Honour Among Thieves
When critics proposed that his Resistance film Army of the Shadows was just another gangster movie, a work consistent with the genre films he had been mainly making thus far, Jean-Pierre Melville was infuriated. "It's absolutely idiotic" he said. "It's absurd how people always try to reduce to its lowest common denominator a film which isn't intended to be abstract, but happened to turn out that way." (Melville on Melville) It is the question of abstraction that interests us - that if Army of the Shadows resembles his gangster films this isn't because Melville has taken a resistance story and turned it into a generic work, but that he had for years been turning his gangster films into versions of a resistance problem. To regard Army of the Shadows as a gangster movie is indeed an insult to Melville's intelligence, a very specific kind of thought in film which is always searching for a code that goes beyond the legitimate demands of the gangster figure. If in common parlance we have the term honour amongst thieves, it is usually the thievery that matters. In Melville's work it is the honour that counts, and hence partly why he can talk of abstraction. But he can also mention abstraction because his films play complexly with free will and determinism, the degree to which a character possesses freedom; the degree to which everything is fated. However, this might be where honour becomes even more pronounced, as if honour exists in the place between free will and the determined, between the personal ethos and the public deed.
To avoid becoming too abstract ourselves we can think first of the scene in Army of the Shadows when Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) decides to shop himself to the Nazi authorities in Lyon. He writes a carefully written note consisting of cut out letters that will not identify itself with any hand, then posts it, leading to his arrest. This gesture comes shortly after we listen to a conversation Jean-Francois has no doubt overheard: that two of the resistant workers, Mathilde (Simone Signoret) and Gerbier (Lino Ventura), are wondering how they will spring one of their people from the jail. Someone needs to inform Felix that an ambulance will come and Gerbier has been trying to get in contact with him for a week but with no luck. After their conversation, the camera moves in synch with Mathilde and Gerbier as we see Jean-Francois once again entering the frame. The camera then shows us Jean-Francois thinking - he will, it turns out, get arrested so that he can inform Felix that Mathilde will spring him from jail. This will probably cost Jean-Francois his life, but perhaps he thinks he is confident enough in his own prowess that somehow he will escape too. This could be what Melville intended us to believe, saying that when earlier in the film Jean-Francois bumps into Felix the latter says to him "still enjoying 'baraka'?" When a man has baraka - a divine grace bringing good fortune, according to the Arabs - he feels secure against adversity." (Melville on Melville) The worst case scenario would presumably be in Jean-Francois' mind that Felix will escape and he will not, but that nevertheless, he possesses a cyanide capsule that will save him from atrocious torture. But Felix will not escape - the German doctor reckons he is too bruised, beaten and close to death to be stretchered out - and Jean-Francois gives his cyanide pill to the man he wished to save as he can only now save him from pain, while knowing more will be inflicted upon he himself. Added to which, Mathilde and Gerbier are not aware that Jean-Francois has sacrificed his own life; all they know is that he has been denounced, unaware that the denunciation was part of a ploy that he hadn't shared with them. The best Jean-Francois can do, since he cannot dictate the outcome, is remain honourable. He seems to do so here by giving Felix the one pill he appears to have in his possession.
We offer this aspect of the plot in such detail all the better to understand Melville's abstractions: his interest in the honour of honour, for nothing can be more abstract than a tautology. Speaking of Jean-Francois' actions, Melville says, "this is one of those things I never explain, or don't explain enough." (Melville on Melville) While gangster films usually offer motivations, Melville insists on abstractions, which nevertheless needn't exclude calculation. Indeed, perhaps it is the calculation rather than the motivation which lends the work its abstract quality, just as Melville's mise-en-scene contributes too to this sense. But before speaking of the mise-en-scene let us explore more about this idea of calculation, a sort of logistics of identity. In Le Samourai, Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hired assassin who lives within his capacity for alibi. He has a lover Jane Legrange (Nathalie Delon) but never seems to need her more than when she can contribute to his logistical precision. He turns up at her apartment saying he has to be at her place for a period of time and to be seen leaving the apartment by the man who pays the bills, her older lover Weiner. Later, in the police station, the man will indeed finger Jef, but does so all the better to contribute to Jef's alibi. Weiner thinks he has nailed Jef; Jef knows that he wants the man to say he has seen him because this means that he couldn't have been across town doing a hit. As Melville says, "So Weiner, intending to incriminate him, exonerates him." (Melville on Melville) Jef's calculations outdo Weiner's motivations. There is nothing Weiner would like better than to see Jef behind bars and far away from Jane, but this is no more than motivation. Jef knows this and thus calculates within Weiner's motive.
