Jean-Pierre Melville’s Quest for the Absolute: Persistent Perfectionism and Realistic Obsession in His “Last” Films

Bob Hudson
Department of French and Francophone Studies

In a probing, book-length interview with Rui Nogueira, French director Jean-Pierre Melville offers a retrospective, film-by-film analysis of his work up to his “last” film at the time of the interview, Le cercle rouge. Of his twelfth picture, Melville states the following:

Puisqu’il n’est pas prouvé que j’en fasse un treizième, il faut donc que j’envisage de parler du Cercle rouge comme de mon ” dernier ” film, comme on dit d’habitude quand on vient d’en terminer un, mais aussi comme de mon “dernier film.” Et cela m’oblige à en parler comme d’une somme de toute ma vie de cinéaste et aussi de spectateur. Peut-être n’aurai-je plus envie de faire des films. Ça peut arriver aussi que, tout à coup, le hasard aidant, n’ayant pas le droit de reconstruire mes studios ici, je me décide à partir vivre aux USA, non pas pour tourner, mais pour y écrire. (177)

[Since it isn’t a given that I will make a thirteenth (film), I must therefore consider Le Cercle rouge as my “last” film, as one typically says when they’ve just finished one, but also as my “last film.” And that requires me to speak of it as a sum total of my entire life as a filmmaker and a spectator. Maybe I’ll have no further desire to make films. It could also happen that, suddenly, by chance, if I don’t get the necessary approval to rebuild my studios here, I might decide to leave and live in the US, not to make films, but to write. (All translations my own.)]

As ambiguous as it is telling, this tongue-in-cheek commentary identifies a number of themes that merit our careful attention. Chief among these is Melville’s odd insistence on the fact that he viewed each one of his releases as not only his “most recent” but also potentially his “last.” In this, he projects a somewhat artificial finality onto his life’s work, envisioning himself at the pinnacle of his film career and in an exiled retirement (in the US of all places) devoted to writing. Such a drive for cinematic perfection and idealized finality – a drive expressed in an obsession with creating what he would call “un film magistral” (Nogueira 182, my italics)(1) – would haunt Melville’s entire life and ultimately prove to be a form of hubris. Melville’s cinematic obsession transformed him into a veritable bourreau de travail and would up end up prematurely exhausting his life: he died at fifty-five. The aim of this study will be to explore three of Melville’s last films – Le Samouraï, Le cercle rouge and Un flic – in order to gain a better grasp of what, according to Melville, would constitute un film magistral. By contrasting these late or “last” films to his more widely known 1955 masterpiece, Bob le flambeur, we will both trace the evolution of his artistic production, as well as attempt to unravel the project, person and “constructed” character (personnage) of Jean-Pierre Melville in relation to his poetic drive. Our eventual objective will be to answer the following question: What are the underlying dimensions of the aesthetic “absolute” that fueled Melville’s cinematic career and how does answering this question help us to gain a new critical perspective on the filmmaker’s works?

It is no exaggeration to say that to understand Melville’s work is to first understand Melville as a character of his own creation. Born in 1917 to an affluent family of eastern European Jewish decent in the cultural Mecca of Paris’s 9th arrondissement, the young Jean-Pierre Grumbach’s love for film and literature came early, which we see in his choice of “Melville” as his nom de plume. As Ginette Vincendeau explains in her critical biography Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, the choice of a pseudonym speaks to two major facets of the filmmaker’s constructed identity: “nom de guerre (he chose it, he says, when he joined the Resistance) and a nom de plume, because of his admiration for the novelist Herman Melville” (2). Constant fixtures in Melville’s imaginary are (1) pre-Vichy France, especially Paris (which he views as a purer, sacralized image of France’s past) and (2) a mythical and literary view of America which he intermingles, as we shall see, with his view of pre-Vichy France. Claude Beylie, in a study of Melville’s classicism, notes that his “amour de l’Amérique – une Amérique mythique – l’avait poussé à faire installer chez lui des fenêtres à guillotine et des téléphones à cornet, comme dans les films Warner des années 30” (13) [(Melville’s) love for America – a mythical America – had driven him to install single-hung sash windows and horn-style telephones, like those from Warner films in the 1930s.]

