Director/Coscreenwriter: Jean-Pierre Melville
By Roderick Heath
The initial and defining image of Le Samouraï is held for a long time, about two and a half minutes, as the credits unspool across its face, with a fixity that becomes in turns nearly unbearable and then mesmeric. A man lies on a bed, smoking a cigarette, in an apartment that seems forgotten to the memory of humankind. A title gives the time with the exactitude of an official record. Tones are muted and crepuscular. Rain gushes against the window. The only noise we hear is one that recurs through the film with needling insistence: a bird’s chirping. The animal is kept in a cage of surprising refinement but tarnished by time and neglect, something once fine retrieved from a flea market, used to house an animal that’s not so much a pet or companion as a proof of life, an alarm system, and the embodiment of its owner’s inner self. The camera makes an ever-so-slight move in, subtly reframing the same scene from an illustrative space reminiscent of ukiyo-e art into a performing zone. The man on the bed is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a man who exists in a zone of pure transience, the abode he dwells in a shell he’s occupied like a crab, ready to vacate again at a moment’s notice. There is no future, no past, no state of being that is not purely of the moment, the existential being laid bare in all his futile determination. So begins Jean-Pierre Melville’s great etude in genre aesthetics – not in action but in repose. The film’s opening quotation, supposedly from the Bushido code of the samurai, nudges us to understand what follows as a tale of a man dedicated in silent, stoic manner to a certain creed, a way of life that precludes other considerations: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps.” A bogus quote, of course: Melville made it up purely to illustrate his theme.
The romantic lustre of such a legendary historical likeness in discipline seems to stand in heightened contrast to Jef’s actual job, as an underworld hit man, an imp of society’s abysses. Certainly, Jef was not the first assassin to be the focus of a thriller film, but he has become the archetype of the version of the character we’re now quite familiar with as the example of Le Samouraï, and its maker, Jean-Pierre Melville, have permeated popular cinema. Like Sergio Leone in Italy, Melville was a filmmaker who developed a powerful and specific imprimatur based in dichotomous creative references, mating a very European sense of style to an unabashed love of American genre stories, lending them such stature in texture and spectacle they rise far above grubby roots to seem akin to neo-mythology. There similarities between the directors end there, of course. Where Leone was a high if ironic romantic at play in the primal arena and the theatre of death, Melville was cool and pitilessly rational, and his ardour for the stern, implacable dramas found in pulp crime tales and Hollywood gangster dramas accorded with Melville’s personal experience on a vital level. Melville made his filmmaking debut with the grim resistance drama Le silence de la mer (1949), emerging a little later than the clutch of major talents who arose in French cinema during the Nazi occupation including Rene Clement, Robert Bresson, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Yet he shared with them a rigorous sense of how to purvey his vision and an edge of technical mastery that earned him admiration from the next generation of French filmmakers, the Nouvelle Vague directors. They followed Melville in subjecting their love of Hollywood cinema to an exacting nativist eye and mind and their exhibiting the results.
Melville surely remained the most colourful directorial personage of his place and era, however, fond as he was of cruising about Paris in a massive Cadillac and sporting a Stetson hat. Melville, whose real last name was Grumbach, had served in the Resistance during the war before he fled to Britain, joined the Free French forces there, and returned with them to liberate Paris in 1944. In the Resistance he had chosen as his codename the name of his favourite author, the writer of Moby-Dick, and found it stuck even when he didn’t want it to any longer: Jean-Pierre Melville thereafter became a kind of fictional character at large in the real world. It’s also not hard to detect a note of rebellion in Melville’s practiced appropriation of American aesthetics. His affectations and his cinema both speak of a man who no longer felt he had much in common with the society he had helped to liberate. The condition of his characters is one of being jammed between a cosmic rock and a social hard place. Le Samouraï is perhaps his most distilled and iconographic vision of such a condition. Melville offers up Jef not simply as a man in a despicable profession but a man who invites being seen as a philosophical paradigm, the life instinct whittled down to an essence: Jef can only be brought to life by missions that send him out to kill. Jef’s habits are those of a man at once aimless and eternally waiting, for a job or for the law, either a motive or the coming of death, that is, freedom from motive. Whereas Army of Shadows pinned that state down to a specific moment in history and experience, Le Samouraï has the advantage of articulating it free of such associations, boiling the legend of a lone wolf down to a perfect ideogram.
