No. 1 With a Bullet : Few U.S. filmgoers have seen any of Jean-Pierre Melville’s feature films. Two decades after his death, the American Cinematheque shows what we’ve been missing.

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

If French director Jean-Pierre Melville is known to American audiences at all, it is for his cameo role in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” playing the literary celebrity interviewed by Jean Seberg at Orly Airport. “What is your greatest ambition?” she asks. His reply: “To become immortal and then to die.”

It has been more than two decades since Melville himself died of a heart attack at 55, and like his “Breathless” character, he has achieved immortality--but of a particular kind.

While domestic moviegoers may not be familiar with his haunting gangster films--fatalistic exercises in a minimalist style that are as enveloping as any drug--Melville is a pivotal modern director. He is often called the father of the French New Wave and credited with considerable influence on such diverse talents as Robert Bresson and John Woo, who says the director “has always been my spiritual idol.”


And though Melville’s 13 features are ordinarily all but unseeable in this country, he has increasingly become a secret pleasure to committed moviegoers, the cinematic equivalent of that knockout little restaurant you wish you knew about. Supercool and intrinsically cinematic, Melville’s films not only tell wonderful stories but also by implication express the director’s romantic, existential philosophy about the way life should be lived.

So in an event as rare as it is welcome, the American Cinematheque is marking its move to Raleigh Studios in Hollywood with a retrospective titled “Paid With a Bullet: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville,” starting Friday (see schedule, Page 31). Eleven of Melville’s 13 features will be screened (the exceptions are “Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettre” and “L’Aine des Ferchaux,” for which English-subtitled prints do not exist), plus the American premiere of a fascinating documentary about the director made for French TV called “Jean-Pierre Melville: Portrait in 9 Poses.”

Included in the series are several nongangster films, including Melville’s landmark 1947 debut “La Silence de la Mer,” his celebrated adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” and his on-location tribute to New York, “Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan,” partially shot in English and so rare that it is being shown without subtitles but with a synopsis provided.

The centerpiece of the series, and the only film besides the documentary to be shown more than once, is 1967’s dazzling “Le Samourai,” an austere poem of crime as precisely cut as a diamond. As British critic Tom Milne wrote in a widely quoted essay, “The impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself: All the themes from Melville’s work are gathered up in one tight ball in ‘Le Samourai.’ ”

If Melville’s influence and his lack of celebrity sound mutually exclusive, it should be said that the director seemed to enjoy being contradictory.

A meticulous craftsman known for his careful, almost documentary-like re-creation of crimes, he claimed (in Rui Nogueira’s excellent book-length interview, “Melville on Melville”): “I am careful never to be realistic. . . . What I do is false. Always.” And while on the one hand he was proud to be considered the forerunner of the New Wave style, on the other, he said, “There’s no such thing. The Nouvelle Vague was an inexpensive way of making films. That’s all.”

Melville’s central contradiction, which fed all the others, concerned nationality. Though his films are quintessentially French, the director acknowledged that “the fantastic influence that American movies had on me made it impossible for me to make ordinary French films.”

The director, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917 and a fanatical film buff from his youth, was so passionate about things American that he changed his name to honor the author of “Moby-Dick” and “Pierre” and never went back.

When World War II ended, Melville (who had fought in the Resistance and made it the subject of his 1969 “L’Armee des Ombres”) wanted to make films himself. But he had no money and was unable to break into the closed French film industry. Undeterred, he decided to take the unusual step of working outside the system. Even more daunting, he decided to adapt a book, “La Silence de la Mer,” whose author allowed the filming only if Melville promised to destroy the negative once it was finished if a jury of former Resistance fighters disapproved of it.

“Silence” is a strange and mesmerizing film, remarkably controlled and polished for a first-time work; it takes place almost entirely in a rural French house lived in by an older man (who tells the story via the film’s extensive voice-over) and his young niece.

A German officer is billeted with the pair during the Occupation, but the woman and her uncle refuse to speak to him. Undeterred, the officer, who turns out to be a classical composer who admires France, delivers a series of philosophical monologues about love, war and the persistence of culture. Gradually, as the film combines images and sounds but avoids conventional dialogue and action, the relations between these three people change in a way that is as dramatic as it is almost imperceptible.

This film--made on location in 1947 with a small crew and no stars (and marking the debut of the great cinematographer Henri Decae, who went on to shoot “The 400 Blows” and “Sundays and Cybele,” as well as much of Melville’s work)--was a key inspiration for Godard, Francois Truffaut and the rest of the New Wave gang. And since “Silence” predates Bresson’s work in this precise, austere style, Melville is justified in claiming, as he did, that “it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian.”

It was for the gangster genre that Melville eventually became best known. Seeing these films in a bunch confirms the notion that Melville, in small ways and large, in essence made the same film over and over again. Once the director found a characteristic he liked, whether it was the big American cars his protagonists drive, the cloud of cigarette smoke they’re always enveloped in or the white editor’s gloves they use while committing crimes, he used it repeatedly. In fact, you could almost swear that Melville’s costume department had only one trench coat that was reused in film after film.

Yet seeing one Melville film is never enough. Because of the philosophical underpinnings that unite them, devotees insist on seeing them all. Who can resist a world where living by a code is critical but fate decides everything, where everyone has complicity in evil and a character comments on his rival on the other side of the law: “He is a danger to society, but he has preserved a sort of purity.” Melville, given to saying things like “the only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone,” often sounded like a character from one of his films, and his belief in what they were saying gives them a rare integrity.

Melville’s beginning in this genre, 1955’s “Bob Le Flambeur” (Bob the Gambler) is his first original script and remains one of his best works. The story of a professional gambler (Roger Duchesne) who wants to cap his career by robbing the casino at Deauville, it’s a touch lighter in tone than the films that followed, but, drenched in the atmosphere of Montmartre during the wee hours, it offers a romantic view of a Paris that even then was disappearing from view.

Melville next passed the trench coat to Jean-Paul Belmondo, who’d played a priest for him in “Leon Morin, Pretre,” which examines an emotional relationship between a widow and a man of the cloth. Belmondo starred in “Le Doulos” (Doulos the Fingerman), a tale of underworld greed and revenge so crawling with double- and triple-crosses that Belmondo didn’t know himself if he was a stoolie until he saw the finished film.

Italian actor Lino Ventura starred in Melville’s most commercially successful thriller, “Le Deuxieme Souffle,” but the most permanent owner of the trench coat turned out to be Alain Delon. With his beautiful, blank face and the dead eyes of a killer angel, Delon was the perfect Melville actor. He appeared in three of the director’s films, co-starring with the unlikely pair of Richard Crenna and Catherine Deneuve in “Un Flic,” Melville’s last work, and sharing the honors with Gian Maria Volonte and Yves Montand in the rarely seen “Le Cercle Rouge,” an icy tale of jewel thievery, betrayal and revenge. This screening is the American debut of the film’s original cut, with 40 minutes of previously unseen footage.

The one Delon-Melville collaboration everyone remembers, however, is “Le Samourai.” Opening with an alleged quote from the Book of Bushido (“There is no greater solitude than the samurai’s unless it be the tiger in the jungle”) that Melville claimed to have made up himself, “Le Samourai” introduces Jeff Costello, a Parisian hired killer less emotional than a clock whose life starts to unravel after he commits what seems to be the perfect crime.

Never an effusive director, Melville pared his style as far as it could go in “Le Samourai,” muting the colors to the point where he chose the bird that is Jeff’s only friend because of its black and white plumage and keeping the dialogue to terse exchanges: “Who are you?” “It doesn’t matter.” “What do you want?” “To kill you.” Elegant, dazzling and totally individual, it will, like all the best of Melville, end up leaving you breathless.

* The schedule for “Paid With a Bullet: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville”: Friday and Saturday: “Le Samourai” (7 and 9:30 p.m.). May 10: “Le Silence de la Mer” and “Jean-Pierre Melville: Portrait in 9 Poses” (7 p.m.); “Bob Le Flambeur” (9:45 p.m.). May 11: “Les Enfants Terribles” (7 p.m.); “Le Deuxieme Souffle” (9:30 p.m.). May 17: “Le Doulos” (7 p.m.); “L’Armee des Ombres” (9:30 p.m.). May 18: “Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan” and “Jean-Pierre Melville: Portrait in 9 Poses” (7 p.m.); “Le Cercle Rouge” (9:45 p.m.). May 24: “Leon Morin, Pretre” (7 p.m.); “Un Flic” (9:30 p.m.).

American Cinematheque at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. (Parking structure at Melrose and Van Ness avenues.) Admission, $7; Cinematheque members, $4. Advance tickets, (213) 466-1767. Information: (213) 466-FILM.