191399cBoth Bob Le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge demonstrate this. Bob’s past is suggested, but what is important is the frame on which the film focuses. His introduction in the film evokes an “old young man [who was] a legendary figure of a recent past” (Vincendeau, 111). His reputation is suggested by his silent acknowledgement of bystanders on the street who call his name. However little of this matters, it simply makes his character seem worthy of the film’s focus. Similarly, for Corey, Vogel and Jensen, what they are when they enter the narrative is what they are. Corey is just out of prison, but that is all we learn; Vogel has escaped capture for something we don’t discover; and Jensen has been a dirty cop for an unknown length of time. These are all presumed back-stories that are never referred to in terms of narrative.

As a result of this limited existence, Melville’s characters do little to lend themselves to psychoanalysis. His characters are complex, but only in the realm of the present. Perhaps this is because “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters’ perplexities” (Durgnet, 40). As a result they exist only in the time that Melville sets for them. There are no flashbacks to tell us of childhood trauma, there is only the present to suggest a past. Le Samourai is an exemplary example of a chronological temporal scheme where we see nothing that belongs outside the frame of the film. There are only events that imply a previously made understanding such as with the Mechanic. As a result of this limited existence, the viewer has only the present to interpret the past.

Characters therefore inhabit a space that has no past and no future. Melville’s gangster films have a prescribed framework that is both morbid and exciting. “A man has no choice,” says Stephen Schiff (186). He is trapped within the frame of a structure he cannot escape and at the mercy of the time Melville allows for him. Schiff goes on to suggest this is a genre related concern of Melville’s world. But even though it is indisputable that Melville’s films are highly influenced by the American gangster, his use of time as a signifier for fate alludes to something that is more Melville than American.

However within Melville’s understanding of time there appears a paradox. He is very cinematically aware, which immediately makes any analysis on the grounds of realism problematic. There appears no room for real time because of his cinematic sensibilities. Although a few sequences oppose this idea, a general consideration of Melville’s world sees an extended use of time, but one that is by no means pragmatic. McArthur claims the look of Melville’s films and their use of iconography “are out of cinema rather than out of ‘life’” (196). However his statement could just as easily describe his understanding of time as being one that is not real time (out of ‘life’), but rather is one that comes from cinematic awareness.

One of the ways this idea is demonstrated is in how Melville designs his space, in particular the police station in both Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. Danks refers to Melville’s use of time and space as “peculiar” (2) situating Melville once again outside mainstream cinema. The police station of Le Cercle Rouge contains two important rooms off a long corridor. Mattei is attempting to gain the alliance of Santi in one room while holding his son on false charges in the other. His plan is unsuccessful as the charges turn out to be true, and in attempting to straighten out the situation goes back and forth between the rooms. Melville could just have easily placed the two rooms adjacent to one another, but instead he chooses to extend the space by following Mattei in tracking shots that mirror one another. The realistic length of time, of which every second is captured, is indeed “peculiar”.

In Le Samourai the space is used extensively as well. Towards the end of the police station sequence the Inspector comes up with a plan to identify Jef as the man who Wiener saw leaving his mistress’s apartment. To do so he prepares a room full of suspects and switches Jef’s hat and coat to make identification more difficult. He then returns to bring Wiener into the room. It is important to remember that both of these spaces have been established and that a literate viewer could, without difficulty, have filled in the passage of time that passes as the inspector makes his way between the rooms without disrupting continuity. However Melville does not edit this sequence to the classical tradition, instead he has it operate in real time. The camera does not track instead it cuts to a setup ahead of the inspector which then pans to follow his course to the next location. It is the space and its design that allows Melville to invest in this sequence.

Such scenes allude to heightened awareness of the presence of time, which is also expressed through time’s actual appearance. Le Samourai uses reminders of time in the form of on screen captions. It is not the actual time that is shown that is important; instead it is the suggestion that Melville’s world is a finite space. Furthermore time appears frequently within Melville’s mise-en-scene. Clocks appear repeatedly in both Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, like in the respective protagonists’ apartments. Moreover clocks are used to generate tension, such as on the Metro in Le Samourai, and in the security guard’s room at the jewel store. Arranged meetings too rely heavily on the presence of time. When Corey is waiting to meet Mattei late in Le Cercle Rouge, he is captured in a sequence of shot-reverse-shot between him and his glances towards the club’s wall clock, and then again glancing down to his own watch as if he does not trust what he has seen.

