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|Index||93 reviews in total|
To see how beautiful, moving, exciting and astonishing Melville's 'Le
Samourai' is, to recognise it as one of the greatest films ever made,
arguably the most perfect, it is necessary to forget everything you've been
told about it. If you've been told nothing, than you are very lucky; the
first time I saw I knew nothing either, and it was a revelation - I came out
of the cinema with huge goggle eyes - cinema can do THAT?! I absorbed every
Melville film I could find (they are VERY hard to get), and read every
article or book about him. My love grew to uncontrollable passion. But a
lot cliches and received truths have grown up around his work, and this
sublime miracle especially.
The most obvious is the director's obsession with American cinema. That his films are mere tributes to American cinema, or stern deconstructions of them. It is true that Jef Costello wears the classic film noir garb of mac and derby, but so do at least 400 men in Paris. And it is true that Melville rigorously exposes the myth of the gangster, but, most importantly, of masculinity and its power.
Elaborate theories of psychoanalysis are usually brought in here, the idea that Jef begins the film 'whole', looking at the mirror; during the course of the narrative he loses this self-sufficient image, cracking up as it fragments, split by mirrors, trapped behind bars (although the halved banknotes he consciously plays with at the beginning might qualify this).
Others comment on the film less as a gangster film than a dramatisation of particular philosophies. Some see Jef as an example of existentialist man, a man who does not exist except through his acts - the film patiently records endless scenes of Jef walking, staring, preparing for his jobs etc. His final ritual is a preparation for his death; as existentialism suggests, friends, social purpose etc. fall away, and one is left alone with one's fate.
Or as an expression of fatalistic Orientalist ethics (the film IS called 'Le Samourai') concerning solitude and the inevitability of death. Melville himself offered two possible interpretations - as a study in schizophrenia, and as an allegory of Man (Jef) pursued by Destiny (the Inspector) into the arms of Death (Valerie, the pianist).
All of these, of course, are valid interpretations. I am more sympathetic to those who see 'Samourai' as a dream, a study in solitude, or a portrait of mental breakdown. The film's action takes place largely at night; there is a frequently oneiric tone to Melville's style, the endless walking, the silence, the deliberate paring down of the mise-en-scene to near-monochrome. Jef's impassivity is comparable to that of a somnambulist, walking mechanically down countless corridors. As in a dream, whole sequences are repeated in exactly the same way. We keep returning to the same few locales. The film opens with Jef lying smoking in bed, in the dark; one powerful scene is Jef waking up after he has bandaged his wounded arm - has he had a nightmare, or is it the sound of a passing truck?
'Samourai' is also much more moving as a story of solitude than Antonioni's entire oeuvre put together. The only sure thing in this strange and enigmatic film is Jef's loneliness, living with his only friend, a caged bullfinch (usually a symbol of female entrapment) in a dismally run-down, sparse grey bedsit, prey to any intruders. Although he is constantly forced into the centre of the city by work and the police, he is safer on the margins, in anonymous streets, abandoned railway yards, disused buildings. Or at least he was before all the trouble started.
He is defined against the grim, geometric anonymity of modern life, his milieu as soulless and constricting as the plot he moves in, the elevator shafts that imprison him. He is the image of man in a surveillance society, an innocent man (until proven guilty) having his every move followed by a police happy to use morality as a threat (many people see Melville's films as sublimated allegories of France under the Occupation).
His only contact with people is in the preparation of death; his is a sterile, self-negating existence, ascetic as a monk (his uniform as ritual vestments). That Jef is a tragically lonely man is undoubted. There are two heartbreaking moments in this cool, austere film, when emotion breaks Alain Delon's astonishing performance, the most beautiful man in the movies letting slip just like the stills moving in 'La Jetee': when he goes back to the scene of the crime and looks at the pianist; his face for a brief second seems absolutely distraught, helpless, a child looking for a mother to reassure him (this is the key to the film, I believe, Jef the lonely wanderer searching for home); the second, after the celebrated Metro chase, in the stolen car, his face, for a moment, betraying hear-beating terror. At these moments, allegories and theories simply break down.
