Jean-Pierre Melville ([mɛlvil]; born Jean-Pierre Grumbach; 20 October 1917 – 2 August 1973) was a French filmmaker.
While with the French Resistance during World War II, he adopted the nom de guerre Melville as a tribute to his favorite American author, Herman Melville. He kept it as his stage name once the war was over. Spiritual father of the French New Wave, he influenced the new generation of filmmakers in Asia (John Woo, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Takeshi Kitano), in Europe (Aki Kaurismäki, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), and in America (Michael Mann, Walter Hill, Quentin Tarantino, William Friedkin, Jim Jarmusch).
Life and career
Jean-Pierre Grumbach was born in 1917 in Paris, France, the son of Berthe and Jules Grumbach. His family were Alsatian Jews.
After the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Grumbach entered the French Resistance to oppose the German Nazis who occupied the country. He adopted the nom de guerre Melville after the American author Herman Melville, a favorite of his. Melville fought in Operation Dragoon.
When he returned from the war, he applied for a license to become an assistant director but was refused. Without this support, he decided to direct his films by his own means, and continued to use Melville as his stage name. He became an independent film-maker and owned his own studio, rue Jenner, in Paris 13ème.
He became well known for his minimalist film noir crime dramas, such as Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970), starring major actors such as Alain Delon (probably the definitive "Melvillian" actor), Jean-Paul Belmondo and Lino Ventura. Influenced by American cinema, especially gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s, he used accessories such as weapons, clothes (trench coats), and fedora hats, to shape a characteristic look in his movies.
Melville ultimately became so identified with the style that The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote the following about a 2017 retrospective of his films: "This is how you should attend the forthcoming retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville movies at Film Forum: Tell nobody what you are doing. Even your loved ones—especially your loved ones—must be kept in the dark. If it comes to a choice between smoking and talking, smoke. Dress well but without ostentation. Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless of whether there is rain. Any revolver should be kept, until you need it, in the pocket of the coat. Finally, before you leave home, put your hat on. If you don’t have a hat, you can’t go."
Melville's independence and "reporting" style of film-making (he was one of the first French directors to use real locations regularly) were a major influence on the French New Wave film movement. Jean-Luc Godard used him as a minor character in his seminal New Wave film Breathless. When Godard was having difficulty editing the film, Melville suggested that he just cut directly to the best parts of a shot. Godard was inspired and the film's innovative use of jump cuts have become part of its fame.
Although a friend of left-wing icons such as Yves Montand, Melville referred to himself as "an extreme individualist" and "a right-wing anarchist" in terms of politics.
In 1963 he was invited as one of the jury at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.
Melville died on 2 August 1973 from a stroke while dining with writer Philippe Labro at the Hôtel PLM Saint-Jacques restaurant in Paris. He was 55 years old. Melville was then writing his next film, Contre-enquête, a spy thriller for producer Jacques-Éric Strauss with Yves Montand in the lead. Melville had apparently already scripted the first 200 shots for the film. After Melville's death, Labro took over the project, hoping to finish writing and direct it himself, but he eventually dropped it to film Le hasard et la violence (1974), also starring Montand and for producer Strauss.
Code Name Melville
Produced in 2008, the 76-minute-long feature documentary Code Name Melville (original French title: Sous le nom de Melville) reveals the importance of Jean-Pierre Melville's personal experience in the French Resistance during World War II to his approach to filmmaking.