Jef’s slow rousing from his initially prostrate state sees him fondle a bundle of cash, the notes sliced in half, a promise and also a compulsion to perform the job before him. The job, the motives for which are barely elucidated in the course of Le Samouraï, is to kill a nightclub owner. Jef accomplishes this task swiftly and without difficulty, even giving his mark a fair chance to defend himself before shooting him behind his desk. The real art of Jef’s trade is depicted in exacting, near-fetishist detail before and after the moment of truth, is one of setting up alibis, obtaining a gun and car that cannot be traced to him, and weathering the inevitable ordeal of being netted by the cops as they round up the usual suspects. So, Jef’s work day commences with leaving his apartment and looking for a car to steal. He gets into a Citroen and pulls out a ring loaded with car keys, and tries them one by one until one starts the car. He meets with a woman, Jane (Delon’s wife of the time, Nathalie Delon), a prostitute who will form part of his alibi, and then with some poker players who will provide the rest of his cover. He takes his stolen car to a man (André Salgues) who lurks in a shed in a dreary and crumbling sector of town, waiting for people like Jef to come for his services. He provides Jef with clean number plates for the car, and a gun.
The alertness to detail and the patience with which Melville documents forms both the film’s backbone of cinematic exposition and gives context to the story it is telling on more than a literal level. The process of criminal enterprise is viewed with a precise and lucid eye for the minutiae a man in Jef’s profession must orchestrate with utmost care, whilst also accumulating cinematic images based around these details that can only work in the way they do as film. Such details can be listed in prose, but they can’t be tracked and studied in all their laborious glory, consuming time and energy, demanding an exact and inescapable attentiveness to the ticking clock and the itinerary of necessary acts. Jef’s pet bird isn’t just there for companionship, but as a natural alarm system, for intruders into his apartment send the bird into of fits of panic, shedding feathers as it flits about its cage – exactly the sort of overt display of distress Jef keeps himself from offering, and yet which Melville forces us to intuit and comprehend. Melville’s feel for life as a series of labours and swerves in the face of a hostile universe has a certain intriguing generational sympathy with Clouzot’s similar outlay of agonising problems for his characters to solve with the tools at hand in movies like The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), and Bresson’s crucially similar interest in characters trapped within their world and themselves. It’s tempting to conclude that the exigencies of surviving the war had instilled in such filmmakers a rigid sense of practical consequence. Unlike his fellows, however, Melville is pointedly non-psychological. We are never told who Jef is, where he has come from or what his experiences have been, except for clues that dropped, like the fact that some cops who break into his apartment to bug it wield just like Jef a ring of many keys – might Jef once have been a cop himself?
Such questions don’t really matter, though. All that matters in Jef’s life are the cold equations of what’s in front of him, and to keep swimming like a shark. Jef’s carefully wrought plan unfolds near-flawlessly. Many people see him in the club, including jazz pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier), an entertainer in the club, spies him emerging from the assassinated owner’s office. Jef simply walks past her and out of the club, and once he’s paraded before the employee witnesses in the police line-up a mysterious affliction seems to descend upon them all, so that only one definitely identifies him, whilst Valérie emphatically denies he is the killer. This tips Jef off to an interesting and eventually consequential detail, that the club employees have all been ordered not to identify him, and that forces are working he is not aware of. Otherwise Jef’s plan works like the clockwork, but this is in itself a fault, one that sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually destroy him: the very perfection of Jef’s cover story, which included contriving to be seen by Jane’s fancy man, Wiener (Michel Boisrond) as he left her apartment building, tips off the investigating Commissaire (François Périer) that he must be the assassin, because no-one else netted in the police dragnet has such a beautiful alibi. The Commissaire does his best to shake Jef and find some hook to hang an excuse to keep him in jail on. At one point he obliges Jef to swap hat and coat and stand in a room with a dozen cops, and asks Wiener pick him out. Wiener’s precision as a witness in this feat, after telling the Commissaire that he’s not particularly perceptive, leads the cop to quip ruefully, “Just imagine if you were observant.” The Commissaire releases Jef after obliging Valérie to double down on her denial that he is the killer, but continues to have him followed, and has a bug concealed in his apartment. Melville offers an ice-cold joke when the men who secret the bug turn on their listening gear, only to hear the bird’s endless chirping.