But this is only the beginning of his American obsession. Daniel Cauchy, the co-star of Bob le flambeur, tells about Melville’s attraction to Ray Ban sunglasses, trenchcoats and the Cadillacs that he ostentatiously drove around Paris (cf. the bonus track of the Criterion Collection DVD). Alan Williams, in his classic text on the history of French cinema, Republic of Images, similarly describes Melville with his Stetson hat, dark glasses and large cigars (331). Vincendeau, in her aptly-titled biography (An American in Paris), also begins by focusing on Melville as a misunderstood man isolated in the Waste Land of post-WWII France. Melville, in effect, turns to a mythical image of Hollywood (his America) and to American literature of a past era to forge a romantic self in search of an absolute to fill the void of Modernity. Melville’s brand of realism was constructed via the poetic image of his imagined underworld, “le nouveau visage de la société moderne” (Burdeau 64). Belmondo would call each of his films a “randonnée dans un pays obscur” (qtd. in Beylie 14) [a walk through an obscure land]. Melville’s realism was thus, as Vincendeau asserts, “neither French nor American, but Melvillian” (217). His cinema was the incarnation of Melvillian realism – a realism based on a world dominated by crime, gambling, murder, prostitution, heists, capers and chance, a world of his creation.

When speaking of varieties of realism in French cinema, it is important to acknowledge the drive for mimesis as a fil conducteur in Melville’s work. At the same time, his films belie an awareness of the impossibility of truly rendering reality. As Claude-Gilbert Dubois notes in his famous work on the Renaissance imaginary, it is precisely the deviations from realism that provide each artist his or her particular flavor. Having explained a first, underground aspect of the poetic imaginary grounded in ” real ” cultural references, Dubois explains that “Une autre manifestation de l’imaginaire est constituée par les aberrations apparentes d’un discours qui semble avoir perdu sa fonction utilitaire, qui est de représenter le “réel,” et se développe en fonction des lois internes” (11). [Another manifestation of the imaginary is constituted by the apparent aberrations of a discourse which seems to have lost its utilitarian function, which is to represent the “real,” and develops according to its own internal laws.] In his representations of a Parisian underworld colored by American film noir and pre-Vichy France, Melville thus became “Melville” through a paradoxical realism that transgresses the very boundaries of realism. In other words, the internal laws that structure the Melvillian imaginary are much more crucial to understanding his realism than are any vestiges of pre-War Montmartre that appear visually in his films. The realistic leurre in the case of Melville seems to be less a rhetorical device that asserts “My film is more realistic than yours” than “My film is more realistic than my last one.” As Melville ritualistically and relentlessly pursued what we are calling a “realistic absolute,” he could never accept that his dream of becoming a writer in America was as just as impossible as achieving a magistral representation of French reality. This is why by examining Melville’s last films (in both senses of the term), we can understand the paradox that founds his realist project, which is: that while Melville’s desire for mimetic finality was illusory and thus “failed” from the start, it was nonetheless artistically productive since the transgressions of his absolute would remain in a the tangible form of his cinematic masterpieces. In a word, his cinematic “success” is a product of his metaphysical and psychological failure.

The internal laws that dictate and drive Melvillian cinema are as painstakingly scrupulous as his drive for mimetic realism. Again, Melville realized that perfect mimesis of the real was an impossibility and lamented the fact, saying “I know the underworld I describe is not the real underworld […]. My films are dreamed films” (qtd. in Vincendeau 199). This did not, however, make his quest for this absolute any less sincere. Melville’s cinematic production was based on precision and exactitude, perfectionism and minute attention to detail. Beylie asserts that a “(t)echnicien minutieux, il était scrupuleux jusqu’à la manie” (13) [a meticulous technician, he was scrupulous to the point of mania]. Vincendeau similarly speaks of Melville’s “perfectionism and obstinately independent stance” (13) and explains that “Melville was fanatical about the smallest detail, down to the width of the brim of a hat, suffered no contradiction and disapproved of affairs on set because they were a distraction” (13). Rui Nogueira recounts a famous spat between Melville and Cercle rouge star Gian Maria Volonté, who reportedly could not differentiate between a step to the right or a step to the left and argued over the position of collars and hats. Melville no doubt considered such details as impediments to his realist objectives. For Melville, filmmaking was a sort of ritual with an exact liturgy, almost a kind science.

À mes yeux, le cinéma est une chose sacrée, et le rituel, l’office qui est célébré au moment du tournage, commande tout le reste, bien que je place bien au-dessus du tournage – vous le savez – l’inspiration, l’écriture et le montage. Il ne fait pas doute que ce qui n’est pas tournage, c’est la sacristie, et le tournage, c’est l’autel. (Nogueira 190, my italics)

[In my eyes, cinema is a sacred act, and the ritual, the office that is celebrated at the time of shooting, determines all the rest, even though I place well above the act of shooting – as you know – inspiration, writing and editing. Still, there is no doubt that all that is not filming is the sacristy, and filming is the altar.]

