The Arty Semite

Jean-Pierre Melville: Resistance Fighter and Filmmaker Who Made the Right Choices

By Benjamin Ivry

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The French Jewish film director Jean-Pierre Melville (born Grumbach; 1917–1973), famous for films about crime and France’s wartime Résistance, is being rediscovered by cinema addicts. A remake of Melville’s 1970 heist film “Le Cercle Rouge” is currently in development as “The Red Circle” starring Orlando Bloom while Melville’s equally influential 1967 “Le Samouraï,” about a hit man (played by Alain Delon), has inspired filmmakers from Jim Jarmusch to Hong Kong’s Pang Ho-cheung.

Following the October release of a 7-DVD box set of his films from StudioCanal DVDs, and a retrospective at Paris’s la Cinémathèque française from last November 3 to 22, “Riffs for Melville” (Riffs Pour Melville) a new book from the Belgian publisher Les éditions Yellow Now has appeared.

“Riffs for Melville” contains, among other intriguing articles, a key essay by critic Jacques Mandelbaum: “From Grumbach to Melville: the Jewish Obstacle.” Mandelbaum reminds the reader that Melville adopted his pseudonym while working in the French Résistance, an experience which inspired his 1969 movie “Army of Shadows,” adapted from a novel by French Jewish journalist Joseph Kessel. Yet, as Mandelbaum notes, surprisingly little attention has been paid to Jewish influences on Melville’s work. As Mandelbaum puts it, Melville “never really emerged” from his wartime experiences, and in subsequent films, whether explicitly about the Résistance or the world of gangsters, the director obsessively focused on outlaw groups who struggled in secrecy.

In Rui Nogueira’s 1972 interview book, “Melville on Melville,” sadly out of print from Viking Press, Melville modestly, and debatably, underestimates his own Resistance heroism, which included fleeing to London in 1942 to join the Free French forces:

As for me, the opportunity to stand out by making a choice was not given me; I am Jewish. For a Jew, joining the Resistance is infinitely less heroic than for a non-Jew. Who or what can guarantee that had I been a non-Jew, I would have made the right choice?”

Mandelbaum intriguingly asserts that even in unexpected places, the theme of Judaism appears in Melville’s films, starting with his first feature, “Le Silence de la Mer” (The Silent Sea; 1949), an adaptation of a short story by the French author and Résistance hero Jean Bruller, who wrote under the name Vercors. Even such Melville films as “Les enfants terribles” (1950), with screenplay by Jean Cocteau, and 1961’s “The Forgiven Sinner” (“Léon Morin, prêtre”) introduce the theme of Judaism, sometimes incongruously, as an indelibly inspirational element of the filmmaker’s personality that will not be submerged.

Watch Jean-Pierre Melville in a 1970 French TV interview.

Watch him here in 1967, talking about his passion for detective novels.


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