I’ve observed elsewhere on The Melbourne Flâneur the intimate (though not obvious) relation between the writer and the dandy, between the man of letters who precisely crafts his persona through the stylish arrangement of words and the man of fashion who precisely crafts his image through the stylish arrangement of clothes.
While intimate, I say the relationship between these two artists is not obvious because, on the one hand, words and images are diametrically opposed, with a genius in the literary field rarely transferring to the visual (and vice versa), and because, on the other hand, there is simply nothing obvious about the dandy.
More amorphous, more contradictory, more paradoxical even than the woman, the dandy is a circle impossible to square, and no writer on the philosophy of fashion has yet or ever will define the full economy of his androgynous yet über-masculine soul.
The abiding difficulty in defining the dandy is that these men who so scrupulously define the rules of fashion for other men are always the exception to the rule. That is perhaps the only definite thing we can say about them.
And one of their chief paradoxes is that they strive with a supermanly effort to appear absolutely effortless. This is like the writer whose finished work does not reveal the sweat of labour, the enormous volume of words written and culled behind the final, perfect selection and arrangement.
Laziness (or at least its scrupulously maintained appearance) is both a charge leveled at the dandy and the ultimate æsthetic end that he aspires to. The same charge is often leveled at writers: our labour, despite being a manual handicraft, is almost purely mental, and we are often accused (not unfairly) of paresse by the brawny menials who do not imagine that a man can sweat in his study from the labour of lifting and laying the bricks of words, arranging them in vast cathedrals of thought.
‘L’arte che nasconde l’arte’—‘the art that conceals art’: this was the pre-eminent virtue of sprezzatura that il Signor Castiglione ascribed to his ideal courtier, and the dandy, as the democratic gentleman descended from the Renaissance nobleman of Castiglione’s time, shares with the writer both the desire and the necessity to hide his pains of effort off-stage. His performance is entirely a rehearsal. Only the finished capolavoro goes before him, trundling onto stage like the Trojan Horse, dead and done, but not empty of the animating spirit which will take the agape spectators by storm.
Thus, as diametrically as these two arts are opposed to one another, it is no surprise that the one labour (other than the narcissistic cultivation of himself) that is fit to cause the dandy to turn up his French cuffs and get down to it is the work of writing. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda write in Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989): ‘… [I]f the dandy is æsthetic and self-concerned, his natural affiliation with professions is only with the poet, the artist, or the writer.’
It’s a perfect profession for a man whose ultimate badge of virtue is to be accused of the social vice of dilettantisme: let’s face it, most jokers who call themselves writers are lazy dilettantes who never publish a word. The boulot takes place so deeply undercover that one may safely maintain one’s front before society as an unredeemable wastrel indefinitely.
M. Proust, a spy in the houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and, by his own unstinting self-recriminations, the laziest man to ever write a novel, got away with this deception for years before his cover as a social butterfly was blown.
So you see, dear readers, abstruse as my connection between the man of words and the man of (self-)images is, it is not sans raison. The abstruseness owes to the indefinable paradoxicality of the dandy who, despite being as defined and definite in his image as the greatest writers are in the words they ultimately choose to represent them, is haloed in an aura which takes nothing away from the high—the highest possible—resolution of his image.
Which leads me to the speculation as to whether there are dandies among film directors. If the dandy is so deeply allied with an artist who is his opposite number in discipline, wouldn’t it stand to better reason to seek him among other men of images?
The contemporary portmanteau of the ‘writer-director’ would lead us to suppose that a reconciliation between les hommes de lettres and les hommes du cinéma exists, but although it is fashionable to speak of the writer-director as the ‘auteur’ of his film, one who wields the ‘caméra-stylo’, we are not comparing apples to apples when we compare these two types of authorial control.
In my last post, I talked about Alain Robbe-Grillet, almost the only novelist to enjoy a second career as a film director. M. Robbe-Grillet expresses the basic temperamental distinction between a writer and a director, for although writers can be extroverted and directors introverted, I would argue (and I think M. Robbe-Grillet tacitly agrees) that the nature of writing is basically introverted, and the nature of film directing is basically extroverted.
