Friday, January 23, 2009

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)

Starring: Lawrence Tierney (Steve), Ted North (Fergie), Nan Leslie (Carol), Betty Lawford (Agnes), Harry Shannon (Owens), Glenn Vernon (Gas guy). Directed by Felix Feist.

Newcomers to the hard-boiled universe of noir may wonder after sampling a dozen or so of the genre's more dread-infused classics if the nighttime streets of 1940s U.S.A. were peopled with nothing but mortally wounded insurance salesmen; hundred-yard-dashing poisoned accountants; and surly nightclub musicians nervously masquerading as heirs - among other troublemakers. By most accounts this wasn't the case, but if it were, one needed only keep their car doors locked and wits about them to avoid becoming ensnared in their respective webs of intrigue...

However those with impaired faculties (or god-awful luck) ran the risk of possibly allowing evil incarnate in the passenger side. Such is the case for affable, well-lubricated motorist Jimmy Ferguson (North), who casually permits a hitchhiker in his snazzy gray convertible - unaware that the stranger has just shot a theater manager for his night deposits, and needs a cover. 'Fergie', as he is then christened, is returning home from some late night, out-of-town partying with colleagues when, while idling at a stop sign, 'Steve Morgan' (Tierney) insinuates his sociopathic self into the unsuspecting traveler's life with the extension of a thumb. With his large, bland face and smooth manner, Steve must've seemed like a harmless enough mug, but it isn't long before the stranger's actions raise red flags - and start killing Fergie's buzz.

video

While Fergie's on a gas station pay phone - assuring his lovely young wife that he's on his way home, Steve antagonizes the young attendant-on-duty - then invites two female hitchhikers along for a ride with he and Fergie. Now sought by the authorities for the hold-up and shooting, the miscreant expediently loses himself in the small cluster of travelers, and from then on straddles the precarious line between big-talking charmer - and desperate psycho-on-the-lam.

As Steve hosts the quasi double-date-on-wheels, and makes an unabashed move on Carol - the younger and more demure of the femmes (Agnes is a brassy, out-of-the-bottle blonde), he commits another alarmingly sick act - causing his companions to question his stability, and the manhunt lead by Detective Owens (Shannon) and the emotionally-bruised gas jockey (who Owens damn near deputizes) to heat up.

As the titular 'Devil', Tierney pretty much knocks it out of the park - consistently displaying both a welcome restraint, and a knack for sudden persona changes. Whenever law enforcement enters the picture he tenses up, and does something kinda great with those creepy, lifeless eyes. Like a cornered animal, he rapidly provides himself a stratagem for detection avoidance and escape.

Moving the after-hours party to a swanky beach house - courtesy of a friend of Fergie's - 'Devil' soon becomes a kind of adapted stage play, with characters entering and exiting as the melodrama builds, and as Steve's luck runs out at a precipitous rate. A nosy but comically distracted night watchman is one of the many that converge on the getaway in act three, and as Steve's contrivance unravels and mood darkens, the viewer is treated to moments of gripping tension - before what many consider to be an abrupt and impossibly cheery denouement.

With few if any traditional noir stylistics in evidence ('Devil' eschews voice-over narration and flashbacks, and the photography is never above standard), the characterizations and story arc are the only road signs signifying a transgression into noir territory. One never really senses that this is a textbook hostage thriller (see 'The Night Holds Terror' or 'Dial 1119'), and the frequently comedic dialogue consistently alleviates any accumulated tension. Still, all-in-all this is a very entertaining programmer, and one of those handfuls of films noir that seems designed for wee-small-hours viewing. Were it not for the weak-link ending, 'Devil' might be better remembered.


Written by Dave

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Le Doulos (aka The Finger Man 1962)

Duplicitous Relationships in Le Doulos

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 film Le Doulos (AKA The Finger Man) is not an easy film to get your mind around. Based on the crime novel by Pierre Lesou, the story is told through fragmented chapters in the lives of two, not particularly pleasant or charismatic gangsters, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) and Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo). For almost the entire film, the tale of these two criminals creates a vacuum in which one central character is noticeably absent. The fact that the plot is deliberately murky, deliberately deals out crumbs of clues (which may or may not be correct) and periodically delivers slivers of plot development often leads to viewer frustration. More than one critic is left with the idea that either Melville was not at his best for Le Doulos, or that the film is an exercise in cinematic style more than anything else. But Le Doulos is a perfect, complex film, and the plot’s symmetry of duplicitous parallels works out with the smooth synchronicity of an unemotional Greek drama.

Le Doulos, which translates in slang to the hat or the informer, is Melville’s seventh film, and here the director does not attempt the sort of splendid character study achieved in Bob le Flambeur, and he also avoids the intensity of La Silence de la Mer. Instead in Le Doulos, a film in which no one is what they seem, Melville chooses to examine the relationship between several thuggish crooks. A relationship between criminals is hardly unexplored territory, but Melville boldly avoids displaying the relationship between the film’s hoods in spite of the fact that this is the film’s central theme. Apart from a couple of scenes together, Silien and Maurice act alone, so there’s no apparent bond, no allegiance declared until close to the end of the film. Using a fragmented, restricted narrative, Melville follows the actions of Maurice and Silien, and for most of the film it’s left to the viewer to solve the problem of exactly what is going on.

