The Wolves of Currumpaw

I am fascinated with children’s books. I have kept all my childhood books, my almost three-year-old son already has a considerable collection and I have started to even buy him books to save for later. Yes, you could say the children’s books in our home are as much for him as they are for me. And there are many beautiful ones. But when Vlad Niculescu recently recommended me William Grill’s book, The Wolves of Currumpaw, I had no idea that I was in for a complete shift of view on children’s books, illustration and storytelling.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William GrillBook cover craftsmanship (or why we should definitely judge a book by its looks). “I like how some of the American Indians’ blankets and tapestries tell stories or contain symbolic imagery. I wanted this to be an obvious connection as their culture and art ties in with the historical and environmental theme of the book.”
My son loves drawing, colouring and experimenting with colour: his cows are red, his squirrels are mauve, his zebras are blue. Quite a statement! And I love it. But when I first saw him drawing a pink horse, I made one of those monumental mistakes I have been trying not to make as a parent: I told him “Don’t draw it like that, there is no pink horse!” As soon as I finished my phrase, I realised the enormity of my narrow-mindedness and misjudgement – discouraging my child to explore his own ideas and feelings, to express himself, to give free rein to his imagination. Because, at this age, kids’ drawings are characterized by absolute freedom and their lack of resemblance to the real world. Children do not try to capture what they see but rather what they imagine, experimenting with colours and shapes, and, yes, green cats and five-legged dogs. It’s complete freedom of the mind, something priceless that we, as we grow up, will try the rest of our lives to recapture without succeeding.

This is the kind of creative freedom William Grill’s illustrations evoke. Not that they don’t reflect reality (all the more so that his book is based on real events and his images show an obsessive attention for details), but his style of drawing, those effortless, unrestrained, natural-flowing, child-like (in the best possible meaning) strokes of pencil leave enough room to the imagination. It’s the most striking feeling.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

“While looking out over the Corrumpa I knew I this view had to be the shot that established Lobo surveying his kingdom.”

The Wolves of Currumpaw is based on a true story, but made accessible to children – a re-telling of Ernest Thompson Seton’s wilderness drama Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, originally published in 1898. The book is about a notorious wolf pack and the man hired to trap their leader. This is the tale of how one remarkable wolf changed a hunter’s life and led to the formation of wildlife conservation societies across America. It is a fascinating book as much as it is deeply moving and educational, provoking feelings of empathy for the wild life and outlining the importance of respecting nature and cultural diversity.

William’s own text accompanies his drawings, but the images could very well tell the story without the help of words, as they form a complex and complete visual narrative that captures your interest, eye and imagination from the very first to the very last one.

And what’s even more extraordinary is that, as William Grill confessed in an interview for The Telegraph after his first published work, Shackleton’s Journey (another beauty of a book that’s next on my list), for the author, the idea of narrative non-fiction grew out of his struggle with reading. “I’m dyslexic so most of what I read when younger was comics and graphic novels. I watched a lot of animation. I was intimidated by books but I still liked stories, so that’s how the book came about. Me being such a bad reader shaped the look of the book: I had to draw everything out and explain it through pictures, to make it as clear as I could.”
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill
As part of the research for his book, William went to New Mexico where he drew the wolves at Wild Spirit Wolf sanctuary. “I like the pressure of drawing from life and the way it forces you to engage and make decisions quickly, it’s a great way to absorb what you’re seeing. I can remember far more about a place from a drawing than a photo; what I was thinking, the intensity of the sun to ravens croaking,” he told The Guardian.