This is because one is a solitudinous occupation where authorial control is exercised directly over material and form, and the other is inescapably a social occupation where control is exercised indirectly over people and objects, to whom the various aspects of material and form are delegated.
As M. Robbe-Grillet expresses it: ‘… If I have problems [as a novelist], I have them with myself. Shooting a film is a communal labour, and if I have any problems, I have them not only with myself, but with the actors, with the crew, with the sun, with… the real world.
‘So, in my first film, L’Immortelle , for example, I attempted to constrain all this in order to regain some of the solitude of the writer. I realized very quickly that this was absurd, and in the film I eventually made, I welcomed all these elements: whatever the actors wanted to do, whatever the crew wanted to do, whatever the sun wanted to do, I accepted it.’
This is perhaps the chief reason why the dandy, the man of (self-)images, is deeply allied to the writer but, to my mind at least, almost impossible to find among the ranks of other men of images whose work is pseudo-literary. A director, even if he writes his own film, is less a writer by constitution than a conductor: his art is co-ordinating others in the achievement of a coherent vision.
The dandy is the absolute outlier among men. No type of man is more extreme. Co-operation, co-ordination, collaboration are not among his skills or his interests. A small clique of men inevitably gather around the dandy as around the director, but he publicly tolerates them and privately despises them, for the dandy transcends the primitive hierarchies into which men, both alpha and beta, ridiculously organize themselves. He is not interested in setting trends as a leader of fashion, but fashion inevitably follows him because it—and people—are craven.
Even alpha males.
To wit, see George IV, first among followers of Mr. Brummell.
Like the writer who exercises direct control upon material and form, the dandy exerts direct and imperious control upon the form of himself and the materials he accoutres himself in. It would be as ridiculous for a writer to shape his vision by a committee of lesser peers as a dandy to shape his vision of himself. Both are rugged individualists.
The temperamental predisposition towards introversion, towards narcissistic self-regard and an art that one can directly control, rather than extroversion and an art that one ‘manages’ by social interaction, would explain why one finds dandies among writers but not, it seems, among directors. As interior designer Nicky Haslam puts it: ‘It seems clear that the dyed-in-the-wool dandy—as opposed to the merely dandified, the “nattily dressed”—is, au fond, an introvert.’
Three things would seem, to my mind, to define the dandy-as-director, and I can’t find an exemplar who satisfies my three criteria conclusively. A predisposition to introversion is the first. An iron will to total æsthetic control similar to that displayed by the most ruthless writer is the second. And third is what we know the dandy by: an obsessive love of men’s clothes.
Let’s take the last first, for it is the most difficult criterion to satisfy, and the one, I think, where all the possible contenders I will name appear to fall down.
Our authority on this rare man’s pathological love of fashion is Thomas Carlyle, who, in Sartor Resartus (1833-4), provides the best working definition of the dandy at the birth of the movement. The dandy, according to Mr. Carlyle, is ‘a man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that as others dress to live, he lives to dress.’
We see at once that this primary occupation does not interfere substantially with the less taxing pursuits of the leisured intellectual gent, such as penning the odd verse in idle minutes between social engagements which put this heroic peacock on the stage of life. Indeed, quite the contrary: for as every tradesman must have his uniform, the ensemble of jacket, trousers and waistcoat is as much the uniform of the man who manipulates his pen in elegant endeavours as the businessman who operates it in pragmatic and profitable ones.
Wearing the suit, the uniform of the dandy, therefore, does not interfere, as a primary vocation, with the avocation of the writer. It need not necessarily interfere with that of the film director, either, but I cannot find a man among men of film who consecrates his life above all to being elegant in every breath of his life, whether on location in the dark heart of Africa or on a Hollywood soundstage.
The uniform of the film director, stereotypically, is the one given us by Cecil B. DeMille in his conquering youth. It is the flat cap (perhaps worn backwards at times in a democratic gesture towards one’s cameraman, who has his eye forever pressed to the viewfinder on our behalf), tweeds, jodhpurs and riding boots—maybe even the extravagant detail of a riding crop.
The ridiculous anachronism of attempting to look like an English country gentleman on a blazing Hollywood backlot is eminently dandistic, but it falls more in Mr. Haslam’s category of being ‘dandified’ and ‘nattily dressed’ than looking good at every instant for some slavish, private religious purpose.
