Jean-Pierre Melville

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jean-Pierre Melville
Melville in Breathless (1960)
Jean-Pierre Grumbach

(1917-10-20)20 October 1917
Paris, France
Died2 August 1973(1973-08-02) (aged 55)
Paris, France
Burial placeCimetière parisien de Pantin
  • Filmmaker
  • actor
Years active1946–1973
SpouseFlorence Melville

Jean-Pierre Grumbach (20 October 1917 – 2 August 1973), known professionally as Jean-Pierre Melville (French: [mɛlvil]), was a French filmmaker. Considered a spiritual father of the French New Wave, he was one of the first fully-independent French filmmakers to achieve commercial and critical success. His works include the crime dramas Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and the war films Le Silence de la mer (1949) and Army of Shadows (1969).

Melville's subject matter and approach to filmmaking was heavily influenced by his service in the French Resistance during World War II, during which he adopted the pseudonym 'Melville' as a tribute to his favorite American author Herman Melville.[1] He kept it as his stage name once the war was over.

His sparse, existentialist but stylish approach to film noir and later neo-noir films, many of them in the crime dramas, have been highly influential to future generations of filmmakers.[2] Roger Ebert appraised him as "one of the greatest directors."[3]


Early years[edit]

Jean-Pierre Grumbach was born in 1917 in Paris, the son of Alsatian Jewish parents Berthe and Jules Grumbach.[4] His father was a rag merchant; the family lived in ninth-arrondissement of Paris. His eldest brother Jacques wrote for the Socialist Party weekly Le Populaire.[5]

Grumbach left school at 17 working as a courier and then a wedding photographer. In 1937 he joined the Communist Party, but left in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.[5]

World War II and resistance activity[edit]

After the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, during which he was evacuated from Dunkirk as a soldier in the French Army, Grumbach entered the French Resistance to oppose the German Nazis who occupied the country.[6] He adopted the nom de guerre 'Melville' after the American author Herman Melville, a favourite of his.[6] His brother Jacques and his sister Janine also joined the Resistance.[5]

In 1942, both Jean-Pierre and Jacques crossed the Pyrenees and headed for neutral Spain where they would then try to reach Britain and the Free French Army. They crossed separately several weeks apart. Jacques was carrying money intended for de Gaulle; he was shot dead and robbed by his guide. Jean-Pierre did not find out that his brother had been killed until the war ended.[5] Melville served in the Free French Army for two years, mainly in the artillery. He and his unit were sent to Italy and Melville fought at the Battle of Monte Casino.[5]

Filmmaking career[edit]

When he returned from the war, he applied for a license to become an assistant director but was refused. Without this support, he decided to direct his films by his own means, and continued to use Melville as his stage name. He became an independent filmmaker and owned his own studio, rue Jenner, in Paris 13ème.[7] On 29 June 1967, the studio and Melville's apartment burnt down. His personal archive of photographs and scripts was destroyed.[5]

He became well known for his minimalist film noir, such as Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970), starring major actors such as Alain Delon (probably the definitive "Melvillian" actor), Jean-Paul Belmondo and Lino Ventura. Influenced by American cinema, especially gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s,[2] he used accessories such as weapons, clothes (trench coats), and fedora hats, to shape a characteristic look in his movies. He also displayed an interest in Eastern philosophies and martial traditions, as demonstrated in Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge.[2] He self-described his style to André S. Labarthe as "nostalgic", while many commentators have noted its existentialist overtones.[2]

Melville ultimately became so identified with the style that The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote the following about a 2017 retrospective of his films:[6]

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.

In 1963 he was invited as one of the jury at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.[8]

For several years, he sat on the executive board of the French film classication board, the Commission de classification des œuvres cinématographiques, of the Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée (CNC).

Personal life[edit]

Melville was married to his wife, Florence, from 1952 until his death. She worked as a producer on Two Men in Manhattan.

Although a friend of left-wing icons such as Godard and Yves Montand and thought of himself as a communist in the 30's, Melville referred to himself as "an extreme individualist" and "a right-wing anarchist" in terms of politics,[9] and was not actively involved in politics outside of filmmaking.


Melville's grave at a cemetery in Pantin

Melville died on 2 August 1973 while dining with writer Philippe Labro at the Hôtel PLM Saint-Jacques restaurant in Paris; the cause of death has been variously given as a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm.[6][10][11] He was 55 years old.

