Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wonders how this French dude in a fedora and trench coat would stack up against General Rokurota Makabe in a spear fight.
"I never lose, not really."—Jef
The cover of Le Samouraï states that "maverick director Jean-Pierre Melville's masterpiece LE SAMOURAÏ defines cool." Though brash, the statement is practically a microcosm of everything said in the liner notes, the extra features, essays…even endorsements by John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.
If everyone is right (and I don't doubt them), Le Samouraï single-handedly birthed the "cold gentleman gangster with a scrupulous code of behavior" icon. "Cool" killers from Tarantino's impeccably dressed gangsters in Reservoir Dogs to Woo's The Killer were spawned from the fertile legacy of Melville's Jef Costello. Though I acknowledge Jef's legacy and find Le Samouraï's influence self-evident, the actual experience of watching the film left something to be desired.
Facts of the Case
We enter the film to see Jef (Alain Delon, The Leopard) in full stride. In near silence, he prepares an alibi by visiting Jane (Nathalie Delon), then executes a man in full public view. His careful preparations are necessary; by chance, Jef is picked to stand in a lineup to help witnesses identify the shooter.
Though Jef's alibi is flawless, The Superintendent (François Périer, The Red Circle) is suspicious. This begins a convoluted game which begins to wear on Jef's imperturbable exterior. Only The Pianist (Caty Rosier) who witnessed Jef's crime holds the answer to Jef's destiny.
If you're like me, the Criterion Collection inspires a paradoxical blend of anticipation and dread. The anticipation comes from Criterion's impressive instincts to identify, obtain, and flawlessly transfer to DVD films that are overlooked gems of cinema. Whether it be from style, acting, or some other cinematic aspect, the films Criterion selects have high potential to induce light bulb flashes in your mind. The dread comes from their medicinal quality: "This is going to be good for your cultural upbringing—now concentrate!"
In spite of the concentration necessary to fully appreciate these films, I find that the Criterion Collection's buzzworthiness outpaces its mustier moments. I'm usually more pleased than I expected to be. For example, I was dubious about watching a morality play neutered by censors, but The Devil and Daniel Webster gave me Simone Simon and displayed some technical trickery that holds up well today. By comparison Le Samouraï seems like a sure thing, and in many ways it is—but I left it feeling less satisfied that I expected to be.
The Rebuttal Witnesses will speak to that. Before they have their say, let's talk about what Le Samouraï does well, which is a lot.
Herman Melville had a decent life set before him, but he hopped a whaling ship to the southern seas and fought man and nature with his bare hands. His salt-flecked Moby Dick is so rich with brooding ruminations on Great Themes that it would take a lifetime to sift through them. His "Bartleby the Scrivener" presents us a man not unlike Jef, so rigid in behavior that the behavior itself compels us. When Jean-Pierre co-opted Melville's surname for his own, the gesture was more than homage. Jean-Pierre works much of Melville's existential purity into his own films, and nowhere is that translation as clear as in Le Samouraï.
The film is a study in restraint and meticulous observation. Each movement (or lack thereof) and angle is carefully considered to form a picture of austerity. The man at the center of this film is masculine not through acts of bravado or machismo, but through the nuance of his vocal inflections, his assured posture and action. He is isolated; not shunned by society, but alone by choice. Jef is an assassin, and being isolated makes his job easier. That is all—but it is everything.
Putting such a cerebral visualization into words is difficult, but lack of words in the film is part of the effect. We learn about Jef solely through his actions: what he does, where he goes, how he carries himself. Melville is absolutely certain how he wants the first act of the film to play out, which makes it work. He spares us any obvious handholding, but it nonetheless becomes clear what Jef is doing and why.
Such scrupulous attention to detail might lead you to think that Le Samouraï is a realistic film, but nothing could be further from the truth. If the film were realistic, Jef would have been let go by the police much sooner than he was. He'd also be dead. Niggling splinters of reality intrude on Le Samouraï, until we eventually realize that reality goes against the grain. Le Samouraï is not realistic. Melville has stated it is about the mind, or about Man, Destiny, and Death. Reading the film that way makes it much more plausible. Otherwise, we'd be stuck with a slightly ridiculous caper film.
