This is the fifth in a series of analysis retrospective articles I’ve done for The Metaplex, and, time permitting, I hope to publish a new one every week.
Since the start of film, the genre has been treated with pompous skepticism. In the early days of cinema, the “Big Five” studios, RKO, Paramount, Fox, MGM, and Warner Bros., prized genre films as cash in, cash out enterprises for a quick buck, but otherwise thought them bereft of real value. Surely, artists made human stories, dramas, the sort of work that won awards on Broadway. These ideas permeated into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and, to this day, genre films have a serious fight come Oscar time. This line of thinking is nonsense, and Le Samouraï seems to purely exist to prove why. A film late in the going of the French New Wave, the ‘60s movement of film critics and theorists who ended up practicing what they preached with groundbreaking innovation in film style and content, Le Samouraï continues the trend of dissecting the genre film. Cowriter/director Jean-Pierre Melville made a career out of subversive films, and although Trouffaut often gets credit for starting the New Wave with The 400 Blows, Melville’s earlier film Bob The Gambler is (arguably) the match that lit the fire.
The French New Wave was always eagerly concerned with genre, especially the crime films of the 1940s, represented especially by Godard’s dazzling debut, Breathless. Breathless followed an outlaw on the run, but there’s a comic forgetfulness with how Godard moves in, out, and between the genre trappings. Large stretches of Breathless seem to ignore that it’s a genre film at all, like a roughly twenty-five minute dialogue scene where our lustful hero tries to convince a beautiful woman to go to bed with him. For Godard, genre is a play set, and there’s an open disinterest to play the film any straighter than the crooked lead character. This reveals a key aspect of the New Wave: a film’s style, format, and tone frequently reflect the essence of the main character.
It’s important to reflect on Breathless as a counterpoint to Le Samouraï, because, unlike that film, Melville treats the crime genre with ceremony and reverence. It’s a celebration, an ode, a tribute to men wearing trench coats and razor-sharp fedoras who carry deadly weapons just out of view. It’s a film of cops and criminals, fate and free will, and the sultry romance of being a career killer. Here, that means both sides of the law, and neither is without blemish. It’s also one of the most stylish films ever made, and the film that defined movie-cool.
The film begins in the sparse space of an empty studio apartment with a man, a lone wolf, smoking a leisurely cigarette. Class. His name is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), and he is a hit man. He’s given a job, a hit, and Melville fetishizes his routine. It starts with putting on a trench coat over his impeccably tailored black suit (complete with a skinny tie, a reminder today of how much ‘60s fashion dominates), and continues with putting on a fedora. He stares at his reflection as he puts on the hat and strikes the top rim, as if the film self-consciously declares to the audience, “You will never be this cool.” The film is right. Costello has a complex sequence of tasks before a kill, from how he gets transport to securing an alibi, and the opening minutes are a tantalizing seduction into his world. Costello does it with the sweatless skill of a pro. He’s smooth, he’s dangerous, and the film magnificently sets up our protagonist through carefully choreographed visual storytelling. In refreshing contrast to most films released today, Le Samouraï talks through your senses. It’s shocking, then, when Costello’s latest hit goes bad. After killing his target, he’s seen, and the police investigate. This is the plot.
Le Samouraï is a work of exquisite minimalism, a film of silence and space. Dialogue is rare. The haunting jazzy score is infrequent, and wide blank spaces are common. The film can be described as a series of tableaux, starting with the poeticism of the empty opening frame. There’s an excellent example early in the film fit for the Museum of Contemporary Art. A squad of police officers inspect the room of the murdered hit, only, in a painterly flourish, each individual cop is seemingly paralyzed in place, chaotically facing off in different directions. There’s a conscious stagey-ness to the image, and the artificiality is palpable. Is this the scattered psychology of the police, or something darker? The impotency of mankind’s institution? Mankind’s inadequacy at finding truth?
Another tableau is the lengthy police interrogation scene, complete with heavily stylized lighting that makes the suspects and the investigators pop while everyone fades into darkness. Jazz clubs, apartments, and even the subway carry double meaning, and no moment is without purpose. This is one of the ways the film begins to take on the mantra of its title character: patient, cold, calculating, decisive.