I agree. As much as I love photography, it’s always been drawing and illustration that I have felt more strongly about. Illustration is a different mindset, not as accessible, instant and easy to alternate than photography, and it really speaks to the viewer on a more personal level. And when it comes to children, there really is nothing that can sparkle their creativity the way painting, drawing or a beautifully illustrated book can. You just have to hold The Wolves of Currumpaw in your hands to understand why. Every single detail, from the cloth spine, to the cover artwork, feels very much hand-crafted. It helps children dream.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill“One of the most memorable parts of the trip was going for a walk up Rabbit Ear Mountain as the moon came out. The huge moonlight sky sparked my imagination; of wolves howling and running through the night.”
illustrations by William Grill / photos from the book “The Wolves of Currumpaw”

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Jane Goodall, now one of the world’s most admired primatologists and conservationists, was 26 years old, had no scientific university degree, or training in the field when, on July 14, 1960, she embarked on a lifelong dream: living in the wild and conducting a pioneering study of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania. Her boss, Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, sent her there – he was looking for “a mind unbiased by scientific theory” – “with the hope that a better understanding of chimpanzee behavior might provide us with a window on our past,” Jane remembers. She took along a notebook, binoculars, and her 54-year-old mother, Vanne Morris-Goodall.
Jane 2017 
Her discoveries were revolutionary, her passion for her work was monumental, and her study of the chimps is the longest continuous study of a wild animal in history. But, for me, the beauty of the documentary Jane, directed by Brett Morgen, is more than scientific facts, it’s about Jane’s love of the wild life, of nature, of discovery. This is the first thing I want to take away from this wondrous and inspirational portrait of Jane Goodall.

“As a child, which was before tv and computer games, I loved spending time outside,” says Jane when she recounts the beginning of her passion for animals and nature. I hope every parent and every child gets to see this film, because its importance far surpasses the scientific world. It digs deep into not only that quality which makes us, the human beings, the most advanced of the primates (it’s not knowledge, but empathy), but fosters a love for nature, for the wild, and for the wild at heart, as it summons you to live life with an open mind and with a thirst of knowledge that rather stems from your own passions than from university degrees, rationality or the truths known thus far.
Jane 2017

photos: Jane Goodall Institute/National Geographic Creative | from archival footage by Hugo von Lawick (pictured in the second image with Jane Goodall)

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Defining Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll Style (and Who Shot Them)

There are countless rock & roll images that are burnt in the public’s collective memory. They have played a major role in creating the image of our favourite or most influential musicians, and that image has been taken for granted without much acknowledging the photographer who took it. Today I am taking the time to acknowledge some of the photographers who, through their passion for music and talented eye, have helped create the visual identity of rock music and of three of the most extraordinary musicians this world has known.
Kurt Cobain by Charles Peterson

Kurt Cobain photographed by Charles Peterson

In our teens, my brother used to listen to Nirvana and I listened to crap. Yes, I spent the best years of my life (in terms of forming my musical culture) listening to bad music, the kind that said nothing to me, that meant nothing to me, that did not help me figure me out and shape my personality, all those things music is supposed to do. Sure, I heard Nirvana songs all the time and I am the one who bought my brother all their albums, but I didn’t listen, I didn’t want to listen, I didn’t know what to do with their music yet. It was only years later that I understood that that truly was the last rock ‘n’ roll revolution. And I do believe I missed out on much in my teenage years because I didn’t listen to good music – “Nothing sounded as sincere as Nirvana’s music. It took a long time for me to accept that any other music could be good in other ways. Including my own”, Weezer’s River Cuomo best summed it up. I have made considerable progress over the years, but the music cultural difference between me and my brother and husband, for example, who both breath music, is still huge.
Kurt Cobain MTV Unplugged

Kurt Cobain photographed by Frank Micelotta for MTV Unplugged, November 1993

But the beautiful thing about growing up is that you change, mature (hopefully), start to listen, truly listen, to others and to yourself, and to music. That said, I believe that so many people idolize Kurt Cobain, who was a hero to a generation of musicians, admirers and misfits, and that so many great thoughts have been written about him that I really don’t think the world needs mine too. “Rock music had become kind of hedonistic – 35-year-old men taking a helicopter to the stage and dating supermodels, and going out of their way to separate themselves from their audience. Nirvana, more than any other band, rocked way harder, had significant originality, while looking like guys you went to high school with. I think that was their secret. There was an inclusion that was long overdue, and it was what rock was supposed to be about. The legend isn’t simply going to be the way that he [Kurt Cobain] took his life; I believe it will always be the songs.” Chris Cornell, Soundgarden

I don’t want to talk about their music, because, I am saying it again, many already have better than I ever could: “I think that grunge and Nirvana was this last big musical movement before everything was virtually connected in real time all the time. Now things just move so quickly that there’s really no ability for something to bubble up organically and be meaningful, not for an entire generation or world,” Charles Peterson, who photographed Kurt Cobain and Nirvana throughout their brief existence, told Billboard.