At the time, Melville was then writing his next film, Contre-enquête, a spy thriller for producer Jacques-Éric Strauss with Yves Montand in the lead. Melville apparently wrote the first 200 shots for the film. After Melville's death, Labro took over the project, hoping to finish writing and direct it, but he eventually dropped it to film Le hasard et la violence (1974), also starring Montand and for producer Strauss.[12]


Plaque commemorating Melville

Melville's independence and "reporting" style of film-making (he was one of the first French directors to use real locations regularly) were a major influence on the French New Wave film movement. Jean-Luc Godard used him as a minor character in his seminal New Wave film Breathless. When Godard was having difficulty editing the film, Melville suggested that he just cut directly to the best parts of a shot. Godard was inspired and the film's innovative use of jump cuts have become part of its fame.[9] In an interview, Melville claimed editing was his favorite part of the filmmaking process along with writing.[13]

Melville's approach to film noir and the crime film genre, with its emphasis "on process and technique, on the importance and ontological insinuations of habit and rules and codes and the consequences of breaking them",[14] influenced the work of directors Michael Mann[14][15] and John Woo.[2][16][17] Woo called Le Cercle rouge one of his favorite films,[18] and called Melville "a god".[2]

Other directors influenced by Melville include Martin Scorsese,[19][20] Quentin Tarantino,[21] Walter Hill,[22] Johnnie To,[23][24] Takeshi Kitano,[25] John Frankenheimer,[26] John Milius,[27] Nicolas Winding Refn,[28][29][30] Kim Jee-woon, Hossein Amini,[31] Jim Jarmusch,[28][32] and Aki Kaurismäki.[33][34] The John Wick film series contains several nods to Melville's Le Cercle rouge.[35]


As director & writer[edit]

Title Year Notes Ref(s)
"24 heures de la vie d'un clown" 1946 Producer, narrator [36]
Le Silence de la mer 1949 Film editor [37]
Les Enfants terribles 1950 Producer, actor [38]
When You Read This Letter 1953 Adaptation [39][40]
Bob le flambeur 1956 Producer, adaptation, voice-over [41][42]
Two Men in Manhattan 1959 Producer, adaptation, dialogue, cinematographer, actor ("Moreau") [43]
Léon Morin, Priest 1961 Dialogues [44][45]
Le Doulos 1962 Adaptation, dialogues [46][47]
Magnet of Doom 1963 Adaptation, dialogues [48][49]
Le deuxième souffle 1966 Dialogues [50][51]
Le Samouraï 1967 Dialogues [52][53]
Army of Shadows 1969 Dialogues [54][55]
Le Cercle rouge 1970 Dialogues [56][57]
Un flic 1972 Dialogues [58][59]

As actor[edit]

Title Year Ref(s)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne 1948 [60]
Orpheus 1950 [60][61]
"Quatre sans millions!" 1951 [60]
Amour de poche 1957 [60]
Mimi Pinson 1958 [60][62]
Breathless 1960 [60][63]
Landru 1963 [60][64]

Code Name Melville[edit]

Produced in 2008, the 76-minute-long feature documentary Code Name Melville (original French title: Sous le nom de Melville) reveals the importance of Jean-Pierre Melville's personal experience in the French Resistance during World War II to his approach to filmmaking.[65][66]