Hitchcock famously planned out set pieces first and story second, and, as a consequence, some films felt less substantial than others. In contrast, Melville’s film has the unique achievement of plot and action (here referring both to set pieces and to each tableau) in equal partisanship of an organic whole. There’s a satisfying cohesiveness amongst each of the film’s parts where they add to each other instead of subtract. Process is one of the film’s chiefest concerns, where each character has a way things must be done, and so they are. We see Costello duck from the police equally as often as we see them chase, and Melville chooses clever moments to keep us in the dark on what either side is doing. This is one of the film’s many tricks to promote excitement. What I might love most about Le Samouraï is that the plot begins sparse, silent, and still, but slowly and methodically unfurls into a highly complex web of moving narrative parts, each of them interconnected and deadly. It isn’t until the film nearly ends do you realize this tremendous narrative evolution, making the film seem compact and vast all at once. The effect is also that, without the audience noticing, tension has increased dramatically. It’s almost as though all of the air of the room was sucked out and you didn’t notice until you started suffocating.
Essays could be written on cinematographer Henri Decaë’s use of the line. How lines are positioned in the frame can make the same room appear large or small, claustrophobic or safe. A moment of safety is only one cut away from a moment of danger, and that level of variable unpredictability demands the audience to never relax. The visual design is immaculate, such as when a deep-focus shot of a bridge emphasizes the lines of the metal fence spanning into the far distance, and then when danger strikes, the camera cuts to a jarring close-up of Costello’s face. The lines of fence are now collapsed into abstract geometric shapes falling on his head. One line is ascending and one is descending, but they somehow both perfectly end just beneath his hat. The juxtaposition between the two images is a visual siren to alert audiences that he’s in trouble. When executed with this level of skill, visual filmmaking is sublime.
If Breathless is a thrilling joke with armchair philosophy, Le Samouraï is an exacting wintry gaze into the lonely human condition. Alain Delon gives Costello startling emotional breadth beneath his chilled stare: his is a performance of masterful subtlety. He conveys a complex psychological portrait that gives us the impression of knowing him without ever stopping him from being an enigma. He’s alienated, cut off, and what few responses he does have wield an understated emotionless flair. This is true of most people populating Melville’s desolate vision of 1960s Paris (that’s so often consumed with hues of blue), and it enhances the cool-cat quality of the film. The coolness of the understated reaction has been played up to both melancholic and hilarious ends in Wes Anderson’s films, apparently since he realized this trait somehow makes characters seem hip. A recent film oft-labeled as the ‘coolest’ film of contemporary cinema, Nicolas Winding Refn’s wildly popular film Drive, has a huge debt to pay to Le Samouraï for a similar reason. Both films live or die on uncomfortable silences. Gosling gives a performance of similar steeliness to Delon, and both films even involve similar plots. Le Samouraï has influenced international cinema tremendously, from the train chases of the French Connection to a study in both sides of the law in Heat.
The film employs many numerous palettes, patterns, and places, not only to foster a convincing sense of scale and movement—the film is never static—but to reinforce the dichotomy of cop and criminal. Delon faces off with veteran French actor François Périer, playing the police investigator pursuing his crime. Ample time is spent developing both characters, and we come to know their triumphs and faults as men and as killers. They’re equally masterful at their jobs, and errors are the consequence of karmic circumstance. One of the film’s most stunning examples of action filmmaking comes in the third act, and it personifies the foil between them. They each hold a distinct type of dominion over the vast subway system of Paris, the Métro. Costello knows every stop, every transfer, and every exit. In contrast, the investigator has an elaborate system of tails to cast a wide net for a slippery fish. Despite rarely sharing screen time, their relationship slowly becomes the film’s emotional anchor. As the film tragically concludes, we see Costello and the investigator, stuck in their roles, helpless to who they’ve chosen to be, become victims of their own occupations. For all its loving recognition of genre, Le Samouraï is about what it means to be human. It’s a story that couldn’t be told without every choice made on both sides of the camera, and often, these are the very best of films. It’s simply a masterpiece.