But if calculation trumps motive, what trumps calculation? Here we come back to honour: a certain self-obligation. At the club where Jef carries out the hit, a pianist witnesses him leaving the scene of the crime and Jef lets her live. We can assume his calculation didn't entertain this possibility, which is not the same thing as saying he would have assumed there wouldn't be anyone around. It is instead that what he sees momentarily mesmerizes him, incapacitates him as a killing machine. Melville believes that Jef falls in love with this beautiful black pianist; critic John Orr reckons, in Contemporary Cinema, that the pianist is responsible for the initial hit. Both assumptions (which needn't be mutually contradictory) are nevertheless too assertive for our needs. More useful would be to see that Jef has miscalculated; whatever his feelings towards the pianist he did not expect to be so transfixed. The miscalculation leads eventually to the irony of counter-calculation: the need not to go and kill but go out and be killed. The conclusion to the film mimics the earlier scene when he goes into the club and kills the boss. This time he goes ostensibly to kill the pianist, but with an emptied chamber he fires the gun and himself gets shot by the waiting police.
At this moment we don't know for sure that that he didn't wish to kill the singer. It isn't until the police reveal an empty chamber. Just before going into the club, sitting in his car, Jef opens the gun and we see a full chamber, but shortly after that he drops his hat off at the cloakroom but doesn't pick up the stub he needs to retrieve it. This is a chronicle of a death foretold sartorially, as though Melville is playing with the idea that the symbolic feature of the hat is of more significance than showing us the empty chamber of a gun. It is the Bressonian side to Melville that of course the never modest Melville would insist as the Melvillian side of Bresson when we see it in the latter's films, evident when Melvile says: "I'm sorry, but it's Bresson who has always been Melvillian." (Melville on Melville).
But Melville's brilliance rests in modifying what we would now call the Bressonian - that it is Bresson's semiotic austerity that we have come to call Bressonian, the way Bresson would remove the coordinates of the scene all the better to make us work out what its full components happen to be. We can think of the jousting scene in Lancelot du Lac, the axe murder at the end of L'argent. In Le Samourai wants us to muse over the moment when he leaves the stub at the desk. If he showed us the empty chamber of the gun in the car he would be stating clearly that Jef was going to his death. The hat merely implies it, while at the same time making us aware that the hat isn't some casual piece of attire, but a metonym of his dignity and vital to his identity. Stella Bruzzi, writing on fashion in film, notes that "Jef Costello performs a ritual each time he leaves his flat: he looks at himself in the mirror and runs his finger and thumb along the brim of his trilby." (Undressing Cinema) Without his hat, he is no longer quite Jef Costello; leaving it behind he suggest to us his impending death without Melville stating it.
To understand Melville's work is to understand an aspect of his metaphysics, which demands a different, less rigorous form than Bresson, reflected in the code of honour Melville's characters live within, as opposed to the human shame Bresson's acknowledge. Bresson's tradition is Pascal, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, perhaps Simone Weil and Jacques Maritain. Melville's roots are however indirectly in Hume, the samurai code and of course the resistance. The latter pair need explaining: Le Samourai opens with a quote concerning the ways of the samurai, and the Resistance aspect is unequivocally autobiographical. We wil nevertheless explore them shortly. First, however, we must explain why Hume. How does this French filmmaker coincide with a Scottish philosopher, and note that it resides in habit. Melville's characters are habitual creatures, whether it is the night-time wanderings of Bob Le Flambeur, the rigorous and minimalist life of Jef, or perhaps even Corey (Alain Delon) in The Red Circle, who once out of prison and confronting a gangster who owes him, can be found by the gangster's henchmen in the Marseilles pool hall, as though this is where he would inevitably go after getting released, When we see Grenier entering the camp near the beginning of Army of the Shadows, we know what matters is that he retains his tidy approach to life. Whether it is the way he carefully unpacks his suitcase or takes his morning exercises, this is someone who seeks the methodical. When Jef goes to get the numberplates changed on the car he steals, there are no words exchanged between Jef and the mechanic. We know that he has been there numerous times before as habit demands no need of words. Hume reckoned in denying a uniformity principle, there "were only two kinds of reasoning, 'demonstrative and probable'...and neither can do the job. Demonstrative reasoning (such as deduction) cannot establish the uniformity of nature - for non-uniformity is conceivable, and therefore possible." Hume reckons, "these two propositions are far from being the same. I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an affect, and I foresee, hat other objects which are, in appearance, similar, will be attended with similar effects." Hume adds, "I shall allow, if you please, that the one proposition may justly be inferred from the other: I know, in fact, that it is always inferred, But if you insist that the inference is made by a chain of reasoning, I desire you to produce the reasoning." (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy)Thus habit replaces reason: we don't know that if we fail to water the plants they will die; just as we don't know that the sun will rise the next morning. But we safely assume that this will be the case based on past evidence thus far. What we have are habitual responses to events, and make generally safe inferences as a consequence. Habit is partly what allows us to conjoin empirical detail with consistent reactions.
