****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Michel Boisrond
written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
by Walter Chaw Jef (Alain Delon) is an assassin, and while he's objectively terrible at it, he seems to be sought-after for his services. Maybe there's a shortage of killers; maybe he lives in that bubble where handsome people exist without knowledge of the advantages they're given for the fact of their attractiveness. Hired to assassinate some guy who owns a nightclub in Paris, Jef steals a car by trying out a lot of keys on this giant key ring he has and goes to the club to do just that. Everyone sees him: the guests, the bartender, and most notably the club's unnamed, featured chanteuse (Caty Rosier), who catches him walking out of her boss's office after hearing gunshots. Jef pauses when he sees her, and for a second you wonder if he's going to kill her to eliminate any witnesses. I mean, that's what a hardened criminal would do--but he doesn't. It's not that Jef isn't smart, exactly, it's that Jef is a cipher, and Le samouraï is less noir than it is a commentary on American genre films and, along the way, a satire of them, too. Jef's affect is blank and pretty, perfectly turned-out in his neat suit and overcoat, a fedora perched on his head just so. Melville spends a lot of time watching Jef look at himself in the mirror, fiddling with his collar and smoothing down the crease in his pants. Not unlike a Robert Bresson film, Le samouraï is obsessed with gestures. It's a story told by hands at rest and in motion.
Jef lives alone in a square, grey apartment with big windows and a canary cage in the middle of the room. His bed is pushed to one side, against the wall. Under the opening credits, we see a figure in silhouette, reclined in the dark like Uncle Charlie at the beginning of Shadow of a Doubt. The only clue we're not watching a static picture is the quiet sound of the canary chirping and the slow billows of smoke floating up from the figure in repose. Once the opening titles have finished, Melville executes the dolly-out/zoom-in made famous by Vertigo, another Hitchcock. The effect is disorienting, vertiginous if you will, and it puts us in mind of the uncanny. Le samouraï exists outside of naturalism; it's an intellectual exercise more than a visceral one. More than either, it's a philosophical puzzle: a challenge to unironic or passive spectatorship. Not typically known for his sense of humour, Melville, I would argue, makes extremely funny films, and Le samouraï is best understood as a send-up of masculine formulations of "cool." John Woo famously remade it as the heroic bloodshed opera The Killer, though in its mordant, only semi self-serious tone, Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai bears a closer resemblance to this film.
There isn't much in Jef's life--what we know of it, anyway--that isn't in the service of some manual function. In Melville's best films, like Army of Shadows and this one, as much time is spent with the process and tools of work as with the work itself. Men are inseparable from the instruments of their expression. Melville's earlier Bob le Flambeur, my favourite of his films (if hardly his most-lauded or ambitious), underscores the idea that all men are musicians who nurse in their heart a secret desire for someone who might appreciate the product of their hands. Jef puts gloves on as he prepares for his hit. We want to think it's because he's worried about fingerprints, but since he's barely concerned about anything else that could reveal his identity (and plans to throw the murder weapon into the river afterwards, anyway), I'm more inclined to believe he's wearing the gloves because he's a dandy and they complete his outfit. He visits a prostitute, Jane (Delon's wife at the time, Nathalie), in a bloodless encounter pre-established to provide him with an alibi for the evening. A group of guys engaged in a backroom poker game provides him with another. He drives his stolen car to a garage where, wordlessly, a "mechanic" (André Salgues) changes out the license plates and supplies Jef his firearm for the evening. John Wick didn't invent the hyper-cool assassin lurking in an underground subculture.
