Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the most pivotal figures in the French filmmaking industry, as he was highly influential in inspiring the directors of the “New Wave” movement in the 1950s. However, his real name is Jean-Pierre Grumbatch, and he felt inclined to change in honor of Herman Melville, the writer he took as an inspiration. Jean-Pierre Melville was born in Paris to an Alsatian Jewish family in 20th October, 1917. His parents were Bertha and Jules Grumbach. Melville studied in Paris during his youth, and this is where he was exposed to the world of Cinema. Robert Flaherty and W.S Van Dyke's silent documentary, White Shadows in the South Seas is said to have inspired him greatly. In his youth, he was a frequent visitor to cinema halls and even made small home movies with a camera that was gifted to him by his father. He was forced to flee to England after the Nazis invaded France in 1940 as he was an active member of the Resistance. After the war had ended, he decided to keep his pseudonym “Melville” and decided to dispose of his family name.
Melville was always intent on cementing his name in the film industry from the very beginning. At first, he had to go through a lot of denial. He applied to the French Technicians' Union but his membership was not granted. This was not very well taken by Melville as he called this “dirty politics”. He finally set up his own company in 1946 and started to fight against the mainstream system by releasing his own projects, albeit in small scale. "24 Heures de la Vie d'un Clown" was the first film that Melville had released with his company; it came out in 1946 to a very good response. The movie was inspired by his childhood obsession of the circus and he tried to portray it through the movie. "Le Silence de la Mer (1949)" was also a success and it was notable for its unique and innovative cinematography that later became the signature of Jean-Pierre Melville at his peak. The film was based on the horrors of World War II and it starred completely unknown actors. The grim and enclosed setting of the film was something unforeseen in the times before him, and that garnered Melville a lot of attention from the film world. It is also said that this film is heavily inspired by Le Grande Illusion by Jean Renoir.
Throughout the course of his career, Melville worked on films that would go on to inspire the New Wave. He went on to collaborate with Jean Cocteau for Les Infant Terribles in 1950, which was received with lukewarm response from the critics and audience. Jean-Pierre Melville's first commercial project was "When You Read this Letter (1953)" with both French and Italian funding. "Bob le Flambeur (1956)" is said to arguably be his best film, and it featured the likes of Robert Duchesne, Isabelle Corey and Daniel Cauchy. Although the film was not a commercial success, it was critically renowned. Melville's film "Two Men In Manhattan (1959)" was another critical success that was not only appreciated by the French audience, but also considered as “A love letter to New York” by the American press.
Some consider Jean-Pierre Melville to not only be an important figure in French Filmmaking, but a pivotal director in the growth and evolution of the medium itself. At 55 years of age, Melville unfortunately died due to a heart attack in 1973. Out of the 14 films that he made, six of them are acknowledged classics. Many famous directors have stated that they were influenced by him, including the likes of Michael Mann, John Woo and Martin Scorsese.