Thursday, January 01, 2009

Le Samouraï (1967)

The essence of Franco-American noir

Editor's note: This week's guest contributor is a writer familiar to many fans of French film noir. Ginette Vincendeau is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London and the author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris(London: BFI, 2003). She has provided filmed and audio commentaries for DVDs of a number of Melville films for BFI, Criterion and Masters of Cinema.
By Ginette Vincendeau

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) directed thirteen feature films between 1947 and 1972, most of them ranking among the best in postwar French cinema. In particular, his brilliant gangster films Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Doulos (1963), Le Deuxième souffle (1966), Le Cercle rouge (1969), and especially Le Samourai (1967), with their cool, minimalist noir style are defining instances of the French policier. A great Americanophile, the idiosyncratic Melville, who renamed himself after the writer Herman Melville, used to drive round Paris in the 1960s in a Stetson hat and a huge convertible American car.

Le Samourai is the story of Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a Parisian contract killer who realizes he is being double crossed by his employers and seeks revenge. The film was highly controversial at its release in 1967. The prestigious Cahiers du cinéma dismissed it as ‘just another thriller’ and later preposterously claimed Melville would be better employed making commercials for raincoats - at the same time, more enlightened critics compared him to Picasso in his modernity. Today Le Samourai is, rightly, regarded as one of the greatest French films.

Le Samourai has been described as both a ‘remake’ of Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942) and as based on a novel by Joan MacLeod called The Ronin. The film’s title and the post-credit quote ‘from the book of Bushido’ (actually a Melville invention), evidently refer to Japanese tradition. But despite this plethora of apocryphal sources, Le Samourai was an original story. Melville sent Alain Delon, then top French male star, the story of Le Samourai, which he had written with him in mind. What happened next, as recounted by Melville, has become legend: ‘The reading took place at his apartment. […] Alain listened without moving until suddenly, looking up to glance at his watch, he stopped me: “You’ve been reading the script for seven and a half minutes now and there hasn’t been a word of dialogue. That’s good enough for me. I’ll do the film. What’s the title?” “Le Samourai”, I told him. Without a word he signed to me to follow him. He led me to his bedroom: all it contained was a leather couch and a samurai’s lance, sword and dagger.’


Alain Delon - homme fatal

Melville’s determination to cast Delon stemmed from his admiration for the star and because ‘there was something Japanese about him’. Delon’s exceptional good looks and the controlled virility of his performance pushed the Melvillian hero towards androgynous beauty, and a cool, almost cruelly smooth surface. This aspect of Delon’s performance meshed with Melville’s idea of the gangster as an image. Delon as both object of the gaze and narrative agent embodied the homme fatal, the femme fatale and the male protagonist of film noir rolled into one. This, to me, is the significance of the short scene towards the beginning, where Delon, in his car, is watched admiringly by a pretty woman. Minimal body language signals that he has noticed her gaze, but having flashed a blank look at her, he turns away, not even gratifying her with a smile. Le Samourai refers to Delon’s stardom in other ways, for example during the ‘clothes parade’ at the police station. In order to test a witness’s statement, the Inspector puts Jef among rows of men and makes them exchange their clothes, so that they end up as a crowd of gangsters in various shades of coats and hats. Among the mass Delon’s charismatic looks leap out at the spectator, just as they do at the witness who has no trouble recognizing Jef.

Franco-American detachment: ‘remaking’ This Gun for Hire

While Jef Costello is close to Delon’s star persona, his name, occupation, trenchcoat and felt hat make him a walking ‘quote’ from the classic American noir gangster. Indeed, Le Samourai multiplies Hollywood citations: the line-up at the police station, ‘lifted’ from The Asphalt Jungle, the police station offices, the black and white views of American fire escapes through the windows of Jef’s Parisian flat. These, however, are not ‘copies’, but elements that are self-consciously reworked in Melville’s original design which also includes French icons of modernity, such as the mythical Citroen DS, Jef’s stolen vehicle of choice. Melville’s Franco-American hybrid is, as ever, tongue-in-cheek: as Jef approaches poker players to construct his alibi, the soundtrack begins with accordion music and ends with American radio. It is thus with justification that Melville said, ‘I make gangster films, inspired by the gangster novels, but I don’t make American films, even though I like the American films noirs better than anything.’