Religious repetition as metaphor and realistic representation as a ritualized product, for an adamant non-believer, stands as a clear sign that Melville’s religion was cinema. It should come as no surprise therefore that Melville would attach to cinema a certain obligatory perfection and a set of rituals to attain it.

Had I attributed the term ritualistic to Melville or compared his cinematic process to sacred offices, my reader may have accused me of gross hyperbole. However, the fact that he used such terms to describe his own work speaks volumes to how passionately he regarded his realist quest. In the same interview when he speaks of his romantic last film and the possibility of finality, he adds:

Bon, alors, si je me regarde très objectivement, je reconnais que je suis devenu impossible. Je ne fais pas du tout d’égocentrisme (je ne suis pas du tout égocentrique), mais je suis devenu – et alors là, je vais me permettre d’inventer un mot – opocentrique (opo, d’opus) c’est-à-dire, plus je vieillis, rien ne compte que mon métier et par conséquent mon œuvre : mon œuvre immédiate, à laquelle je pense de jour et de nuit. (Nogueira 178, his italics)

[Well, then, if I look at myself very objectively, I recognize to what extent I’ve become impossible. I’m not at all egocentric, but I’ve become – and, so now I’m going to allow myself to invent a word – opocentric (opo-, from opus), that is, the more I age, nothing matters besides my craft and consequently my work: my most immediate work, which I think of day and night.]

Such “opocentrism” would lead him, as he relates in an anecdote, to avoid a beautiful young woman in a bar because he could envision no film in which to use her (Nogueira 178).

Above we mentioned Melville’s literary models. Having dubbed himself “Melville,” after the author of Moby Dick, the filmmaker also alludes frequently Edgar Poe, William Faulkner, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway (Nogueira 185). The literary dimensions of Melville’s cinematic imaginary are hard to exaggerate. Godard portrays him as a writer in À bout de souffle, where the Melville character (with obligatory Ray Bans, Stetson and trenchcoat) plays the Romanian novelist Parvulesco. Eric Gans, too, traces the roots of cinematic realism to 19th-century French literature and its reaction both to the failure of the 1848 revolution and to the illusion of Romantic art. Gans also acknowledges that, as a result of this drive to realism, “Recording and reproducing reality, with mechanical fidelity whenever possible, was a 19th-century passion, and cinema would become the ultimate expression of this passion” (cf. web chronicle).

Because Melville was born at the end of WWI, into another period of secular disillusionment, and was himself part of the Resistance in WWII, we might draw an analogy between the birth of 19th-century French realism (around 1830 with Balzac and Stendhal) and the realism of Melville: he attemps to refill the void left by the displacement of the sacred; he seeks to mitigate his romantic passion in a way similar to the realist writers responding to France’s 19th-century political crises. Emmanuel Burdeau gets it right when he says : “Nous ne sommes pas les contemporains de Melville” (64) [We are not Melville’s contemporaries], meaning perhaps that Melville is more 19th century than 20th. In any case, Melville is, indeed, in many respects from another era. He is comparable, for example, to the famous Balzacian mad-geniuses of the Études Philosophiques. His opocentrism is reminiscent of Balthasar Claës, who sacrificed his life trying in vain to attain alchemic absolute. Cinema was to Melville what the Traité de la volonté was to Louis Lambert, or Catherine Lescauxto Frenhofer: a romantic and sacred quest for an absolute in a society that had rejected and denied such absolutes. According to Scott Sprenger, each of Balzac’s character’s failures works as an allegory of Balzac’s conflicted relation to an absolute: he recognizes that it is an illusion, but the ideal nevertheless functions as a motor of artistic production. In this, the failures of Balzac’s characters, which form the substance of Balzac’s novels, are analogous to the films of Melville.(2)