Melville’s time in the Resistance would be chronicled more directly and exactingly in Army of Shadows (1969), but it feels self-evident that Le Samouraï is his first draft for capturing the sense-memory of that time, the feeling of being an exile within one’s own society, duelling with authority and inexorable fate. It’s so very tempting to read Jef and his lifestyle as a mere transcription of Melville’s time as an insurgent. Like a spy or a provocateur or member of a terrorist cell, Jef awaits orders, asks nothing about the whys of his business that he might divulge if he’s caught and tortured. He looks for only the immediate matters before him, and then proceeds out into a world that he necessarily supposes is a place of hostile occupation. Another of the film’s few fillips of humour is also a visual statement along these lines, as Jef walks across a street, a poster behind him showing a man on the telephone seeming to track his movements, with the camera panning over to find a man who actually is phoning in his report on his movements. A lengthy sequence late in the film, one that seems inspired by a similar vignette in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), depicts the cops’ efforts to track Jef around Paris with surveillance equipment, the reports of each agent registering as a glowing bulb on a map on the police station wall. One crucial aspect missing from Jef’s life that might otherwise sustain the spirit of an agent or radical is that sense of purpose, a larger cause. Jef seems to hold himself together with a resolute code of personal honour, detached from motives beyond doing what he does perfectly. But that ethic can only carry him so far.
Jef’s almost surgical excision from the regular world of people is illustrated in a haunting episode early in the film, as he steals the car for the job. He sits bolt upright, trying not to make any move to attract attention as he tries each key on his ring, the rain water smeared on the windscreen, as if he’s losing form and solidity. When he gets the car started he drives off only to pull up at an intersection, and an attractive woman tries to catch his eye from a neighbouring car, only for Jef to turn his gaze away in declared disinterest. In scenes like this, Melville’s work with cinematographer Henri Decaë creates a specific ambience of romantically picturesque, even elegant alienation. Jef’s solitary melancholy registers constantly in Delon’s stringent blue stare, and indeed the very frames of Le Samouraï. Paris becomes a bleak and seamy labyrinth under Melville and Decaë’s eyes, variously rain-drenched or oppressed by grey skies. François de Roubaix’s scoring winds itself into such images like smoke, like the throbbing organ theme that chases Jef around, neurotically describing his crawling-ant nerves when he’s staying calm committing crimes. Melville delves into forgotten corners of the cityscape, like the ironwork railway bridge where Jef meets a contact, and other places of decaying infrastructure and run-down, workaday blandness. Fittingly for Jef’s algorithmic method, Melville repeats several scene in variations, including one incidental shot he offers twice, as Jef drives the then super-modern Citroens DSs he steals up a back alley to a garage. The environment Melville maps here is so magnificently cheerless, drab, shattered, and crudely anonymous, the car so sleek and chitinous, it’s as if a flying saucer is winging its way through the ruins of a lost civilisation.
There’s an echo in this motif, moreover, with the way Melville shoots scenes of Jef’s encounters with Valérie in the club, and her apartment, both of which are spaces of haute-moderne blandness, like sets for a science fiction film. Melville gives hints not only about individual identity and unspoken loyalties through such touches but also hints at tensions between the worlds he sees cohabiting. Jef belongs to an older age, a vanishing world, being busily colonised by newness and novelty, playthings of a new breed, cynical and deracinated. Perhaps Jef hopes to make enough money to one day be one of them. But he seems more often like the remnant spirit of that age, subsisting as a reminder that behind every flashy, polished surface is something turned tarnished and weathered. Delon’s face embodies the dichotomy perfectly, his sleek, almost alien handsomeness and his limpid, bleakly inferring eyes. Such visual patterns, matched to a narrative that emphasises the hero’s disconnection from the world, betray Le Samouraï as indebted to the recent examples in art cinema like Michelangelo Antonioni’s films as it is to classic Hollywood crime dramas, similarly transfixed as they were by modernity grafted onto tatty cityscapes. Melville’s specific genius was in purposefully setting out to fuse the two.