How does this play out in the Melvillian world and how can it link to that highest metaphysical order in Melville's work, honour? We can first return to motivation and calculation. We have noticed that Melville does not regard motivation that highly; what matters much more is calculation. Now if calculation could be based on reason alone, all would be well, but what happens when it cannot be? Take for example the scene when Jean-Francois decides to try and help his colleague escape. He plans meticulously his own arrest but cannot so arrange the release of Felix. When the doctor insists Felix is too ill to be moved, there Jean-Francois happens to be, locked in a cell with a man whose misery he wished to assuage, with presumably one cyanide pill that he gives to Felix. The pill is what every Resistance fighter carries around with them, well-aware that torture is a fate worse than death. Out of honour, he offers the pill to Felix while saying that he has several of them. Melville's prior close-up suggests however that Jean-Francois only has one. It would be unfair to say that Jean-Francois has miscalculated; more that his calculations come up against reality, and so would seem to calculate again from the narrowest of circumstances that nevertheless allow him to retain the fundamentals of honour. If he were to tell Felix he only had one pill, Felix would likely insist that he take it himself. By claiming he has more than one, Felix can die in peace both physically and morally. We cannot know for sure that Jean-Francois only has one, but why then the close up indicating that there is only one in the small case?
Two modes of Humean thought present themselves in such moments. One is that despite one's best reasoning, circumstances often work against it. The second is that we can comprehend the relations between things, but we cannot claim fundamental evidence that links the elements together. We notice this much later in Army of the Shadows when a couple of members of the Resistance are asked to kill a woman who has been vital to their operations, Mathilde (Simone Signoret). She may have given away secrets or may be arrested once more and give them away then. She must be killed, Gerbier announces, but one of the two men is disgusted by the idea as he reminds Gerbier that she has saved Gerbier's life. He doesn't deny it but die she must. It is then that the head of the resistance, Saint-Luc, comes out of the shadows and explains that Mathilde must die for her own sake. In her possession was a photo of her daughter, a photo earlier Gerbier reckoned she should dispose of but that she obviously hadn't. This makes her especially susceptible; the Nazis will know about her daughter and will use that fact to extract a confession from Mathilde. Saint-Luc believes that it is Mathilde's best interest that they kill her, explaining that actually what she would wish for them to do is remove her. He gives various reasons that are plausible. Afterwards, when the other men have left, Gerbier asks if Saint-Luc's hypothesis is correct. Saint-Luc admits he doesn't know. What is clear is that he has created a moral alibi: the men will kill Mathilde believing it is in her own best interest, unaware whether or not it happens to be the case. This is an instance of the moral action but we cannot comprehend the details of the deed (most importantly the wishes and motivations of Mathilde) only the most useful assumption that surrounds it. From the point of view of necessity, Mathilde must be killed - she is too risky a figure to leave alive - and from the point of view of honour, they must believe they are doing something of which she would approve. The act is surrounded by doubt but is nevertheless categorical: Mathilde will be shot down on the street.
This is vitally why Melville is of immense interest from the point of view of the action film in the broadest sense. There are always categorical actions in Melville's films, as there are not for example in Tarkovsky's Mirror, Angelopoulos' Eternity and a Day, Fellini's 8 /2. The latter enter the realm of indeterminacy, where actions lose their coordinates in a real world and become potentially figments of an imagination. We question the status of the images, sometimes wondering whether we are watching a flashback or a flashforward, whether we are inside a dream, or a memory. Obviously, few writers have written better about this type of cinema than Gilles Deleuze, and we might wonder why Melville has no place at all in Deleuze's film books. The most obvious answer would be that Melville was no longer fashionable during the eighties, when Deleuze's books were being written, and perhaps not so immediately on hand to see, but also because the Humean problem he explores, the limit of the action image, can be examined more pertinently through Hitchcock than through Melville, more coherently through Kurosawa than this French director of mainly gangster films.