Blurring the lines between romanticism and realism à la Balzac is not Melville’s only link with 19th-century French literature.(3) Also like Balzac, Melville was a notorious workaholic, often calling actors to the set at odd hours in a fit of inspiration or working through the night to give birth to a masterpiece. Sometimes the works came out quickly: “Melville claims to have written the découpage technique and dialogues for Deux hommes dans Manhattan in some three hours, between 1:00 A.M. and 4:00 A.M. one morning” (Crisp 315). In his preface to Thérèse Raquin, Zola claims that the novel is a scientific experiment grounded in physiological causality. Likewise, in his explanations of Le Samouraï, Melville claims to have approached the project with an ideal “méticuleuse, médicale” (Nogueira 149) [a meticulous, medical ideal], stating that, upon reading all existing books on schizophrenia, he invented “un pur, dans le sens qu’un schizophrène ne sait pas qu’il est un criminel, bien que criminel, il le soit, par sa logique et réflexion” (Nogueira 150) [a pure (schizophrenic) in the sense that a schizophrenic doesn’t realize that he is a criminal, although he is, by both his logic and reflection]. His conclusion, nevertheless, acknowledges his own pathology when he admits that “Le Samouraï est l’analyse d’un schizophrène faite par un paranoïaque, puisque tous les créateurs sont des paranoïaques” (Nogueira 150) [Le Samouraï is the analysis of a schizophrenic by a paranoiac, since all creators are paranoid]. Like the Goncourt brothers, who claimed to have created the most realistic novel to date in Germinie Lacerteux, or Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary essentially launched realism as a literary genre, or Huysmans, who famously attempts to create realistic artificial paradises while confined in his apartment in À rebours, Melville was often deemed scandalous for its realistic eroticism (Nogueira 76–77). Beylie also sees in Melville a 19th-century sensibility: “Il était, par-dessus de tout, un poète. Pas dans la lignée d’un Rilke ou d’un Rimbaud, plutôt d’un Mallarmé ou d’un Valéry, épris de lucidité et de classicisme” (14) He was, above all else, a poet. Not in the same tradition of a Rilke or a Rimbaud, but rather a Mallarmé or a Valéry, overcome with lucidity and classicism]. Also a writer, (Melville had a famous falling out with Truffaut over the latter’s rejection of screenwriting: l’écriture, as we noted above, is part of the sacred ritual) he recorded each detail as did the great 19th-century historians and novelists.

All the same, it is not necessarily the realistic aspirations and their ramifications that contribute most to the comparison of Melville to Balzac and other 19th-century realists. It is more for his poetic sensibilities and character development that he merits consideration. Description and detail, as well as dialogue and intrigue in the lives of the characters, set Bob le flambeur apart from his later films. Bob’s paternal relationship to Paolo and Anne, his friendship and history with Inspector Ledru and his disdain for the lowly pimp Marc establish him as a highly sympathetic character. This feature is increasingly absent from his last films, mostly due to his pursuit of realistic perfection: no such empathy is felt for Jef Costello, who impassively uses his lover as a mere cover-up, or the cold and treacherous Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) of Un flic. It is no wonder why Melville would ironically dub Bob le flambeur as “une comédie de mœurs” (67) [a moral comedy].

In the opinion of most critics, Bob le flambeur is Melville’s greatest work because of its depiction of the post-War Parisian underworld of Montmartre,(4) complete with a repertoire of well-developed characters and the affective yet amoral narrative he develops. This film harkens to a mythical (Parisian and American) past while attempting to project a realistic depiction of a post-War society that has rejected many of the ideals espoused by pre-War Montmartre. Melville develops the plot-which has no central point of reference-from the perspective of Bob (Roger Duchesne), the lead character, who having served a long prison term returns to his mythical home in Montmartre to find it a desolate wasteland of commercialization and prostitution, where “gangsters now have to use guns.” Washed up and broken by his gambling addiction, Bob still maintains the noble air of an aristocrat from the past who is somewhat alienated in a now-foreign homeland. Alongside Bob, Melville also develops the characters of his protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) and their mutual love interest Anne (Isabelle Corey). A vestige of the past, Bob defers the potential violence that could result from the competition in essentially offering the young Anne to Paolo, who is Bob’s hope for the future. Bob’s “old mistress” (as Melville’s voice-over tells us) is and has always been personified Chance.(5) In a narrative that has its share of tender moments of paternal love, humorous moments among the Montmartre regulars and tragic moments as Paolo dies essentially for telling Anne of the heist, it is at the affective level developed by our investment in the characters that we share vicariously in the triumph as, with Chance, Bob regains glory despite his heist being foiled. Considering the autobiographical elements of the story, let us not forget that le hasard was a major part of Melville’s formulation of a last film. It is at the level of Melville’s depiction of moeurs that the genius of Bob le flambeur is located. Just as a great deal of Balzac’s realism was found in his Études de moeurs, so was Melville’s (something from which he would increasingly stray in his latter films).

