Struggling for gifts this Christmas for the film lovers in your life? Well look no further than the newly released Melville- The Essential Collection Blu-Ray Box Set. With six of legendary French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s films collected together, it is the perfect treat for newcomers and aficionados alike. Considered the godfather of both film noir and the French New Wave, Melville was a highly influential film maker, pioneering techniques such as shooting on location and jump cuts and with such luminaries Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee all expressing admiration of his work.
The first of foray into the crime genre he’d make his own is Bob le Flambeur, a witty drama about an aging gambling addict tempted into pulling an audacious heist. Its jaunty theme music, great lead performance by a world-weary Roger Duchesne and a playful sense of humour help it transcend its de rigueur assemble a team for a heist and young protégé/old mentor elements.
Though primarily known for his crime films, Melville had started out in drama before his love of American crime cinema led to a creative renaissance. Léon Morin, prêtre [Léon Morin, Priest] shows Melville’s adeptness, combining wartime intrigue, melodrama and theological discussions. Emmanuelle Riva shines in an early lead role as a lonely, rebellious single mother who comes into the orbit of a charismatic Catholic Priest (a magnetic Jean-Paul Belomondo) whilst living under occupation during World War II.
Army of Shadows is perhaps Melville’s masterpiece. The themes of trust and betrayal that run through his noir films reach a fulcrum in the French Resistance thriller with operatives struggling with moral choices whilst battling the Nazi regime. Brilliant performances from Lino Ventura, Jean-Pierre (father of Vincent) Cassel and Simone Signoret, effective use of narration and unforgettable set-pieces (the almost unbearable execution of a traitor is a masterclass in tension) all combine to outstanding effect. The only fault associated with Shadows is that its reputation, like many classics, only grew posthumously as it never gained a Stateside release until 2006 due to a critical drubbing in France due to the prevailing anti De-Gaulle sentiments of the time.
Another standout, and one Scorsese named as one of his favourite gangster film, is Le Doulos. A twisty, amoral and hard edged noir finds Belomondo, switching for angelic priest to demonic criminal, playing a police informer working all the angles after a murder/jewel theft. Hard edged violence and a slippery protagonist make for a brilliant combination.
Le Cercle Rouge plays proto Heat with its tale of fate entwining criminals and the cop on their trail but more broiling. A killer premise-newly released con saves a fugitive by chance and they team up to pull a heist- doesn’t coalesce into a crime classic. Whilst there are great supporting characters- an alcoholic corrupt cop enlisted for the heist and the dogged cop who has plenty of cats at home- the leads (Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonte) are too cipher to invest. The exact details of heist are kept too obscure and prolonged, dialogue free heist, when it comes, is fairly tension free and pales in comparison to the ne plus ultra of Gallic heist sequences, Riffifi.
Bob le Flambeur, Léon Morin, prêtre and Le Doulos are all presented in brand new 4K restorations and the picture and sound quality is pin sharp and serve to underscore the immediacy of the camerawork, putting the audience right into the heart of post war France. Army of Shadows, though not a new restoration, also looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray with its cinematography full of teal and grey hues.
It is a shame that the Essential Collection doesn’t encompass one of the signature Melville works, Le Samouraï. Rights issues no doubt prevented all of the director’s oeuvre from being assembled together but the omission of the iconic Delon fronted film is a big one. Still, with so many films, including his final film Un Flic, on offer, a surfeit of extra material with interviews with crew of his films, documentaries Codename Meville about the director’s time in the French Resistance, In The Mood for Melville examining the influence of the director’s work and a 60 page booklet it seems churlish to bemoan any absent films.
Melville The Essential Collection was released by StudioCanal on 11th December 2017.