Jean-Pierre Melville

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Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville.jpg
In Breathless (1960)
Jean-Pierre Grumbach

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

Jean-Pierre Melville (French: [mɛlvil]; born Jean-Pierre Grumbach; 20 October 1917 – 2 August 1973) was a French filmmaker and actor. Among his films are Le Silence de la mer (1949), Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), Army of Shadows (1969) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970).

While with the French Resistance during World War II, 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. Spiritual father of the French New Wave, he has influenced new generations of filmmakers in Asia (John Woo, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Takeshi Kitano), in Europe (Aki Kaurismäki, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), and in America (Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Walter Hill, Quentin Tarantino, William Friedkin, Jim Jarmusch).[2]

Life and career[edit]

Jean-Pierre Grumbach was born in 1917 in Paris, France, the son of Berthe and Jules Grumbach.[3] His family were Alsatian Jews.

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.[4] He adopted the nom de guerre Melville after the American author Herman Melville, a favourite of his.[4]

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 film-maker and owned his own studio, rue Jenner, in Paris 13ème.[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,[6] he used accessories such as weapons, clothes (trench coats), and fedora hats, to shape a characteristic look in his movies.

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:[4]

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'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.[7] In an interview, Melville claimed editing was his favorite part of the filmmaking process along with writing.[8]

Although a friend of left-wing icons such as 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.[7]

In 1963 he was invited as one of the jury at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.[9]


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.[4][10][11] He was 55 years old. 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]


As director & writer[edit]

Title Year Notes Ref(s)
"24 heures de la vie d'un clown" 1946 Producer, narrator [13]
Le Silence de la mer 1949 Film editor [14]
Les Enfants terribles 1950 Producer, actor [15]
When You Read This Letter 1953 Adaptation [16][17]
Bob le flambeur 1956 Producer, adaptation, voice-over [18][19]
Two Men in Manhattan 1959 Producer, adaptation, dialogue, cinematographer, actor ("Moreau") [20]
Léon Morin, Priest 1961 Dialogues [21][22]
Le Doulos 1962 Adaptation, dialogues [23][24]
Magnet of Doom 1963 Adaptation, dialogues [25][26]
Le deuxième souffle 1966 Dialogues [27][28]
Le Samouraï 1967 Dialogues [29][30]
Army of Shadows 1969 Dialogues [31][32]
Le Cercle rouge 1970 Dialogues [33][34]
Un flic 1972 Dialogues [35][36]

As actor[edit]

Title Year Ref(s)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne 1948 [37]
Orpheus 1950 [37][38]
"Quatre sans millions!" 1951 [37]
Amour de poche 1957 [37]
Mimi Pinson 1958 [37][39]
Breathless 1960 [37][40]
Landru 1963 [37][41]

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.[42][43]



  1. ^ Breitbart, 180.
  2. ^ "Jean-Pierre Melville".
  3. ^ "Arbre". Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d Lane, Anthony (1 May 2017). "Jean-Pierre Melville's Cinema of Resistance". The New Yorker. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  5. ^ Silence of the
  6. ^ "Jean-Pierre Melville: Life and Work of a Groundbreaking Filmmaking Poet • Cinephilia & Beyond". Cinephilia & Beyond. 11 April 2017. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  7. ^ a b "Army of Shadows" (PDF). The Buffalo Film Seminars. 2 October 2007. Retrieved 5 January 2011.
  8. ^ Melville 1970 interview, Youtube
  9. ^ "Berlinale: Juries". Retrieved 13 February 2010.
  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. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 222.
  14. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 223.
  15. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 225.
  16. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 226.
  17. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 227.
  18. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 228.
  19. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 229.
  20. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 230.
  21. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 231.
  22. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 232.
  23. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 233.
  24. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 234.
  25. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 236.
  26. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 237.
  27. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 238.
  28. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 239.
  29. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 242.
  30. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 243.
  31. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 244.
  32. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 245.
  33. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 246.
  34. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 247.
  35. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 248.
  36. ^ Vincendeau 2003, p. 249.
  37. ^ a b c d e f g Vincendeau 2003, p. 261.
  38. ^ "Orphée (1949) Jean Cocteau" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  39. ^ "Mimi Pinson (1957) Robert Darène" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  40. ^ "Breathless (1959) Jean-Luc Godard" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  41. ^ "Landru (1962) Claude Chabrol" (in French). Retrieved 23 August 2016.
  42. ^ "Cambridge Film Festival 2009". Archived from the original on 30 September 2009.
  43. ^ "Cambridge Film Festival Reviews 2009". Archived from the original on 20 July 2011.


Further reading[edit]

  • 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)

External links[edit]