Jef's mental breakdown is, of course, linked to all this. Over the credits, Jef smokes alone in his bedroom, barely visible - the two bright windows look like eyes, as in Beckett's 'End Game', a figure for the mind, a mind at the end of its tether as seen by Melville's horizontal use of Hitchcock's famous 'Vertigo' shot, contracting and constricting the room to breaking point, revealing the instability of this 'safe' haven, and Jef's image of himself.
Mental deterioration is usually a subject of horror movies - the score features frequent bursts of chilling organ; when Jef goes to collect his car and gun for the contract, his accomplice, lit by a lamp, looks like a terrifying spirit. Jef is a trapped character, in his room, identity, plot; by the police and the gangsters; by geography, shadows, corridors; by the loop of time that forces him to return again and again to the same point - he is in hell; the only way out is self extinction.
It is important not to see Melville as child of Sartre, which limits him, but of Nabokov, whose complex procedures of ludic expression find a cinematic equivalent in his work - it is vitally important not to take him at face value. Jef's shooting of Rey - impossible, magical - is pure Nabokov.
I could go on - the Benjaminian idea of the flaneur and Paris; the extraordinary, near-futuristic sets; the comedy (e.g. see who Jef rides with in the police van answering to the same description); its remarkable analysis of the gaze; the brilliance of its action and suspense mechanics; the running motif of the theatre, performing, acting (in both senses) - Jef's costume; the line-up in a theatre-like space; the closing 'show is over' drum-roll.
Everything about this film, as John Woo noted, is perfect, but there is one sequence, breaking with Melville's calm, distant style throughout, that I would list on my ten best ever - as Jef goes to collect the cash and is instead faced with a gun - firstly he faces the audience; we could be no closer. Then, just as the struggle begins, Melville cuts away, his camera manically panning away from the action behind bridge grills, following Jef as he runs and ineffectually chases his assailant's car. It is a heartstopping moment in a film still too little known. I've just watched it twice in two days; I really must watch it again.
This film starts off with the same sound like Sergio Leone's 'C'era un
volta il west', but it's just that here the sound is made not by a
plate, but a canary, the cold-blooded killer's canary.
This film was made in 1967, the French nouveau vague already apparent all over the place, but with much more subtle undertones than, say, a work by Truffaut.
No, Melville's films were old-school, but at the same time revolutionary, in a delicate way. Take for example the 'chase' scene through the Metro. Practically nothing happens: there are no gunfights, no combat sequences, perhaps just a small chase. But it is Melville's camera and Delon's inimitable performance that keep the audience mesmerized all the way.
The camera practically flirts with the audience throughout the whole movie, picking the most interesting angles and achieving so much practically without any effort. Delon's character changes his expression only once or twice during the movie, shoots faster than even Leone's gunslingers and never forgets to feed his canary. To me, one of the most accomplished antiheroes of the whole genre.
The dialogue is barely there, but when it is, then it's something you'd probably wish you would have come up with yourself. It is a minimalist work that achieves the absolute maximum. Simply put: one of the best crime noirs ever made.
I just recently saw this film for the first time (a la Criterion) and I
was completely blown away. This film can be summed up with a single
This is a work of true cinema. Hollywood tends to forget that cinema is first and foremost a visual art. Le Samurai is a film that could've been made as a silent movie. The director establishes meaning not with dialog but with the best tools available to a director; editing, mise en scenes, cinematography and composition. There is a constant feeling of solitude and isolation. Even when the protagonist finds himself in large groups, his face is pale, his eyes are cast downward and he is still a constant outsider.
On another note, the film looks surprisingly modern. There's none of the graininess of many other 60s and 70s films. Rather, the lighting and the whole visual aesthetic is pitch perfect, from the black and white nightclub (dualism) to the sparse gray apartment to the subterranean eeriness of the Paris subway.
