Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Le Samouraï (1967)
Dust off your fedora, pull on your crumpled trench coat and fire up a gitane, it’s time to stalk the mean, crime ridden streets of Paris. Even though it wasn’t included on this boxed set which forms the spine of our new directors season it isn’t remotely feasible to take on Jean-Pierre Melville’s highly influential oeuvre without covering Le Samouraï, the 1967 brooding crime classic which is curiously difficult to source in the UK – I had to go and score a South Korean Blu-Ray import. Cited by filmmakers as diverse as Tarantino, Christopher McQuarrie, John Woo, Jim Jarmusch and the Coens (surely this where they got the chapeau motif for Millers Crossing?) as core inspirations Melville is the crime movie consigliere, the epitome of indomitable will and stoic staging, carving his own fiercely patrolled and sculpted underworld throughout a series of ruthless movies from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. A fierce soul Melville distinguished himself fighting the occupation during the war, giving rise to probably the best French war movie of all time Army Of Shadows that we will breach later. He’s always been something of an outcast, an idiosyncratic figure who lies somewhere between the cinephilia of the post-war nouvelle vague and the James Cagney and George Raft pictures of the 1930’s, but where his peers embraced the likes of Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks he clearly embraced American gangster flicks as a generic inspiration rather than worship specific directors, inflecting the iconography with his own continental conscience, carving his own identity independent of popular critical movements and theories. Like his country man Jacques Tati he was utterly obsessed with controlling and building his own cinematic universe (both men developed and owned their unique production studios), while the key thread that runs through Melville’s work are concepts of honour and the imperative of a moral code, whether among thieves or robbers, assassins or insurgents.
Melville’s Paris has the pallor of a slow rigour mortis grey corpse, a sour and lonely place, as transactions are exchanged wordlessly between underworld members for the acquisition of vehicles and firearms, as the rituals of the game are played through with a semiotic symbolism. The capital of romance instead is transformed into a ruthless realm where you walk into a room, clip your target with two bullets to the head without any last words or final pleas of clemency, before exiting into the night like some spectral trench coated angel of death. That epitome of 1960’s French chic Alain Delon stars as Jef Costello, the ruthless ronin of the title who takes on a deadly commission to execute a nightclub manager. During the stealthy and immaculately planned operation he is nevertheless witnessed by sultry musician Valérie (Cathy Rosier), the house pianist who for some undisclosed reason declines to identify Costello in a hastily police arranged line up of the usual suspects. The film then concerns itself with Costello’s efforts to cover his tracks and neutralise any threat, while also attempting to understand his saviours mystifying motivations. The direct synchronisation of the plot find its weight through a domination of bold angles, of clearly delineated verticals and horizontals, indicating a hermetically controlled and rigid realm where both sides of the law operate within concurrent confining structures. It is a cold and ascetic environment, swathed in battleship grey interiors and exhausted urban exteriors, an underworld of conformity which figures glide through with an almost automaton assembly – this is a world away from the Paris of Renoir, Jean Vigo or Marcel Carne. Unsurprisingly Melville’s aesthetics have been linked through to the philosophical musings of his countrymen Sartre and Camus, the random purposeless of existence leading logically to man erecting his own purpose and rationale, in this case a moral code and ideology independent of any higher power or guide other than to ‘thine ownself be true’.
Also austere is the use of score, the majority of the musical struts in the film are diagetic, the in universe sound generated within cafes or nightclubs. When Melville does break with these designs it is at crucial junctures in the drama, at key character moments when the independent score swells to frame the proceedings, indicating that Costello is wrestling with an internal crisis such as when he struggles to comprehend why the musician failed to identify him in the police line-up. Unusually for the period and crime movies in general women are more than mere trophies to be traded or won, in fact the fairer sex are key plot engines with their own agency, motives and goals, as equal to the men in their obedience to the strict rules and criminal conditioning of the streets. Unlike traditional film noir which vaguely casts its looming shadow over Melville’s work (in setting and situation, if not necessarily style and substance) there is very little sex or indication of sexual drives driving tormented souls to the brink of obsession and madness, if any coupling occurs it would seem to be a fleeting and mechanical exercise, another ritualistic going through the motions instead of being lost in a swirling torrent of desire. Instead the tempo of Le Samouraï isn’t that of the woozy, sleazy streets but a metronome procession, as one sequence alone has our lone wolf traversing a series of hallways and tunnels in Paris simply to walk to a meeting, taking a good few minutes to establish the milieu through a synthetic control of geography, space and movement, a field surgeon dissecting his patient with careful precision, before exploding in a burst of unsheathed violence.
This detached formalism also invokes Bresson as a clear influence, his monosyllabic mannequins also serving as opaque vessels that glide through these emotionally deadened interactions, and I think these acrobatics probably affected the art-house austerity of Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont as well as genre gigolos Tarantino and Woo, with their emphasis on image and swagger. In that sense Melville emerges as something of a nodal point of cinema, a synthesis of early Hollywood Warner Brothers talkies, continental ‘chic’ formalism and a smattering of Kurosawa’s 1950’s samurai films, which post 1970 have imprinted upon ‘cool’ genre cinema within a pulsating, secret criminal underworld, visible all the way up to last years John Wick. There is not a single gesture, the flicker of any eye or speed of gait which isn’t significant in Melville’s universe, as the lack of any grand emotional discourse encourages the viewer to latch onto any small register as a significant event, a tiny hairline crack in the inscrutable façade of the career criminals and lawmen on their tail. Costello’s apartment has a single suggestion of a life beyond his job, a minor bird whose chirps suggest a small glimpse of humanity and a yearning for companionship. Of course this is revealed as another feint , the avian a canary in the coal mine, serving as a guard-dog in a brilliant plot machination which I will leave you to discover for yourselves. The film is also a fascinating social document of Paris in the 1960’s, of le metro, smoke choked cafes and the capitals numerous denizens, the swinging sixties this ain’t as the film has the mood of a sedative overdose rather than a sunshine kissed LSD labyrinth. In that sense its an interesting comrade to Boorman’s Point Blank which was released in the same year, both films sharing some common ground – a remorseless, granite hewn protagonist, remorseless stalking through an urban environment, shocking bursts of physical & emotional violence, a controlling moral codex – even if the criminal carapace takes on different hues on either side of the Atlantic.
Just from the random photos I’ve sourced you should get an idea of the washed out, pallid interiors, graveyard grey and slowly decaying, a truly cheerful start to this season and if memory serves this might be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Melville’s stripped down, hyperborean climate. I’ve seen all the other films in the boxed set but at indeterminate moments over the years, I’m almost 100% positive that the first time I saw Le Samouraï would have been during its 1990’s Moviedrome screening (ah yes, here we are) so I’m curious to see how they all fit together to construct an almost unique, carefully calibrated universe. I think I’ll try to keep the rest of this season faithful to chronology, meaning that next we will skip back to 1956 and Melville’s first crime film Bob Le Flambeur, which also served as a significant influence on Soderbergh’s first Oceans Eleven movie and was remade by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief back in 2002 – a rather underrated film as I recall. Le Samouraï scythes like its namesakes elite wakizashi weapon, razor-sharp, keen, elegantly balanced and manufactured for a singular, deadly purpose – to slay ones foes and retain ones honour, a grasp for purpose in a purposeless and implacable universe;