Jean-Pierre Melville, ne Grumbach, was one of the most influential French filmmakers that the overall cinematic culture seems to have largely forgotten. He and his approach to filmmaking in the underworld is alive and well for certain filmmakers like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, but much like the references Tarantino puts into his movies, no one gets them anymore.
I think it’s too bad, but I also get it. Melville’s films are cold, offering little in terms of help to an audience in the forms that they are used to. His main actors are generally playing their roles way down without giving the audience a charming and likeable center on which to cling to. For those who don’t need that, there’s a lot to discover and really enjoy with Melville, though. He was an independent mind who fought real Nazis during World War II, refused any political party (calling himself a radical individualist), and worked entirely outside of the French studio system, finding enough success early so that he could build his own personal film studio. He was a distinctive voice, and I think he’s well worth discovery.
Here are all of his films, ranked, of course. And do check out the rest of the Definitive Rankings. They’re definitive.
13. Un Flic
“Save for one sequence, this feels like an imitation of Jean-Pierre Melville’s style instead of his own work. The style feels out of place with the story, and it makes me wonder if Melville cut down the film heavily before release.”
“It’s okay. It’s not bad. Melville, in his only starring role, plays his ideal man, a man of cool savoir-faire and specific morals, with the right kind of detachment. The halfway point onward is really quite good with suddenly some stakes and a sense of purpose for our character injected into the action.”
“Overall, though, I find the film entertaining but drawn out. I really don’t think you need to cut the film in half or anything, but this is definitely Jean-Pierre Melville being self-indulgent.”
10. Magnet of Doom
“The film as a whole fits very comfortably into Melville’s filmography. In fact, it might be the most Melville of his films. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of something like Le Doulos, the creepy atmosphere of Les Enfants Terribles, or exquisite tension of Bob le Flambeur. It’s a more pedestrian effort from Melville, though it does maintain interest from beginning to end. It’s not the technical success of some of his earlier films or the emotional journey as others, but it works.”
“As a psychological drama, I find Les Enfants Terribles to be involving, twisting, and terrifying. Perhaps older generations are always scared of the next generations turning out as monsters.”
“The idea that Melville’s French identity was being intentionally wiped out angered him. When the Allies defeated Germany, Melville used his first film to express his rage at the effort, and it’s all the more impressive because the film is so quiet and small and effective all at once.”
“The film requires attention and some patience, but it’s well rewarding for those who can get on its wavelength. It may not have the subtle visceral qualities of Army of Shadows or the twist of emotion of Le Doulos, but this is a highly skilled work by Melville that entertains quite well.”
“This is full Melville, and it’s easy to see why he secured his own unique corner in French cinema. His combination of American crime film influences, precise, classical framing like John Ford, and a firmly French milieu created a unique mixture that, in the firm hands of Jean-Pierre Melville’s independence, becomes incredibly compelling and involving. It’s cool, it’s smart, and it’s great.”
“Leon Morin, Priest is a serious-minded film for adults that uses its characters to look into hard questions about faith in difficult times. It represents a talented filmmaker showing that he can work beyond his familiar territory while still making the film his own. It is a great film.”
4. Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettres…
“Jean-Pierre Melville was steadily coming into his own artistically as he made his first few films, and this was the film that gave him enough financial success to be able to start his own small studio in Paris. That it’s been all but forgotten in his filmography is a bit of a shame.”
3. Le Doulos
“Using the biggest French film stars like Belmondo once he got some real money, Melville was able to achieve sustained financial success and independence. Le Doulos is Melville being experimental with confidence in his own talent.”
2. Le Samourai
“This is a return to form after the two lesser (though still good) works that preceded it for Melville. This is Melville telling an interesting story in his own way and finding ways to affect the audience in unexpected direction like the attention to detail in processes that creates tension and the lack of connection between characters that creates an emotional connection with the audience.”
“Melville made a film in tribute to those he knew, to their emotional reality, and to the hard costs of the fight. It’s also the most perfect combination of his style and subject matter. It is the pinnacle of his career.”
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