But I don’t use the words ‘extravagant detail’ lightly in reference to the riding crop. Extravagant details whose practical purpose are obscure define the whole uniform outlined above. One no more knows who or what the director plans to whip with the anachronistic crop than what he plans to ride with his anachronistic jodhpurs and boots.
Extravagant details whose practical function as working uniform are novel, innovative, and even obscure define the dandy, and we see examples of these extravagant details in the working uniforms of directors who are certainly dandified if not actual dandies.
For example, the most dandified director in the world today has to be David Lynch. He has such a recognizable personal style that it appears even in his films—in the proxies who stand in for him, like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986). The eccentric detail of the collar button done up sans cravate which Mr. Lynch affects at times transcends the nerdish faux pas of fashion it would be for most other men because the eccentricity belies a practical purpose which is obscure to the rest of us.
According to Mr. Lynch, he hates the feel of wind on his collar bone, and hence he buttons his shirts up to choking point—a personal eccentricity he bequeaths to any character in his films who stands in for him.
But the mania for a warm chest goes even further than that. So high-strung is Mr. Lynch that in his youth he affected the doubly eccentric and dandyish detail of wearing not one but three neckties as a foulard to keep his sensitive collar bone warm.
The image of a man wearing triple neckties may be absurd so that we wonder if he is the victim or the bold setter of some obscure fashion which has bypassed us, but key to understanding the dandy’s sway over other men is the knowledge that all his novel and innovative sartorial choices stem from some practical consideration of comfort which is personal to him.
Just as Gianni Agnelli—a genuine dandy—affected the eccentric habitude of wearing his wristwatch over his sleeve—(a fashion faux pas so thunderingly obtuse that it boldly doubled as a brilliant time and motion innovation for the busy head of Fiat to affect)—the uniquely personal considerations of comfort that dandies make only become stale form when they are cravenly imitated by men, clueless about fashion, who take their personal eccentricities as general edicts.
As far as I know, the triple necktie as foulard has not caught on. That unique eccentricity in personal style as well as Mr. Lynch’s high-strung nature might qualify him as the closest contender for a dandy among living directors that I know of—for one cannot be a dandy without being as high-strung and neurotic as a thoroughbred.
But even though nowadays he affects the black suit, white shirt and black tie of Alfred Hitchcock as his unvarying uniform, I do not know that Mr. Lynch anymore than Mr. Hitchcock is slavishly devoted to the suit as high art.
In my post “A writer’s style”, I quoted approvingly the opinion of Messrs. Martin and Koda that a man’s dress signifies his ‘operational identity’: as men, we are our professional rôles, and one of our highest masculine virtues is to make who we are indistinguishable from what we do. A man is the uniform he wears in life.
Of all directors, Mr. Hitchcock is the one who best worked out an operational identity for himself early on, one which involved the democratic uniform of the professional man, the suit. The funereal combination of black suit, white shirt and black tie which Mr. Hitchcock typically affected not merely consolidated his operational identity as head man on-set, but the operational identity of his lugubrious public persona—which was as much a put-on as his suit.
This was an operational necessity for as neurotic an introvert as Mr. Hitchcock. For as much as he was a commanding Leo, one of that extravagant, limelight-loving breed fit to dominate a film set, one derives two abiding impressions from reading the early pages of John Russell Taylor’s Hitch (1978) and Patrick MacGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light (2004).
The first is that the shy, lonely young Hitchcock might not have gotten his chance to direct had he not put on the extroverted front of continually putting himself forward with feigned confidence for jobs he had no prior experience at. The second is that, in the early days of his English career, his association with a certain type of film we now associate with his name and image was more a product of chance than inward inclination towards darkness.
There’s almost nothing in Mr. Hitchcock’s background to suggest that he would become, as Jean-Luc Godard called him, the only poète maudit to achieve commercial success in his own lifetime. The early output of the future Master of Suspense is more varied than that princely title allows, and his career could have gone in any number of directions if he had not hit on a repeatably bankable formula early on.
And the formula, the poetry of bizarre, nail-biting images in fulgurant succession, is of course a rhyme for that distinctive silhouette which appears as a signature in the corner of each of his films, the portly, soberly-suited trickster. Mr. Hitchcock in his very appearance was the type of film he made. Life, he once complained, typecasts us: according to him, his inward suavity of spirit would have been better suited to the outward shell of Cary Grant.
