Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The title of Jean-Pierre Melville's thriller may deceive some first-time viewers. Our image of a samurai is likely to be more swaggering, more superpowered, more badass than Melville's title character, Jef Costello. I actually had an irreverent thought when I saw Costello (Alain Delon) stalk into Martey's nightclub in his hat and raincoat, with his hands in his pocket and a stony demeanor on his face. I was strangely reminded of Wilmer Cook, the hapless gunsel played by Dwight Frye and Elisha Cook Jr. in different versions of The Maltese Falcon. That's about the diametric opposite of a modern-day samurai, but the swagger, the badassness, weren't what Melville had in mind. His epigraph to the film defines the samurai as the ultimate solitary man. Allegedly quoting from "Bushido: The Book of the Samurai," he says that the samurai's solitude can be compared only to that of a tiger in the jungle...maybe.

Jef Costello is no loner -- he has a girlfriend and a group of poker buddies (at least for alibi purposes) -- but he lives alone, except for a songbird, in spartan simplicity. And as it turns out, there's a limit to how much anyone can help him in his predicament as it develops. It's no big revelation that Jef is a hitman; probably everyone who watches this film from its Paris premiere to a DVD arriving in the mail today knows that going in. The first act of the film shows him at work. It is quiet work, involving him stealing a car with help from his hefty ring of keys and getting its plates changed. Exactly ten minutes pass before a line of dialogue is spoken, when he visits his girlfriend. He stops at the card game, promising to come back later. Then he goes to Martey's, where he kills Martey, outgunning him in an unexpected shootout. He leaves, but encounters the house pianist in the hallway. He is seen in part by other employees. This is sloppy work; he is no samurai in any sense of mastery or elegance of execution. He is no super criminal; Melville's criminal protagonists never are.

The minimal description of a man in a hat and raincoat is enough to get Jef caught in a dragnet along with dozens of the usual suspects. A few at a time they are lined up on stage for the Martey's staff to examine. One man is positive that Jef is the killer, but the pianist, who has looked at him point blank, will not confirm his identity. The flics aren't satisfied; they consider Jef a principal suspect, but they can't get more than the one old man to i.d. him. Throughout the scene, Melville maintains a deliberate, almost documentary pace when other filmmakers might rush through this business to establish the main point: the pianist's refusal to identify Jef. In this way he sustains an atmosphere of authenticity; the scene seems to play out in real-time, or something closer to it than we're accustomed to in thrillers, despite all the editing going on. The editing is an invisible balancing act that keeps the scene going to build our anticipation of something happening without making us impatient with the film. Dispensing with most of the usual gimmicks for dramatizing the situation, Melville still induces a sensation that something important can happen at any moment.

You'd think anyone would recognize Alain Delon, even with his hat on, but Caty Rosier (below) wants the law to believe she doesn't.

Jef is sprung, but tailed. He shakes the tail (which will only grow in scope) to rendezvous on a bridge with a contact who will pay him for the hit on Martey. But his employers are dissatisfied with his sloppiness in leaving witnesses and Jef finds himself in a fight for his life. Melville heightens the suspense of the moment by obscuring it: we see the abrupt fight through the screen of the bridge itself, in a tracking shot. Jef escapes wounded. We see him treat the flesh wound in his grungy kitchen. Melville films the therapy with the same realist deliberation as the other sequences, patiently observing all the steps.

While the police intensify their surveillance, and their pressure on his girlfriend (who stands by her man), Jef decides to track down the employer who betrayed him. Melville's deliberation really pays off in a sequence in which Jef never acknowledges but struggles stoically to shake a hydra-like tail of male and female flics on the metro as headquarters track his movements on an electronic map. He finally manages to confront his criminal persecutors, who make him an offer to redeem himself: kill the pianist and everyone's problems are just about solved. But that he cannot do. He owes her a debt (and it's no accident storywise that she wears a robe with an oriental motif at home) even as he realizes that she most likely protected him because she was ordered to. This is one aspect of the samurai archetype in which Jef ultimately matches our expectations: he has a sense of honor and is willing to sacrifice his own life to uphold it. One moment of awful simplicity tells us what's going to happen. Jef returns to Martey's and leaves his hat with the hat-check girl. She gives him a hat-check, and he leaves it at the counter....

Jef Costello sees a lot in Le Samourai. Some he may like; some probably not.

