WHO is he?

French film director, producer and scenarist who made 13 feature films between the late forties and the early seventies. During his association with the French underground resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of France, Melville (born Grumbach) borrowed the name of American author Herman Melville, of whom he was a great admirer, and later decided to continue to use it as his screen name.

WHAT are his films about?

Themes

Melville’s involvement in the resistance movement had a deep impact on his filmmaking career and several of his films directly deal with French underground resistance during occupation. These films are marked by moods of post-war disaffectedness, existential weariness, melancholia and lyrical fatalism. He was influenced both by the gangster movies of America as well as the Samurai culture of Japan, which are singularly synthesised in his films. His characters are bona-fide loners, just out of reach of society and love, living by their own rules and moral codes.

Style

The most characteristic element of Melville’s cinema is the iconography of Hollywood gangster films — trench coats, fedora hats and pistols — combined with a detached, dispassionate acting style. His films demonstrate an influence of cinema vérité and are shot on the streets in a mixture of long and medium shots. Numerous stretches of the narrative take place at night, which accentuates the sense of loneliness — chosen or otherwise — of the characters.

WHY is he of interest?

Melville appropriated Hollywood film noirs but transformed and transported them onto a whole new level, introducing philosophical and political edge to template narratives. Direct influence of his cinema can be seen in the works of numerous current day filmmakers such as Takeshi Kitano, Jim Jarmusch, Johnnie To, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Even outside his own work, Melville had a vital role to play in the birth of the French New Wave.

WHERE to discover him?

Le Samourai (1967), the most widely known of all Melville films, details the life of a lonesome hitman who lives and falls by the samurai code of honour. Played impassively and strikingly by Alain Delon, the assassin is the quintessential Melville character traversing the busy streets of Paris with little attachment to the universe around him and with a world view and work ethic only he comprehends.