He had the introverted dandy’s necessity of an extroverted operational identity, a uniform which was distinctive and inimitable, but one which equally commanded respect on the set. The funereal suit and tie ensemble gave Mr. Hitchcock an appearance somewhere between a bank manager and an undertaker, and the implications of sobriety and discretion in that uniform, of honest, well-balanced books, of loved ones precisely and delicately attended to, indicates my second criterion: almost no director exerts as ruthless and singular a control over every detail of his image—at least, as the images of his films are his image in the popular imaginary—than Alfred Hitchcock.
The suit suits him. This symbol of masculine rectitude and rationality, clothes precisely designed by rule and compass, is eminently suitable for a director who emerged from the ranks of production designers, and whose training and only job outside films was in engineering.
As British fashion critic Colin McDowell says in his book The Anatomy of Fashion (2013), ‘The true dandy … sees dress as an expression of highly masculine qualities, such as precision, consideration and respect. … Dandies depend on a rational approach to clothing, relegating all other considerations to making a powerful statement without falling prey to the cardinal sin of ostentation.’
Powerful visual statements, not ostentatious but certainly striking, emerge from the fabric of Mr. Hitchcock’s films, which were always made out of respect and consideration for his audiences. The precision of rational design in the well-cut suit might be seen as an analogy for the way Mr. Hitchcock designed and made his films for people ‘out of whole cloth’, controlling every element with absolute precision, measuring every detail, stitching every shot together to form an ensemble far greater in effect than the sum of its exquisite parts.
David Fincher has described this ruthless authorial control as ‘the iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s style, a sort of overarching échafaudage which protects what’s under it, as a good English suit, for instance, is a kind of armature for the body, repulsing the intemperate English elements. But the iron umbrella of Mr. Hitchcock’s style not only repulses what is external to his creative vision, it also suffocates any spontaneous input from others who are under it.
Even as late as his last film, Family Plot (1976), when he was working with the long-haired, bearded contemporaries of Spielberg and Lucas, young technicians going to work on Mr. Hitchcock’s set were discreetly advised at the commencement that a suit and tie, rather than T-shirt and jeans, would be the de rigueur uniform at all times.
The genteel uniform of the professional man was eminently suitable for Mr. Hitchcock’s ruthlessly regulated, standardized style of filmmaking, which some actors and technicians described as like ‘working in a bank’: Mr. Hitchcock’s phobia for the impromptu had caused him to prepare so well in advance that one could safely start at nine and leave the set each day at six.
But if he had the dandy’s introversion and iron-clad control of details, what lets Mr. Hitchcock out as a dandy, in my view, is that his passion appears to have been for women’s wardrobe rather than for men’s.
Legion are the examples of the exacting requirements he had for his leading ladies’ couture. As resoundingly silent is the record on what he specified for his men. To his eternal credit, Mr. Hitchcock does have what has been justly called ‘the greatest suit of all time’ in one of his films, the famous—and much-abused—grey Kilgour sported by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959). About eleven copies of this suit were required to film the cropduster sequence alone. But it is believed that Mr. Hitchcock, who regarded Mr. Grant as a cut above the usual cattle he had to wrangle on-set and trusted his judgment in most matters implicitly, allowed him a free hand in commissioning the suit from his tailor, Kilgour French and Stanbury of Savile Row.
This is in contrast with the control he exerted over his leading ladies’ deportment. No expense was spared to repeatedly secure the services of Edith Head as ladies’ costume designer on his films. Miss Head reported that, like James Stewart in Vertigo (1958), the gentleman knew what he wanted: perhaps owing to his background in design, Mr. Hitchcock was uncommonly well-informed in matters of women’s fashion and demanded the famous grey suit for Kim Novak despite Miss Head’s protests that grey was not a blonde’s colour and would make her look washed out.
That was precisely the ghostly effect he wanted.
