.Call Him Melville

Jean-Pierre Melville’s greatest films headline BAMPFA series

The Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive, one of the world’s fortresses of cinematic culture, is renowned for, among other things, its wide-ranging collection of films from everywhere. Yet BAMPFA doesn’t own every motion picture on Earth. For its year-round schedule of live screenings, the Archive also relies on a variety of outside sources.

One of those sources is Rialto Pictures—no relation to Renaissance Rialto or Rialto Cinemas, two longtime Bay Area movie exhibitors. Founded in 1997 by Bruce Goldstein, New York-based Rialto Pictures specializes in reissues of classic films, the majority of them from European perspectives. Their catalog includes such can’t-do-without titles as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.

As the program notes for BAMPFA’s “Rialto Pictures Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Salute” point out, Rialto is celebrating with a concise retrospective. Now through Nov. 29, the series features digital restorations of nine important films from Rialto’s roster of re-releases.

This is a chance for audiences to sink their teeth into the work of French independent filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, writer-director of Army of Shadows (1969) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Melville (1917-1973) is already famous among arthouse audiences for Bob le Flambeur, with its luscious black-and-white Parisian gangster escapades; and Le Samouraï, a stylish crime-story vehicle for actor Jean-Paul Belmondo—his tributes to Hollywood film noir. Army and Cercle, the Americanophile Melville’s two finest movies, especially deserve to be seen by new eyes.

Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres) is one of Melville’s most personal works, a terse account of French Resistance fighters trying to survive the World War II German occupation. It’s an adaptation of author Joseph Kessel’s novel, blended with the filmmaker’s own wartime experiences as a young man, with characters based on actual Resistance members. It can be viewed several times, and each time a fresh richness of storytelling, pace, mood and pure cinematic art reveals itself.

This adventure is served ice cold, both in its de-saturated visuals—Melville disdained what he considered “warm toned” cinematography—and in the filmmaker’s insistence on turning what is essentially a nostalgic tragedy into a nerve-jangling portrait of vicious behind-the-lines warfare, even though Melville rejected the label “war movie.” Regardless, Army of Shadows stands as one of the most un-clichéd of WWII pics, a grim legend of ruthless partisan combat. 

Resistance officer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), all taciturn, steely resolve, moves with his underground comrades through a series of complicated enemy encounters warily, almost solemnly, with lightning-quick flashes of action. He’s backed up by Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Crauchet, with non-actor André Dewavrin appearing in his real-life role as “Colonel Passy.” As in most of his work, Melville understates the violence, in this case showing the effects of Gestapo torture rather than the torture itself. Nevertheless, the depiction of an execution by garrote of a young double agent is unforgettably gruesome. It screens Sept. 9 and Nov. 25.

Le cercle rouge, Melville’s return to the policier genre, is even more impressive. Bolstered by the performances of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volontè and Yves Montand as hoods intent on emptying a high-end jewelry store, with André Bourvil as the cop on their trail, Melville perfects his ultra-realistic, brilliantly procedural approach to crime.

Its set pieces are gloriously descriptive: the floor show at Santi’s nightclub; Jansen’s (Montand) nightmarish attack of delirium tremens, with phantom spiders, snakes, and rats crawling over him in bed; the meticulously detailed scene of Vogel’s (Volontè) nighttime train ride with his police captor (Bourvil). Le cercle rouge—showing Nov. 18 and 29—is the pinnacle of the Melville style, a marvelous tour of the underworld from the auteur in the Stetson hat and trench coat who dared to start his very own studio.

Films by Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Iranian director Amir Naderi, Dino Risi and Akira Kurosawa are also part of the Rialto retrospective. For more details, visit www.bampfa.org.

Through Nov. 29 at BAMPFA

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