But I would like to make a note on Kurt Cobain’s style, which was an intrinsic part of the man who was the center of grunge counter-culture. Maybe these images featured here are not the ones mostly associated with the musician and his style, but they have a special meaning to me. The understatement of these looks, as opposed to the musician’s more radical dressing choices, is like a visual translation of the way Nirvana’s music has seamlessly found its way into my life, not in an abrupt way in my teens, but in a subtler, more consistent way throughout the years. And just like timeless style, it’s there to stick.
Bob Dylan by Jerry Schatzberg

Bob Dylan photographed by Jerry Sctatzberg for the cover of Blonde on Blonde

Jerry Schatzberg was commissioned to shoot Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde cover. It shows Dylan dressed for winter in a suede jacket and checkered scarf. Many took the blurry image for a drug allusion, but it wasn’t. “He was always very cautious – even with me at first. He didn’t trust the press – but we got over that and he trusted me. You can tell from the photographs that I took that he would try anything. […] We started out in the studio taking the colour photos of him looking sombre and holding his shirt. I thought I’d like to go outside, so we went to the Meatpacking District in Chelsea, which wasn’t a fashionable art centre then. The image used is slightly out of focus, and this was interpreted as a drug trip – but it wasn’t. It was February; he was wearing just that jacket, and I was wearing something similar. It was cold and I shook the camera. He chose this image himself for the album cover”, the photographer described his experience of shooting one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century and the cover of one of the best albums of all time.

“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind,” Dylan famously said about Blonde on Blonde, “that thin, that wild mercury sound.” At the time, Dylan’s music style was changing, and so was his dressing style. Dylan’s style has never been so revolutionary as to dominate the cultural conversation around him. Nor should clothes ever do that. But they should be part of the conversation. In its low-key, unassuming, yet completely aware way, his style has always helped define the visual tone of his music. There have been quite a few creative changes in Bob Dylan’s career, and his style has changed along the way. But I’ve always loved that photo, that look, that album, that after thought it evoked. “It’s the perfect image of Dylan at the time, creating in a heedless rush too fast to stay in focus, even for a second,” wrote the Rolling Stone magazine. That’s Bob Dylan. Always staying true to himself, never belonging to anybody but himself, being the voice of himself and only himself. “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”
Bruce Springsteen by Eric Meola

Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons photographed by a Eric Meola for the cover of Born to Run, 1975

I was deeply moved by the story behind the cover photo for the album Born to Run, 1975, designed by in-house Columbia art director John Berg, taken by Eric Meola and featuring Bruce and Clarence Clemons. “We used it to invent ourselves, our friendship, our partnership on an epic scale. […] When the cover is closed, the album front is a very charming photo of a young, white, punk rock ‘n’ roller. But when it opens, a band is born and a tall tale begins. […] When you saw that cover, it was filled with the resonance, the mythology, of rock’s past, and a freshness calling toward its future,” explains Bruce in his autobiography. This kind of story gets to you, just like his music does, just like the entire book Born to Run does.

That powerful and mind-opening album cover also sealed Springsteen’s rock star image: leather jacket, shredded white tank top and jeans – three great American classics, which have always been part of his dressing repertoire. “Listening to the album for the first time was one of those mind blowing moments where you realize, even as you’re experiencing it, that things will never be quite the same,” wrote Dave Gourdoux. An album that was simultaneously steeped in rock history and modern. Let’s go back to those clothes for a moment: they are a pillar of classic rock ‘n’ roll, but the mandatory mention is that, on Bruce, they looked new again. He made them his own.
Related content: Morrissey in His Own Words / Can You Hear the Music? / Chronicles Volume One

