Quiet Peril: Two Masterpieces by Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville

"What is your greatest ambition in life?"

"To become immortal... and then die."

This clever retort was spoken by Jean-Pierre Melville in the 1960 film Breathless where he played a film director being interviewed. In real life  though Melville made his own unique brand of pensive crime dramas that equal or even surpass that Jean-Luc Godard film in which he had acted as a favor. The library thankfully has two of these understated yet riveting works for you to see.

Le Samouraï is the story of a man alone. Jef Costello is a perfectionist assassin. He does not care why his targets have been selected. His only concern is the paycheck coming to him. He is good at his job, but when a nightclub singer witnesses Jef's escape after he has shot the club owner, things become much trickier for our antihero.

Jef fabricates a seemingly solid alibi involving multiple witnesses, but is still taken in for thorough questioning by detectives. Though he is released, Jef soon finds himself tailed by the police who still suspect him, as well as his criminal employers who are displeased with his unusually messy escape from the job.

The film is an immaculate exercise in strategy, forming a cat and mouse game that surpasses your average popcorn fare. In a brilliant scene, Jef returns to his spartan apartment. All seems well at first, but then he notices that his caged bird has molted more feathers than usual. He quickly searches the apartment and finds that the police have broken in and planted a microphone. Jef disposes of it thoroughly.

Jef and the police continue to one-up each other until the electric climax of a subway chase. Le Samouraï is a visual haiku to a life both meticulous and isolated.

Army of Shadows, made two years later in 1969,  has a history nearly as interesting as the film itself. A tale championing the French Resistance's struggle against Nazi Occupation, it was released at a time that French president and war hero Charle De Gaulle was extremely unpopular.

The film suffered as a result of this and remained in obscurity for decades. It was not released in America until 2006, but it was then championed and ended up on dozens of critics' best-of lists.

The film follows Pierre Gerbier and his cohorts as they attempt to struggle against the occupation, even if it costs them their lives. We witness a fantastic sequence early on where Gerbier has been arrested but manages to kill his Nazi guard and flees out into the streets.

Army of Shadows cover

Gerbier frantically runs, shoes clacking loudly against the sidewalk. He sees an open business. Ducking inside, Gerbier is immediately asked by the proprieter, a barber, what he wants. He thinks fast and asks for a shave. It is granted, slowly and methodically, while our protagonist contemplates what waits for him out in those snowy streets.  The tension of this entire segment is something to behold. 

Melville's history with gangster films—he had made many by this time—greatly influence the direction of Army of Shadows. The members French Resistance are ruthless in their efforts to stay operational and secret. When a traitor is in their midst, or even a member whose dedication has been compromised, the group acts quickly, righteously, and violently to make sure the problem does not spread.

Like its preceding film, Army of Shadows focuses on the quiet details that could spiral into a life or death situation, and it manages this with visual beauty and hypnotic camera work. Its opening shot of German soldiers marching in front of the Arch de Triomphe is reason enough to recommend the film. The soldiers are at first dwarfed by the monument, but, as they approach the camera, they fill the screen, obscuring the mighty structure.

In a way, Meville's quote in Breathless is an apt description for what any artist does in his creative process. By making a film, a piece of music, or a painting, you are hoping for the chance at immortality. A piece of you seems to live on after you cease to exist. Thanks to films like these, I would say that Jean-Pierre Melville successfully fulfilled his character's ambition.