Personally, I would not recommend this film to people not interested in real cinema, people who like 'movies' rather than 'film', simply because there's a strong possibility it will seem extremely annoying and boring to you. On the other hand, if you're a fan of serious cinema, do yourself a favor and watch this film.
Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai is the cinematic embodiment of cool. This film is unlike any Hollywood action treatment of a hitman in that it every single movement is treated like a precious gemstone. Alain Delon plays a double crossed assasin who stays one step ahead of the law in what becomes a very smart cat and mouse plot. Delon's character could very well have influenced the loner action hero of the 70's and 80's. Every single movement he makes is done with a cold calculated precision; the way he puts on his hat, smokes a cigarette, and handles a gun. He makes The Fonz look like Roger Rabbit. Dialogue isn't even necessary for a lot of the story. Melville is smart enough to know that movies are about images. The story unfolds in compelling scene after compelling scene. There is also quite a fair bit of sly humour too. Entertaining on many levels. See this!
I'm going to go ahead and suggest, in my meager way, some reasons as to
why Jean-Pierre Melville's *Le Samourai* is one of the greatest movies
ever made, but it's far, far better for you to experience the film for
yourself. You now have no more excuses: Criterion has just released it
on DVD -- though, puzzlingly, this film doesn't get the deluxe
double-disc treatment that the somewhat inferior *Le Cercle Rouge*
received. Whatever -- I'll take it.
Simply put, *Le Samourai* justifies -- beyond argument -- the auteur theory in cinema, which states, more or less, that the most artistically rich movies are "authored" by their directors. And how much more enjoyable it is for the viewer that the author in this case, Melville, is mostly concerned with entertaining you! Those who dread the prospect of a French film from the Sixties can rest assured: no Godardian slap-dash cross-cutting, here; no lolling around in bed with a girl, smoking cigarettes and spouting tough-guy Marxism; no confusing back-and-forth displacement of narrative time, a la Resnais. Oh, Melville was a New Wave director, to be sure, but he was NEVER an experimentalist in terms of narrative. Take a film by Godard, even his most famous film, *Breathless*: you have to meet Godard on his own terms, or get left behind (your loss!) But Melville pours his stories into your glass neat, no ice, no intellectual mixer. *Le Samourai* is about a gun-for-hire named Jef Costello (Alain Delon). His job is to eliminate a nightclub owner. He does so, but is witnessed leaving the scene of the crime by the club's piano player (Cathy Rosier). Later that night, during the police round-up, he's taken in as one of 400 or more potential suspects. The cops can't make it stick to Costello, but the superintendent (Francois Perier) isn't fooled by Costello or his airtight alibi. And thus Costello finds himself under police surveillance, and meanwhile, his criminal bosses want to rub him out in case he squeals to "le flics". In other words, the actual story is simplicity itself, and is frankly ripped off from all the B-movie American noirs that Melville loved so much.
But none of this explains the stark originality of the movie. Of course, Melville gets some help. Let it be said that Delon is so good as the hunted hit-man that it almost defies description, let alone praise. Reportedly, he took the part after Melville had read to him the first 7 or 8 pages of the script. "I have no dialog for the first 10 minutes. I love it -- when can we start?" Delon is supposed to have said. Luckily for Melville, he found a kindred spirit in Delon, who, in any case, must have recognized the potentially iconic performance he could pull off if sympathetically directed. And boy, did he pull it off: NO ONE, in ANY movie, has ever been cooler than Delon's Costello. The movie was released in 1967 -- the Summer of Love -- but here's Delon anachronistically dressed in a single-breasted suit and a fedora, and getting away with it. (Well, okay, everyone else is wearing a hat, too, but this IS a Melville picture.) As for the performance itself, it bears comparison to Dirk Bogarde's Aschenbach in Visconti's *Death in Venice*: both roles are virtually silent yet must convey multitudes in a glance, in a movement, in a slight widening of the eyes. This is acting at its most meticulous, most physical, and most compact. Costello hardly ever says anything, but we're totally compelled by him, thanks to Delon's tight control. The influence of this character and Delon's performance has been nothing less than torrential: Pacino's Michael in *The Godfather* may serve as an obvious example.