Classiq - an online journal that celebrates cinema, style, culture and storytelling

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Life Lessons from John Cassavetes

He had a reputation of being temperamental, self-promoting, impossible to work with. But he also did not compromise, could not fake anything, was completely dedicated to his work – a fiercely independent and authentic filmmaker. He didn’t like to be liked, but he wanted and fought for the freedom of doing what he liked unhindered. He begged, borrowed, stole, got bank loans without collateral to make his movies. But his movies don’t judge, don’t tell you what to think; he doesn’t judge his characters, doesn’t separate from them, he accepts their moral and emotional untidiness. The viewer gets involved with his films because they are raw, unfiltered, unpredictable, complex, overwhelming, just like real life is. And John Cassavetes loved life just as it was – and he made films about it.

He pioneered a new form of art – an art liberated from the conventional, simplistic canons of beauty, romance, heroism, right and wrong. And John Cassavetes lived for his art.

Here are a few life lessons from the filmmaker, selected from the book Cassavetes on Cassavetes (there are so many more of his words of wisdom that I have written down), by Ray Carney, one of the best, most emotionally charged and most revealing film books I have read so far.
Cassavetes on Cassavetes - Classiq Journal

“Say what you are. Not what you would like to be.
Not what you have to be. Just say what you are.
And what you are is good enough.”


“I think you can do more through positive action than in pointing out the foibles and stupidities of man. Pictures are supposed to clarify people’s emotions, to explain the feelings of people on an emotional plane. An art film should not preclude laughter, enjoyment and hope. Is life about horror? Or is it about those few moments we have? I would like to say that my life has some meaning. We must take a more positive stand in making motion pictures, and have a few more laughs, and treat life with a little more hope than we have in the past. I believe in people.”

“The artist is an irreplaceable figure in our society: a man who can speak his own mind, who can reveal and educate, who can stimulate or appease, and in every sense communicate with fellow human beings.”

“People have forgotten how to relate or respond. In this day of mass communication and instant communications, there is no communication between people. In Faces I wanted to show the inability of people to communicate; what small things do to people, how people can’t handle certain things that they hear and read in newspapers, see in films; and how, when they are not prepared to think with their own minds and to feel, how all this can become tragic circumstances.”

“I don’t want to let the moments go by. We might not be here tomorrow. I make every picture like it’s the last day of my life. You got anything to say, you put it in there now. Don’t hold back. What are you waiting for?”

” ‘To fit in’ is to give up your mind
in favor of your position.”

“Isn’t it better to fight and see your fantasies realized – fight and lose, rather than suffer and dream away in silence?”

“I hate separatism in anything. Women’s movements only spread distrust between people and move people further away from each other than they should be.”

“I don’t say I’ve been a saint in my life, but I couldn’t sell my soul for things I don’t believe in.”

“One of the reasons I make films is to make clear to people that family life is not always going to be a bed of roses. Don’t be upset if you fall out of love, because it’s gonna happen lots of times. Don’t be upset by conflict. There is something to a one-on-one relationship, something so beautiful that it is worth all the problems.”

“I’m a great believer in spontaneity, because I think planning is the most destructive thing in the world. Because it kills the human spirit. So does too much discipline, because then you don’t get caught up in the moment, and if you don’t get caught up in the moment, life has no magic. Without the magic, we might as well give up and admit we’re going to be dead in a few years. We need magic in our lives to take us away from those realities. The hope is that people stay crazy.”

“It’s not enough to be a success, to get good reviews,
or to make more movies. You need to do something
important to yourself. You need to study life.
I don’t deal with the life of others but with my own life.
That’s all I know.”

