Le Samourai is the first film of Jean-Pierre Melville’s that I’ve seen, and it’s a good one. That stated, it’s not a great film, and the reason for this may be that the claim that some critics make of Melville- that he’s the French Alfred Hitchcock, seem to be true. Of course, this is only one film- well-crafted, but rather lightweight philosophically; as are almost all of Hitchcock’s films. Then again, Henri-Georges Clouzot also earned the appellation of ‘the French Hitchcock,’ and it was not so, for the few films of his that I’ve seen are both well beyond what Hitchcock could muster.
But, on to the film. Essentially, it’s a color gangster film, made in 1967, but not based on reality, rather Melville’s circa 1935 idea of an American black and white gangster film’s reality. The reason for this is that almost all the characters do foolish thing- i.e.- they fall into the ‘Dumbest Possible Action’ mode that damns many films. But not this one. Why? Because Melville’s film explores what the consequences of the DPA are, by having his hero follow it to its ‘real world’ logical end, his death; even though that is s stylized de facto ritual suicide. If I’ve lost you, I apologize, but the film really is a fascinating exercise in style vs. substance (not over substance; take note). What I mean is that Le Samourai, while not deep, existential, nor real, is engrossing. The fact that the main character, a contract killer named Jef Costello (Alain Delon), is doomed from the start (there are too many foreshadows to even mention) means that the fact of his death is a dramatically moot point. The question is how he will die, who will do it, and is there any reason for it?
Answering all three queries, in reverse order, yields a no, first off. Why? Because. Just because. The film gives no details, and all of the characters are seemingly cardboard, except when they interact with each other. Note Jef’s actions around Jane (Nathalie Delon, Alain Delon’s then wife), and especially the way Alain Delon’s mien breaks into sparse bits of joy; the only times in the film we see any deeper penetration under Costello’s veil. Look at the Police Superintendent (François Périer), and the way he becomes animated only when Costello is on his mind. Or, most tellingly, look at the reactions of the beautiful black pianist Valérie (Caty Rosier), whose only emotions come to the fore when around Costello. She sees him kill her boss, Martey- the night club owner, yet, along with Jane, alibis for him. We never know why, though. Is she under orders from the group of gangsters who hired Costello to kill Martey? Could be. Or, is she more deeply involved. She and Costello seem to have a mutual attraction, but then he’s contracted a second time, and she seems to be the target.
This leads back to the second and third queries. It is the Police Inspector and his men that off Costello, when he seems to try and kill Caty. Yet, we see that Costello knows his death is night, for he removes his hat, puts down the hat receipt, and goes right up to Caty, to kill her. Except that, after he is shot dead by the cops, we discover that he had unloaded all of his bullets. Now, at first blush, this moment- and in fact the whole film, make the French Underworld seem a haven for retards. One must wonder why are the criminals so routinely dumb? Well, because. Because the film dictates it to be so- ala the 1930s era gangster film provenance, and because; just because Costello’s death is not the point. What truly is the point is up for debate amongst many critics. But, having read many of the claims, I find them all wan. Since the film is not overtly deep, and makes no pretense to be, one has to accept that Melville was not trying to be deep by surreptitiously seeming to be vapid. If I’ve confused you; read much of what passes for criticism in film school and in MFA programs. Simply put, the Occam’s Razor answer to what the film is about is simply the power of style and collective memory to work on the viewer.
If one has never seen a 1930s or 1940s era gangster film from Hollywood, one simply cannot appreciate this film as much- from the silly Hollywoodish lineup Costello is put in, to the cheesy dialogue between the Inspector and Jane, to the ease with which Costello evades tailing by the cops, etc. It will come off as one dimensional, ham-handed, and fluffy. But, add in that background, and the film takes on a different tenor. But, why does this need to know the background of the 1930s gangster film genre not make Le Samourai fatally flawed, as it does in many other works of bad parody or satire? Simple, this film has such gaping holes of logic and narrative that it can only work as a comment on something else. Now, look at most works of so-called parody or satire. Most of them are merely pale imitations of their so-called targets. In other words, they are not dependent upon the thing they comment on to work, therefore, when seen out of context, they are merely fully loaded bad imitations, not unfilled vehicles. Melville’s film avoids this by not pretending to be able to stand on its own merits. Another film that is a good example of this is The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra. Like Le Samourai, it’s a film that, without a knowledge of 1950s American B sci fi flicks, simply goes nowhere. Its jokes just seem lame. So lame that, like the mind-numbing stupidity of all the French protagonists on this film, it manifests its dependence on other works. In fact, satire, parody, and homage- which this film is, are genres that work best when the works are only brought to fruition and fulfillment by the final ingredient of another outside element.