But one way of understanding Melville is to return to the problems Deleuze addresses in Cinema 1 - The Movement-Image, and think of Melville as a director combining aspects of the Hitchcockian and the Kurosawan to move from the Humean problem to the samurai code. Deleuze astutely notes when discussing Kurosawa how his films, though they often contain a high degree of action, nevertheless very much differ from the American model as he quotes Kurosawa saying: "before the character starts to act: to get to that point I need to think for several months." Deleuze reckons "this is only difficult because it is difficult for the character himself: he first had to have all the givens." We see a variation of this in Melville's work, with the givens either preconceived or beyond the characters' control. At the beginning of both Les Doulos and Le Samourai, Maurice (Serge Reggiani) and Jef respectively know exactly what they are doing even if we don't, even if at the same they may not precisely have all the information to hand. When Maurice arrives at the jeweller's house, enjoys a friendly exchange with a man he has known for years, we are surprised when he suddenly shoots him. He does so because the man has been responsible for Maurice's wife's demise, but even Maurice doesn't know this for sure moments before, and finds the certainty in the moment that he kills him: the look on the man's face indicates that he knew this might be coming. The moment of the deed is the moment of realization: the man's guilt is revealed the moment the killing takes place. If Maurice had been wrong he would have killed an innocent man; if he hadn't shot him he would have let a guilty man get away with murdering his wife. In Le samourai, Jef goes about his business preparing a hit. We see the ripped francs, we see him robbing a car and arriving at a particular moment at his girflriend's. All these actions we discover are part of an alibi for a hit. Yet we just follow a series of semi-random incidents from our initial point of view that are very specific from Jef's perspective. We can see here the importance of the givens as Deleuze describes them. An action must be understood, the ethical implications entertained, and the instinct finely-tuned.
Many an action film does not demand this degree of complexity if the killer is known, the deed categorical and the villain violent. It is the external conflict that matters; not the internal conflicts that generate, prolong or delay action. Melville's cinema, like Hitchcock's, if for different reasons, and some of those reasons are Kurosawan, contributes to the crisis in the action- image. But if Hitchcock's work was often interested in reliable inference, in playing up habit within logic, Melville's work is closer to Kurosawa's interest in ethical codes. Thus Deleuze can say of Hitchcock "that the essential point, in any event, is that action, and also perception and affection, are framed in a fabric of relations". Thus "the characters can act, perceive, experience, but they cannot testify to the relations which determine them." (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) As Hume would note: "when we say, therefore, that one object is connected with another, we mean only that they have acquired a connexion in our thought, and give rise to this inference, by which they become proof of each other's existence." (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) The action film rarely generates this gap between what we know and what we think we know, but that is central to Melville's work, and partly what he shares with Hitchcock: this interest in making action somehow secondary to thought.
But Melville is an ethical filmmaker; Hitchcock perhaps a moral one. We are in no doubt for example that the killers in Rope and Robert Walker's character in Strangers on a Train are bad people doing bad things. Melville is less interested in good or bad people, but codes of behaviour and the necessary action. But the action while necessary, needn't be categorical, which is partly why the ethical is held in abeyance. We don't know in Army of the Shadows if killing Mathilde is a good act (a deed she would wish), or just a pragmatic one (she has to die just in case she informs). Le Doulos plays up the moral ambiguity of the characters' actions in the process of the deed, leaving us to wonder where we should stand in the context of their acts. Whether it is Maurice killing the jeweller who is unarmed and who seems to be helping him out at the beginning of the film, or later Selien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) beating Maurice's lover around and tying her to the radiator we are temporarily bemused. In the latter instance, we find out later that she was someone Sellien met before in another context and he knew she was not to be trusted. What we might initially believe is mindless and thuggish behaviour we will later discover has a very specific reason. We expect the worst and discover if not the best then at least a code of behaviour. We might even give as an example Jef's refusal to kill the pianist in Le Samourai. As he goes into the club to assassinate her, so instead he wishes only for others to assassinate him. He needs the gun in his hand so that the cops will kill him; he needs the empty chamber so that as he fires he doesn't kill the pianist. It is an ethical act, beautifully orchestrated. If it is the way of the Samurai much of it lies in the way, the mode, the mise en scene. Jef hasn't just been killed; he has arranged the scene with some of the meticulous planning that goes into the hits that he takes out on others. One senses at all times, whether killing others or allowing himself to be killed, a code at work.
These are responsible characters in Melville's work, which is where the samurai code segues into the resistance ethic. But this idea of responsibility, or perhaps even authenticity, to adopt an existential term, rests in the givens of a situation. When near the beginning of Un Cercle rouge, Corey (Delon) visits a Marseille mafia boss at his home just after getting released from prison, the boss Ricco give the impression it is great to see him and insists that he will write a cheque that Corey can cash once the bank opens. Corey is sceptical, goes up to the bedroom door and intuits that his ex is behind it, and moves his way towards a de Stael painting that hides behind it a safe that Corey insists the boss opens. As Ricco does so, Corey quickly grabs the gun inside and pockets the cash, depositing, in turn, some photos of his girlfriend that he no doubt kept close to him while in prison. The complexity of the scene resides in the elliptical nature of the information, and the code that Corey seems to live under. Instead of making a scene (opening the bedroom door and grabbing his partner), he insists on retaining a cool, detached attitude to the mise-en-scene. He must act with dignity over asserting morality. Morally he might seem perfectly entitled to give his girlfriend a good roasting, but instead, he makes clear he knows exactly what had been going on: that he can't trust Ricco and that he can't trust the girlfriend who has been sleeping with the boss while he has been inside. We do not know how much Corey knows, but we know he knows enough or at least trusts his instincts enough, to walk away from the situation with honour.
