To The Disapproval Of The French New Wave, Melville Goes Electric

In the ’50s, Jean-Pierre Melville had been a vanguard of the style praised by then-critics Truffaut and Godard, vaunted for his dedication to low budgets, location shooting, and marriage to the American crime movie aesthetic so buttressed by their own critical appraisals. But with Léon Morin, Priest, and continuing through Le Doulos, and for the rest of his short career, Melville took big budgets from the likes of Carlo Ponti and ran with a deepening, and, to the Nouvelle crowd, myopic pleasure in the classical constraints of American film noir, to the exclusion of their more forward-looking ethos. The rift, a heated break over an artistic approach, was never resolved before Melville’s sudden death in 1973. In the middle of their collective artistic liberty, they had tossed out equality and fraternity.

But now the cold brunt of time has flattened the pulse out of the argument itself, given the wealth of cinematic greatness that poured out from all corners of France during the 1960s. Now we can see the strain of Melville’s increasingly straight-lined output running compatibly alongside anything and all things Truffaut, Godard, et al, insofar as they’re all essentially tweaking, in their own ways, the overwhelming sensibilities of American cinematic influence. Can we fault one over the other for still liking what the Hollywood studio system minted a little more than the rest? Surely by the time of Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours (1983), his black and white homage to everything Hitchcock, all was forgiven, if a little too late.




We like our female lead, Barny, a widow and mother in small town France during World War II, because she snickers openly at the feathered hats of the Italian occupiers that’ve descended there overnight. She wears her deep independence and thoughtfulness with the lightness of someone who isn’t surrounded on all sides by oppression, poverty, and looming war. Melville and actress Emmanuelle Riva make sure it’s a charming kind of distance she keeps – she’s not smug nor is she sanctimonious, only aware of the absurdity around her, and able with some version of preternatural ease to absorb it. Slyly, this makes her the perfect candidate for conversion into a brand new set of unbelievable beliefs, those wielded by the young, titular priest.

When the Italians are ousted by the Germans, their betters in the arts of occupation and boot clicking, things get more serious for Barny and her half-Jewish daughter, so Barny and her friends go the baptism route – if their kids are dotted-line Catholic, they may be able to avoid the roundups. Afterwards, her absurdist gorge rises, not with regret for her action, which is pure self-preservation, but with righteous indignation at a church “living on false currency” that would be hypocritical enough to knowingly baptize Jews. With the air of a school girl on a dare, she charges into a confessional loaded for cleric, only to find her cosmic rebukes countered by quick, soft-spoken, irrepressibly open-minded Léon Morin – and maybe because it’s Jean-Paul Belmondo, who makes his cassock shimmer like a tux, she listens.

Thus begins Barny’s arc from non-believer to convert, punctuated by clean, academic arguments, an almost call-and-response metronome of doubts countered by sound catechism, a sort of “My Night at Maundy’s” roll-out of highly intelligent, casually antagonistic conversation leading to her eventual heart change – one she describes as a “disaster” very much against her will. All of this is set against the backdrop of chaos, war, and the continual references to the evils of Vichy-style collaboration with the enemy versus the hard truth that the “only way out” is often through collaboration and compromise. The War, one of the few milieus treated by Melville with the verisimilitude of actual experience, is an extension of Barny’s increasingly unsettled spirit in the same vein as Bergman’s Shame or, perhaps, the bizarre invading flocks in Hitchcock’s The Birds, a kind of supernatural punishment to rival the sins of vanity and pride. Melville goes further by fashioning the film as a long string of short scenes divided by quick fade-outs and fade-ins, giving the film the shape of a rosary being counted bead by bead.

While there are moments we wonder if Barny’s conversion is actually a cover for her deepening attraction to the unattainable, Morin – the object – never wavers from the company line, and there’s no reason to believe he’s not sincere. Yet the movie’s in the hands of Melville the clever strategist, and as the story progresses we get different perspectives on his goodness, from “he’s faultless” (says a friend of Barny’s), to revealing shades of his doctrinal ruthlessness during their many sparring conversations, to possible, but never proven, speculations on his ulterior playerhood: Barny’s not the only single, smitten woman who seeks his counsel. All of these prismatic shifts are balanced by other moments of his genuine care, his untoward engagement, to the point we feel we need his forgiveness for ever doubting him. He’s presented with such moral purity (he declines the outright sexual advances of another female parishioner) that, perhaps for the sake of misguided well-roundedness, Melville includes a scene that puts flesh on Barny’s fantasy by showing Morin entering her room at night and seducing her. It’s a scene that breaks the formidable rectitude of the priest and is probably the only unnecessary indulgence in the film, one that seems tailored more to excite Belmondo fans who’d likely been cloistering that fantasy from the first utterance of the premise.