He personally escorted Eva Marie Saint to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and selected her wardrobe for North by Northwest. He also had Christian Dior design Marlene Dietrich’s costumes for Stage Fright (1950). Mr. Hitchcock was fond of quoting the playwright Sardou’s maxim that in drama one should always ‘torture the women’. M. Dior, who was as fastidious about details as Mr. Hitchcock and tended to erect an iron umbrella of his own about the feminine silhouette, would doubtless have concurred with this eternally sage advice.
But while I think there are dandistic elements to Mr. Hitchcock personally, and while his films comport themselves with an idiosyncratic visual style which is dandistic, such that he is often imitated by other directors but never equalled, his predilection for female fashion, which is at irreconcilable odds with masculine style, seems ultimately to disqualify him as a dandy.
His great equal as a visual storyteller, Orson Welles, is even further from the mark than Mr. Hitchcock, though Mr. Welles too has elements of the dandy about him. His affectation of exuberantly-brimmed sombreros and capes—(capes are eminently dandistic)—ought to qualify him on prima facie inspection, but on deeper consideration these are the very things which let him out.
Mr. Welles always reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who is often mistaken for a dandy—and who mistook himself for one. Both are hommes du théâtre, and I think the native extravagance and peacockery of theatre people always counts against them. They evince the kind of ostentation that the true dandy abhors.
There are few cases in cinema of men so pathologically addicted to an art-form that Mr. Welles called ‘the biggest electric train set a boy ever had’ than Orson Welles himself. But despite his addiction, despite the fact that he had cinema in the blood, Mr. Welles was always, first and foremost, a man of the theatre, like Mr. Wilde, with all the vulgar flamboyance, the extroverted ‘larger-than-life-ness’ that no man of the theatre can ever quite get rid of.
It’s always in a stage man’s manner, and you won’t find a single interview with Orson Welles where he is not entertaining, performing for a public audience. It’s charming, but it’s also a straight-up disqualification, for despite his extraordinary vividness, there is no peacockery at all in the genuine dandy: the common mistake that people uninformed on this subject make is to think that because he publicly shines with a special lustre, the dandy, like the man of the stage, is somehow a whore for the spotlight.
Pas du tout.
The dandy’s seductive éclat comes entirely from within. As Philip Mann writes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), ‘… [J]ust as the dandy’s suit is glamorous and his melancholy sombre, so his suit is sombre and his melancholy glamorous.’ The dandy thus burns with a dark, self-consuming light, like a white dwarf.
Mr. Welles’ egotistical extroversion under a veneer of false modesty lets him out. For the same reason, Charles Chaplin is not really a dandy—although his childhood in Dickensian poverty is a crucial psychological plank in the nascent pathology of dandyism. Chaplin, in his later life, is said to have developed a mania for shoes—an obsession which all true dandies will recognize as central to the complex, but which is perhaps more acute in someone who went barefoot through the freezing streets of London in childhood.
The Little Tramp is perhaps what we might call an ‘inverted dandy’—particularly the wing-collar specimen of the genus that Mr. Chaplin portrays in City Lights (1931). While the Little Tramp as archetype is always waging a dandistic war of specious respectability against the grinding reality of his poverty, the Tramp of City Lights goes through the most horrendous crucible of attrition in all of Mr. Chaplin’s œuvre, starting off with wing-collar, boutonnière and a rather snappy bow-tie, and ending up collarless, his bowler mortally wounded, his trousers out-at-arse, and altogether looking the most tragic we will ever see him.
But it’s really the post-Tramp Charlot of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957) who reveals Charlie’s soul-deep pretensions towards aristocracy, not merely as a man of the theatre, but as a waif of the working-class. Dandies always emanate from the lower orders, but rarely from as low as the future Sir Charles did.
This is tacit in the example set by the bourgeois social mountaineer Mr. Brummell, who, as Titan of the Regency, could not have shaken the fashionable firmament of his betters if the English class system was not showing, to his canny eye, the first hairline fissures of encroaching democracy. As M. Baudelaire sagely observed, the phenomenon of dandyism is most pronounced in those transitional periods ‘when democracy is not yet all-powerful and aristocracy is tottering and only partially debased.’