To appreciate the singularity of Le Samourai, it is useful to compare it with its supposed ‘model’, This Gun for Hire, especially since the latter, as James Naremorereminds us, was a key film in the French definition of the film noir canon. The narratives of the two films are close. Alan Ladd plays Philip Raven, a contract killer double-crossed by his employer, who goes in search of the man to avenge himself, helped by a cabaret singer (Veronica Lake). Both films start with the hero in his bedroom. In both cases Raven/Jef puts on a trenchcoat and hat before going on ‘a job’. Yet where Raven’s dingy room is teeming with naturalistic detail (unmade bed, papers, a wash-basin, honky-tonk music), Le Samourai opens on a dark, bare room. The sound of cars swishing by and the darkness suggest winter and rain. It takes some time to detect Jef lying on the bed (first-time viewers become aware of him through his cigarette smoke). The distorted calligraphy of the credits hints at mental disorder and anticipate the famous distortion of space (halting zoom/track) that occurs immediately after. A feeling of otherworldliness is further enhanced by the music, a bleak tune with religious overtones and the forlorn ‘peeps’ of Jef’s caged bird. As Jef gets up, the camera reveals more of the room, whose walls and minimal furniture are a distressed grey. Raven’s room is that of a down-at-heel small-time hitman, Jef’s gives the impression of a cell. This Gun for Hire immediately introduces rapid-fire noir dialogue, Le Samourai emphasizes glacial silence. Where the American film is generic and realistic, the French one is existential and distanced.

Melancholy masculinity

In This Gun for Hire, a shrill and luridly made-up maid enters the room and later Raven falls for the Veronica Lake character. Jef by contrast is alone. Emphatically no woman will cross his threshold and sex with his girlfriend Jane (played by Delon’s wife Nathalie) is, literally, an alibi, while the pianist’s function is to connect Jef with the employer. In the evocative words of a French critic, women in Le Samourai are beautiful but ‘tragically useless’. Melville here pushes his concept of masculinity to an extreme that is so self-enclosed that it becomes autistic. This idea is reprised through a series of metaphors that see Jef, in turn, as wild animal (tiger in the jungle, lone wolf), warrior, dandy, and professional. Jef is akin to the ronin (the wandering, lordless warrior), but he is a samurai in that he abides by a code of conduct inspired by the Bushido, up to the dramatic ending.

Melville’s thrillers avoid expansive physical violence. Action and movement are replaced by the meticulously planned and perfectly executed gestures of the heist (Le Deuxième souffle, Le Cercle rouge, Un flic), or, in Jef’s case, contract killings, which are preceded by ritual dressing. Systematically, Jef puts on his trenchcoat and hat. The camera, taking the place of the mirror, pauses as he studies himself and runs two fingers along the brim of his hat. And he never kills without putting on white gloves (Melville’s little in-joke: they are editor’s gloves). The camera closes in on the gun and the gloves, emphasizing both Jef’s mythic invulnerability and the importance of ritual, each time using the exact same gestures, the exact same sequence of shots.

Baroque minimalism

Le Samourai, technically a colour film, inhabits an even sparser and more noir universe than Melville’s earlier black and white films. As he put it, ‘I wanted to make a black and white film in colour’ - doing everything to tone down colour, such as substituting xeroxes of bank notes to real ones in the opening scene. As part of the exquisite design of the film, the minimal blue-grey palette matches not only Delon’s eyes, but his grey and black outfits and his two Citroen DS cars, his grey room only relieved by a row of pink-labeled Evian bottles and one of blue packets of Gitanes.

Le Samourai creates tension and suspense through editing, as in the killing scenes, but also in the stunning sequence when Jef meets another hitman on a railway bridge, the other man’s back appearing, menacingly, in a counter-shot, where the preceding shot had suggested an empty landscape. Equally remarkable is Melville’s minimalism. The quietness of the opening scene described above is echoed throughout the film by the slow, systematic, pace of Delon’s tread, as we follow him (like the police) walking the streets of Paris, up and down its buildings and the corridors of the métro. Melville’s style is characterized by bold, simple compositions, mininalist sets and respect for duration. For instance, when Delon steels his first car in broad daylight, the camera highlights his face and hands as he calmly tries one key after another, or in the first scene where car plates are exchanged, as Jef and the garage man remain silent throughout, communicating entirely through gestures. In the justly famous métro sequence, similarly, tension is created by the elongation of simple actions in what feels almost like real time. Le Samourai is a supreme example of what I call Melville’s ‘baroque minimalism’ - a style that is at once understated and self-conscious, pared down and emphatic, distanced and affecting. Le Samourai moves in the rarefied, mythical space of film noir, yet we are in the streets, nightclub and underground of 1967 Paris.


Melville in Le Samourai pushed the figure of the gangster to the limits of its masculine cool, with an almost total denial of emotion. Its combination of homage to classic American cinema and European modernity explains its influence over the work of so many filmmakers: Walter Hill (The Driver), the Coen brothers (Miller’s Crossing), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), John Woo (The Killer), Luc Besson (Léon) and Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai). Le Samourai is testimony to Melville’s worship of American film noir, yet stylistically and philosophically it is a totally French film.

1 comment:

  1. This is great. Thank you so much.


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