But much of this owes to Melville's original conception, as well. If Shakespeare needs good actors to carry his plays over, then good actors need Shakespearean-level material to reach their best performances. Melville, as always, flavors his pulpy stews with his own fevered artistic ingredients, the foremost of which is own idea of masculinity taken to the insane extreme. Tainted with Japanese samurai films, American gangster films, and westerns as well, Melville concocts a character whose every act is an expression of pure existentialism. The ultimate result is that frisson of sublime strangeness we as an audience encounter whenever we come face-to-face with a deeply considered and unique artistic vision. The best art is really weird, yet recognizable and unforgettable. *Le Samourai* is among the best art.
10 stars out of 10.
Melville's masterpiece about a contract killer, a modern day samuraï.
He makes brilliant use of the city he loved so much, Paris. The feel,
the sounds, the streets, the noise, it's all hauntingly cold and
distant but at the same time he makes Paris seem like the coolest city
in the world.
In the beginning of the film Melville uses a beautiful static shot of over 4 minutes to establish the audience with a seemingly empty room, then we see smoke circling upwards. There must be someone in the room but it's practically impossible to determine where the smoke is coming from. Finally Jeff Costello gets up from his bed, which wasn't recognizable as such in the first place, and appears on screen. The whole set-up is more reminiscent of a moving replica of a painting by the surrealist Paul Delvaux than anything else in modern cinema. Another surreal set piece is when after his first hit, all possible suspects are brought in at a police station, including Delon himself. Not one by one but all of 'em at the same time. In the next scene we see at least a hundred "gangsters", all wearing trench coats and hats, in a large hall, where they will be interrogated "en plein public". Genuinely strange procedures but handled with such care and stylishness that it becomes completely believable. It gives the somewhat humorous suggestion that the streets of Paris are populated by hundreds, even thousands, of trenchcoat-wearing gangsters, all loners, only seeing each other at card games and occasions like this.
Alain Delon is the perfect embodiment of gangster coolness in this career-defining role as a hit-man in Paris, a modern-day samuraï. "Le Gangster", as the French lovingly call them. Off course, these gangsters don't exist anymore and they probably never existed at all. French Gangsters must have been redefining their look after seeing Delon in this film. His association in real life with French criminal circles, in particular the Marseille underworld, has always given his performances a very strange aura.
As a kid, I regularly visited my grandmother who lived near the city of Marseille and on French television I saw lots of French gangster movies (well, my parents let me watch with them). Alain Delon was in quite a few of them. When I grew older and could identify most of the French screen legends, Delon as no other came to represent the ultimate gangster. An stylized icon of urban cool. I'm also convinced that his character Jef Costello in Le Samouraï was the inspiration for the hissing and whispering fellow in the trench coat in Sesame Street (did he have a name?), something like a gangster, a criminal. A mysterious strange man you should avoid as a kid. I'll be damned if I'm wrong, but I still see Alain Delon in Sesame Street!
Jean-Pierre Melville took the idea of the lone gunman (perhaps more
akin to the western genre than the crime genre), and created a film
with star Alain Delon as a ultra-calm, smooth-operating contract killer
Jeff Costello in Paris, who may be at least a little insane. The result
is a blend of stylistic and thematic excellence, a suspense film where
sometimes that aspect has to take a backseat to the psychological drama
of the killer, and the side-story of the police procedural (headed by
'Superintendant' played by Francois Perier). The film carries very
little dialog with a couple of exceptions, which gives Melville a
chance to perfect his storytelling technique. Deleon, as well, was a
very fit choice for the role of Costello. It's actually fascinating
that Melville made this character, mostly a night owl with a look
that's usually cold and hard boiled like some neo-hood from the 30's,
There's also the look of the film, provided in part by Henri Decae, who would later lens Melville's epic Le Cercle Rouge. In the opening shot, were given the feeling of distortion on Costello's uniquely blank one-room apartment. Is this to bring us inside of Costello's frayed consciousness, or is it just one of those style moves done by directors in the 60's? I might go for the psychological part, but what I noticed about Le Samourai, adding to the appeal of it, was the theme of Costello's mind-set is put forth subtlety. This is a pro put into tight circumstances (getting heat from his employers as well as the police), so who is there for him to go to? Just an on & off again girlfriend (Nathalie Delon), a little bird in his apartment, and a witness to one of his contracts (the late Cathy Rosier, in a performance of some note despite the one-sidedness of her part). When the action comes, it's not as bloody as in the films it later inspired (most obvious of which are John Woo's The Killer and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog), yet that too just adds on to the emotions provoked by the settings and the mis-en-scene.