Hence, not so many years after Mr. Brummell died in English disgrace and French exile, a nineteenth-century slum-child and music hall entertainer could become one of our monarch’s knights in the twentieth century. And when I look at the foreign royalty which Mr. Chaplin, with his gorgeous snowy hair and dulcet voice, makes himself over as in A King in New York, I am struck by how much he resembles our present monarch’s despised uncle in old age, the pre-eminent dandy of the twentieth century, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, the man who ended his career as the husband of Mrs. Simpson, the Duke of Windsor.
Of all the immortal Charlot’s creations, Henri Verdoux, the æsthete serial killer who makes a genteel art of dispatching wives and defrauding them of their cash, is the most dandistic. If the Little Tramp was a romanticized version of how Mr. Chaplin perceived himself and the grindingly modest Londonian origins from which he sprang, I think that M. Verdoux represents the romanticized version of Mr. Chaplin’s aspirations for himself as a democratic American gentleman with European pretensions.
He’s the creation, I sense, for whom Mr. Chaplin had the most affection, for M. Verdoux is, as the final shot attests, the Little Tramp’s satanic side. As a man whose dark side also encompasses Machiavellian aspirations towards cash, artistic crimes, and the conquest of women—(all in great quantities, for ‘numbers sanctify’)—I also love M. Verdoux for his consummate dandyism, and I must confess an obsession with Charlie’s outfit in that film. The grey chalk-stripe suit, double-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapel, fulsome, billowing cravat, divine pearl Homburg, gloves and walking stick which Charlot affects in his flâneries comprises the perfect uniform for picking up game grisettes as one treads the streets of Paris.
I intimated above that it’s the striking detail, the incongruous element in the otherwise correct wardrobe, a gesture towards personal comfort, that marks out the dandy. We’d be hard-pressed to award Federico Fellini the dandy laurel, for although often suited on-set, the bullish-looking Maestro never quite wore his suits with sprezzatura—certainly not the sprezzatura that Guido, his perennially harassed and hen-pecked film director proxy, played by the gorgeous and elegant Marcello Mastroianni, wears them with in 8½ (1963).
To the peerless Italian tailoring of tight black suit, white shirt and black tie are bequeathed two characteristically Felliniesque touches—the omnipresent scarf and the cowboy hat. Whether on il Signor Fellini himself or on Guido, that cowboy hat is the crowning touch of oddness that breaks the strict correctness of the classic Italian suit.
Il Fellini’s black cowboy hat was particularly odd, with a low crown and a short, though acutely shaped, brim. One might, at a pinch, have expected his compatriot, Sergio Leone, the gran regista of spaghetti westerns, to sport such a hat, though that gent often went around bareheaded, or with a tweed newsboy’s cap at best. But il Signor Fellini was not a maker of westerns—not even of westerns as far-removed in style from those classic models bearing the Ford insignia as Cinecittà is from Monument Valley—and his cowboy hat, which is almost a more savagely stylized and deformed Fedora, reflects his weird visions of the ordinary.
Indeed, with its connotations of the Rio Grande displaced, as in a dream, to the banks of the Tiber, il Signor Fellini’s incongruous cowboy hat lent that beautiful dreamer the appropriately quixotic touch, on-set, of a high plains drifter tilting, as Guido tilts, at the windmills of his mind.
In The Dandy at Dusk, Philip Mann makes a case for Jean-Pierre Melville, another Euro-fan of the cowboy hat combined with the suit, as a dandy, and though I’m not entirely convinced of the argument, I am prepared to assert that of all the filmmakers I can think of, M. Melville comes probably the closest to my criteria of a dandy director.
He was an écrivain manqué, I think, a writer who, by an immense détournement, found his native literary instinct luckily diverted into the visual. When M. Melville says that editing a film is equal in his passions to writing one, but that he absolutely hates shooting films, you get an intimation of that ruggedly individualistic, utterly ruthless attitude of the writer who loves total control and hates the ‘communal labour’ of filmmaking.
M. Melville is perhaps unique among all directors in that he seemed to realize the dream of solitary, literary filmmaking enunciated by M. Robbe-Grillet: as an independent producer/director, he built his own studio as an adjunct to his home and could work alone in the midnight hours, setting up lights and arranging the set before the arrival of his actors and crew.