Some other filmmakers had predicted the same movement, including some of Melville’s influences and rivals, like Don Siegel, whose own doomed hitman drama, The Lineup (1958), staged a similar drama amidst the jagged geometries of California, Robert Alrdich’s radiation-noir epic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and White Heat, which walked its antihero from the age of medieval titans to finally be snuffed out amidst explosions declaring the atomic age. John Huston, on The Asphalt Jungle (1949), and Jules Dassin, with Rififi (1954), had similarly predicted Melville’s fascination with method and hyper-professional attentiveness to the little bits of business, but not his attempts to render the drama on a near-abstract plain. It’s that aspect of Le Samouraï that has surely made it an obsessive object for cinephiles ever since, particularly for other filmmakers who have taken inspiration from Melville’s cool blend of stylisation and authenticity and methodical paring away of regulation dramatic functions. Melville’s love of American noir doesn’t entirely conceal the fact that Jef also readily evokes the traditions of the ‘30s poetic realist strain in French film, as an upright and impassive underworld hero who attempts to stave off fate only to finally embrace it. Melville’s careful use of colour and décor, worked in confluence with art director François de Lamothe, reinforces his visual language. Almost the entire film is painted in hues of blue, grey, and green. Michael Mann, one filmmaker whose oeuvre has obviously been deeply inflected by Melville’s work here, drew upon a similar scheme for dictating the sunnier but no less controlled palette of the TV show he provided the design blueprint for, Miami Vice.
One of the few elements that defies the colour scheme is the presence of Rosier, whose brown skin and flashy wardrobe, like the fur coat she wears in the police station scenes, appear like islands of exotic promise, a voice from yet another world, one that’s creative, zesty, sexy, and fecund. Jane tries to claim Jef’s romantic attention, but he remains indifferent to her, whilst Valérie is an unwitting femme fatale. She is lover to Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier), a business partner of the club owner who’s arranged his killing and who’s been pulling the strings jerking Jef around. She seems to pull Jef through some indescribable magnetism that first manifests when they nearly collide just after his killing, a magnetism that is has an erotic edge but which soon reveals a different, altogether graver aspect: Valérie is the embodiment of Jef’s fate, beckoning him on to his end. Jef’s near-subconscious interactions with women are contrasted by a dry scene in which the Commissaire attempts a form of seduction on Jane that might also be the more traditional kind, turning a mixture of vague threat and cajoling appeal on her as he tries to pressure her into removing Jef’s alibi with the promise that if he can prove he killed the club owner she’ll go down for perjury. The Commissaire’s air of savvy knowing and dogged, instinctive method are similar to Jef’s ways of working, even as his person could not be more different, emissary of official French life in his three-piece suit. Like that most eminent of fictional French detectives, Maigret, it’s very easy to imagine him going home at night to a wife and three kids. But his job is too onerous, the police station his natural habitat as much as seedy apartments and alleys are Jef’s: “That takes care of our Sunday,” he says as he’s faced with nine more protracted interrogations after releasing Jef. Police work is a painstaking shuffle towards a desired goal.
