Tonight at 5 PM, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents a screening of Jean-Pierre Melville’s final work, Un Flic (aka Dirty Money), as part of its French Classics Conserved program. I have nothing against film conservation of any stripe, but Un Flic strikes me as an odd selection for the program—I don’t think many critics and film lovers would categorize it as a classic. In fact, it may be Melville’s weakest film, a lethargic and routine effort blemished by stale performances and a homophobic subplot involving an archaic transvestite caricature.
Thankfully, we have the rest of Melville’s filmography, one of the most stylish and memorable in all of cinema. His films are consummate entertainments, rich in detail and attitude, but there’s an solemn quality to them as well. In his review of Army of Shadows, Roger Ebert wrote that “rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism,” which strikes me as a perfect summation of Melville’s entire oeuvre. Catch my five favorites after the jump.
5. Bob le Flambeur (1955) Dave Kehr is spot-on when he calls this slight heist film “the least characteristic movie [Melville] ever made,” though it’s not for lack of entertainment value. The film may not possess the philosophical insights of Melville’s best work, but the story is a true potboiler, one that Paul Thomas Anderson directly cribbed for his debut film, Hard Eight.
4. Le Cercle Rouge (1970) The tense, silent bank robbery at the center of this crime caper is perhaps Melville’s most successful sequence in terms of pure suspense. Like the rest of the film, it’s a meticulous poetic exercise in order, detail, and the looming threat of human folly.
3. Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) Described by many as a sort of “minimalist epic,” this gangster drama deals with dire fatalistic themes in the reserved, affectless manner of Robert Bresson. Melville was known for mixing American sensationalism with brooding French mannerism, and never is this commingling more resonant than it is here.
2. Le Doulus (1962) The first film of Melville’s golden period, which includes the aforementioned Le Deuxieme Souffle and the ultrastylish Le Samourai. Possibly his most visually appealing work, thanks to some impressionistic cinematography care of Nicolas Hayer. The narrative features a number of delightful incongruities, which give the story an almost storybook tone.
1. Army of Shadows (1969) Superficially, this is the most un-Melvillian Melville film, but it’s also clearly his best, a somber account of the German occupation of France. Derided by the French left as de Gaullist rhetoric when it was first released, time has revealed it to be a tragedy less about the heroic French Resistance than about the hopelessness that tempers the characters and their actions. A towering achievement.