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Jean-Pierre Melville: Criminal Codes

June 3 - July 6

The Gene Siskel Film Center presents Jean-Pierre Melville: Criminal Codes, a series of eleven features and one short commemorating the centennial of the individualistic and influential French director best known for his stylish, ultra-cool crime films.

Of Jewish ancestry, Melville (1917-1973) was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach. The surname Melville, referring to the author of "Moby-Dick," was a code-name he adopted while working for the French Resistance during World War II. From an early age, Melville was an amateur filmmaker and a voracious filmgoer, with a special passion for American movies of the 1930s, and he resolved to become a professional filmmaker as soon as the war was over.

Like several of his protagonists, Melville was a lone wolf. Unable to get a foothold in the French film industry because of union requirements, he self-produced his first film LE SILENCE DE LA MER. In 1949 he acquired his own studio, where he lived with his wife and made all his films until the studio burned down in 1967. Melville both stood out and masked himself in his trademark get-up of dark glasses and white Stetson hat. As a director, he was notoriously dictatorial and alienated many of his collaborators.

Melville's earliest films had their roots in French literature. With BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955), he began his association with the crime film and would make all but two of his remaining films in that genre. Much like the thriller for Hitchcock, the crime genre provided a vehicle for Melville to combine commercial viability and personal expression.

Although Melville's crime films were inspired by his Hollywood favorites, he gave the genre a European twist, distilling and abstracting its essence into an existential arena where cops and robbers are bound by rigorous codes of behavior. Such preoccupations link Melville's crime films to the other major group in his filmography: the three wartime stories dealing with life under the German Occupation.

Though an outlier throughout his career, Melville's influence upon other filmmakers has been considerable. His cinephilia, independence, and riffs on American genres made him a forefather of the French New Wave — a debt acknowledged by Godard's references to BOB LE FLAMBEUR and casting of Melville in a showy cameo role in BREATHLESS. After his death (of a heart attack at age 55), Melville's stylized fatalism made him an icon of the hipster crime film, as practiced by such auteurs as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and John Woo.

Martin Rubin, Associate Director of Programming

Special thanks to Eric Di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures; Amélie Garin-Davet, Cultural Services of the French Embassy; Brad Deane, Samuel La France, TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the first Melville film on any Saturday this month, and get a ticket for the second Melville film that day at the discounted rate with proof of your original purchase: General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second feature only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)