Le samouraï is pure utility. Everything in it is meticulously arranged like a chef's mise en place or a surgeon's stainless-steel tools laid out on a sterile platter. Its characters are no less utilitarian. In many ways, Jef is an early iteration of Blade Runner's Rick Deckard--the machine designed for the hunting and retirement of other machines. He's a close cousin to Alphaville's Lemmy Caution, whose greatest antagonist is the unmoored, mercurial shifts beneath liquid, unreliable words and the meanings attached to them. Alphaville, for all its similar formal exactitude, is in practice the photo negative of Le samouraï, in that Godard's picture is about the absurdity of language in trying to explicate an ordered world, while Melville's picture is about the absurdity of notions of order. The assassination of the club owner is cut into staccato shot-reverse-shots that bring attention to Jef's unnatural stiffness. He fires from the hip, not because it's cool, but because he's an automaton arranged in a French crime diorama. A clue to the film's aesthetics can be found in one of its cinematic progeny. The canary, who holds a key role in helping Jef--through the loss of its feathers, maybe--to uncover an electronic monitoring device clumsily, hilariously left in his apartment by a stolid gendarme, chirps robotically, mechanically. The drone of it is the only score for a long middle stretch of the picture, and it's difficult to believe that David Lynch didn't lift its patent artificiality for the mechanical bird that closes out Blue Velvet. Because he's, I can't stress this enough, terrible at this, and because Le samouraï isn't much interested in the central crime that constitutes its plot, Jef is brought down to the station along with 399 other nattily-dressed criminals to stand before the gallery of eyewitnesses Jef's blithely left in his wake.
François Périer plays the police inspector assigned to Jef's case. When one of his deputies implores him to "just think" about something, le Commissaire declares proudly, forcefully, "I never think." I'm inclined to agree--it's the kind of comeback a younger version of myself thought was cocksure and enviable rather than me telling on myself. More, though, the Commissaire not thinking is the flat truth of it. He doesn't think because he's a piece in a carefully-arranged tableau. He reads lines from a page and stands where he's told and then leaves this dream-space where he has no control over his actions. Le samouraï reminds over and over how everyone inside this film is as helpless to what's going to happen as everyone watching the film, and suddenly the audience is in a conspiracy with the actors to mine meaning from the artificial intelligence guiding their movements. Melville, like Bresson again, was interested in the unconscious language of our mechanical impulses, especially in this film that serves as an anatomical guide for post-mortem dissections of the Bushido code, the cinematic expressions of it in Japan, and the American noir adaptations of that sense of honourable violence, such as Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942).
But it's not serious. Jef lives at "1 Lord Byron Street," a fact we learn when he says it, with deadpan seriousness, to a taxi driver giving him a lift. What's on trial here is masculinity's romanticization of itself as the noble "tiger in the jungle," against which the film compares the solitude of the majestic tiger. A complete quote saying as much is presented as an epigraph before that Vertigo shot; it's attributed to the text of the Samurai Bushido Code, but it's no such thing. The quote has no origin except this film, much like the Buddhist philosophy Melville conjured to justify the title of his penultimate feature, Le Cercle Rouge. From the start, he's playing us for gullible fools desperate to be deceived. Jef is the Byronic hero, majestically alone, tragically unknowable, violent but existentially torn because of it--the reluctant knight errant robbed of any choice but to enact his service unto his death. This samouraï is Kafka's "The Hunger Artist," who dies with food within reach but not any food he cares to eat. (A Gallic sort of death in retrospect, this principled wasting-away for want of a morally nourishing repast.) In much the same way as Le samouraï, Ghost Dog balances the implicit hilarity of forced austerity with occasional moments of violence that become more emotionally-freighted fodder for the romantically-tortured man.
Jef, immanently identifiable, isn't identified by any of the eyewitnesses. The chanteuse, credited as "The Pianist," recognizes him but doesn't give him up to the cops, for reasons unsaid. I think it's the repayment of a social debt: he didn't kill her when he should have, thus she grants him his anonymity in return. Perversely, Le samouraï is a romance between these two photo-afterimages, these ghosts of familiar types. Jef is free now, although he's tailed by the cops and double-crossed by the man who serves as the intermediary to his assignments. In the lengthy sequence of shots depicting Jef's trek to his inevitable betrayal, Melville allows a curious moment to slip through: For a brief second, Delon glances directly at the camera as he walks down a long flight of stairs. This breaking of the fourth wall and its making it into the final cut announce something about how Melville would like very much for you to never forget you're watching a construct, a shadow play, a cunning simulacrum of reality that, in the uncanniness of its artificiality, provokes a certain objective detachment. Jef's not really free, of course: he has one more job to do. He has to kill the woman, the Pianist, who can finger him, however unlikely that she will.
