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DVD Review

DVD cover

Jean-Pierre Melville Box Set


Starring: Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Serge Reggiani, Emmanuelle Riva and Gian-Maria Volonte
Optimum World
RRP: £44.99
Certificate: 12
Available 02 March 2009

Jean-Pierre Grumbach (1917-1973), better known as Jean-Pierre Melville, a nom de guerre which he used following the Nazi invasion of France - the Melville stuck and reflected his love of not only American film but literature. This admiration was such that following the war he would affect a Stetson. The output from his independent studio would reflect both his experiences working in the French resistance and his love for American gangster films. Although his studio made mixed fortunes his style of cinema went on to influence a generation. Optimum has released a box set of six of his films.

Bob Le Flambeur (1955 - 1 hr, 38 min, 14 sec). Bob is a middle aged gambler and petty criminal who is having a run of bad luck. On hearing that the Deauville Casino holds a lot of cash Bob engages the services of other criminals to steal it, but lady luck is a fickle mistress and on the day of the heist Bob hits a running streak which keeps him at the tables. Late for his part of the scheme he leaves the tables, but the police are already on his tail and Bob is arrested.

Made on a limited budget, the film stars Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey and Guy Decomble and pays homage to the American gangster films, a genre that Melville would return to in other films. Compared to some of his later works it’s a pretty straight forward film noir, full of seedy low lives.

The film is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, in mono French with subtitles. Extras on the disc are an introduction (14 min, 39 sec) by film critic Ginette Vincendeau and the original trailer (3 min, 30 sec). The film hasn’t been remastered and there are noticeable artefacts on the print

Leon Morin Pretre (1961 - 1 hr, 51 min, 58 sec). Jean-Paul Belmondo was nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal of Leon Morin. The film tells the story of Barny - played by   Emmanuelle Riva - who lives in a small French village during the Occupation. Sexually frustrated, she sparks up a friendship with Leon Morin, a young priest, after she laid down a challenge to his beliefs. As their meetings continue she uses sexual provocation and her atheism to test him, convinced that he has feelings for her.

Sexual tension pervades this film, especially in Riva's portrayal of Barny as she slowly works her charms on the priest. When later they meet, following the war’s end, both can see that it was a form of madness and both part to go their own way.

Once again the film is black and white, this time with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, once again the print has not been remastered and there is evidence of artefacts. Audio is mono, French, with optional subtitles. Once again there is an insightful introduction by Ginette Vincendeau (21 min, 30 sec) as well as commentary for three selected scenes. You also get an interview with Assistant Director Volker Scholondorff (13 min, 23 sec) and the original theatrical trailer (3 min 07 sec).

Le Doulos (1962 - 1 hr, 44 min, 06 sec) and Melville moves back into the noir world he loved so well with Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) having been recently released from prison. He first kills, in cold blood, an old acquaintance Gilbert Varnove (Rene Lefevre), before stealing his stash of gems. Unable to stay straight or move from the path of self destruction he plans to rob a rich house with Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), an old friend. But this is noir country and everyone’s motives are suspect. Melville creates an incredibly dense and complex narrative, to unravel the whole plot will mean watching this film more than once.

Ginnette Vincendeau pops up again with another introduction to the film (21 min, 30 sec) as well as providing commentary for three scenes. Volker Scholondorff also does another interview (13 min, 23 sec) and the theatrical trailer (2 min, 18 sec). The black and white film is presented in French, with optional subtitles, and an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The print is much better this time with very little evidence of damage.

Army of Shadows (1969 - 2 hr, 18 min, 30 sec) is an adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1943 book, but also influenced by Melville's own experiences of the war. The film won three American film awards.

Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) escapes imprisonment by the Nazi’s. A resistance leader, he escapes to London before having to return to France to take part in another escape plan. Whilst the plot would have been an action war flick if it had been made in America, what Melville has produces here is a study in character. The army is in a real way made up of shadows, people with no home and not even their real names who move about in Vichy France, keeping hope alive, whilst stoically accepting the reality of their position.

Once more Vincendeau provides commentary. Melville: Army of Shadows (27 min, 27 sec) is a featurette looking at the making of the film with contributions from many that remain alive, Le Journal de la Resistance (32 min, 58 sec) has archival footage of the Liberation of Paris. Rounding off the disc is Jean Pierre Melville: Filmmaker (4 min, 34 sec), which shows Melville at work, and the theatrical trailer.

The colour film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic with a mono French audio track and subtitles. The print, this time, is pretty good with no noticeable flaws.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970 - 2 hr, 14 min, 52 sec) sees Melville return once more to the criminal underground. With each passing film Melville refined his own brand of Gallic noir hitting an artistic level which he maintained until his death. Alain Delon plays Corey, a gentleman jewel thief, whose fate has conspired to find him on the run with escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte). Following their escape, Corey enlists Vogel and Jansen (Yves Montand) in a daring robbery. The film is a masterpiece of the understated with Melville proving that silence can be just as powerful as the spoken word.

The colour film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, French with optional subtitles and a clean print. Once more we get a thoughtful introduction from Vincendeau (21 min, 30 sec), who also provides the commentary. There is a further feature on Melville in Rui Nogueira on Melville (26 min, 14 sec) and an interview with Assistant Director Bernard Stora (30 min, 25 sec).

Un Flic (1972 - 1 hr, 35 min, 44 sec) is the last film in the set and an incredible tour de force, as Melville remains in the noir world of gangsters. The film stars Alain Delon, Richard Crenna and Catherine Deneuve and represents the strongest film in an undoubtedly strong set of films. Delon takes the central role of  Commissaire Edouard Coleman who tries to balance the obligations of his life, from trying to keep his mistress (Deneuve) whom he shares with a nightclub owner and main suspect in a robbery. Like many of his previous films this is really about the pressures between honour and friendship, a theme which links nearly all the films here.

Oddly enough after the riches of the other discs this film only has the trailer as an extra. The movie, French with optional subtitles, is presented in an aspect ratio 1.85:1, the print appeals to have no faults.

This is a great box set, Melville’s sense of style and narrative prowess makes even his lesser known film worth watching. Throw in some good extras and the set is pretty much a must have for film fans.


Charles Packer

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