Police Station in Le Samourai – source

Perhaps the payoff from the heightened awareness of time is Melville’s investment in details, which plays close to real time. The idea of “cinema of process” has been conceived to describe the unique way in which Melville has a cinematic respect for real time. His long sequences of mainly movement, like his heists or the described scenes at the respective police stations, come under this term. This has led to critics praising Melville for honouring the “integrity of actions by allowing them to happen in a way significantly closer to ‘real’ time than was formerly the case in fictive, particularly Hollywood, cinema” (McArthur, 191). ‘Cinema of process’ is often associated with sequences of observation where events unfold often with skill and professionalism, such as Melville’s renowned heist sequences.

These scenes of observation often create a high level of tension. Melville’s editing in these sequences is crucial to generating this effect. Although little is happening, the rate of cutting generally increases. This is a reflection on Melville’s camera, which rarely moves with his characters. When Corey and Fogel make their way to the rooftop for the jewel heist in Le Cercle Rouge, they are followed by numerous stationary camera set ups that pan and tilt, but never track. In effect this creates a trust between the audience and Melville: that real time is being maintained. When time is skipped, Melville is not subtle. He frequently uses inserts, but often returns to the same camera angle to emphasise the passage of time. Even more obvious are his wipes, which are often disruptive – an effect Melville was likely aiming for. As a result real time can be assumed, which allows Melville to generate suspense.

One important aspect of Melville’s creation of tension in ‘cinema of process’ sequences is his use of sound. As well as fluid editing, diegetic sound helps to maintain continuity. Sounds that we can see being produced make time appear more continuous, especially if it is has a rhythmic quality. In Un Flic, the beginning of the film contains the constant sound of waves, which generates the dramatic drive of the opening few minutes. In the heist from Le Cercle Rouge the ticking of the recording device in the guard’s room gives the scene a heightened realistic sensibility while fulfilling the role of dramatic music. Le Samourai is filled with important diegetic sound. In particular footsteps provide an important role in generating a realistic sense of time as Jef passes through locations. Furthermore, trains in all three films at various moments indicate a heightened sense of continuity and tension with their natural crescendo and cyclic quality.

With these ‘cinema of process’ sequences having important contributions from editing and diegetic sound for their effectiveness, they provide the means for Melville to use time in an empirical manner. Just like the duration of the film, and the screen life of the characters, these sequences have deadlines. This, combined with established objectives, is important in creating the tension. Overall it is the heightened awareness of time, and its relatively realistic presentation, that gives the ‘cinema of process’ its ability to generate such drama from such apparent triviality.

Given this heightened awareness of real time that the ‘cinema of process’ has, there seems an apparent relationship between a realistic representation of time and the mortality of the characters involved. For this idea it is of more use to consider his entire films as emblematic of the ‘cinema of process’. The films begin with the introduction of fate and typically end with the recognition of its supremacy. Within this framework, the commitment to ‘cinema of process’ gives a heightened importance to time, hence acknowledging an end in a realistic realm rather than cinematic. This awareness of time is symbolic of the transience of the characters. Therefore the characters destiny is subject to the framework that Melville places them in, one where time will impact and death will consequently befall.

Overall, Adrian Danks summarises Melville well when he stated, “his films present a collection of minute observations and actions played out in what seems to be real time, while also reveling in self-conscious displays of what could pass for pure style” (Danks, 3). For any conclusion on the work on Melville, it seems neglectful to not consider style. But Melville’s use of time considered independently suggests a wider metaphor that says more about Melville than his style ostensibly could. Perhaps, considering the heightened awareness of time, the contained frameworks he adheres to, and the emphasis on process, Melville’s gangster films could be seen as a metaphor for life. Time is therefore even more important. It is a narrative agent for fate, making any of Melville’s protagonists well and truly doomed whether they inhabit a gangster narrative or not.

Danks, Adrian. “Together Along: The Outside Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville.” Senses of Cinema 22 (September 2002)

Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir.

Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

Groves, Tim. “Jean-Pierre Melville.” Lectures presented at Victoria University of Wellington. 3, 7 and 14 August 2007.

McCarthur, Colin. “Mise-en-Scene Degree Zero: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).” French Film: Texts and Contexts. 2nd Edition. Eds. Susan Haywood and Ginette Vincendeau. Routledge: London and New York, 2000. 189-201.

Schiff, Stephen. “Bob le Flambeur (1955),” Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics’ Video Guide to Foreign Films, ed. Kathy Schulz Huffhines. Mercury House:  San Francisco, 1991.

Vincendeau, Ginette. Jean-Piere Melville: An American in Paris. London: BFI Publishing, 2003.

Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1955)

Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1970)

Le Deuxieme Souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1966)

Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1967)

Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, Fr, 1972)


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