So, would I recommend Le Samourai to fans of crime films? Well, it may not to those who sole obsession are the crime films that pack all the high octane juice and gore, such as in a John Woo or Hong-Kong action film, or to the Tarantino fans that may not appreciate the patience Melville has (the deliberate pace and silences) as opposed to laughs and ultra-violence. I'd guess that Le Samourai is most successful, and why it is one of the best films I will ever see, because it is heavy on the nuance and detail, doesn't skimp on keeping the genre characters believable, and leaves the gun-play as true surprises even on repeat viewings (however, this is the kind of film to be watched maybe once every year or once ever few years, so that it keeps fresh when seen again).
Aside from delivering the goods in terms of the story and as a drama, for the audience it seeks out it's highly absorbing and an example of subtlety in cinematic grammar. It's not a crime or police movie for the mainstream (and I'm sure some will seek this out from the under-ground buzz, start watching and say, "oh man, this stuff's in subtitles? I can't bear to watch"). Really, it's appeal will hold more to fans of the french new-wave, which Melville set off with Bob le Flambeur, film-geeks, and for those looking for a dosage of atmosphere and cool bravura directors can't seem to latch onto in recent times. For me, it is one of the truly sublime time-capsule of what the gangster/noir genre/mood can produce.
For once, a bad guy who really acts like a bad guy should! This hit-man is one cold, non-descript and calculating man who plans and executes his hit with the utmost precision. About the only character I remember who did a more thorough job was the hit-man in Day of the Jackal. The police also seem very bright and competent--and repeatedly nearly trip up the baddie (Jef). Because of all this realism, I strongly commend this movie. On top of the realism, I really liked the ending. All in all, a fine film and there are no negatives that I can think of--except that this type of film is probably NOT everyone's cup of tea, so to speak. There really isn't any romance and no one is particularly likable, but what do you expect in a film like this?
Le Samourai (1967) ****
The film opens to the semi-annoying sound of a small birds chirp in a dull, grey room that appears to be empty. After a moment we realize the room is not empty - a man lights a cigarette lying on his bed. Meet Jef Costello, played by french pretty boy Alain Delon. The opening shot sets the pace for the rest of movie. There are no high speed chases or wild action sequences, and the star barely speaks a word. Costello is one of the coolest characters in film history. Delon plays his character to perfection. If one did not know anything about him it was likely you would not realize he was a pretty boy. His face is expressionless throughout almost the entire movie - it is a tribute to Delon that he can express emotion on only a couple occasions while still remaining facially expressionless.
Costello is a hit-man, loyal to his boss: himself. The title of the film, Le Samourai, suggests of course that Costello is a student of the Samourai code. But is he really? The movie also opens with a quote "There is no solitude greater than the Samurai's, except for that of a tiger in the jungle. Unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle." This supposedly comes from the Book of the Samurai, which as it turns out was an invention of director Jean-Pierre Melville.
The story plays out as Jef completes a hit on night club owner, after setting up an almost too perfect alibi, but on his way out the door is seen by a the beautiful piano player. The police round up a number of people who look fit the description; Costello happens to be rounded up while at a card game. His alibi is strong, and mysteriously the piano player claims that this is definitely not the man she saw; another man who watched Costello walk out of the club also said with certainty that this is not the man. Another club patron claims that he saw this man at the club at the time of the murder and claims this is the culprit. The remaining two witnesses aren't sure, but don't think this was the killer. We know its Costello, the third man believes it is him, but why do the two who had the best look claim that this is not the man they saw? The plot evolves from here: The police believe Costello is lying and follow him everywhere; the men who gave Jef the hit will betray him and come after him as well.