Let us then propose that morality demands knowledge; honour infers it and that in this sense Melville pushes farther than Hitchcock into the questions that Hume raises. When John Orr says that "for Hume, life is a jigsaw to be assembled piece by piece and at the centre of the Hitchcock narrative too there is always a quest to resolve a puzzle that rises out of the vexed relations between sense-experience and knowledge" (Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema) we notice that in Hitchcock we often know what the character doesn't know, or we know what the characters think they know. We know before Thornhill does that he will be grabbed in North by Northwest, and see the birds gathering behind Melanie Daniels in The Birds before she discovers them. In Rear Window we infer with Jefferies that there is something untoward across the way, just as in Foreign Correspondent when his hat blows off we notice John Jones realises that the windmill is moving in the opposite direction to the wind: someone is controlling it. In such moments Hitchcock gives us what we can categorical inference; Melville insists so often on elliptical inference. If we can say that Hitchcock allows us to know what the characters know or know what the character's don't know, Melville frequently gives us moments where we don't know what the characters may or not know, or moments where we are aware of what the characters know but that we don't, The latter is an inversion of Hitchcock's version of playing God with the audience, where the viewer knows what the characters don't know and this provides suspense: when will the characters find out what their predicament happens to be? In Melville's cinema, the characters do know why they are acting as they do, but we are left in the dark, at least initially, and perhaps throughout. We never quite know why Jean-Francois sends the note to the Gestapo denouncing himself. Equally, we don't know how Corey knows his partner is in the bedroom. Was he tipped off in prison; saw her car outside when he went in? We have no idea. We just know that Corey knows enough to know how to act in the circumstances.
We have hit upon a troublesome paradox here. Orr notes that "human nature, if it is anything, is the self's volatile mix of discovering the life-world and being discovered by it as a matrix of object-relations. More accurately the constitution of the self is that process. In Hitchcock meaning and identity are no individual truths of being where you reveal the 'real' person but changing forms of transaction between subjects, characters that are always mediated by object and situation, that have an external fate." (Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema) If this is true, how can we talk of categorical inference, which could seem also like a contradiction in terms? What makes the inferences categorical however is the revelation in Hitchcock of the inference's truth. John Jones and Jefferies turn out to be proved right and we know precisely why this happens to be so. In Melville, we often don't, hence the elliptical inference. Why Jean-Francois writes the note to the Gestapo or how Corey knows his girlfriend is in the bedroom remain elliptical. We can infer that Jean-Francois does so because he believes that Felix will die in prison without a suicide pill unless he rescues him. If this is the case then we are left with the irony, and the honour, of Jean-Francois failing to help get him released, and left with only one will pill that he gives to his colleague. We don't know for sure this is the reason, we don't even know for certain he only has one pill, though when he takes it out to give to Felix it appears the only one there.
If we have proposed that both Hitchcock and Melville are filmmakers as interested in the thought as in the action, nevertheless this thought, while similar isn't quite the same. They are both great directors of relations, but Melville pushes further into the secretive nature of these relations; Hitchcock into the confessional nature of them. Psychiatry and psychoanalysis play a strong part in Hitchcock's films and how they are interpreted. Spellbound, Psycho and Marnie actively deploy the psychiatric and the psychoanalytic, and Vertigo and Rear Window are often analysed with the aid of them. Melville is not a psychoanalytic filmmaker partly because he is not a confessional one. The important thing in his work is not to reveal but the skill with which one hides, and Melville offers an aesthetic correlative to this with narratives that are themselves somewhat secretive.
What do we mean by this formally? We can think for example of the scene in Le cercle rouge when Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) gets into the boot, as he makes good on his escape from the police, and compare it briefly to that most Hitchcockian of French filmmakers, Caude Chabrol, and his boot sequence in La femme infidele. In Chabrol's film the moment is very Hitchcockian. We know what the character knows but what the cop, of course, doesn't know: that a body is inside. There is fine irony in Chabrol's scene: the reason the cop is checking rests on a minor accident which means the boot won't open, The central characters is saved from being found out by the accident that if it hadn't occurred wouldn't have led to the cop turning up at all; luckily the accident is just serious enough for the boot's failure to open. In Un cercle rouge, after Vogel has jumped into the boot we have no sense that Corey knows he is in there, but we do know he has reason to claim he cannot open it: he is hiding a couple of guns. But as he fiddles around with the boot giving the impression he is trying to work the lock, so we think he is doing so only to avoid the relatively minor infraction of possessing weaponry. The reason for the blockade has of course been because Vogel is a murderer on the run. But a short while later we realize that he has a still more important reason for this: that he knew all along that Vogel had jumped into his boot. He was protecting Vogel. Yet we realize too that he wasn't only sheltering Vogel from the police, he was also looking for a partner to help with a possible robbery that a warden at the prison had told him about. Here we have Corey acting a couple of steps ahead while we might believe when he claims he cannot open the boot that he is acting shrewdly but merely in the moment.
