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Entries in jean-pierre melville (6)


In Which We Leave New York In A Panic

The Mistress of Fevre-Berthier


In 1958 New York was a dark city. Much more so than Paris, I remember that from the window of my room on the ninth floor, looking out over 85th Street, I couldn't see what was going on below. I could hear cars passing and see their headlights, but I couldn't see the street. New York is as dark as it is beautiful.

At the age of forty-two, Jean-Pierre Melville went to a New York he knew from the movies. He had just discarded a film-in-progress that would never be released — a spy movie featuring frequent collaborator Pierre Grasset. His new project detailed the story of a French cabinet member's death in his girlfriend's apartment. He had shot twenty minutes of it when Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1958, forcing Melville to reconceive of the project in America, though the interiors for Two Men in Manhattan would be filmed back in Paris.

As de Tocquevilles go, there is none better. Although Two Men in Manhattan is something of a disaster as a motion picture with an engaging plot, it is better conceived as a documentary of New York in the late fifties, with a particular focus on the sorts of women that Melville met in the city.

Some of the many women that Moreau (Melville, in his only starring role) and Delmas (Pierre Grasset) meet are lesbians, many are non-white, and most have tremendously large breasts. "This seems to be the American ideal of beauty," Melville told Rui Nogueira. "You had the feeling that Americans were suffering from a mammary complex and still needed to be breast-fed. It was very disagreeable, repugnant even."

Watching Two Men in Manhattan today, you come to the sinking conclusion that very little has changed. The entire film takes place two days before Christmas, and Rockefeller Center looks exactly the same as it does every year. New York is dark, vast and nearly infinite in Melville's conception. It took him a few weeks to learn what took me years and years. If only I could see as Jean-Pierre did; that is, everything at once.

Photographed by Michael Shrayer, this New York is rooms and elevators, small and tinnier. Lights passed through surfaces translucent, then mysteriously opaque. Sound bounces around and begs to be removed. Suddenly Two Men in Manhattan becomes unbearably loud with the sound of horns, before transforming, not a moment too soon, into the elegiac ballad you were never expecting. Along with the proliferation of rats, it is really enough to begin to loathe the place.

Grasset's character is a lothario member of the paparazzi. About halfway through the film, he and Moreau find the young girlfriend of the diplomat in Roosevelt Hospital. She has tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists, and she lies helpless and alone in bed. Moreau enters first to try to find out what has happened, but when he cannot get the information he wants, he sends in his less scrupulous friend.

This moment of violation, of utter violence, is awful to witness. But Melville is suggesting that as indecent as it is, this is nothing compared to what we do to ourselves. Jean-Pierre repudiated Two Men in Manhattan many times, and the dialogue in the film appears to have been devised in a rush. As an actor, Melville comes across like a minimalist eunuch. Unfortunately, he lacked the training to conceive of his priggish character as anything but a schlub. Ashamed, he never appeared in front of the camera again.

By making both of his protagonists unlikeable journalists, Melville indicted his critics. But in a weird way, this was the right choice for Two Men in Manhattan, since it makes the diverse roster of women that the men query throughout into the secret heroes of the film. All of the women lie to these men they barely know, since it is the only way to protect themselves from the patriarchal harm Moreau and Delmas represent.

Built into this portrayal is Melville's definitive brief on the opposite sex. Without saying anything or stating it outright, Two Men in Manhattan is concerned with what Melville admires about women, and also what he feels is not present in individuals of his own sex. Dispensing with conventional wisdom and stereotype, Melville finds these feminine human beings have all sorts of qualities that he is lacking, and cataloguing them would take as long as the film's running time. Crucially, it is not that they are better or worse than men, it is that they less frequently delude themselves about this subject.

I took this lesson to heart. I used to walk by the United Nations building, featured numerous times in Two Men in Manhattan, quite a lot. There is a development site several blocks long not far from the U.N. that has featured a massive pit for as long as I can remember. In China the site would have been developed in a weekend, but here in New York the project never stops oscillating. To prevent people from falling in, a white curtain blocks a stunning view of the East River. God forbid you are ever able to pretend you are anywhere other than where you stand.

My memories of New York are a day in the Central Park Zoo, and standing near that fake castle in the rain. My friends who I loved are still there, well maybe some of them are. Perhaps I'll check when I find the nerve. The subway broke down near Columbia. We all got off, some of us did, others stayed on, waiting to see where the train went. I walked to the top of the park with sweat in my eyes. A fire filled up a trashcan, so I told a doorman. The next day was the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

No time to think about who and what I miss. God gave me a letter, and I walked all the way down Second Avenue and back. Jamie came over to take care of the mice, and went out again. Helping my professor sort through his crowded apartment, his prints. Spring was always the wrong season, smiles were too seductive or not enough. I left her at 72nd Street. When I came back, she was still crying. Now so am I.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Greatest Trick Mr. Melville Pulled Was Convincing The World He Didn't Exist

Alain Delon plays a schizophrenic assassin running from his employers and the law

The men and women of the Resistance find a way to survive

Jean-Paul Belmondo's appeal to women knows virtually no bounds

This was the straight-up inspiration for Reservoir Dogs

Lino Ventura is a criminal who knows his life has come to an end

Two or maybe three men in Manhattan


In Which We Rear Ourselves Against A Great Enemy

This is the fifth in a series looking back on the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

The Man With Qualities


I am perfectly aware of the dishonesty it takes to be effective; but the spectator must never be allowed to realize the extent to which everything is manipulated. He must be spellbound, a prisoner; in a state of submission.

In my favorite scene in Army of Shadows, Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is a prisoner of war in occupied France. He is sitting on a bench at gunpoint in a lavish building when he looks down the hall. Opposite him is the most gorgeous clock, looming above him, very high on a far wall; the light down the bright, inviting passageway is incandescent. He cannot take it anymore – he must be free. He turns to the prisoner sitting next to him on the bench, and tells him how it will happen. The last thing anybody remembers is the savage glint off the monster's helmet before chaos erupts.

The first time I saw Army of Shadows, I was convinced I was watching the greatest prison film ever made, shot in an actual concentration camp. When Gerbier breaks out of confinent a half hour into this long motion picture, we realize that is only a part of the project. In 1968, Army of Shadows was adapted by Jean-Pierre Melville from a brilliant novel by Joseph Kessel about his own experience in the resistance. Melville called Army of Shadows "the book about the Resistance: the greatest and most comprehensive of all the documents about this tragic period in the history of humanity."

The first person Gerbier meets as a newly free man is a hairdresser (Serge Reggiani). This magical coming together of the two actors most identified with Melville is a profound battle of underplaying. We could not be less surprised all that happens is Gerbier... gets his hair cut.

Shot in a magnificent color ambit, Army of Shadows provokes an everlasting sorrow that more of Melville's films couldn't have been in color. Along with the English director Michael Powell, he is the master of the spectrum, and never more in those bracing, lovely moments where Gerbier savors the city he must save or die trying. As in Le Deuxième Souffle, the action moves from Marseilles to Paris and back again, with a brief sojourn to a London that properly resembles an alien planet.

Given this sharper visual palette with which to work, Melville uses zooms and montages, pans and deep focus. Some of these techniques he defined and popularized, others are sampled from other directors, since he never did stop enjoying other people's movies. The flash cuts and trips around the historical timeline are a humanistic way of adding at least a little zesty fun to what is a somber and disturbing subject.

In Army of Shadows we experience what were Melville's years, what was his actual life. Few directors ever spent time in jail, even fewer fought the enemy invader, who trespassed where Germans never belonged. In interviews, Melville describes his fellow travelers sitting in the movie theater in shock after seeing Army of Shadows. Filmmaking had, for a few hours, transcended representation and encapsulated a larger truth.

It is at first strange in Army of Shadows that the Nazis are so muted. Swastikas are few and far between; the tide of fascism is embodied only by the soulless fashion observed in the manner of dress, and the fear which penetrates every conversation among the operatives of this rebel group of men and women. There is only one quality of the evil regime that persists in Melville's sly portrayal, and not coincidentally it is the one we can identify with various other movements of persecution – instilling fear in the morally innocent.

Army of Shadows might have simply been a serious and emotional film about men forced to do many things they regret because they possess no other choice. Into this collection of character studies, Melville places a series of mind-boggling set pieces. In these thrilling sequences, we are nearly overwhelmed by what is required by Gerbier and his friends in order to keep on living. In an astonishing interlude, Gerbier parachutes back into France to retrieve an agent jailed by the Gestapo. In another panicky scene, it is he who is rescued by his comrades. "In the film, as in the book, Gerbier represents seven or eight different people," Melville explained.

The Jews and other patriots of France would have been forgiven for waging total war against their enemies. After all, it was the stratagem that reduced their fellow travelers to a mere shadow of the numbers that existed in Europe before the war. Survival, Melville announces in Army of Shadows, overwhelms vengeance. Self-preservation may not dull righteous anger completely, but its foremost impact is to bind us to the men and women we love because they selflessly join us in the fight.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Thrills of Mr. Melville

Alain Delon plays a schizophrenic assassin running from his employers and the law

The men and women of the Resistance find a way to survive

Jean-Paul Belmondo's appeal to women knows virtually no bounds

This was the straight-up inspiration for Reservoir Dogs

Lino Ventura is a criminal who knows his life has come to an end

Two or maybe three men in Manhattan


In Which All Of The Men Were Such Interesting Animals

This is the fourth in our ongoing series returning to the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.



Most of Jean-Pierre Melville's films are tight, austere masterpieces. Le Deuxième Souffle consists of a movement in an opposite direction. "A dishonest, aimless meander," wrote Jean Narboni, a noted Godard admirer, of Melville's 1966 effort. At 140 minutes, it is Melville's longest film; but Army of Shadows which approaches it in in length, contains the added intrigue of being a sorrowful, moving, colorful historical film about Melville's time in the French resistance. Le Deuxième Souffle has none of those advantages. It is a simply the most hard-boiled crime film ever made.

There is a lame cliche that a filmmaker is trying to make the same film again and again, getting closer every time. For Melville, that film was John Huston's crime drama The Asphalt Jungle. With Le Deuxième Souffle, Melville not only approached the raw mood and heist plot of his favorite film, he exceeded it considerably when it came to technical craft, depth of character, and outright excitement. While a few critics seemed to shrug off Le Deuxième Souffle, most were gracious enough to recognize there had never been anything quite like it before.

Melville first tried to put Le Deuxième Souffle together with a completely different cast, ending up in litigation with his producers. When he tried it again in 1965, Lino Ventura was now playing the lead role instead of the considerably less mercurial Serge Reggiani. Both men were very accomplished, understated actors, but Ventura was not only the more physical performer, he was ideal for the role of Gu Minda, a career thief who emerges from prison for one last gasp of freedom.

Ventura and Melville, both headstrong individuals, eventually had a falling out on the set of Army of Shadows. Too bad — the Italian actor and the Jewish director were in many ways an ideal pairing. Ventura needed overwhelming instruction lest he become a hammy parody of a swarthy Mediterranean, and Melville was nothing if not hands-on. At times he would force actors to watch take after take of their scenes, until he totally dissociated them from their abilities. It was at that point when he began to build them back up in the way he preferred.

Gu Minda is a doomed character who escapes from prison in the near silent scene that opens Le Deuxieme Souffle. He has one person in Paris who he can turn to — it is never precisely clear whether this is his girlfriend or his sister, but her name is Manouche (Christine Fabréga).

Manouche is one of Melville's very best characters, and in her scenes alone, we get a glimpse of another peripheral story, deeper than a killer's could ever be. At times the pair seems close enough to be an incestuous pair of siblings. In other moments, like a candlelight dinner they share in the attic where Gu hides out after his escape, it seems clear neither expects much from the romantic relationship other than kindness. This afterbirth of an arrangement only lends more feeling to the idea everything in Le Deuxième Souffle, including Paris, was dying of something.

Positioned around this relationship is a stellar cast of criminals and cops. Their closeness and interchangeability makes it so that when Gu is finally tricked into incriminating himself, we can barely blame him for being deceived. The rest of the diverse cast (in ethnicity as well as style) is highlighted by Michel Constantin, a Russian-French actor who portrays Manouche's bodyguard and Gu's friend. If it were not for the completely reasonable behavior of all the people in this milieu, you would be forgiven for thinking Le Deuxième Souffle consisted of a raw, elemental style over substance.

Melville's feel for the fashion of crime turns Le Deuxième Souffle into his most pleasing visual feast. Even in black and white, the speed with which violence regularly occurs inside small rooms and hallways, out of doors and on the road, is visually stunning and sometimes outright alarming. Watching The Asphalt Jungle in close concert with Le Deuxième Souffle, I was stunned by how much more of Paris there is in the latter than San Francisco of the former. It is like one movie shows us a snow globe and the other a life-size diorama.

The film's climactic platinum heist is all the more highly anticipated because Melville forces us to wait for so long. Although Le Deuxième Souffle does drag at times, the director always snaps his audience back into the mise en scène with a bang. Gu's specialty is his use of guns, and the one-time professional wrestler looked athletic enough to fistfight even at forty-six years of age.

Still, Gu recognizes that he is an old man with only so much left to give. "When you are young, you think that men are interesting animals," Melville told Rui Nogueira in his marvelous collection of interviews with the director, Melville on Melville.

I have no illusion anymore. What is friendship? It is telephoning a friend at night to say, 'Be a pal, get your gun and come over quickly' - and hearing the reply, 'OK, be right there.' Who does that? For whom? Until he is thirty-three, a man is convinced he'll always be twenty years old. Then one day he looks at himself in the mirror and sees that the years have gone by.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.