Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris on October 20, 1917. He would later adopt the name Melville in homage to the author of Moby Dick. Following World War II, Melville wrote, produced, directed, and edited Le Silence de la mer (1949), an austere adaptation of the famous French Resistance novel. Melville also drew praise from Jean Cocteau, among many others in the film industry, who entrusted him with the film adaptation to his famous 1929 novel, Les Enfants terribles (1950). He then made When You Read This Letter (1953), a melodrama starring Juliette Gréco, which he agreed to do to prove he was not a cinematic dilettante or art house intellectual. The success of Jules Dassin's Rififi allowed him to make Bob Le Flambeur (1956). Melville himself acted in his next film, Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (1958), a tale of two French journalists investigating the disappearance of a diplomat in New York. His next film,Léon Morin, Priest (1961), starred New Wave sensation Jean-Paul Belmondo as an enlightened young Catholic priest. Le Doulos (1962) was the first of his highly stylized appropriations of film noir conventions and stereotypes, which again cast Belmondo. That same year Melville filmed his adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel L’Ainé des Ferchaux (1962), which co-starred Belmondo and character actor Charles Vanel. The gangster epic Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), with Lino Ventura as one of the great Melvillian heroes, came next. He followed that a year later with Le Samourai (1967), a hieratic thriller about a betrayed contract killer, played with icy, impenetrable grace by Alain Delon. Melville then paid a moving homage to the heroism and sacrifice of the French Resistance in Army of Shadows (1969), starring Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, and Paul Meurisse. Melville’s next film proved to be the greatest hit of his career:Le Cercle Rouge (1970), a fatalistic caper drama with Delon, Yves Montand, and Gian-Maria Volonté as three outlaws and beloved funnyman André Bourvil in one of his few straight dramatic roles as the pursuing cop. Melville’s last film was another thriller with Delon, Un Flic (1972), which co-starred Catherine Deneuve. Melville was at work on the script of his 14th feature when he died suddenly of a stroke on August 2, 1973. He was 55. Melville’s maverick status within the French film industry and his then unorthodox methods of independent production (which even included his own facility, Jenner Studios, in southern Paris, where he shot the interiors for most of his films) served as a model and inspiration for many of the French New Wave directors.
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