Related content: Style in Film: Gena Rowlands in Gloria / Almodóvar on Almodóvar / Talking Books and the Art of Bookshop Keeping with Vlad Niculescu

Classiq - an online journal that celebrates cinema, style, culture and storytelling

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Clothes and Character in the Films of Jean-Pierre Melville

Throughout his career, Jean-Pierre Melville retained a passion for all things American and especially for the classic Hollywood gangster and noir movies. He eagerly borrowed the iconography of the genre – the snap-brim hats, the belted trench coats, the crooned music, the cars and nightclubs, but made its conventions entirely his own, tailored on his highly stylised world. Melville’s films are marked by their silences. Melville’s men are without women. In American noirs, it is often the femme fatale whom he falls for that brings the morally ambiguous hero alienated from society his doomed fate. There is no room for sentimentality in Melville’s films. They are focused on masculinity.
Alain Delon in Le samouraï

“Le samouraï”, 1967

There is no one responsible for Melville’s anti-hero’s fate but himself. It is his destiny. He is destined for sacrifice, or self-destruction. In Le samouraï, we are signaled Jef Costello’s fate from the very beginning of the movie. The silence. Him alone in the room. The bird singing in the cage. Symbols of complete solitude and imprisonment… in his own destiny. Melville makes great use of circumstantial symbolism, remarks film historian Antoine Coppola, an element encountered in classic Japanese cinema. The character, the dignity, the gracefulness, the excrutiating attention to detail, the rigorous, even religious minimalist style, from Delon’s acting to the mise-en-scène, the importance given to a death-driven figure – it’s like a rite, and all these elements draw inspiration from the Japanese culture and cinema. But whatever the influence, Melville’s films are his own, an individualistic genre, infused by understatement and a sense of cool, an idealised world of mobsters and thugs, living and dying by a certain code of honour. Melville’s characters are their own. And they dress the part.

“When an author becomes an adjective,
it means that he’s entered a higher category.
We say ‘Melvillian’ in the same way that we say ‘Fellinian’ or ‘Hitchcockian'”.

Philippe Labro

Roger Duchese in Bob le flambeur

Roger Duchesne in “Bob le flambeur”, 1956

Roger Duchesne in Bob le flambeur, 1956

Bob le flambeur is about the crooks, losers and high rollers on the streets and boulevards. Jean-Pierre Melville took his camera out in the streets four years before Breathless (1960) and Bob le flambeur is often considered the first Nouvelle Vague film or the precursor of the Nouvelle Vague. Rui Nogueira, who wrote Melville on Melville, a book-length interview in 1971, goes even earlier than that, to Melville’s first film, Le silence de la mer (1947), which was filmed on location, under precarious conditions, with no budget, with anything that was available, when he talks about the director of the father of the French New Wave. Melville concurred: “The New Wave? I invented it in 1937”, referring to a detective film he made alone and with no money, using stock found on the black market. “What the new filmmakers are doing, I wanted to do in 1937. Unfortunately, I was only able to do it in 1947, with Le silence de la mer“, he told Bertrand Tavernier in the magazine L’Étrave.

Roger Duchesne is Bob Montagné, an unlucky gambler and failed bank robber. He glides through gambling rooms and Pigalle nightclubs “in those moments between day and night… between heaven and hell”, as the narration goes. Bob lives by a certain code de l’honneur, he is a gentleman crook, his word is his bond, he always gives a hand to those in the spot. Melville’s intention was to make a film about a robbery when he wrote the script in 1950, but then John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle came out and “I could no longer deal, either dramatically or tragically, with the preparation and execution of a robbery”, he told Nogueira, so Bob became more of a “comedy of manners”.

And that’s what makes Bob le flambeur interesting: the film is not about the heist, but about Bob staying true to his essence. He is a gambler. He lives by night, and his clothes show it. His trench coat and fedora look authentic, crumpled, lived in. “The trench coats and the hats in later Melville films”, remarks Thierry Crifo, writer and scriptwriter, in the documentary Diary of A Villain, “are crisp and clean, but Bob le Flambeur isn’t clean; I mean the close-ups, night, his 3-day stubble, his trench coat, I find that more believable.” Bob’s character belongs to Roger Duchesne, and that may be partly because Duchesne himself was a gambler in real life. He had accumulated debts because of which Melville actually had to ask the permission of the villains in Pigalle for Duchesne to come back there and film. “The face of a crook”, says Bob staring at himself in a window, adjusting his tie, dressed in his trench coat and fedora hat. It truly feels like he’s playing himself, wearing his own clothes, true to his nature.
Jean Paul Belmondo in Le doulos