Whether it is withholding from us what a character knows that we think they don't know temporarily (Corey and the boot), or permanently (Jean-Pierre's motive for giving himself up to the police), or either trusting their instincts or relying on information they do not care to divulge (Corey and his girlfriend's presence in Ricco's apartment; Faugel killing the fence at the beginning of Le Doulos), we have characters who are secretive in their dealings, who wish to keep a high degree of their own counsel. Out of such an approach we can see many an action film which isn't very Hitchcockian at all: Point Blank, Bullitt, The Driver, Heat and Drive all indicate the Melville imprint, films often described as taciturn and where we have the opposite of a talking cure. While Deleuze and Orr and right to see the importance of Hume on Hitchcock, nevertheless we feel that Melville is no less an important director of relations if we keep in mind Hume's belief that "we have no impression of a self, simple initself, and identical from one time to another." (Oxford Companion of Philosophy) As Hume says, of man, he is nothing, "but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux f movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions." (Treatise on Human Nature)
We can see how this happens to be consistent with Hume's position on knowledge more generally: we can only assume that the sun will rise tomorrow because it happens to have done so yesterday and the day before. We might assume we know who we are since we have memories of what we happened to do in the past, and our habits make it likely we will do similar things again in the future: it is what makes our character. But there are many things from the distant past that we cannot remember, or remember accurately, and things in the future that we might do quite differently from the way we have done them before. However, while for Hume what holds so much together is habit or custom, and the assumptions we make about empirical data and our relationship with one's identity, for Melville it would seem to be a very specific notion of custom: the honour to which we have already alluded. If, in the psychoanalytically inflected Humean Hitchcock, the films reveal illness, whether it is Psycho, Marnie, Rear Window or Vertigo, we can without much difficulty apply a medicalized term no matter if it would only be a starting point in understanding the films: Bates is oedipally fixated, Marnie a kleptomaniac, Jefferies scopophilic, Scottie necrophilic. No such equivalent terms could be applied to Melville's figures. The confession in Hitchcock leads to the realization of illness; the secret in Melville alludes to the importance of honour. If we don't know precisely why Jean-Francois acts as he does in Army of the Shadows, we know that he has acted honourably, just as we know in Le Samourai that whatever the reason why Jeff leaves the chamber of his gun empty at the end of the film we cannot doubt that he has done so with honour as the priority. Even when we retrospectively discover why someone has acted as they have in a moment that we might initially believe is dishonourable (Faugel shooting the fence at the beginning of Le Doulos, Silien beating up Faugel's girlfriend later in the film) it is usually predicated on us comprehending the honourable nature of the deed.
Yet, what are we to make of the end Un Flic? Here we have police inspector Edouard Coleman (Delon) in love with Catherine Deneuve's moll (Cathy), but she happens to be the partner of Richard Crenna's clever criminal, Simon. There is complicity between Cathy and Coleman, but perhaps even more between Simon and Edouard. When Cathy asks Coleman if he thinks Simon suspects their affair, Coleman replies: "he doesn't suspect. He knows." Two lovers committing adultery under the cuckold's nose is complicity between the lovers; one man knowing that the other man knows he is cheating with his partner is complicity between the two men. But what we also have is the plot. Cathy's loyalty could be with one man over the other, with both of them, or with neither. We don't know for sure how Simon finds out the details of the train robbery they plan. What we do know is that a transvestite snitch tells Coleman that a drugs haul will be dropped off and picked up on a train from Paris to Lisbon. We also know that it is not long after this scene that Coleman and Cathy meet up to make love. We do not know whether he tells her about the forthcoming deal, and his plans to intervene, but we do know that it is just after Cathy and Coleman meet that Simon starts explaining to his buddies that they will intervene: steal the drugs from the mule and sell them back to the criminals responsible for it. We might assume that Coleman has told Cathy in a moment of incaution; but we may wonder whether later in the film, long after the robbery has been successful, whether Cathy has reversed her allegiances and told Coleman about Simon's involvement in the train robbery. When Coleman taps Simon's phone, the latter is in a hotel room. Who knew he would be there? Perhaps Cathy reveals the details, if she does so at all, because she has no more loyalty towards one man over another: that she helps Simon with information to do the robbery, and helps Coleman to catch him. After all, when we watch Coleman tapping the phone, we also get shots of Cathy speaking to Simon through the line, looking like some difficult decisions have been made. Perhaps she does so for a less perverse and more pragmatic reason: that she knows the police are closing in on Simon over the film's opening bank robbery. One of the perpetrators called in for questioning appears to have squealed; another has blown his brains out when the police came knocking.