Melville is meticulous in his direction, just as Costello is in his actions. There is great detail paid to the actions of Costello leading up to the hit, from stealing a car while trying a number of keys, placing those that do not work in a perfect line on the seat beside him, to his alibi with a woman (played by Delon's real life wife) who says she does not love him to the police, but we get the feeling she does indeed. There are moments of silent comedy that you could almost miss: The men riding with Costello on the way to the police station, none of whom look anything like the description, some old and decrepit; there is a scene in which Jef opens his cupboard and we see on the top of it bottles of water and packs of cigarettes lined up perfectly. None of this is laugh out loud funny, but incredibly clever and lets you know that Melville knows exactly how Costello should be.
As stated, the film is not full of action. It is a film where almost nothing happens. But no other film in which nothing happens has ever been so riveting. There is a famous metro chase scene that moves at probably the slowest pace of any chase scene in cinematic history, but it is enthralling. The pace sets up more importantly the themes of the movie. What are they? Its been debated widely. Searching for home? Mental Breakdowns? Morality, and loneliness? I would argue that it is not one, but likely all of these. The title reflects Jef's solitude and loneliness more than his code of honor. The final scene reflects many things about what we just witnessed, and has left some confused about what happens. Costello does a number of things in the latter half of the movie we do not understand, and that Melville gives us no answers to. Costello returns to the night club for example, buys a whiskey, pays for it, and then promptly leaves without drinking it. Why? Who knows.
Le Samourai is a classic, filled with pitch perfect performances and is the inspiration for a number of modern day films. John Woo has called it an absolutely perfect film, and he is likely right. It is a meticulously developed project, with virtually no flaws. It's probably the best film about hit men ever made, which is a narrow classification of this film, because it is more than just the story of a hit-man. Il N'y a pas De Plus Profonde Solitude Que Celle Du Samourai.
Jef Costello is a contract killer, a lone wolf living in Paris in 1967.
He is vocally inert, a modern day samurai who emulates the intensity
and devotion of an old school samurai. Costello finds himself arrested
for a murder that he is guilty of. He is taken to a line-up and
identified by a select few who saw him leave the scene of the crime.
Amazingly he gets away with it, this might be the only niggling thing
in the movie, you feel it is impossible for a man to come so close with
the law and not get charged. Alas, he is a free man. The rest of the
film focuses on the police trying to bring him down, to crack his
alibis, to catch him in the act. The final scene I can not comment on
without spoiling. Melville certainly delivers on his statement that he
likes to leave the audience confused. However you interpret the ending
is the true meaning to you. It may frustrate some, but personally I
think it is the most well executed ending I have seen in a long time.
This film radiates that dark brooding look that only European movies portray well. The simplistic yet striking sets make streets and the most mundane objects look like works of art. The audacious use of pop culture in the form of art and artifacts adds to the overall tone of the film. The mash up of elements, the sassy colors of the 60's, the sophisticated noir qualities and the undercurrent of Japanese cinema makes this film so remarkable. It sounds as if it would clash violently, and it does, but it works. You feel very detached watching this movie, free to interpret it how you want; there is little dialog which I would like to see more in movies. It is so suggestive; this film caters to those who do not like condescending films that spell out what is going on, as if you are watching an episode of Sesame Street. This film is simply epic. One that I am going to insist upon watching monthly.
Further more, Criterion really know who to spoil connoisseurs of film. I recommend you invest in buying the criterion collection edition of Le Samourai. It comes with a 32 page booklet including excerpts from Melville on Melville and essays by David Thomson and filmmaker John Woo, as well as 6 interview clips with various actors from the film and an interview with Jean- Pierre Melville.
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