In this same vein, much of this template is prefigured by Melville’s use of a fictive epigraph for the film. It is a faux quote from a faux philosophy text: The Book Of Bushido. It goes: There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle. There is even a tweaking of this condition when Martey’s barkeeper, who, at the lineup, could not identify Costello, sees him come back to the bar, and says: ‘If you were the man the police are looking for, one could say that the murderer always returns to the scene of the crime.’ In another touch, both the opening murder, and the later murder of the man who hired Costello to kill Martey, are done in ways that are logically inconsistent with reality, but logically consistent with each other, in the diegesis of the film.
However, as I stated, this film has concerns other than mere narrative, and there is an influence that other critics never seem to have mentioned, but which struck me right away, and that is in the visual style of the film. No, the film’s cinematography, by Henri Decaë, is not influenced so much by other films- even the aforementioned 1930s gangster films, but by the paintings of Edward Hopper. The film is rife with images of lonely people staring offscreen, or gazing out of windows, or into the darkness. Even more so, is that Hopper’s character’s zombie-like eyes (often sans pupils) is mirrored by the ubiquitous vacancies most of Melville’s characters furnish (especially Delon’s robotic steel blue eyes), even when brandishing weapons, or engaged with each other. It is almost like a shadow play, a Platonic Cave entertainment. And this is only further enhanced by the sparse dialogue throughout the film. And, then there is the fact that Japanese samurai were not assassins for hire, but warriors who fought for honor, which suggests that, not only is this film a shadow play, but perhaps a looking glass one, as well. Kudos must be doled out to Melville, for the adapted screenplay, though, because, despite the film’s miss at greatness, it achieves what it does, which is considerable (a nice twist on a very tired genre) with aplomb. As the film was adapted from a Joan McLeod novel called The Ronin, but I do not know how much of the book made it into the final film.
The Criterion Collection DVD unfortunately lacks an audio commentary, but has two visual essays/interviews with Melville scholars Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau. There is the requisite fellatio, of course, but also some valuable insights into the film Then, there is arcvhival footage of interviews with Melville, Delon, and others in the cast, as well as the original theatrical trailer. The booklet has selections about Melville, and pieces by filmmaker John Woo and film critic David Thomson. The transfer is fine, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but there is no English language track, only the usual standard Criterion white subtitles. As the film is in color, this presents none of the problems such subtitles do with black and white films. All in all, not the best extras package from Criterion, but far from their worst.
Le Samourai is not a masterpiece- a term too often bandied about by enthusiasts of any work of art, but it is an interesting experiment that works far more than it fails. It also reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. The major difference between the films is that Ghost Dog contains some of the most realistic depictions of gangsters onscreen (stylized realism, granted)- not romanticized ala Francis Ford Coppola, not glorified ala Martin Scorsese, but real. One need not have a working knowledge of the 1960s era French Underworld to know that Le Samourai is in no way realistic. All the situations are too phony, all the characters too dumb, and all the action to contrived, telegraphed, and choreographed for that to be claimed. But, as a violent ballet, it is a marvelous entertainment, and I have spent many a worse hour and forty-five minutes of my existence, for sure. While Melville’s film does not rise to the existential and intellectual levels of the best I’ve seen from Clouzot, it does transcend most of that offered by Hitchcock, while retaining the technical grace and alacrity that the ‘Master Of Suspense’ developed. Melville’s film, thus, scores somewhere in between the two, and, if one’s work is to be so sandwiched, there certainly is worse bread to be buttered. Trust me, they were many of the worse hour and forty-five minutes of my existence.