Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)
Watched it at home with Krystle as part of our weekly movie watching.
I had never seen anything by Jean-Pierre Melville and of his films, Le Samouraï had always been at the top of the to-watch list. Even before becoming a serious cinephile I had been intrigued by the film, having heard its name cited along with Melville’s as major sources of inspiration by directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï tanatalizes with the promise of cinematic greatness right from its opening shot: hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lies in bed passively while a pensive quotation fades in overtop of the beautifully composed image, infusing us with the promise of a handsome-looking film with an equally handsome star (or is it vice versa?). Melville’s use of the long, still, single-take and “Book of Bushido” quote immediately lends the film an air of intellectual and artistic gravity.
John Woo has described the film as “nearly perfect”, and if Woo is referring to its directorial execution he is nearly right, it is perfect. Most of the fun in watching Le Samouraï lies in the novelty of having to interpret just about everything for yourself without the aid of clumsy expositionary dialogue, including and most notably, Costello’s state of mind thanks to Delon’s constantly impassive face which brings with it more than a hint of Robert Bresson. This decidedly cool, quiet and somber vision which Melville imposes on the film from its outset never wavers, period. The professionalism of Costello is perfectly reflected in that of his own directorial style. As Roger Ebert points out in his review, “there is nothing absolutely original in Le Samouraï except for the handling of the material”, but this in itself is so miraculous, so unique to the genre, that it definitively sets the film apart from any of its peers within the film noir/gangster genre.
The danger however with any novelty is that eventually, it grows old. And unfortunately for directors, the lifespan of their tricks are invariably and considerably shorter than the runtime of the feature films they choose to implement them in.
Le Samouraï‘s style belies that of an “art” film whose sole purpose is to plumb the depths of Jef Costello`s soul. To his credit, Melville is able to maintain this jig for a considerable length of time. But as the film wears on (specifically, past the extended police station scene) it becomes clearer by-the-scene that its controlled style is no more than a veneer. Style without substance. But whereas this bromide has traditionally been associated with kineticism (of the “hip” MVT music video kind), Melville’s appropriations are of the opposite sort.
The trouble appears to be a conflict of storytelling elements. It’s as if the director and cinematographer were told they were making an art film while the writers and editor believed they were making just another genre piece. Alain Delon’s Costello acts and is treated by the camera like a character directly lifted from a Bresson (i.e. art) film. And at a glance, the two directors’ usage of actors with impassive faces appear similar in look, their effects are dramatically different. Whereas Bresson would often hold shots for many seconds beyond what was required by the plot, Melville's hurriedly cut away as soon as the point is established. They are never held for that extra second or two that is paramount in allowing a shot to pass from being strictly functional into the realm of “art”.
The script compounds this sense of functionality by rooting all of Costello’s scenes firmly within the context of the overall plot and orienting them around the actions of his character. We are subjected to many stationary shots of Delon’s emotionless face: in the car as he tries the different keys, in the police lineup, the interrogation room etc. But none of these lend themselves to any psychological introspection given the easily inferred practicality associated with each of them: not wanting to draw attention to himself. And unfortunately for Melville’s artistic ambitions, Occam's razor applies even in the realm of film-watching. Is this not why Antonioni’s most psychologically probing works only came once he had “removed the bicycle from neo-realism” by re-casting his characters as rich socialites, removed from any practical considerations? Melville too has learned to remove any hints of sentimentality, but he has forgotten to replace it with anything else of substance. How appropriate is it that a little research reveals the film’s opening passage from the “Book of Bushido” as a fabricated quote and novel by Melville himself? Le Samouraï emulates all the style of the art film but little of its substance.
The lone moment in the film where it breaks free of its superficialities – if only for a brief moment – occurs as Costello flees his apartment after finding it bugged. The brief glance he gives to his bird (which alerted him to the bug) before leaving lasts but a second or two, but goes further towards humanizing his character than any of the more prolonged interactions he has with either his girlfriend or the lounge pianist (as Rosenbaum so brilliantly states: “Neither character can be said to interact with Costello in any way except iconographically; Melville can only cut away sheepishly from intimate moments between both couples, asking us to fill in the ill-defined blanks.”) That he only hesitates ever so slightly before leaving without it further underlines his character’s cold and calculated professionalism. It is a magnificently effective and efficient moment that is unfortunately neither preceded nor proceeded by any similar ones.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum's review: Refreshing to find a serious critic who isn't completely ga-ga over this film. Fantastic and succinct insights.
- Roger Ebert's review