Whilst Jef successfully, even easily defies the forces of official justice, he finds his job turns complex and threatening in his interactions with the cabal employing him. Not understanding that being arrested was part of Jef’s plan, Rey sends a blonde hood (Jacques Leroy) to meet him for the pay-off, who instead tries to shoot Jef when they meet. Melville stages this rupture in the film’s sleek and nerveless rhythm as a sudden and spectacular pivot from charged stillness, conveyed in close shots of the actors, whose similarity of appearance suggests they’re all but doppelgangers, to lunging motion and violent disorientation, as he suddenly cuts to a shot from the perspective of a passing train, as if this is just another moment of life in the raw to be glimpsed from the Metro. Jef is wounded by a bullet but he manages to drive the goon away, and returns to his apartment where he cleans up the wound. Jef is left to improvise as a vice tightens about him, left broke and betrayed and unable to get the cops off his back. He attempts to use Valérie to contact the boss behind the operation. The blonde man returns to ambush Jef in his apartment, not to kill him but to explain the misunderstanding and offer him more money to complete another hit. Jef takes exception, stating he never speaks to a man holding a gun (“Is that a rule?” “A habit”). The goon puts his gun away, only for Jef to then spring on him and beat him until he gives up his employer. “That’s how you end up unemployed,” Jef tells him after he breaks easily. Jef is the pure practitioner of his faith. Jef however saves his real wrath for Rey when he finds him, clarifying Jef’s subsequent actions as being, on some level, a serve of necessary retribution for violating the rules of his trade, rules that, however tenuous, construct something like a tenable existence for those who live by them.
The theme is, of course, honour amongst thieves and the necessary punishment of any who violate such an arcane creed. The ultimate crime fiction cliché has been carefully alchemised here into an essential proposition, a runic scrawl denoting the obvious and pointing the way forward for filmmakers dabbling in this kind of movie forever more. Le Samouraï’s imprint has been tremendous on genre cinema in the intervening fifty years, beyond overt homages like Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) and stated fans like Mann, Walter Hill, and Johnnie To, who have remixed themes and images and essential qualities throughout their careers. Something of its sway was already observable in Hollywood a few years after its release amongst younger directors attentive to European cinema – it’s there in the procedural finesse and gritty urban adventures of The French Connection (1971) and the earliest entries in the icy criminal professional subgenre, like The Last Run (1971). But a deeper influence can be discerned on The Godfather (1972) and its legion of imitators, an influence built more around its stated thematic presumption that the crime world is worthy of comparison to bygone cultural phenomena, the code-driven professions of warriors, left adrift in an impersonal modern world inimical to basic values amongst certain sectors of society. Where Melville offered this concept as a piece of cool jazz, Francis Coppola and others would inflate it on a epic stage, proposing its heroes as inheritors of the state-of-siege mentality of Roman equites and medieval warlords.
In that regard Le Samouraï’s influence might be considered pernicious in introducing this dubious if attractive romanticisation of criminals into the pop cultural lexicon. That said, the fact that Melville made up the quote at the start of his film suggests a level of puckish sarcasm to the likeness. Yet Melville also takes the comparison a step further than most followers. He certainly takes Jef seriously as a man who sustains a code, his downfall and his ultimate march to self-destruction, which echoes that in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) two years later but which pays off in a radically different manner: where Peckinpah’s criminal knights choose to go out in an orgiastic act of self-immolation, Jef chooses to erase only himself, with an aspect of self-abnegation that does actually finally render him worthy of a Zen consideration. Aware that the second contract the blonde man offered him was to kill Valérie, and equally aware that she’s protected by hidden police, he approaches her with a look of bottomless of sorrow and exhaustion, and takes out his gun, only to die in a hail of bullets.
The Commissaire soon learns his gun was empty, his death something like seppuku, an honourable way to go out when the suppositions that made his existence tenable if not fun have one by one been kicked out. Jef turns the spectacle of his own futility into a kind of rite, given strange final solemnity and import by the exchange he has with Valérie – “Why Jef?” “I was paid to.” Jef cannot complete the contract, and so he must pay his own price Melville’s camera retreats to a deadpan long shot of Valérie seated in the midst of the club whilst the mess is cleaned up, as if to take bewildered stock of a drama that has been both radically simple and impossible to fully grasp. This shot closes a rhyme with the opening, but with telling contrasts – past has yielded to future, male to female, killer to artist, one life lived as running improvisation giving way to another. Le Samouraï wields a cumulative impact that defies dissection, the undercurrent of piercing sadness all the more powerful for Melville’s refusal to weep for a killer. It is precisely the sense that Jef knew he didn’t deserve anyone’s tears, the portrayal of a life nullified, that provokes sorrow, for the sense that anyone should exist in such perfect solitude and pain is almost too awful to face.