A fire destroyed Melville's "Studios Jenner" midway through production. An interview at the time has Melville delicately speculating that the cause was arson, perhaps undertaken by rival studios jealous of his creative fecundity. Looking back, I wonder if Melville didn't start the fire himself in a moment of drinking too deep from his well of romantic masculine tropes--the artist soldiering on bravely through adversity hand-in-hand with the crazed genius who burns down his own laboratory in a fit of Rilke-ian passion. Whatever the cause, an apocalyptic sense flows through Le samouraï--a final statement of ethos set in a nether-space outside of time and place. After Jef tries to kill the Pianist, the crowd empties and the band packs up their things. But before the drummer leaves, he taps out a little riff indicating that the show is over, and it's the perfect epitaph for this thing, this Jef, with his jazz attitudes and hepcat cool. Le samouraï is one of the great films because it challenges how we see things, even as it elevates the conversation surrounding the films that came before it. Indeed, Quentin Tarantino's genius is allied with Melville's in this sense: Not just an excavator of lost things, he's a contextualizer, a critic, scholar, and curator of devalued wings of our cinematic history. Le samouraï is a great film, too, because it engages with how we see ourselves as men--or, more specifically, how we hope we're seen by others, i.e., as valiant, tragic, alone by choice, so that when we die from betrayal most foul, there's still a beautiful woman to mourn us. It's funny. Or it would be, if it weren't so sad.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion serves up Le samouraï in a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer I found to be generally excellent despite dramatic spikes in grain. Sequences inside the club where the first and last assassinations take place are vibrant and almost overlit--appropriate, given the futuristic stylings therein, all hanging plastic tubes and mirrored surfaces. They look so clean and crisp, in fact, that I wonder if the coarseness of the nighttime exteriors was an artistic choice--an intentionally, jarringly chaotic counterposition against the staged theatricality of the set-pieces. Consider how grain seems to inject itself into the image immediately following Jef's last longing looks with the Pianist, even though the lighting remaining unchanged. Is this Melville making a case for the reality of death amid the surreality of Le samouraï? Difficult to say. I mention this because for an artist so meticulous about every proverbial strand of hair being in place, the somewhat-mercurial grain structure is something that feels deserving of study rather than a presumption of fickle elements. I was reminded of the final moments in Seconds, which likewise show what I assume is a purposeful shift in quality and, in that case, continuity. Attending the video, an uncompressed monaural soundtrack in French is full and bright, boasting a depth that speaks to Melville's technical virtuosity.
"Authors on Melville" (32 mins., SD) features two interviews with published Melville scholars. The first, with Rui Nogueria (13 mins.), shows the author in an intense state extolling the virtues and genius of Melville. He declares Le samouraï to be the auteur's masterpiece and waxes rhapsodic about Melville's brilliance, up to suggesting that he is the father of La Nouvelle Vague. Nogueria is so hyperbolic, alas, that the first inclination I had was to gainsay his otherwise innocuous statements. Still, it's an entertaining listen, if not terribly informative--save one tidbit about an alternate ending to Le samouraï. The reasons for its elision carry over into the second interview, with Ginette Vincendeau. Vincendeau is much less effusive and engages in a serious analysis of this film in particular in relationship to Melville's influences and work. I love her discussion of ritual in his movies and how it informs the way the killings are, ahem, shot. She actually leads us frame-by-frame through an interesting continuity issue in the opening assassination that opens up the rest of the film for a specific kind of deconstructive analysis. She's great. She also says she doesn't know why they chose to use the ending we have over the alternative.
