Two directors from different parts of the world, with very different outputs and reputations, absorbed and re-interpreted the culture of their respective countries in contrasting but not entirely dissimilar ways
While director Jean-Pierre Melville was French, very sophisticated and, at least eventually, respected by cinephiles the world over, English-born Australian filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith specialises in slightly schlocky and B-movie(ish) Australiana action with little sway outside of Australia. Operating at opposite ends of the globe and of the popularity scale, the two artists may appear to have very little in common. But a closer look at both their films and biographies reveals shared concerns and interests in the possibilities of genre filmmaking, and a common fascination with American cinema.
At first glance, Melville’s interest in all things American could be seen in his adoration for American cars, films and fashion (he was often seen wearing a Stetson hat) as well as in his nom de plume: originally called Grumbach, he took his chosen name from American novelist and Moby Dick author Herman Melville, supposedly using it as his nom de guerre when he joined the Resistance during the war. Melville’s interest in American culture lent itself to a modernist recontextualization, as seen in the costumes, set design and dialogue in Melville’s films, in which the influence of America is exploited in order to make something innovative and different. In a special feature interview on the Criterion Blu-ray of Le Doulos (1962), French director and critic Bertrand Tavernier explains that “the exact wallpaper in [Robert Wise’s] Odds Against Tomorrow can be found in many Melville films,” including in the home of one of the main characters in the film.
Meanwhile, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s interest in American cinema and culture is superficially apparent in his focus on action, with the cliche sound effects underlining his heroes’ hits in The Man From Hong Kong (1975), or the budget-effective hang-gliding scene in Death Cheaters (1976).
Both working within the parameters of action genre cinema, albeit from different angles, the two directors’ filmographies also exemplify a common desire to use American conventions in order to produce something new, and their respective nationalities inform the way they utilise genre. Working in post-war France from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, in his films Melville often prolonged the action through the use of dialogue, gradually building tension before scenes exploding into violence or chase sequences. The filmmaker was capitalising on the film noir mode, imported into the country from classical Hollywood in the aftermath of the Second World War, and on gangster movies. Trenchard-Smith on the other hand, most prolific in the 1970s and 80s, incorporates action relentlessly throughout his films as if it was the central motif of his filmmaking practice, reflecting his indebtedness to the B-movie cinema and genre films from America and elsewhere that he would see in drive-in cinemas in the 1970s. Imported from America, Australia’s strong culture of Drive-In cinemas would in fact later be reflected explicitly in Trenchard-Smith’s 1986 film Dead-End Drive-In.
Jean-Pierre Melville was born in 1917 in Paris, living through the evocative era of silent film before viewing his first “talkie” in 1928 in the film White Shadows in the South Sea by W.S Van Dyke and Robert Flaherty. This seminal experience coincided with the gifting of a 16mm camera to complement the film projector Melville had received earlier. Whilst the Paris Cinematheque did not yet exist, Melville’s film education consisted of haunting Parisian cine-clubs including the Paramount, the Palais-Rochechouart and the Appolo Gaite-Rochechouart. From an early age, film had sown the seeds for a colourful career in the business, later exemplified by Melville’s acquisition of the Rue-Jenner studios soon after the end of the war — a purchase which also further marked him as a filmmaker keen to remain as autonomous as he could be, something which Trenchard-Smith also endeavoured to do.
Born in 1946 in England, Brian Trenchard-Smith soon moved to Libya following his father’s promotion to Wing Commander during the war. In order to sustain morale amongst the far-flung colonies, film screenings were organised, and that is where Smith watched his first movie.
Just like Melville who, endowed with a projector and a hand-cranked Baby Pathé camera as a boy, indulged his enthusiasm for cinema through both making and projecting film, Trenchard-Smith had access to a similarly technical early film education. At Marsh Court in Stockbridge, Hampshire, a lavish school replete with Tudor exteriors, ponds and pergolas, Trenchard-Smith eagerly learnt the trade of projecting with the help of his teacher David Watkinson and soon began projecting cartoon reels and films to the satisfaction of crowds of children. Like Melville, the discovery of film coincided with his revelling in projecting them.
