Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Samourai (1967)

Le Samouraï (1967) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville and Georges Pellegrin.
Starring: Alain Delon (Jef Costello), François Périer (Le Commissaire), Nathalie Delon (Jane Lagrange), Cathy Rosier (La pianist), Jacques Leroy (L'homme de la passerelle), Michel Boisrond (Wiener), Robert Favart (Le barman), Jean-Pierre Posier (Olivier Rey).
In many ways, Le Samourai is Jean-Pierre Melville at his most stripped down. Gone are the complicated plots and schemes in films like Bob La Flambeur, Le Doulos or Le Deuxième Souffle in what really is a simple story of a doomed hired killer who is effortlessly cool, and who seems like the coldest bastard you could ever meet, and yet suggests that perhaps there are some hidden depths to him. He could survive if he wanted to – at least for a while – but he is so rigid in his routines, that he cannot, does not want to. It is the film that defines Alain Delon’s effortless cool – that would be an inspiration to John Woo and Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann, and many others. The surface of the movie is perfect and cool and cold – but there are depths here.
We basically learn everything we need to know about Delon’s Jef Costello in the opening frames of the movie. We see him lying on the bed of his flat smoking. It’s a simple flat – one room, there are no decorations on the wall, no sign of a personality anywhere – except perhaps the sparrow he keeps in a cage. The two are a matched pair – they are trapped. Costello is a hired killer, and we see him methodically go about his latest job – stealing a car with a giant ring of keys, taking the car to a garage as spare as his room, where a mechanic replaces the license plates with barely a word spoken. The job goes off without a hitch – Costello calmly and coldly executes a nightclub manager. The only problem is that when they round up dozens of suspects, Costello is one of them. It doesn’t matter that he has a double alibi – his girlfriend (played by Delon’s then wife, Nathalie) and then a group of men he gambled with at a club later. The police still suspect him. And that doesn’t sit well with those who hired Jef to pull off the job. For the rest of the movie, Jef has to dodge his employers and the police. And he shows as little emotion as he did at the beginning of the film – he never panics.
Le Samourai is defined by its cold, cool style – that is in every aspect of production, from the brilliant cinematography, then never rushes, and is full of cool colors, to Delon’s performance. Delon barely speaks in the film – certainly not near the beginning – and like many a Melville character, is defined purely on his actions. He is a man of constant routine and professionalism. It’s amusing when the cops place a listening device in his room – in a wonderful sequence that goes on for minutes without a word being spoken, just the tweeting of the sparrow, who gets agitated. Jef finds the device easily, almost as soon as he walks in the door, but even if he didn’t, what would the police actually learn? He barely speaks, and has no visitors.
Delon is, of course, ridiculously attractive – with those features, and those eyes – and the film spends some time on his relationship with two women – his “girlfriend” Jane (Nathalie Delon) – who loves him, won’t even give him up when she’s threatened with the vice squad by the cops, and the piano player at the club (Cathy Rosier) who also backs him up with the cops. As the noose tightens around Jef’s neck, he eventually will see both women one last time. He is cold with Jane – trying to let her down gently I suppose, and then in the unforgettable final scene goes to see the Pianist. He’s been in this club before – to perform the hit – but this time, he checks his coat. He won’t need it again, he knows. Just like he doesn’t react when his mechanic friend tells him this is the last time he’ll help him. He won’t need that either.
What does the final revelation of Le Samourai mean? I know what it means in terms of plot – that Jef wasn’t really planning on doing anything, and he knows this is the end. But it suggests something about Jef’s character that is somehow deeper than he have seen up to this point – suggests that there is something to Jef that we didn’t notice before. It’s a haunting ending – and a perfect one.
In many ways, Le Samourai is a simple film. It’s easy to follow the plot, and the film has many sequences that pass by wordlessly. It is as fatalistic as any film ever made – by Melville, or anyone else. It is the perfect vehicle for Delon – and a perfect film for Melville. It brings together his influences, from American gangster movies, to the French New Wave, to Japanese films – but it is undeniably Melville’s. After years of struggle for Melville – not knowing his place, not belonging anywhere, he creates this film – a perfect film – that can last as the definitive example of why Melville was a master.

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