But this is where honour becomes troublesome and thus to the ending. Coleman knows he must catch Simon, but must do so as 'honestly' as he can. While Simon leaves the hotel with the money, Cathy drives up on the other side of the road, nodding to him to come. Then we see Coleman with a gun in his hand telling him not to move. Simon looks like he might pull out a gun; Coleman guns him down. It turns out Simon was unarmed as Coleman's colleague says "no weapon" and wonders whether Coleman was too quick to shoot. Did Coleman shoot him so he could be with Cathy; has that hope been ruined since Simon was unarmed? And did Simon go for what looked like a gun knowing the game was up, Coleman would shoot him dead rather than leave Simon with a prison term. We cannot easily know the motives of all the characters, but what we do need to be able to work out with a degree of confidence is how much honour has been practised. There is a sense by the end of Un Flic that while Coleman has acted with ostensible integrity, the grave look on his face in the closing shot indicates someone who seems to be examining how he got into such a situation. Honour is still very important here - we just might feel that Coleman doesn't believe he has lived up to it. When did he set in motion a betrayal of his own values, and again we must rely on a high degree of speculation in the process of trying to work this out. What matters for Melville is the delineation of honour or its loss. The details can remain in the realm of suggestive inference because motive remains so secondary.
There is nevertheless the importance of the deed and Melville's work does very interesting things with the setpiece, as if finding in this cinematic mainstay a means of expression that is curtailed elsewhere. Few pieces on Melville fail to mention Colin McArthur's Cinema of Process, the attention to detail in a sequence that means we understand clearly both the action and the meticulous nature of the character. Key examples include the train robbery in Un Flic, the jewellery heist in Le cercle rouge, the assassination in Le Samourai, and the robbery in Le Doulos. But often it can be in a situation that isn't heightened with suspense. The bullets Jansen makes in Le cercle rouge, the way Jef bandages himself up after being shot in Le Samourai, the means by which Grenier lays out his things in Army of the Shadows. These are all examples of characters taking their time, as though time is the property of the self when the individual is most themselves. We find this even in the early sequence in Un flic. The gang are inside doing the heist; the getaway driver waits. A bank employee presses the alarm, but everyone takes their time, most especially the getaway driver who hears the bell go off but waits patiently for the others to come out of the bank. Haste is a failure of self, as though the individual possesses within themselves an ethical dromology, a sense of pace that mustn't be violated. Never is this more evident than the scene where Gerbier is asked to run for his life in Army of the Shadows. Here is a captured man, and the Nazis give him the chance to escape if he can outrun their bullets. It is a caper for the Nazis but an opportunity as it turns out for Gerbier. Waiting at the end of the prison environs, on the other side of the wall is Mathilde, who has been throwing smoke detectors into the prison to make it harder for the Nazis to see and kill Gerbier as he runs. He makes it to the wall and he climbs a waiting rope and back into freedom. But Gerbier doesn't see a daring escape, running with prowess and dodging the bullets. He knows why the Nazis offer it as an option: it is a final humiliation as the Germans take someone's life. Better to have stood still and died, Gerbier believes, rather than running "like a frightened rabbit". The others in the getaway car wonder at first if he is despondent because others died, but he is more fretful that he has lived. He feels that he has broken a code, one which accompanies that of relative silence; one of relative stillness. To speak under duress is a sign of weakness; to run with bullets chasing you is a sign of failure. The human is weak, Melville seems to say, even the honourable ones, but we do not make a code out of those weaknesses. We accept our failure within them. To have been happy escaping would have been a version of bad faith; the idea that we had no choice when Gerbier is lucid enough to see that the Nazis' very point in such moments is to create false choice: you stay and die or you run and die. The coward will run and have his life amusingly snuffed out seconds later by the officers; the brave man will stand still and refuse to reduce themselves to a Nazi plaything. Gerbier escapes, so we could say he has got one over the Nazis, but that isn't how Gerbier sees it. He reckons that the officer has got one over him by forcing him to run. And of course, there he is in the backseat of the car with Mathilde, whose escape plan was predicated on him running too. McArthur's cinema of process in Melville's work is about doing things methodically and slowly, doing all you can to predict the result. When Gerbier runs for his life he cannot know the outcome, there is no sense of calculation in his deed, thinking that Mathilde will come and save him. It is in his eyes a cowardly act of hastiness.