Having claimed to have invented New Wave cinema in 1937 (Vincendeau 15), Melville employed innovative techniques in Bob le flambeur (overhead and angled shots, perspective pans, etc.) that would forever be attributed to the genre and would mark the film as its precursor. However, his work with Henri Decaë (who would later film Truffaut’s quintessential New Wave masterpiece Les 400 coups, as well as Melville’s Le cercle rouge) was not limited to New Wave innovation. Bob le flambeur also features noteworthy attempts at realism that would come to define Melvillian cinema. Most notable is the painstaking déroulement du temps (anticipating caméra stylo) in the real time scenes of safe-cracking and heist-planning in the Normandy countryside (that we will also see in his last films). Real time cinéma vérité and minimalism are key components of his realism that we see in the gambling scenes in the casino in Deauville as well as the gunfight scenes that are relatively devoid of fire, explosions and violence, especially when compared to their American film noir counterparts. Another element of the success of Bob was found in following the examples of Jean Renoir (ex. Georges Flamant in the role of Dédé in La Chienne) and later Vittorio De Sica (almost the entire casts of Ladri di biciclette or Umberto D.) in casting non-professional characters from the milieu. Granted, Roger Duchesne and Guy Decomble were already established actors in 1955, but Isabelle Corey was discovered by Melville much in the same way Anne was discovered by Bob in the film: walking the streets of Montmartre. Daniel Cauchy, while already an upcoming actor, relates that as a flambeur himself he was ideal for the role because of his familiarity with the milieu. These realistic techniques and elements, while important to Melville’s cinema, were not the only variables in his formula. Bob le flambeur also brought together the proper proportions of character development, narrative intrigue and realistic technique, melding the three together in a poetic and realistic masterpiece. Of his cinema, Melville would later state, “I would like my films to be, let’s say like a mille-feuilles cake: two very different, pleasing substances, pastry and cream. Only the real gourmets will taste the pastry, those with less fine taste only the cream” (qtd. in Vincendeau 22). Unfortunately, Melville’s cinema would become increasingly weighted towards realism and would give less and less importance to moeurs or character development-again, a symptom of his quest for a realistic absolute. Fellow filmmaker Claude Chabrol would say of Bob‘s accolades “Dans le cas de Melville, il y a une part de sincérité bien sûr, mais cela ne correspond pas à son moi profond. Son moi profond, c’était Bob le flambeur” (75) [In the case of Melville, there is of course an element of sincerity, of course, but that doesn’t correspond to his deepest ego, that was Bob le flambeur].

It would be useful at this point to focus on Melville’s deviations from Bob le flambeur and a progression towards a more realist absolute evident in his last films. With the exception of L’armée des ombres, an adaptation of an existing novel, three of Melville’s last films share common features, including the acclaimed actor Alain Delon as lead.(6) Le Samouraï, Le cercle rouge and Un flic are all also filmed in Eastmancolor, using highly-stylized steely blues, blacks and icy grays. The unorthodox colors paradoxically correspond to the realism of Melville’s poetically invented underworld (i.e., the reality according to the internal laws of Melville’s imaginary) but not to an impression of mimetic realism in the traditional sense of the term. Color drove Melville to subscribe to a set of conventions that were already part of the couleur locale of Hollywood gangster films of the period–particularly the film noir of John Huston–adopting their filmic reality rather than formulating his own. With the stylized colors, Melville also employed minimalist sets, featuring a sterility not to be seen in the dazzling, black and white backdrop of Bob’s Montmartre. All feature either one or multiple meticulously-planned heists or murders with tedious real time sequences of the crimes. All three were commercial successes for Melville, grossing the three highest ticket sales for all of his thirteen films. At the same time, however, all lack the affective investment in character and the subtle humor that were so vital to Bob. While Delon was a big name that filled seats, and while his face and physique corresponded to the new masculine ideal of the 1960s and 70s, Delon was hashed by the critics, one of whom noted that his “face looks like that of a bloated Henry Fonda, listless and witless” (qtd. in Vincendeau 176). It is safe to assume that no one said the same of Roger Duchesne or the lovely Isabelle Corey.