The similarities continue in the way both filmmakers found themselves latching on to American influence in their own wildly different contexts. Melville’s cinema was indebted to existentialism, a movement stimulated by the German occupation of France throughout World War Two and publicised by the philosophy of Left Bank thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. His early films are steeped in poetic realism and marked with a tinge of tragedy, as seen in his debut feature Le Silence De La Mer (1949) and in Les Enfants Terribles, his 1950 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s novel. But the inundation of American cinema which Paris was subjected to after the end of World War Two, as well as the implementation of the Marshall plan, resulted in an influx of what French film critics like Nino Frank called a “turn to noir” in French cinema. The gangster tropes didn’t emerge in Melville’s work until his 1956 film Bob Le Flambeur, when they quickly became a recurring trait in his films, visible in later titles such as Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Le Samouraï (1967).
Trenchard-Smith arrived in Australia at the age of 20 in 1966, just in time to avoid conscription into the Vietnam war because (he was deemed too old by two weeks). Living with an uncle and aunt in Sydney, he was able to find a job at Channel 10, (a newly created commercial television station) as a film cutter. However, as was the case for Melville, American culture had an early influence on the young filmlover when, in 1968, Trenchard-Smith ventured to America, soon after Kennedy’s assassination. Travelling on Greyhound buses and living on a tight budget, he would at times sleep in all-night movie theatres, where he saw Roger Corman films such as The Trip and triple bills including films like For a Few Dollars More, The Devil’s Brigade and Will Penney, whose genre-defining aesthetic would shape his filmmaking style in the future. At the same moment, spurred on by immense government intervention, the Australian film industry was going through an unprecedented renewal. This is how, once back in Australia, Trenchard-Smith could therefore get his heavily America-influenced 1975 feature debut The Man From Hong-Kong to be co-financed by the Australian Film Development Commission, together with Hong Kong company Golden Harvest and B.E.F distribution (a subsidiary of Greater Union, the largest movie exhibitor in Australia and New Zealand).
Formally, Trenchard-Smith and Melville carry their similarities into their screenwriting and directing. Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur centres on a motley crew of thieves headed by Bob, a recently released prisoner who wants to steal from a Deauville casino during the busy Grand Prix Day. In the lead up to the team’s escapade, we follow Bob guiding the crackpot team through the planned mission using a butcher’s paper map of the casino. In a medium long shot, we watch him address the group, before the film cuts to a shot of the crew listening, and a swipe cut leads us to an outdoor field with lines drawn on the ground to replicate the dimensions of the casino. When, a few scenes later, the voice-over declares “Bob enters the casino at 1:30 am,” we watch the actual robbery which, of course, does not go to plan.
A similar scenario plays out in Trenchard-Smith’s 1976 film Death Cheaters. The film follows two TV stuntmen, Steve (John Hargreaves) and Rodney (Grant Page), who are coerced by the government into rescuing confidential papers from a hideout in the Philippines. Before they head there, we are presented with another planning scene in which Steve and Rodney, under the guidance of Mr Culpepper (Noel Ferrier), weigh up the risks of their strategic hang gliding. But Trenchard-Smith’s scene, whilst similar in character to Melville’s, parodies the very nature of Melville and other high-brow action directors. Mr Culpepper’s office is replete with an inadequate model of the lair, (“supposedly the government used to have the best modelling unit in the country”) and a pull-down map of the Philippines which actually shows Japan. Trenchard-Smith takes his tongue-in-cheek parody even further when, while Rodney and Steve sit attentively, Culpepper sits down before the projector, announcing, “let’s see some film. I always find film so relaxing.” We cut to a shot taken from behind the characters before seeing black and white footage of the Citadel (where they are headed). Culpepper humorously falls asleep, further subverting the stereotypical voice-over narration which usually follows in these scenes.
Though they both operated in genre cinema rather than in more realist-adjacent dramas, and even if Trenchard-Smith favoured over-the-top and unrealistic action, both filmmakers also showcased a particular interest in capturing the reality of the worlds they evolved in, with an emphasis on location shooting and a particular interest in the vertical geographies of their respective cities, Paris and Sydney.
Melville’s Bob le Flambeur opens with a credits sequence which unfolds as an imaginary narrator poetically drives the audience from the hilltops of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre down, via the funicular, into the “hell” where the lights of Pigalle are seen turning off, before arriving in a gambling den, where we meet Bob (Roger Duschesne). By contrast, Le Doulos (1962) opens with a three-minute tracking shot under a bridge as we follow Maurice Fugel (Serge Reggiani) on his way to a pick-up spot for some money, before he finally emerges from the darkness. There is a focus on representational realism in both these instances, as if Melville wanted to portray Paris accurately, even if only as part of a fictional world.