There are in Melville's work fast actors and slow actors, figures like Ventura in Second Wind and Army of the Shadows, Bob in Bob le Flambeur, Fuegel in Le Doulos, Jansen (Yves Montand) in Le cercle rouge, the investigator in Le Samourai and Simon in Un flic. Then there are those capable of quickness, Belmondo's Selien in Le doulos, Delon in Le Samourai, Le cercle rouge and Un Flic, Volonte in Le cercle rouge. But in Melville's work the capacity to move quickly is secondary to the means by which one avoids doing so, a bit like a tennis player who knows that his drop volleys can have the other playing running all over the clay but who himself can remain in a relatively fixed place if they calculate the game. To run quickly is usually a failure of calculation in Melville's work, and none more so than when a robbery goes wrong or the police find you out. Le cercle rouge ends on Volonte and Delon running for their lives but there is no sense that we are to admire their loping stride. To run is to admit defeat, and these calculating men are soon to be defeated.
We may notice too that movement more generally is frowned upon by Melville. If Hitchcock claimed the essence of cinema was the chase sequence ('Core of the Movie - the Chase'), Melville wouldn't concur. The meticulous deed is of far more importance than the frenetic action, which is partly why we wouldn't be inclined to use the term the cinema of process to describe Hitchcock's films, while it fits no filmmaker more adequately than Melville. When writing on speed in cinema in New Left Review, Peter Wollen pays a lot of attention to Hitchcock and no time at all to Melville, seeing in the former's work an interest in pace while seeing in Antonioni and others a desire for slowness. But what is interesting about Melville's films is that while they are slow, they do not use the dead time so central to many examples of the cinematically tardy. When we watch an Antonioni, Angelopoulos or Tarkovsky film, we are not in a cinema of process but of duration. By analogy, and with the aid of Bergson, if in Hitchcock we see sugar being stirred in a glass, and in Antonioni watch the sugar dissolve in it, in Melville we are inclined to see the sugar dissolve but wonder why it happens to be doing so. What properties are involved in the moment that we will retrospectively realise are important to that moment? In a video essay, Cristina Lopez Alvarez notes that in Le cercle rouge a key touch is one we could easily miss, just as we might assume, initially, that Corey misses it too. When Corey eats in the diner, the film cross-cuts between Corey and Vogel looking for a boot to jump into. He finds one and jumps in, but we can also see if we look very carefully in the background of the shot that the boot is pulled down as Corey sits in the restaurant. There is the briefest of moments where we think we are seeing a man kill some time in a diner, but who is actually seeing a criminal jump into the rear of his car, a man Corey will involve in the robbery that he has been planning since early in the film. There is thus no such thing as dead time in Melville's work, only calculated time. The cinema of process McArthur talks about is also a cinema of processing - the sense we have of characters working through the givens of a situation.
This leads us finally to the artificiality of Melville's work. His films are logical but rarely plausible or verisimilitudinous. Sometimes this is as simple as characters wearing clothes completely out of step with the fashions of the period as the men usually walk around looking like Humphrey Bogart even if they are in the mid-to-late sixties. It might rest on the back projection Melville would use to the very end of his career. But it would also include in Un flic, model work and trompe- l'oeil effect match cuts that play up the idea that we are watching a film. In Un Flic, the robbery with the helicopter and the train doesn't even attempt in places to look realistic, while there is a moment when Paris looks like a painted backdrop and the film then match cuts into a painting at thMuseeee d'orsey which plays up the artificiality of the former. This is exacerbated still more as we see the three robbers planning their next job against a tromp-l'oeil effect in the museum.
What such moments give to Melville's work is an implausibility that needn't counter the logic that he pursues, the set of relations that insist we engage in the calculations at work in the characters who, at the same time, must be wary of losing their honour if the calculations go wrong (as with the assassination in Le samourai), or if they feel they haven't calculated enough (as we seen when Gerbier runs out of fear rather than design in The Army of the Shadows). One may often believe that the calculating mind is an immoral one, but in Melville's work it is vital to an ethical code. We think ahead because we have a head to think and only idiots would take others at face value. Melville insists we take others at mind value, looking to see what is going on inside people's heads all the better to act with intelligence in the given nature of a situation. But if Melville's films possess a value higher than calculation, one higher than getting one over someone else, it rests on a need to act well beyond the immediacy of self-interest, and to understand that one's actions will likely contain the calculations of others, and the contingencies involved, elements which make one's will capable of only very small acts of freedom after all. The resistance ethos in Melville became an aesthetic style, and he remains a singular filmmaker as a consequence of it?
© Tony McKibbin