Delon’s willingness to star in Le Samouraï, despite previously rejecting Melville, was initially based on the fact that the first ten minutes of the screenplay depicted utter silence (Nogueira 151).(7) Bleak, sterile visual images constitute much of this story, and thus Delon’s stone cold coolness makes him perfect for Melville’s vision in this particular film. Delon’s precision and professionalism as an actor were lauded by Melville, who admits that “il y a entre nous une complicité extraordinaire sur le plan du tournage” (Nogueira 190). Remembering both the medical dimension of Melville’s realism as well as his idea of tournage as sacred ritual, it is not surprising that he would describe Delon’s theft of the car at the beginning of the film as “le vol rituel […] Parce que dans tout schizophrène, chaque acte est un rite […] il y a toujours un rituel. Les humains étant des animaux, pourquoi ne seraient-ils pas fous ?” (Nogueira 154) [a ritualistic theft […] because, for each schizophrenic, every act is a rite […] there is always a ritual. Human beings being animals, why would they not be mad?]. Defining Delon’s character, Jef Costello, as a loup solitaire or a loup blessé [a lone wolf or an injured wolf], Melville insists on the realistic aspect of what happens to a schizophrenic when his alibi is exposed and the cover of his self-invented reality is blown. Still, Costello’s every action, especially his daily “minute de vérité” (Nogueira 68–69) before a mirror, is rich in ritual. Colin McArthur explains:

At a conscious level it is clear that Melville’s films are made out of cinema rather than out of ‘life’. This is evident in the extent to which he deploys the same iconography as the classic American gangster films: cars, guns, telephones, rain-soaked streets at night, art deco nightclubs in which progressive jazz is played and in which women dance with top hats, canes and long cigarette-holders, the particular shape made on the screen by a certain type of hat and raincoat. The latter is ritualized to an incredible degree in Le Samouraï, with the camera lingering over Jeff’s enrobing before the mirror each time he leaves his apartment, complete with the characteristic running of his fingers over the hat brim which Delon is said to have appropriated from Melville himself. (196, my italics)

In his own reality, where words are scarcely exchanged between lover and not at all between business associates, where absolute power remains nonetheless, Costello represents Melville’s most accurate attempt at a representation of the reality of schizophrenia. Having already admitted his own paranoia, with all this comparison of schizophrenia to ritual, it is easy to see the cinematic act – creating one’s own reality – as schizophrenic. As we saw for cinema, schizophrenia too has its religious elements. Melville says to Nogueira, “Le rituel est une habitude animale et par là une habitude humaine, religieuse surtout. Il faut (sic) partie de la folie des hommes, comme la foi d’ailleurs” (154) [Ritual is an animalistic habit and, inasmuch, a human habit, an especially religious one. It’s part of the madness of men, as faith was in earlier times.] Costello’s created reality in Le Samouraï could not ultimately hold up because of the lack of outside faith in the sacred apparatus at work.(8)

Living in his own world that did not equate to society’s conventions, he was banished as schizophrenic. As for many of Balzac’s Old Regime, Catholic characters living in Post-Revolutionary France, adhesion to ritual when the religious group had disbanded is almost always observed as madness (cf. Sprenger). A similar comparison could be made for Melville’s cinema, which attempts to reconstruct a moral code of ethics in a world that has become entirely amoral. Of the film, Vincendeau suggests that “it is possible to read Melville’s tribute to the Hollywood noir gangster as a homology of his nostalgia for pre-war France, and thus as an acknowledgement of the traumatic break of the war” (180–81). Pre-war nostalgia would prove to be transmittable in a comédie de moeurs, but not as vividly so in the created reality of a solitary schizophrenic whose ritualistic acts are dismissed as folly.

Just as Le Samouraï began with a fake quote of Eastern philosophy (McArthur 190), the premise of Le cercle rouge is based on a quote by the Buddha that no matter the actions of men, if fate is meant to bring them together, it will happen one day in the red circle. The three men that come together in the red circle in this film are again three legends of French cinema: Delon, Yves Montand and, less so, the infamous Gian Maria Volonté, whose role was actually written for Belmondo (Nogueira 183). Another film legend, André Bourvil, plays the commissaire, Mattei, who ultimately foils the perfect crime: a meticulously planned and executed heist of a jewelry store in Paris’s illustrious Place Vendôme. Again we see a man, Corey (Delon), released from prison to find his world changed, his woman with another man and the underground milieu from which he left corrupted. Upon stealing money and buying a big, American car, he heads north to Paris and fate leads Vogel (Volonté), whose painstaking escape from Mattei in a train is one of the true delights of the film, to hide in his trunk. Having been tipped off about the security system in the jewelry store by a prison guard, Corey completes the triumvirate by enlisting the help of burnt-out former policeman and marksman, Jansen (Montand). In this, his modern western (Nogueira 181), Melville believed he had concocted the perfect alchemical formula for his film magistral. With the heist that lasts over twenty minutes without dialogue, the tip off at the police station and the poetic shoot-out at the end, it is likely the most entertaining of Melville’s last films in that it comes closest to capturing the reality of the underworld Melville was trying to recreate.(9) Still, in speaking of it with Nogueira, he says:

Il y a plusieurs années, j’ai essayé de faire une liste de toutes les situations possibles entre “gendarmes et voleurs,” et j’en ai trouvé 19. Pas 20, 19. Or, ces 19 situations je les ai déjà utilisées dans mes cinq films policiers – Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Deuxième Souffle, Le Samouraï et Le Cercle rouge, mais je ne les ai jamais utilisées toutes ensemble dans un seul. (181)

[Several years ago, I tried to make a list of all possible situations between “cops and robbers,” and I came up with 19. Not 20, but 19. Now, I’ve already used these 19 situations in my five detective films – Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Deuxième Souffle, Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge, but never have I used them all together in one sole film.]

Despite its glimmers of hope and greatness, Le Cercle rouge was not to be Melville’s film magistral, his absolute nor his last film.

If Bob le flambeur was a comédie de moeurs, Melville’s final film before his death, Un flic, could best be described as a “comedy of errors.” Calling it a “failure” despite box-office success (Vincendeau 14) and even jokingly wanting to divorce himself from it, as quoted by Nogueira in a Criterion interview: “Moi, j’ai fait un film qui s’appelle Un flic ? Je n’ai jamais fait un film qui s’appelle Un flic”(10, italics in original) [Me, I made a film called Un flic? I never made a film called Un flic]. Containing two of his most stunning-and again, meticulously planned and executed-heists: a bank robbery and an invraisemblable robbery of a train from a helicopter, complete with sparse dialogue, in real time and with attention to detail, Melville’s brand of technical realism was ever present. Nevertheless, the plot was shaky and disproportionate, the characters cold and unaffective and the overall film sterile and without the Melvillian verve and character development, which were such positive qualities of his earlier films. In attempting to become increasingly realistic technically, he progressively lost the moral realism of his characters. Vincendeau describes it such:

The last three films inhabit the affluent quartiers of Champs-Elysées where the moneyed bourgeoisie meets big-time criminality and high-class prostitution. These separate worlds intersect in luxury night-clubs and bars with ostentatious modernist décor-Martey’s, Santi’s, Simon’s-and they no longer host the cozy ‘families’ of Montmartre hoodlums of Bob le flambeur. (209)

With more of a desire to focus on the “new capitalism,” “post-war economic boom,” “new technology” and “the simultaneous display and suspicion of modernity” (Vincendeau 210), Melville seemed to veer from his focus in Bob le flambeur, the pre-war era, and rather show his disdain for what had replaced it. To return to our 19th-century comparison, Bob would be more similar to Balzac, whereas the last films would be more like Zola’s Second Empire depictions in les Rougon-Macquart.

Melville’s last films do embody a rare quality of intrigue and technical mastery, even glimpses of a realistic embodiment of the world of his creation. In his postface to the Nogueira volume, Philippe Labro concludes that:

Est melvillien ce qui se conte dans la nuit, dans le bleu de la nuit, entre hommes de loi et hommes du désordre, à coups de regards et de gestes, de trahisons et d’amitiés données sans paroles, dans un luxe glacé qui n’exclut pas la tendresse, ou dans un anonymat grisâtre qui ne rejette pas la poésie. (200)

[That which is Melvillian is that which is recounted at night, in the blue darkness of night, between men of law and men disorder, between glances and gestures, betrayals and friendships extended without words, in an icy luxury that does not exclude tenderness, or in a grayish anonymity that never rejects poetry.]

In this beautiful eulogy for an admired filmmaker, Labro’s words embody the reality Melville gave us. For his part, Melville was never satisfied. Like Balthasar Claës, he was a passionate and obsessive workaholic seeking an unattainable absolute. The further he went towards technical perfection and sterility of ritual, the further he found himself from the reality he hoped to transmit. With vivid flashes of brilliance, realism forever remained a leurre. Increasingly opocentric, Melville would die of heart failure in a Parisian café discussing his next, and potentially (but doubtfully so) last film. Leaving us a masterful œuvre to consider and adore, Melville never realized his distant objective of becoming a novelist in America, of discovering the eternal in the transitory. Unlike Balthasar Claës, he never had his Eureka moment, but rather suffered the fate of his immortal protagonists: the absolute heist, the ultimate crime foiled, much like his realistic aspirations.


1. Melville used the term “magistral” in praise of John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970), which he had just viewed the night before the interview. Despite the commercial failure of the film, Melville saw it as establishing the standard for cinema, and explained his quest as an attempt to achieve such grandeur.