Melville’s insistence on location shooting in Bob le Flambeur notoriously made for a very expensive production, at a time when the available equipment made filming outside of the studio difficult. The film famously inspired François Truffaut to shoot his feature debut The 400 Blows entirely in real locations three years later — and the rest is history. Locating shooting is just as paramount for Smith, as seen in his recurring use of a spectacular and grand city like Sydney with its striking harbour, ferries and mountainous landscape — though in his case, banking on existing vistas is in fact one of the ways the filmmaker has found to deliver spectacular films on relatively small budgets.
BMX Bandits (1983) follows a trio of BMXing children, Judy (Nicole Kidman), P.J. (Angelo D’Angelo) and Goose (James Lugton), who stumble on a “treasure” of high-tech walkie-talkies which can intercept the police’s radio frequency. Though the children are then chased down by the dangerous but inept thieves who originally intended to use the walkie-talkies for a heist, BMX Bandits presents an idealised image of childhood where the kids’ bikes, which usually signify childishness and a lack of autonomy, here allow the group to unlock the city and to parade around its most enchanting and fun locations. Trenchard-Smith’s inclusion of the Sydney harbour throughout the film is highlighted in a scene where Goose and P.J. sit fixing their bikes on a hilltop, the striking port in the background, while a prospective customer attempts to buy one of the walkie talkies.
The scene cuts between the ratty thieves, Moustache (John Ley) and Whitey (David Argue), perched in their car near the ocean, and Judy who is seen in the foreground of a beach of cascading waves — similar to Melville’s exploration of Paris, Trenchard-Smith’s exterior locations represent a vertical portrayal of Sydney. When Judy becomes entangled in the baddies’ grip, we follow P.J. and Goose in an extended action sequence as they attempt to rescue her, rolling down waterslides in their BMX gear and ducking and weaving through golf courses.
Whilst each director holds a different position within the canon of film history, both directors have struggled to uphold reputations throughout their illustrious careers. Rather than being embraced and venerated by the Australian public after the release of a film like George Miller’s Mad Max (1979), which shared many traits with Trenchard-Smith’s filmmaking style including a heavy emphasis on stunts and practical effects, it appeared Australia struggled to classify Trenchard-Smith’s cinema as either middle or low brow, and therefore to determine whether it was worthy of any significance. This was best exemplified by the way some of his films were labelled in The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of A National Cinema, the seminal 1987 book from film academics Elizabeth Jacka and Susan Murphy Dermody, under the subheading “An Aesthetic of Commercialism.”
Dermody and Jacka describe a list consisting of “soft porn, [which] can be dispensed with quickly…[and] films derived from loosely-formed and lightly-held notions of ‘genre’ from outside the culture of origin, conceived in terms of market exploitation categories including home video and cable television.” Three of the films included in the list are Trenchard-Smith movies (Deathcheaters, The Man from Hong Kong and Turkey Shoot). It’s important to note the asterisk next to Turkey Shoot, symbolising “a film especially chilled by commercial or exploitationist motives.” Whilst directors included in this list, such as John D. Lomond and Colin Eggleston, pursued outright pornographic content in films like Australia After Dark (1975) and Fantasm (1976), it seems difficult to place Trenchard-Smith in this category. Several of Trenchard-Smith’s films have however achieved cult status since then, making a killing in drive-ins and on the home video market, and gaining prestigious fans such as Quentin Tarantino.
Melville’s high-brow status has always remained consistent, but the reputation of his films hasn’t always been without ambivalence. At the time of their release, several of his films were poorly received. Army of Shadows (L’Armée des Ombres, 1969) in particular was heavily criticised — notably by Cahiers du Cinéma — as a portrait of French resistance that was too supportive of Charles de Gaulle, at a time when the French president was wildly unpopular due to the events of the Algerian War and to his behaviour during the then-recent May 1968 protests. The backlash was such that the film was not released in America until 2006, when it suddenly experienced a critical renaissance.
Film cultures from around the world influence filmmakers’ backgrounds and interests, and perhaps no cinema has been more influential than that of America. In France, Jean-Pierre Melville recontextualised the tropes of American noir and gangster movies; in Australia, Brian Trenchard-Smith used American genre filmmaking as his overall framework. At the same time, both filmographies show an emphasis on portraying their main cities, Sydney and Paris, as accurately and realistically as possible. Though both directors struggled to maintain notable reputations with critics and academics alike, their work and similar trajectories are fascinating examples of filmmakers absorbing the dominant culture of their time to create something unique, new, and theirs alone.