  1. ^ Breitbart, 180.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Jean-Pierre Melville: Life and Work of a Groundbreaking Filmmaking Poet • Cinephilia & Beyond". Cinephilia & Beyond. 11 April 2017. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  3. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Army of Shadows movie review & film summary (1969) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  4. ^ "Arbre". Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Shatz, Adam (20 June 2019). "Who does that for anyone?". London Review of Books. 41 (12). ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  6. ^ a b c d Lane, Anthony (1 May 2017). "Jean-Pierre Melville's Cinema of Resistance". The New Yorker. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  7. ^ Silence of the
  8. ^ "Berlinale: Juries". Retrieved 13 February 2010.
  9. ^ a b "Army of Shadows" (PDF). The Buffalo Film Seminars. 2 October 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 June 2010. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
  10. ^ "Jean-Pierre Melville Is Dead; French Film Director Was 55". The New York Times. Reuters. 3 August 1973. p. 34. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  11. ^ Laurent, Patrice (9 May 2002). "Hommage au " maître " Jean-Pierre Melville". Le Parisien. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  12. ^ Bertrand Tessier, Jean-Pierre Melville le solitaire, foreword Philippe Labro, Fayard, Paris, 2017
  13. ^ Melville 1970 interview, Youtube
  14. ^ a b "All Men Are Guilty: Three Films by Jean-Pierre Melville". MUBI. 4 February 2018. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  15. ^ Peter, Bastian (10 September 2022). "Cinema Influences ~ Jean-Pierre Melville". swissstreetcollective. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  16. ^ "From the Melville Archives". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  17. ^ Hall, Kenneth E. (2009). John Woo's The Killer (The New Hong Kong Cinema). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-9622099562.
  18. ^ Woo, John. "Honor, Loyalty, and Friendship: John Woo on Le cercle rouge". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  19. ^ "The films that inspired Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman'". 4 June 2022. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  20. ^ Friel, Patrick (31 July 2018). "Jean-Pierre Melville's brooding cinema surveyed on FilmStruck". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  21. ^ "Tarantino on His Influences: If You Love Cinema You Can't Help but Make a Good Movie". Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  22. ^ Patterson, John (17 July 2014). "Walter Hill: a life in the fast lane". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  23. ^ "Where to begin with Johnnie To". BFI. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  24. ^ "Modern Cinema: Johnnie To". SFMOMA. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  25. ^ CORLISS, RICHARD (26 November 2001). Time. ISSN 0040-781X,8599,2047726,00.html. Retrieved 7 August 2023. {{cite magazine}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ "Ronin". The New Yorker.
  27. ^ Zilberman, Alan (18 November 2012). "'Red Dawn' Wasn't About the Cold War; It Was About Shooting People". The Atlantic. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  28. ^ a b Grozdanovic, Nikola (24 August 2015). "The Essentials: The 10 Greatest Jean-Pierre Melville Films". IndieWire. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  29. ^ Bundy, Andrew. "Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive: Cinema's Postmodern Samurai | Features | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  30. ^ Peter, Bastian (3 June 2021). "Cinema Influences ~ Nicolas Winding Refn". swissstreetcollective. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  31. ^ "Hossein Amini's Top 10". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  32. ^ Ooi, Jason (8 October 2016). "Jim Jarmusch Talks Cinephilia, Dilettantes, Love For Sam Fuller, Jean-Pierre Melville & More [NYFF]". The Playlist.
  33. ^ "Melville retrospective". Alliance Française Bangkok. 4 April 2018. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  34. ^ Quandt, James (November 2011). "James Quandt on Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre". Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  35. ^ Calleri, Michael (30 March 2023). "ON SCREEN: In John Wick's world of action, nothing succeeds like excess". Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. Retrieved 7 August 2023.
  36. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 222.
  37. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 223.
  38. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 225.
  39. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 226.
  40. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 227.
  41. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 228.
  42. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 229.
  43. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 230.
  44. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 231.
  45. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 232.
  46. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 233.
  47. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 234.
  48. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 236.
  49. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 237.
  50. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 238.
  51. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 239.
  52. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 242.
  53. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 243.
  54. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 244.
  55. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 245.
  56. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 246.
  57. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 247.
  58. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 248.
  59. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 249.
  60. ^ a b c d e f g Vincendeau 2003, p. 261.
  61. ^ "Orphée (1949) Jean Cocteau" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  62. ^ "Mimi Pinson (1957) Robert Darène" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  63. ^ "Breathless (1959) Jean-Luc Godard" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  64. ^ "Landru (1962) Claude Chabrol" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  65. ^ "Cambridge Film Festival 2009". Archived from the original on 30 September 2009.
  66. ^ "Cambridge Film Festival Reviews 2009". Archived from the original on 20 July 2011.


Further reading[edit]

  • Mann, Philip. The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century. London: Head of Zeus, 2017. ISBN 978-1-78669-517-8
  • Ginette Vincendeau Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, 2003, BFI Publishing, ISBN 0-85170-949-4
  • Tim Palmer "An Amateur of Quality: Postwar Cinema and Jean-Pierre Melville's LE SILENCE DE LA MER," Journal of Film and Video, 59:4, Fall 2006, pp. 3–19
  • Tim Palmer "Jean-Pierre Melville's LE SAMOURAI", in Phil Powrie (ed.) The Cinema of France, 2006, Wallflower
  • Tim Palmer "Jean-Pierre Melville and 1970s French Film Style," Studies in French Cinema, 2:3, Spring 2003
  • Bertrand Tessier "Jean-Pierre Melville, le solitaire", Editions Fayard, Paris, 2017. The first Jean-Pierre Melville biography. "The resistance period is informed on a different way through unpublished documents" (Le monde)
  • Daniel Israel Homage: a Tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), 2022, D.I. Linguistic Solutions, ISBN 979-8840545041

External links[edit]