Jean Paul Belmondo in “Le doulos”, 1963

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le doulos, 1963

A tale of loyalty and betrayal among thieves, an elegant exploration of underworld duplicity, Le doulos was the birth of the detective story, Melville-style. It marked the start of the director’s most important period, “the most flourishing and aesthetically pleasing period of his career”, as Denitza Bantcheva, writer of Jean-Pierre Melville – de l’œuvre à l’homme) concludes. Le doulos was also the first detective film that was referred to as metaphysical, Bantcheva continues. There is a philosophical reflection on human destiny and on what influences one’s fate, like the interaction between people, the role played by chance, misunderstanding and circumstance, and this existential theme would indeed be present in all Melville’s films from then on.

The film has Serge Reggiani as Maurice Faugel, a robber who has just done time, and Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien, a safe-cracker who labours under the reputation of a police informant (“doulos” means hat, the gangster’s favoured felt Fedora, but is also slang for “stoolpigeon”). His clothes are the first sign in regard to the ambiguity of his character. Unlike Reggiani’s Faugel, whose creased, well-worn trench reminds of Bob le flambeur’ faithful representation of real-life gangsters, Belmondo’s Silien paves the way towards that clean and crisp aesthetic from Melville’s later films that Thierry Crifo was mentioning. Melville thought Belmondo was perfect for the part, and in Melville’s films we see a Belmondo that does not exist anywhere else, remarks Denitza Bantcheva. His expressions are subtle and refined, his facial movement is minimal, which is the exact opposite of Belmondo’s naturally lively and exuberant acting style.

Appearance is important to Silien, he dresses carefully, wears fine clothes, his trench and hat and suit and coat are peerlessly cool. “You pay for those clothes by selling newspapers?” is what two policemen ask him during an interrogation, hinting at “improper” ways of getting them. Because, you see, there are certain unwritten rules which crooks don’t brake. Faugel uses the expression “proper crooks” in Le doulos, meaning that crooks, Melville’s crooks that is, don’t betray their own kind, they stick with each other, they don’t rat, they are are rooted in the male code of honour. “I’m going to leave, I’m going to live somewhere, a place without cops and crooks, if that exists”, says Silien at one point. Maybe he knows he doesn’t belong with any of them. His character evokes feelings of both escape and imprisonment. With his inscrutable charm, Belmondo represents a loner, but also the damned on whom destiny is hovering over, regardless of whether he’s on the good guys’ or on the bad guys’ side.
Alain Delon in Le samourai

Alain Delon in “Le samouraï”, 1967

Alain Delon in Le samouraï, 1967

In Le samouraï, Alain Delon recedes in the safety of his trench coat. It’s his armour. Together with the tilted downward hat, the trench is also part of what has come to define the protagonist of films noir. But he’s a different kind of noir anti-hero. He’s Melville’s noir anti-hero. Like a samourai, Jef Costello abides by a code of conduct and leads a solitary existence. His dressing is like a ritual, systematically putting on his hat and coat before going out to get a job done. Everything about him is cool and calculated. It’s like he is fitting himself for battle.

Le samourai is a film that extracts its substance from cinema and belongs to the cinemas, so it uses words only when absolutely necessary and vital, said Rui Nogueira in an interview. Melville considered Alain Delon one of the greatest French actors. When the director came to Delon’s house to read him the script for the film, after seven or eight minutes of reading, Alain suddenly looked at his watch and said “There hasn’t been a line of dialogue. That’s good enough for me; I’m making this film.” And when the actor heard the name of the script, he beckoned Melville to follow him, went into his bedroom where a samourai sword hung over the bed. The bedroom was decorated in Japanese style, with the rigor and austerity you might expect in a samourai’s room. This was one of those films which were meant to be.