Given his films before and after this, cloaked as they all are in a kind of street level criminal darkness, it’s easy to think Melville’s in unfamiliar territory here, with the cathedrals and the priests and the lead female character. But Melville, notorious for his adherence to a personal set of rules in his own life, and who thrived his entire career on creating characters that operated under similar self-imposed restraints, a dogmatic priest and his equally dogmatic student are just two more in a long line of rule mongers. Barny reflects this alignment by referring to Morin, at one moment of idle reflection on his character, as a samurai – only in a Melville treatment of these characters would that be congruous.




In casual conversation, Melville’s films get lumped into an easy category of its own: sleek retro-noir, and Le Doulos is easily the first true expression of this through line of his American obsession. “You have to choose…die or lie?” The phrase joins the opening credits as just another fact of its production, the life blood of the seemingly soulless creatures that flit about the raw nerve of Paris’s ancient underbelly. In this iteration of what is essentially just another tale of honor/dishonor among thieves, Maurice (Serge Reggiani) is just out of jail, heads back to the only life he knows, kills an old accomplice for his already-hot jewels, then gets implicated by his best friend Silien (Belmondo again) for the murder of a cop during another break-in. Woven into that simple skeleton of a script is a den of prowling scofflaws and, the usual Melville gimmick, the cops on the other side that mirror them nearly man for man. Not quite the dissection of the yin-and-yang that framed his later films like Le deuxième souffle (1966) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), but the market on the template is effectively cornered here.

The code of quiet is strong in these men – there’s almost no difference between the way they talk to their friends and the way they talk to those they’re about to shoot dead forever. Melville has his actors detail backstory with the same Bresson-like deadpan weather it’s about the snails that are giving them indigestion or the fact that Maurice’s girlfriend was killed while he was in jail. And Melville’s as close to the vest on plot points as they are on relationships. The first half hour can be tremendous exercise for the thumb on the rewind button – so many names are spoken of people who we either don’t see until much later in the film, or never see at all, that a brand of novelistic density arises. (Melville’s last name is his old French resistance alias, copped from his favorite author.) Melville never minds if you’re as confused as you are: there’s a premium placed on atmosphere over plot that at once confounds easy following and crystallizes a sort of The Big Sleep approach to noir-love: enjoy the movie now, figure it out later.

But the story is never less than clean – we’re in the grips of the complicated but not the convoluted. It’s an ugly breakup of good friends followed by a tilt toward vengeance that eventually leads to cleared names, restored love, but tragic death. The roll-out of thick, cemented plot never feels like labor, rather, like a song you listen to on eternal repeat because you can’t quite figure out the words, it’s completely engrossing, fully satisfying, with an entangled ending that plays like hard-boiled O. Henry, but is wholly earned, even desired, despite the fact of its Hamlet-like death toll.

And in the middle of it all is Belmondo, again cast by Melville for his bankability, but used in a way (like he did in Morin) that upends his lively, lithe persona, paring it down to a face over an overcoat – he’s a proto-Alain Delon, though not quite the ice cold mannequin model. Belmondo’s charm ekes through the Melvillean façade enough that we like him, but the charm curdles when we know what he’s done, or what we’re told he’s done. Like the priest, he’s so ram-rod sure of his own code that we can’t believe he’d squeal on a pal, so when Maurice swears vengeance, we’re tempted to side with Silien. Melville is playful in this casting just after the success of Morin – it’s as if Belmondo-as-angel is on one shoulder while Belmondo-as-devil is on the other. Both exact their version of morality on those around them, both have charm enough to make you wonder if that morality is secured or corrupted by his smile, and both invite the maelstrom of Melville’s central theme, in both films, of the power of loyalty, and the assumed potential contradictions of a body-length article of clothing.

These two visually solid Kino Lorber Studio Classics discs come to us with hearty commentary tracks, each good, but Samm Deighan’s Le Doulos track is the more thorough and engaging. Both releases feature the same on-screen interview with Melville assistant director Volker Schlöndorff, whose anecdotal clarity reveals the strong impression a guy like Melville can leave. Here we learn of the lengths Melville would go to reduce his stress – he had a congenital heart condition and his doctors demanded an easier life than his passions would allow. But at least he accommodated by working from a studio that had an apartment above it – with a “fireman’s pole” that connected his bedroom to the main stage. Melville was often forced to direct from his bed, with Schlöndorff as his go-between with the actors and crew.

The only thing that could make this Melville-Belmondo combo better would be the inclusion of their third and last collaboration, Magnet of Doom (1963), wherein failed boxer Belmondo is on the lam from his own failures – and his unaware girlfriend – and takes a job as secretary/bodyguard to a shady banker also on the run. It’s a loosely told story, by Melville’s standards, of an ad hoc father and son whose conflicting codes of honor share a bond of self-loathing that only a road trip through America can illuminate, and only a long stint hiding away in the swamps of small-town Louisiana can sweat down to nothingness. It’s a weird, earthy experiment, little seen, that with the other two would fill out a fascinating exploration of Melville’s stylistic eclecticism – not always acknowledged, but real, sinewy, and always watchable.

All images courtesy of DVD BEAVER.