"The Lineup" (24 mins., SD) is a series of archival clips, beginning with a longer Melville interview in which he condemns gangsters as "losers," but not without a mischievous glint in his eye. In sunglasses and a cowboy hat, Melville is the very image of the cultural fetishist as he goes long on how he was so devoted to his work that he rarely set foot outside for 14 years. The segment is worth it just for the glimpses of Melville at a flatbed editing machine. A clip of Delon on the talk show "Monsieur Cinéma" from 1967 follows. Taped just prior to Le samouraï's release, it finds the incredibly handsome and smug actor with five-o'-clock shadow, a light cough, and a penchant for reciting the fake Bushido passage that opens the film. "Beautiful!" the fawning host fawns, and Delon is pleased with himself. Delon declares Le samouraï to be art that is like a baby Melville has incubated for years before giving birth to it this coming Wednesday at a theatre near you. Nathalie Delon is captured in a pensive piece from 1968 talking about her career and clearly struggling with being known primarily as the woman married to the most desired man in France, while a 1970 excerpt from "Le petit cinéma de Georges de Caunes" sees Rosier discussing her career as a model and why she wanted to make the switch to acting. Meanwhile, in the only colour segment (from 1982), Périer recalls Melville as "a tyrant, almost sadistic" when it came to directing his actors. He allows that Melville was crazy about the movies to the extent that he made his studio dark like the inside of a cinema. That's interesting, you know, because if we read Le samouraï as a music-box film, closed-in and arranged like a doll's house, it's fruitful to understand that this may have been how Melville chose to see all of his life.
"Melville-Delon: D'honneur et de nuit (Of Honor and of Night)" (23 mins., SD) is a short documentary that has sometime-collaborator, director Volker Schlondorff, revealing that Melville quite enjoyed a few friendships and hanging out with the "loser" gangsters he mined for material. Producer and Melville's nephew Laurent Grouseet describes his uncle as a man who was awesome away from the set, even if he was something of a monster on it. We learn a little of his mother and his family and that he was close friends with Delon, who, of course, has something of a reputation for being a prick himself. Repeated here is the story of how Delon read seven pages of the Le samouraï script--the first seven, as it happens, sans dialogue--and said he'd do it immediately. I wonder how much of this had to do with an appreciation for austerity vs. how much it had to do with Delon's understanding of his appeal as a primarily physical presence. (It's telling to me that his two most famous roles are Jef and Tom Ripley.) I appreciated the recollection of how Melville spent at least an hour on how Jef should best wear his hat in a shot of him preparing to go out into the world. Who would have guessed that robot Jef was an avatar for misanthrope Melville? The recounting of Melville's death at age 55 is affecting and strange--not unlike something out of Le samouraï. It involves hiding Melville's death for a while and then Delon finding out about it and spending an afternoon sobbing on the steps of Melville's home.
The booklet included with the platter contains an overview essay by David Thomson that I was with for most of the way until he started in on the violence of modern action films as compared to classics like Le samouraï and Point Blank. I dislike this line of Bosley Crowtherism in critical discourse. It's lazy and it plays to the section of the audience wanting very much to believe that no good films were made after some invisible temporal demarcation that more likely denotes the year their mind closed. I admire Thomson and his contributions to film analysis a great deal. I think he could've spent more time on this one. John Woo himself writes an affecting piece called "The Melville Style," wherein he declares that "Melville was God to me." He goes on to chart the director's influence on his own work and his recollections of where and when he first saw each of his films. Woo dissects the aforementioned betrayal scene shot-for-shot and compares elements of Melville to Chinese and Greek mythologies. It's a beautiful bit of film writing from one of the most important directors in my adult life. Lastly, an interview with Melville covers his thoughts on stardom and what makes a star (something "extra"), how he took pains to remove any real backstory or political baggage from Jef, and how the gloves Jef wears to kill people are the same gloves that editors wear when they're cutting film. He doesn't expand on the idea that editors are murderers, but perhaps he means to evoke the Fates and how one measures out a life and another cuts it--not unlike the drawing out of a film and the physical splicing of it. Lovely.
105 minutes; Not Rated; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); French 1.0 LPCM; English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion