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.
SATURDAY DOUBLE-BILL DISCOUNT!
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.)
Bob le flambeur
1955, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 98 min. With Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey.
"At once a charming entertainment, a resonant character study, an ironic morality tale, and a bittersweet celebration of Montmartre, BOB LE FLAMBEUR reinforces Melville's reputation as one of history's premier filmmakers in the same way that Shakespeare's comedies enhance his reputation as a major tragedian." — TV Guide
Melville made his first foray into the crime genre with this New Wave prototype (later remade by Neil Jordan as THE GOOD THIEF) that turns the doom-laden fatalism of film noir into a playful, jazzlike riff where style is everything, whether it be the freewheeling camera work of Henri Decaë (JULES AND JIM), the Bogartesque cool of hero Bob Le Flambeur (“High Roller”), or the insouciant eroticism of the sex kitten (Corey) he gallantly shelters. The silver-haired, trench-coated Bob is a former thief turned gambler, but a long losing streak tempts him to take a crack at a fat safe in a seaside casino. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
Le Cercle Rouge
The Red Circle
1970, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 140 min. With Alain Delon, Yves Montand.
“Visually arresting and powerful! Melville was the coolest, most stylish of auteurs.” — John Woo.
This legendary, influential film is one of the crowning glories of French noir. Three criminals and one cop, all linked by the bloodlust of the chase, build to a showdown in a long, ritualistic dance of death in which the moves are defined by the underworld code of honor. A rakishly tilted fedora hat, belted trench coat, and half-smoked cigarette make the man, and Delon is the ultimate Melville hero whose cold eyes and preternatural calm have inspired generations of directors from Jean-Luc Godard to Wong Kar-wai. In French with English subtitles. DCP digital. (BS)
1962, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 108 min. With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani.
"A slippery, gripping cops-and-robbers thriller, full of twists and turns and ending with a tragicomic shootout you'll never forget." — Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
The title refers to both a style of hat and an underworld slang term for informer. The complex storyline centers on the relationship between a beleaguered ex-con (Reggiani) and his cocky pal (Belmondo) who might be a stool pigeon. LE DOULOS is shot in gloriously bleak black-and-white and enveloped in a voluptuously hardboiled milieu of trench coats, smoky bars, vibraphone jazz, pushed-around dames, and ironic plot twists. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
Léon Morin, Priest
Léon Morin, prêtre
1961, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 130 min. With Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva.
"A movie that moves with the diamond-cut precision and carefully constricting tension of Melville's trademark gangland sagas, the precious booty here being nothing less than the human soul." — Scott Foundas, Village Voice
LÉON MORIN, PRIEST represents a change of pace from Melville's celebrated crime thrillers, although it connects resonantly with his Occupation-era dramas LE SILENCE DE LA MER and ARMY OF SHADOWS. Based on Beatrix Beck’s autobiographical novel (which Resistance veteran Melville considered “the most accurate picture I have read of life under the Occupation”), the film centers on an atheistic young widow (Riva of HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR) and a handsome young priest (Belmondo) whose duel-like encounters walk a thin line between religious and sexual passion. In French with English subtitles. 35mm on Saturday, DCP on Thursday. (MR)
Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are no longer showing the restored cut of this film on Saturday. The restored cut will screen on Thursday.
Two Men In Manhattan
Deux hommes dans Manhattan
1959, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 84 min. With Jean-Pierre Melville, Pierre Grasset.
“Melville at his noir best...his mastery of mood, informed by his singular synthesis of Gallic existentialism and B-movie grit, invigorates every frame.” — Sheri Linden, Los Angeles Times
Melville’s fascination with America received its most direct expression in this low-budget pastiche set in a mythical Manhattan conjured up from memories of old Hollywood movies, dazzling dusk-to-dawn location footage, and fanciful “New York” interiors filmed on studio sets in France. When the French delegate to the United Nations disappears, reporter Moreau (soulfully played by Melville himself) is dispatched to find him. Moreau takes along his pal Delmas (Grasset of RIFIFI), a hard-drinking photographer whose cynical attitude puts the two comrades at odds when their investigation yields potentially scandalous results. In French and English with English subtitles. DCP digital.
Preceded by 24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A CLOWN (24 HEURES DE LA VIE D'UN CLOWN, 1946, 18 min.). In his rarely screened first film, Melville, a lifelong circus-lover, depicts the domestic and professional routine of the clown Béby from one evening to the next. Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau calls it "an original and charming movie...the dominant mood is melancholy." DCP digital courtesy of the Institut Français. (MR)
Le deuxième souffle
1966, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 150 min. With Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse.
"This somber, repressive, and perverse work displays a ferocious moral and formal integrity." — Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
A critical and commercial success, SECOND BREATH reignited Melville’s career after a three-year hiatus and consolidated the fusion of abstraction and mastery of detail that would characterize his late masterpieces (LE SAMOURAÏ, ARMY OF SHADOWS). After breaking out of a prison, old-school thief Gu (tough guy par excellence Ventura) finds his restaurant-owner sister under threat by the mob and himself under scrutiny by a wily police inspector (Meurisse). Gu needs money to flee the country, and opportunity knocks in the form of a daring platinum robbery. The opening prison escape and the highway-set heist rank among Melville’s greatest action set-pieces. In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Français. (MR)
Please note: This trailer does not have English subtitles. Our screenings of the film will be subtitled in English.
1967, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 101 min. With Alain Delon, Nathalie Delon.
"**** Masterful in its control of acting and visual style...The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense — how action releases tension, instead of building it." — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Widely considered Melville's masterpiece, this austere thriller has been a major influence on films by Quentin Tarantino (RESERVOIR DOGS), John Woo (THE KILLER), Luc Besson (THE PROFESSIONAL), Wong Kar-Wai (FALLEN ANGELS), and Jim Jarmusch (GHOST DOG). Beautiful, icy Alain Delon stars as a monk-like hit man double-crossed by his employers. The heart of this haunting film is its scrupulous observation of the day-to-day details of the killer’s lonely existence. Archival 35mm print courtesy of the Institut Français. (MR)
(aka A COP; DIRTY MONEY)
1972, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 98 min. With Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve.
“Looks are exchanged like gunfire — has any director done more with a wordless face-off?” — Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
Melville’s final film is wintry in its settings, chilly in its emotions, and cool in the terse grace of its cops-and-robbers rituals. The story’s central triangle involves a stoical cop (Delon, channeling the Zen-like minimalism of LE SAMOURAÏ), a suave nightclub owner (Richard Crenna) with a sideline in larceny, and the frosty femme fatale (Deneuve) whose favors they share. The wordless opening heist of a beachside, rain-swept bank is one of the director’s great set pieces. His style refined to near-abstraction, Melville conveys the emotional, erotic, and homoerotic undercurrents among his characters primarily through a subverbal code of wardrobe, décor, gestures, and glances. In French with English subtitles. DCP digital. (MR)
When You Read This Letter
Quand tu liras cette lettre
1953, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 104 min. With Juliette Gréco, Philippe Lemaire.
- Thu, Jun 29th 6:00pm
An overheated "woman's film" by a director renowned for his masculinist cool, WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER is Melville's most atypical film, as well as the hardest to see. It was dismissed by many critics and by Melville himself as an impersonal commercial project, but, more recently, commentators such as Christopher Weedman in Senses of Cinema and Ginette Vincendeau in her definitive book on Melville have found much of interest in its perverse and stylish depths. Scripted by popular playwright Jacques Deval, the Cannes-set story centers on two sisters, the novice nun Thérèse (existentialist icon Juliette Gréco) and her sexually curious kid sister Denise (Irêne Galter). Much of the film's dark energy comes from the Brandoesque Max (Philippe Lemaire), a boxer/gigolo who rapes Denise and then becomes entangled with her sister. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
Army Of Shadows
L'Armée des Ombres
1969, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 145 min. With Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret.
“Breathtaking...the most meaningful atmosphere of exquisite suspense you’re likely to see at the movies this year. Or most years.” — Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
Himself a veteran of the French Resistance, Melville transposed the suspense and fatalism of his classic crime films (LE DOULOS, LE SAMOURAÏ) to the more personal and demanding subject of espionage in occupied France. With exacting precision and relentless tension, ARMY OF SHADOWS follows a small cell of Resistance fighters through a gray, cold world filled with betrayal and death. In French with English subtitles. DCP digital restoration. (MR)