In a career-defining performance, in the role of a Parisian contract killer who has realised he is being double crossed by his employees and seeks revenge, Alain Delon conjures Melville’s perfect anti-hero. Delon’s exceptional good looks and impeccable look meet Melville’s idea of the gangster as an image. Clothes make the man in Le Samouraï. Everything is simple, stark, clean-cut, primordial to his lifestyle – the trim grey suit, the black slim tie and white button-down shirt, another black suit, the inky wool coat, the hat, the trench. Delon is dressed with the finest precision, but he seems completely unaware of his appearance. He’s completely detached from everything, hardly betraying an emotion. It’s part of the job, of his profession. He lives and kills alone. There is a scene towards the beginning of the film, where Delon, stopped at a traffic light, is watched admiringly by a pretty young woman. His body language is minimal and signals that he has noticed her gaze, but he only gives her a blank look and turns away, without even satisfying her with a smile. Nothing distracts him from his fateful path.
Yves Montand in Le cercle rouge

Yves Montand in “Le cercle rouge”, 1970

Yves Montand in Le cercle rouge, 1970

For Le cercle rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville returned to the heist story he had wanted to do in Bob le flambeur. It’s about two professional crooks, fresh-out-of-jail Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), who has just escaped arrest, and another man, an alcoholic ex-cop, Jansen (Yves Montand), who takes on the job as a rehabilitating exercise. It is in Le cercle rouge, more so than in his other films, that Melville’s austere stylistic magnificence leads to a more profound connection with his characters and his stories of unwritten, deep rules of right and wrong that the men of the underworld live by.

But I don’t want to steer away from Melville’s technical mastermind, and the theme of the robbery itself, because the almost half-hour-long, wordless, intense, magnificent heist is cinema making in its most pure form. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema. After the film ended this second time I watched it a couple of weeks ago (I have recently rewatched all Melville’s movies after many years), I immediately played that entire sequence again. And I would like to quote Philippe Labro, writer and filmmaker, who notes: “When Melville shoots Yves Montand climbing then descending and then climbing the stairs of the building in which the astonishing heist in Le cercle rouge is going to happen, he takes his time, all his time, and we are fascinated by the action precisely because it goes on for a long time, and because it announces another action. Time, according to Melville, allows the suspense to be established and the tragedy to be built.”

In a true Melvillian crime style, all the leading characters in Le cercle rouge are crooks, cops and crooked cops. The trench coat is their dress code. Everyone from Delon to Bourvil (finally cast against type and who impeccably plays the inspector) wears one, but it is Montand who captured my attention. It’s maybe because he dresses well to hide reality. He almost dresses too well. A new job and good clothes are his ticket out of the rout, his way of regaining self-respect. At one point in the script, Jansen is described as follows: “Jansen, stretched out on his bed, fully dressed, filthy, unshaven, with a three-day beard. Like Faulkner in one of his alcoholic bouts.” He has harrowing hallucinations under the influence of alcohol, he’s sweating, disheveled, his shirt is dirty, he wears a slouchy coat.

But then he gets a call from Alain Delon and when he answers the phone we are given a glimpse into his past life and a completely different man – there is a beautiful, striking shot of Montand at his lowest having as background a Louis Vuitton trunk, elegant clothes and accessories. He is given this new job, and the next time we see him, when he meets Delon in the nightclub, his transformation is superb. Melville shows him starting from his polished black shoes upwards, to the perfectly cut suit, tailored grey coat, striped shirt, slim knitted tie, and fedora. He is dressed impeccably and his look only gets better from that point on. In the heist scene he appears in la pièce de résistance, tuxedo, white shirt and bow-tie, and trench coat on top. He is the cool, composed, concise, and adept elite sniper again.

sources: “Melville on Melville”, by Rui Nogueira / interview with Thierry Crifo in the documentary Diary of A Villain / interview with Denitza Bantcheva in the documentary “Birth of the Detective Story – Melville Style” / interview with Florence Moncorgé-Gabin / interview with film historian Antoine Coppola in the documentary “In the Mood for Melville” / interviews with Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau, author of “Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris” (all documentaries available in the Jean-Pierre Melville collection released by StudioCanal and on the Blu-ray Le samouraï released by The Criterion Collection)

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