FILM REVIEW – LE SAMORUAI

Spoiler warning.

[Editor’s note: This article was previously published to my personal blog, thus if you have already read it there and recall it’s contents you might wish to skip it. Thank you for reading.]

If formalism was gold Jean-Pierre Melville might have just been the richest filmmaker to ever live and none of his works more aptly demonstrates this than the cold, calculated crime classic Le Samourai. Though the film is now hailed as a masterpiece (so much so that it has been adopted into the Criterion Collection – which you should check out) this wasn’t always so; indeed when the film was first released there was a great divide between critics, one praising, the other side decrying. It is easy to see why; minimalist to the extreme, there isn’t any dialogue until about ten minutes into the film.

The plot is generic and straightforward, Jef Costello (portrayed with immaculate, eerie reserve by a young Alain Delon), a mysterious hit-man, is contracted to kill the owner of a popular, ritzy Parisian nightclub. He does so but is caught in the act by the establishment’s pianist, she says nothing when questioned but the police aren’t convinced. His alibi is air-tight, too air-tight. When the criminal organization whom contracted him realizes that he might be ousted they turn against him; putting out a hit on the hit-man. The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between the police, the crime syndicate and Jef.

This sounds rather uninspired and somewhat bland but when you see the film you will realize it isn’t so much the plot itself as it’s execution, that really stands out. Details are the overlords of this film, from Jef’s seeming pathological perfectionism (ever straightening the brim of his hat just so and always ritualistically putting on white gloves before a kill) to the tight, glacially paced camera work and immaculate and strangely barren landscapes. The fact that I was never once confused within the film, even when near fifteen minutes go by without a single piece of dialogue, is a testament to the director’s mastery of the medium. We have it easy these days, what with Michael Caine ever popping up and banging on and on about the plot, page after page of heavy handed exposition (I swear Caine is in everything these days and always as nothing more than a exposition vessel). It is as if Hollywood believes that their public is so stupid that they can’t go ten minutes without the writer holding their hand through the events there unfolding.

More than being a mere highly stylized aesthetic exercise or ruminations on crime character study (both of which it certainly is) the film posits a view of life from the point of view of a dreamscape that is, in my opinion, exceedingly admirable. Here I’m talking about Jef the not quite human, the dream’s fell harvester. He has no fear of death, indeed he seems as inexplicably drawn to it as to the pianist who spared him. In one scene a man sticks a gun in the samurai’s face and Jef not only doesn’t flinch but then promptly bitch slaps his foe to the ground (with such banal ease that it always makes me chuckle). He also is emotionally aloof; in one of the character’s early establishing shots he is driving down a abandoned street (it seems all the streets of Le Samourai are ever abandoned which adds a unearthly, surreal vibe as if to say “This isn’t real, would you want it to be?”) and stops at a sign. A beautiful woman pulls up beside him and smiles flirtatiously, he looks at her as if she were just another signpost along the way and then icily returns to his work. Another scene has him caressed by a woman who is so madly in love with him that she’s willing to take the fall for complicity in his crimes if it came to that; he merely looks away, disinterested in her romantic overtures. He also kills without compunction – His first assassination scene has always been one of the comic highlights of the film to me:

Club Owner: Who are you?

Jef: Doesn’t matter.

Club Owner: What do you want?

Jef: To kill you.

Delon says this last line with such drab flatness that the subsequent gunshots which blast the club owner into oblivion are both jarringly horrifying and completely hilarious. But that could just be me. Either way the scene is indicative of Jef’s amorality – but is he a sociopath? My answer is no – he kills because he is paid (he says as much himself) and, more simply, because he’s good at it. He’s almost elemental in that regard (much like his arch-nemesis, the enigmatic art collector-gangster, Oliver Rey {played by Jean-Pierre Posier}). He’s not so much evil as he is beyond humanity, similar to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (without all the effusiveness). He also isn’t without principals – indeed there seems to be nothing more important to him than his principals (which he describes as his “habits”). This shows that so dedicated is he to these principals that they have become second nature, instinctive but not dogmatic. He also isn’t without compassion, for though it would have been easy for him to let his accomplice take the fall he sacrifices himself instead (though this is also likely due in part to his seeming obsession with the nature of death and a understanding of it’s inevitability). This non-moralizing, distanced self overcoming is, when taken in gestalt, a cohesive philosophy and one which holds, for me at least, as much amusement as wisdom.

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Jef, fatalistically fearless in the face of a confederate assassin.

The film doesn’t preach, it doesn’t paint it’s characters as good or bad, the characters do that. It doesn’t posit fate or tell you that everything is going to be fine or that everything is terrible and that it always will be. It is as pragmatic and logical as it’s protagonist’s tactics and, to me, immensely inspiring.

A final word of parting: I highly recommend the Criterion Collection version of this film, expensive as it is – well worth the money for the pristine restoration.

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