Jean-Pierre Melville was the French master of the film noir. One of the pathfinders for what would eventually become the French New Wave, Melville was a man torn between cultures. His status as an French resistance fighter, independent filmmaker, and his early aesthetic sensibilities — particularly his affinity towards location shooting and non-actors — gained him a position as a antecedent to the New Wave, showcased by his cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959). Moreover, like Godard and Francois Truffaut, Melville was a director rooted within both American and French cinema. His affinity with American culture has been well-elaborated upon (such as his taking on the name of Herman Melville and his love of jazz, Ray Bans, and American cars) but it is perhaps best exemplified by his love of the thriller. A director primarily of policiers, even Melville’s films that engage directly with the French Resistance (particularly Army of Shadows) overlap with the thriller genre by a reliance on noir iconography such as Stetson hats, trench coats, and shadow-soaked compositions.
What makes his existential noir Le Samouraï (1967) such a masterpiece is, like Godard and Truffaut, Melville’s knowledge of Classical Hollywood formal and narrative conventions and his ability to turn routine into a magic act. The plot of the film is stripped to the bone: Jef Costello (an especially icy Alain Delon) is essentially an obsessive compulsive hitman. In order to his job quickly and efficiently, Costello embodies a samurai code of solitude with his only friend being a caged bird. His life as an assassin does not allow for personal connection (see Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and the George Clooney thriller The American as blatant homages). The only time he deals with his girlfriend, Jane (played by Delon’s wife Nathalie) is to construct elaborate alibis. He gets away clean every time because of his attention to even the smallest detail. Then, Jef gets hired to kill a nightclub owner and nearly botches the job when he is sighted, putting himself on the radar of both the police and his infuriated employers. To say anything else would spoil the surprise.
What makes Melville’s cinema work is his ability to use cinematic time to misdirect us. Colin McArthur describes Melville’s aesthetic as being based around a “cinema of process.” McArthur elaborates on this mode as being one that honors “the integrity of actions by allowing them to happen in a way significantly closer to ‘real’ time than was formerly the case in fictive, particularly Hollywood, cinema.” McArthur uses Melville’s Le Samourai to examine this process, the opening moments of which provide an enlightening example. Melville begins the film with a long shot of protagonist Costello smoking in bed. Costello finishes his cigarette, gets dressed, walks out to the street, steals a car, drives the car to a mechanic who changes the license plates, and proceeds to drive over to his girlfriend’s apartment. The entire sequence, which takes nearly ten minutes of screen time, is further marked by minimal dialogue.
This example clearly shows Melville’s insistence on following actions through into their effects. To Melville, it appears that depicting Costello stealing the car and arriving at his girlfriend’s is not an option. He would rather focus on the entire chain of events, the ritual which Costello is engaging in, by presenting the viewer with the sequence in the garage. As McArthur suggests in his description, Melville’s cinema of process stands contrary to what David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson define as “classical Hollywood cinema.”
In their lengthy study, Bordwell and company define classical Hollywood style as one based around continuity and comprehension. As Bordwell writes, “Hollywood film strives to conceal its artifice through techniques of continuity and invisible’ storytelling; that the film should be comprehensible and unambiguous.” Bordwell goes on to describe how time figures into this process of continuity by refusing to radically “play with chronology” by showing “events in a 1-2-3 order.” Judging from this description, the cinema of process does not seem so entirely different. Melville, in the above example, does not depict sequences out of chronological order and it would seem the cinema of process is almost a perverse extension of insistence to depict events “in a 1-2-3 order.”
However, it is precisely this characteristic that differs Melville’s process from that of classical storytelling. As Bordwell later writes, “classical Hollywood duration respects very old conventions. The narration shows the important events and skips the intervals between them.” In other words, the cinema of process accentuates the intervals, or temps mort, between narrative events. This mode of representation can have two possible outcomes. The first outcome, already briefly alluded to, de-emphasizes events which are key to the progression of the narrative, thus providing the spectator with a different role of observation by pressing them to reflect less on the narrative and more on other aspects of the film (mise-en-scene, characterization, etc.). The second outcome is perhaps best defined by the very nature of the cinematic event. If a cinematic event is to be constructed, it must be differentiated from the rest of the narrative. In other words, the contrast which the cinema of process provides is essential if there is to be an event. Under this circumstance, one could judge the first two hours of Melville’s later heist film Le Cercle Rouge (1970, or perhaps the planning of a heist in any caper film) as being a mandatory contrast that provides the jewelry store robbery with the necessary quality of spectacle.
The cinema of process, especially in the film’s climax, becomes a tool for Melville to play with our expectations. We are certain, because we witness the events in near real time, that we have been given an omniscient account. Yet, Melville uses the cinema of process to misdirect us. Like a good magician, he uses an illusion to surprise us but unlike a smoke screen and a rabbit in a hat, Melville uses time to simultaneously show everything while telling us nothing. This can be infuriating to those unfamiliar with Melville’s work and those expecting a routine thriller but it is a fundamental characteristic to his craft and makes him not only one of the greats of French filmmaking but of international noir as well.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.