Performance is vital to Le Samouraï. Specifically, honest performance. Alain Delon is not convincing as a ruthless killer. Yet he is convincing as a quiet man absolutely constrained by a samurai-like code of behavior. His face tells us very little, which paradoxically tells us much about Jef. Alain's wife Nathalie is on screen for much less time, yet her performance is no less resonant. She is perfectly convincing in her love and in the lies she tells. That leaves us with the cop-who-would-be-an-enigma and the enigma-who-would-be-a-pianist. The former is played by François Périer as a complete counterpoint to Jef: rumpled where Jef is neat, loud where he is quiet. Yet we sense that The Superintendent is Jef's equal. This gives the cat-and-mouse game some teeth (though not as many as Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones would find in The Fugitive). Rosier's performance is unassured, but she somehow manages to be the coolest person in the film.
The real story of interest in Le Samouraï is its influence. Most critics and filmmakers acknowledge Melville's pervasive influence on postmodern noir. The clearest example is that John Woo loosely remade the film into The Killer, but virtually every crime film made in the postmodern style has a ripple or two of Melville.
Criterion has done justice to that influence with their extras package. The liner notes alone contain more supplementary material than 95% of DVDs receive. Two lengthy dissections of the film and Melville's style by Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau provide richer insights along with some fawning. The real treasure is an extensive collection of television footage of the actors and directors speaking about Le Samouraï. These interviews bring the film and its roots into focus.
Le Samouraï is not an aurally immersive film. The mono soundtrack gets the vital cues across and nothing more. The sound design is Spartan like everything else in the movie. Its visuals are both bland and artistic, which is hard to imagine but effective in practice. A completely desaturated color scheme of grays, neutrals, blacks, creams, and whites sets the narrative tone. Criterion's transfer is fine as usual, though the print is grainy and lacks contrast. A few odd film splices cause characters to jump shift in frame, but that is the only real issue with video quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It may not be fair because Melville influenced what came later, but the truth is that I found Le Samouraï less cool, less suspenseful, and less satisfying a film than virtually any well-crafted gangster movie made in the past thirty years. They all hit the same notes, yet in more approachable and memorable ways. Robert De Niro did "closemouthed, existential gangster" better in Once Upon a Time in America; in fact, Leone's reticent hit men as a whole are more watchable. I can still remember De Niro's enveloping smile at the end of Once Upon a Time in America, whereas Jef's last expression is nondescript. Leon, everyone's favorite Professional, did "ascetic assassin" with more authority (not to mention De Niro's character in Heat). Tarantino's immaculately clad killers ooze more menace than Jef is ever able to muster.
Even without comparison to other movies, Le Samouraï is dissatisfying as a narrative vehicle. I'm not as convinced as everyone else of the film's perfection. The pacing is out of whack in several scenes, such as the subway chase with the net of transmitter-wielding cops. The scene is essentially a collage of images of Jef walking around and lights on a map. The outcome is in no doubt, and the entire sequence lacks dramatic impetus. Therefore, it was way too long. Had there been another element mixed in, some implied violence or tension, it might have worked. Likewise, some conversations are unnecessary, confusing, or merely transparent foreshadowing. For example, the mechanic who changes the plates on Jef's stolen vehicles tells him, "This is the last time, Jef." Why? What makes that day different from any other day, and why do we need to hear it? Even with the mix of obvious and too-subtle foreshadowing, the ending felt tacked on.
In fact, aside from the opening study of Jef's clinical preparations, the only scene that showed me any sign of tension was the confrontation in Jef's apartment. (Yes, I'm including the much-ballyhooed bridge confrontation, which was effective visually but not dramatically.) This scene progresses. It starts out one way, experiences shifting power and focus, and ends on a much different arc. Jef finally shows himself able to be menacing instead of Alain Delon merely acting so. Even this scene pales in comparison to 1963's From Russia with Love, which featured a thematically similar, yet dramatically superior, showdown.
That's really the crux of the matter to me. Le Samouraï isn't doing much that James Bond hasn't done better before, or imitators done better since. With a varied diet of such films under my belt, Le Samouraï seems like a low-budget French version of cops and robbers with an existentialist coat of paint.
Perhaps another viewing or two would awaken Le Samouraï's great themes in my own mind. As it stands, they lurk, barely realized, beneath the surface of an austere film. The film was cool enough and creative enough to influence an entire generation of filmmakers, and there's no doubt about its purity of focus and execution. Some hail it as a masterpiece. I'm not among them, but it is due more to a vague dissatisfaction than a refusal of Le Samouraï's artistry.
Le Samouraï is not guilty—but something really bothers me about that young man.
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Scales of Justice
• "Authors on Melville" with Film Historians Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau
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