2. For further exploration of this theme in the work of Balzac, see the following articles by Scott Sprenger: “French Civilization and its Discontents: Balzac’sAuberge rouge as Cultural Anthropology” FLS 32 (2005): 119–35 ; “Balzac as Anthropologist” Anthropoetics 6.1 (2000) ; “In the End was the Word: Balzac’s Modernist Absolute” Anthropoetics 7.1 (2001) ; and “Balzac, Painting and the Problems of Romanticism” in Romanticism Across the Disciplines, Ed. Larry Peer. University Press of America, 1998.

3. In a recent conversation, Gans found it important to point out that “Melville is more Balzac than Flaubert. He infuses reality with his understanding of the real, whereas the Flaubertian sees the world as bêtise.” This comment corresponds to our reading of Dubois, who sees the poetic imaginary as being based on the writer’s perceptions of the real and its aberrations from reality.

4. His biographer Ginette Vincendeau would give Le Samouraï the distinction of his “masterpiece” (175) as she feels it encapsulates the Melvillian poetic genius the most of all his films. Our reasons for claiming Bob as the greatest are much different in criteria.

5. For an excellent analysis of the film and a study of its many facets of chance, look to Thomas Kavanaugh’s article “The Narrative of Chance in Melville’s Bob le flambeur.” Michigan Romance Studies 13 (1993): 138–58.

6. This would lead Vincendeau to group the three films under the heading “The Delon Trilogy” (175).

7. This interest was later augmented when Delon discovered that the film’s title corresponded to a personal interest of his: samurais (Nogueira 151).

8. For insight into the origin and effectiveness of sacrifice and its repetition in ritual, refer to René Girard’s seminal text La violence et le sacré (Paris: Grasset, 1972).

9. In one particularly memorable scene, however, a drunken Jansen is fighting his demons, which are live rats, snakes and lizards that truly question the technical realism of the film.

10. Not all criticism of Un flic was negative. In the postface to the Nogueira volume, written by Philippe Labro, he sees the film as “Encore plus ‘melvillien’ que le précédent, mystérieux et brillant comme un diamant noir et rare, Un flic possède toutes les qualités du Samouraï tout en s’éloignant résolument de la simplicité tous-publics du Cercle. Le montage surprend par ses ellipses et ses litotes” (202) [Even more ‘Melvillian’ than his previous film, both mysterious and brilliant, like a rare, black diamond, Un flic possesses all of the qualities of Le Samouraï while resolutely distancing itself from the general public simplicity of Le Cercle Rouge. His editing surprises us with its ellipses and understatements]. The general public, and its filmmaker, would otherwise resonantly reject the film.


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Chabrol, Claude. “L’homme au Stetson.” Cahiers du cinéma 507 (1996): 74–75.

Crisp, Colin. The Classic French Cinema: 1930–1960. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1993.

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Gans, Eric. “On Realism.” Chronicles of Love and Resentment 325. 26 November 2005. 20 paragraphs. 18 December 2005 <>.

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Hiller, Jim, ed. Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s-Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985.

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Labro, Philippe. “En guise de postface…,” in Le cinéma selon Jean-Pierre Melville, ed. Rui Nogueira. Paris: Petite bibliothèque des Cahiers du cinéma, 1996: 199–207.

McArthur, Colin. “Mise-en-scène Degree Zero: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967). In French Film: Texts and Contexts. 2nd Edition. Eds. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau. London: Routledge, 2000.

Melville, Jean-Pierre. Bob le flambeur. 1955. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2002.

–––––. Le cercle rouge. 1970. 2 DVD. Criterion Collection, 2003.

–––––. Le Samouraï. 1967. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2005.

–––––. Un flic. 1972. DVD. Call (Korea), 2004.

Nevers, Camille. “Rencontre avec Quentin Tarantino.” Cahiers du cinéma 557 (1992): 49.

Nogueira, Rui. Le cinéma selon Jean-Pierre Melville. Paris: Petite bibliothèque des Cahiers du cinéma, 1996.

Saada, Nicholas. “Melville et ses disciples.” Cahiers du cinéma 507 (1996): 78–79.

Tiberghien, Gilles A. “Melvlle: le dernier cercle.” Trafic 20 (1996): 58–65.

Vincendeau, Ginette. Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. London: British Film Institute, 2003

Williams, Alan. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992.


#Bob Hudson#J.-P. Melville's Quest for the Absolute: Persistent Perfectionism and Realistic Obsession in His "Last" Films#Vol. 4 Issue 1 Fall 2005

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