For a long time, before Army of Shadows made its belated arrival on American shores in 2005, Le Samourai was considered the definitive Melville film. I wonder whether that's the reason I'd waited so long before looking at it. It ends up being the seventh Melville that I've seen. Could it live up to the epic expectations? As a matter of fact, it could. It is a masterpiece of the thriller genre, or at least of a certain kind of thriller. There are at least two kinds: the race against time, and the kind Melville specialized in, in which suspense is the feeling that anything can happen and it'll probably be bad. That's the suspense you feel in North by Northwest when Cary Grant stands on the roadside waiting to meet someone before the crop duster shows up, except that Melville can keep that mood going for an entire film.

All thrillers are manipulative in some way, since they must focus your attention on important details, but Melville does his manipulation subtly, not blatantly, mostly through editing rather than through the sensationalist gimmickry common today. There's no moment when Delon suddenly starts walking in slow motion to telegraph that something big is going to happen. There's nothing wrong with a director doing that if it's done right, but that sort of thing is overdone now to the point of devaluation, which makes Melville's style a huge gust of fresh air. It's a style that respects intelligence and trusts the viewer to figure out what's going on, since it's all presented quite clearly.

I like the way Melville can invest modest or petty crime with a tragic gravitas. Jef Costello is something different from the typical Melvillian gangster, but he's clearly from the same milieu. He is no super-hitman and is all too fallible, but he's also indisputably formidable, a man you mess with at your peril and not anyone who can be brought down easily. The nearest thing to too-good-to-be-true is Jef's ability to orchestrate things in order to die on his own terms, but even then it doesn't look like he exactly enjoys going out the way he does. Melville's crime fantasies are ingenious in the way they convince you that they aren't taking place in a fantasy world, and as Jef Alain Delon embodies the balance between ordinariness and pure pulp power. If he wasn't already an international star with both art and action credentials he would have been once this film appeared. Melville would use him well again in Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic, in sharply contrasting roles, and he vies with Lino Ventura as the director's ideal leading man.

Le Samourai is a high point of French cinematic cool, a manner averse to melodramatics though not to earned emotion. In contrast to Hollywood hyperbole or variations on that style from Tokyo to Bollywood, the French manner might seem cold or distant, but it often rewards the attentiveness it requires with a rich sense of human experience or social observation. Melville's films make a good gateway to French cinema for the otherwise uninitiated because there are well-staged shootings and other action along the way. Samourai itself is a great gateway to the rest of Melville's work.

The trailer was uploaded by Annie7676


Dave said...

I have nothing earth-shattering to add, because I think that both of our write-ups of this film show that we are on the same page in regards to this film. It's a masterpiece and when I finally "got" Le Samourai is when I realized that Jean-Pierre Melville is among a handful of my favorite directors.

Again, I also have to compliment you on your writing abilities -- top notch!

Samuel Wilson said...

Well, Dave, you set a standard for me back on Monday over at Goodfellas, and maybe our combined efforts will get more people to "get" this film. My compliments in return.

Neil Fulwood said...

Kudos, Sam. Your best article yet. The ten-minute wordless opening ... the effortless cool ... 'La Samourai' is a high-point in French cinema, and in the crime genre period.

I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen a few years ago, at a local art-house cinema. Every frame of the film offers something ironic or iconic, but what I took away with me as much as anything was how damn cool Delon looks when he puts his fedora on. Nobody in the entire history of cinema has ever made a fedora look as cool, and that whole business of swiping of the thumb and forefinger around the rim everytime he dons said headgear is almost too iconic for words.

'Le Samourai': the crime film as perfection.

John said...

Samuel - you and Dave have truly done juctice to this film. Melville is a director I have come to be familar with only in the past year or so, having seen Le Circle Rouge, Army of Shadows on this film. A true masters.

Samuel Wilson said...

Neil, I envy you. I didn't get down to the big city to see Army of Shadows on a big screen in '05, and I'd love to see any Melville that way. And I should emphasize that Delon definitely overcame that dubious first impression I had. Elish Cook he is not.

John: All I'll say is that you have plenty of treats yet to come from Melville. Le Doulos and Le Duexieme Souffle are right up there with the ones you've seen, and Bob Le Flambeur and Un Flic are nearly as good.

Keith said...

I love this film. I'm a big Delon fan. Great review of it. This is one of my favorite French films. Have a wonderful weekend. Cheers!

Rev. Phantom said...

Just when I think I'm a cultured cinephile, you pull out reviews for films like Le Samourai. Yet another film I've only read about, but have not taken the time to see.

BTW, you are getting damn good with the screen grabs.