He was an introvert, and the Melvillian man of his melancholy, violent dreams is introverted to an hermetic extent—like ‘un tigre dans la jungle… peut-être,’ as M. Melville himself writes at the beginning of Le Samouraï (1967). And being as much a ‘men’s director’ as filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Woody Allen—or even the woman-torturing Alfred Hitchcock—are ‘women’s directors’, filmmakers whose first sympathies lie with their suffering heroines, M. Melville, in his deep love and sympathy for the condition of men in all our melancholy and violence, seems equally to have loved the savagely restricted uniform of the suit with which we elegantly repress and civilize ourselves.
He is perhaps the only director, if Herr Mann’s argument is to be credited, who had the superordinate passion for menswear which is my third condition of dandyism in directors: days after seeing Gone with the Wind in London in 1940, he met Clark Gable at a shirtmaker’s shop in Jermyn street—which star-crossed encounter M. Melville took to be prophetic of his destiny in film. Herr Mann also alleges he once abandoned a film mid-tournage after getting into an argument with an actor about how wide his hat-brim should be.
Given the dandy’s mania for the details of correct masculine deportment, that sounds about the appropriate level of obsession—and expensive, individualistic recklessness—to qualify M. Melville, prima facie, as a dandy director.
Watch any interview with him and you will be struck by a man who is ruthlessly correct in his courtly deportment and demeanour: M. Melville conducts himself en parfait gentleman. The only extravagant touches added to the dark, sober suit which reflects his saturnine nature are the exuberant cream Stetson and the mirrored aviator sunglasses—fetishistic touches of the Americana which decorated M. Melville’s films as much as his person.
There’s a photo in Herr Mann’s book of M. Melville, circa 1960, in a boxy dark grey suit and tie, his ensemble topped with shining Stetson and les trous noirs of his aviator sunglasses, and carrying an elegantly thin briefcase—but no raincoat—through the rainy streets of Paris. Even more than a gangster on his way to a rendez-vous (an eminently appropriate look for an independent producer/director with shady contacts), this incongruous figure briskly whipping along looks like a Texas oilman—a premonition of J. R. Ewing, no less—plopped down in the rue de la Paix.
This américainophilie is de rigueur for a man who, in a supremely dandistic gesture, adopted the surname of the author of Moby Dick as his codename in the French Resistance and never renounced it upon the laying down of arms. As a man who constructs an operative identity which he is ruthlessly prepared to both live and die by, the only profession other than literature for which the dandy is eminently suited is espionage, and M. Melville, the chronicler of gangsters, corrupt cops, con artists and members of the Armée des Ombres, comported himself as an undercover résistant all his life—résistant à tout.
As an operative identity, the codename ‘Melville’ is as much a charmed imperméable in the grey ville de merveilles of Paris as the raincoat he accoutres Alain Delon with in Le Samouraï. It’s perhaps an ironic coincidence that the French Mafia is colloquially known as ‘le Milieu’—literally, ‘the Place’, ‘the Scene’, for M. Melville, like his idealized assassin, seemed to strive to live up to Mr. Brummell’s dictum that the perfect dandy is a man who is never out of place, but blends into his environment, never drawing attention to himself with a mistake of deportment or comportment.
He is so correct as to be invisible.
As Mr. Hitchcock took the dressing of his leading ladies to be a personal duty not to be delegated, M. Melville similarly undertook to be valet to his leading men. ‘I’m very prone to clothes fetishism,’ he once said—surely an understatement for a director who named one of his films—Le Doulos (1962)—after the gangster argot-word for ‘hat-wearer’. ‘[T]he clothing of men plays a decisive rôle in my films, while women’s clothing alas concerns me less. When an actress has to be dressed, an assistant usually takes care of it.’
This candid admission seems to clinch it, but I take Philip Mann’s offering of Jean-Pierre Melville as a dandy director under advisement. It’s a matter I will have to think about more before I offer M. Melville a membership in the club. Doubtless, like Groucho Marx, he wouldn’t take it anyway if it was offered—and if so, that would be the concluding proof of M. Melville’s dandysme;—for we dandies are such rugged individualists that (like the only Marx whose dicta are worth repeating) we would refuse to belong to any club that would have us as a member.
If you can think of any other hommes du cinéma you think might live up to the high bar of being a dandy, dear readers, I would be interested to hear the names of other contenders bandied in the comments below.