Le Samourai

(France - 1967)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Alain Delon, Francios Perier, Nathalie Delon,
Cathy Rosier
Genre: Crime
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville & Georges Pellegrin
from Joan McCloud's novel The Ronin
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Composer: Francois de Roubaix
Runtime: 105 minutes

Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the few people working in the French film industry that the New Wave didn't rebel against. Melville was not in the studio system they so hated because it kept them from working, he was an independent, and along with Robert Bresson he was considered a "godfather" of the movement. The major similarity between the two is the minimalism of their works, though Melville would mix this with a few explosive highly staged action sequences.

Locations were an integral part of Melville's style, and that was his biggest influence on the New Wave. In a traditional sense, not much happens in Le Samourai. Since the star Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hitman there are a few shootings, but it is hardly an action film. I hate to compare Melville to Takeshi Kitano because, while Kitano is a great actor, to me his directing looks like let's place the camera here and then let nothing happen for a minute and claim this is to allow the viewer to reflect (on what I've never figured out, unless we are supposed to reflect that nothing has happened?). Anyway, the killings in Le Samourai are in a similar matter of fact nothing too exciting here style that you'd see in a film like Sonatine (if you managed to stay awake that long). Melville is not a visually challenged director though. One of the biggest reasons for the films success being the work of his regular cinematographer Henri Decae, who uses a nocturnal blue-gray palette to create the somber fatalistic mood. There is one shoot out that is exciting in a sense, the surprise where we are kept in suspense of who hit if anyone. The quality comes not from the gunfire, but from the way the scene is shot (like a bird turned his head and noticed it while flying by) and edited so we know no more than that something major happened.

Melville's films were rarely successful at the box office in France, and sometimes took years to make it to America. Considering the lack of action, it may seem odd that his rebirth in America as a cult favorite is largely due to the glowing praise of Quentin Tarantino & John Woo. Though Le Samourai isn't the over the top all guns blazing style of gangster film those two make, it is completely the director's film. Like a work of Sergio Leone, one can imagine Melville has every motion, camera placement, and edit in his head. Le Samourai is one of the textbook examples of visual storytelling. And the film is completely visual to the point it wouldn't make much difference if it had been made during the silent era. What talks in this film is money, the rest is largely window dressing.

What sets Melville apart from Leone, Woo, & Tarantino is he's much more contained and understated. Even when Melville puts in a silly sequence where a bird tries to warn the hero that someone has entered his flat, it seems fair enough because the hero isn't there to be warned, and in fact is never actually helped by the bird. His films aren't realistic because you always know you are watching a film, but he works in smaller strokes, very meticulous and monotonous.

Though Tarantino's films often have several memorable performances, he is far more the exception than the rule when it comes to stylized gangster films. He could perhaps get a performance that was entirely crucial to the success of the film if he didn't make ensemble pieces, but since he does another difference is the make or break lead performance by Alain Delon. Delon is the movie, and his job is to account for every motion he makes. This is one of the most extremely deliberate performances ever. Delon plays Jef Costello as an exterminating robot, making one direct move then another instead of one curved motion. Even the slightest move is calculated and done with purpose.

Another big standout is the soundtrack Francois de Roubaix. It sounds like what would later be known as the Phillip Glass style score with the layering and circling variations on the same strands. It avoids the meditative quality and mismatched highs and lows that mar Glass' dramatic work though, instead creating something more mysterious and suspenseful that adds to the films noirish mood.

The premise of the film is Melville is drawing a parallel between the present day hired killer and the traditional mastered warrior, hence calling his film the samurai. Code should be the main topic of Le Samourai, but that doesn't wind up being the case. As disciplined as Jef is and as rigid as he follows his code, he doesn't have any real purpose or live up to anything. At the core he's empty, a macho narcissist, so rather than having any soul the film winds up glorifying a kind of suave cool. When John Woo remade the film as The Killer, Tsui Hark thought putting Chow Yun-fat in the overcoat would be a disaster, but it wound up arguably being the coolest role of an actor associated with cool. Other than Chow's attire there is not too much similarity between the films because Woo works in terms of plot and set pieces galore, totally emphasizes the action that is largely an afterthought here and deemphasizing the small details of the assassin's routine that make up the bulk of Le Samourai. Generally, I'd prefer what Melville does, but Woo hits on everything Woo is every going to hit on in The Killer making it the ultimate action film, while Melville has made a brilliant technical film that misses the boat thematically.

Solitude works great with Melville's deliberate style, and most of the film is Jef doing the little things that films normally don't bother with. These things are skipped because they are supposedly boring, but anything can be exciting if it's presented properly. By choosing not to glamorize the violence or the lifestyle too much there are several dull moments, but they are made up for by some tremendous scenes. In particular, the scene where we see how Jef steals a car by sitting in it and acting like he belongs while he tries potential key after potential key until it starts. The inventive framing really illustrates how this could work, alternating between shots through the windshield where it appears Jef is just sitting there thinking and shots from the right side where we see him moving his right arm as little as subtly as possible.

Overall, I fail to see what makes Jef such a great killer. He thinks he's infallible and everyone talks about him like he's the man, but almost everything we see him do goes wrong. He doesn't belong in Big Deal on Madonna Street by any means; he's incredibly meticulous and never lets emotion get in the way. However, he kills by walking into a club, shooting a boss with no silencer, and walking out. That might work a few times, but it seems to me you'd need a far more stealthy way of going about business to be around for many jobs. It's purposeful that we aren't supposed to think Jef is going to live happily ever after, as Melville's films are far more stylized versions of American gangster pictures (where the gangster always lost) with the added fatalism of film-noir. We aren't even supposed to think he'd like to since this is an existential film. However, these assassins must believe they are going to last a while to get into this business, and although their ego is through the roof there still has to be a decent chance of repeated success. I mean, there are plenty of guys with mountain size egos but they are still smart enough not to jump off the top of the mountain.

Where the film really falters is in having the piano player Valerie (Cathy Rosier) fall for Jef. She first sees Jef when he walks out of her bosses office after killing him, and apparently decides he must be one swell guy because she lies to get the cops to set him free and then starts having sex with him. Poor lonely Jef also has another devoted girlfriend, Jean Lagrange (Delon's wife Nathalie in her screen debut), who is so thrilled that he needs her for an alibi once in a while (the nights he kills) she doesn't mind that the only time she sees him is when he pops in and asks for a favor. Given most men want sex and not commitment, Jef's situation is more like a dream than a quagmire. I'm glad Melville doesn't concoct ways to show what a good guy Jef really is, but I have a hard time mustering any sympathy for Jef. I realize the piano player is the key to the ending, but she could have been eliminated and the same ending could have been arrived out if a few things were changed and transferred to Lagrange. It's not as bad as The Jackal having time for one night stands in between eluding the entire French intelligence system and police force, but that doesn't make it good either.


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