Le Doulos begins at night with trench-coated Maurice walking alone. There’s no voice over narration to hint at what is afoot, and instead Maurice’s footsteps ring out in the night as he eventually reaches his destination--a lonely house in a desolate wasteland. The camera hints at Maurice’s need to steel himself for one split second before he enters the house. Once inside the seemingly deserted house, Maurice stands in front of a mirror and examines his reflection in the broken glass before mounting the stairs and entering a small attic room. Inside the attic, a man sits clearly expecting Maurice. This man is a fence named Varnove (Rene Lefevre), and he is dismantling jewels stolen in a recent heist. During Varnove’s brief conversation with Maurice, valuable slivers of information appear: Maurice is planning a robbery, he’s recently been released from prison, and Varnove distrusts Maurice’s pal, Silien. Then entirely unexpectedly Maurice shoots Varnove, grabs the jewels and a wad of cash, hightailing out of the house just as a car arrives with two men, Armand & Nuttheccio (Jacques de Leon & Michel Piccoli) and the sultry Fabienne (Fabienne Dali).

video

Maurice again walks out into the night. Clearly nervous, he glances around as though he fears he may be followed. He stops under a lamppost, and using his hands he digs a shallow hole in which he stuffs the money, the cash and the gun. Then he covers up the hole and continues on.

Later, Maurice is in his apartment with his some-time accomplice Silien when Maurice’s girlfriend, Therese (Monique Hennessey) comes home from a hard day casing out the next burglary target--an affluent home in Neuilly. There’s an exchange of dirty looks between Silien and Therese. She isn’t particularly friendly to Silien and he isn’t particularly friendly to her. It’s easy to sniff that there’s some sort of history between these two.

The Neuilly burglary goes horribly wrong, and all things indicate that Silien has betrayed Maurice and his accomplice Remy to the cops. But if Silien is the informer, why are the cops all over him for information about Maurice? Why is Silien trying to find Maurice? Why does Silien beat Therese and tie her to a wall radiator?

Well you won’t get the answers to these questions until you watch the rest of the film. In one scene close to the end called ‘All is Revealed’, Silien, Maurice and fellow criminal Jean gather for what could be described as a debriefing. Silien explains all the twists and turns of the plot while Maurice, ultimately a far more interesting character sits there in the bar looking decidedly disgruntled. And why shouldn’t he be? Not only has he got incredibly bad luck with women, but he’s the last one to find out the nitty gritty details while Silien, with a smug expression on his mug explains exactly how he outwitted everyone. Like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, Silien performs for his audience--in this case Maurice and Jean. While Maurice looks glum, Jean listens with undivided attention to this ugly tale of murder, torture, beatings, backstabbing and double-dealing.

Jean-Pierre Melville was an Americanophile, and that shows in his films, but in Le Doulos, Melville unabashedly indulges in the fetishism of objects that rivals notorious cult, sexploitation director Doris Fishman. The camera lovingly focuses long and sometimes repetitive shots on objects such as Silien’s hat, as if the hat itself holds some secret to the often-murky plot. Long shots also focus on outsized American cars, which seem incongruous on the Parisian streets, and then there’s the trench coat fetishism, which denotes a sort of uniform of choice for Melville’s gangsters.

While the males in Le Doulos are bound in blood and form relationships that frequently demand monumental demonstrations of loyalty and trust, the females in Le Doulos endure problematic roles in the lives of their gangster lovers. Whereas Bob le Flambeur treats women protectively and with affection, there’s no such sentimentality for the ‘weaker’ sex in Le Doulos. There are three female characters in the film--Therese, Fabienne and Jean’s wife Anita. These women are used and abused to various degrees by the men in their lives, and to the gangsters in Le Doulos, the brutal beating and murder of a woman ranks considerably lower in importance than a ripped raincoat.

Le Doulos is a gorgeous film with inky blacks, brilliant use of light, and shadows on the wall. The new Criterion release contains interviews with directors Volker Schlondorff (assistant director for Le Doulos) and Bertrand Tavernier (publicity agent for the film). Additionally the Criterion DVD includes scene commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau (who’s recently contributed on the Noir of the Week site) and her analysis of the film’s three pivotal scenes should not be missed.

Ultimately Le Doulos is strangely rendered closer to perfection by the fact that there are no characters to identify with and only a fragmented plot to hang onto. The explosive, apocalyptic ending is made more spectacular by the fact the viewer has no emotional link with the characters and is forced to reevaluate the entire film in view of the final scene and the delivery of its information. Melville’s brilliant strategy of deliberately withholding vital plot information becomes clear in the final scene and the film is framed by its two parallel mirror shots--Maurice staring at his reflection in a broken mirror and Silien adjusting his hat at the film’s conclusion. It is only at the end of the film when the characters’ motivations are revealed that it becomes possible to appreciate Le Doulos as an incredible, groundbreaking film. It’s easy to see how Le Doulos influenced Quentin Tarantino, for example, and for a modern updated version of a restricted fragmented and deceptive narrative watch the 2006 Scottish film Red Road.



Written by Guy Savage




Sunday, January 11, 2009

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Editor's note: This week's film noir is written by Ginger - a writer and classic film lover. Her blog - Asleep in NY - is lots of fun. This week she tackles Fritz Lang's last film noir.
***
By Ginger Ingenue

Released in 1956, and directed by Fritz Lang -- a man all too familiar with film noir, and one of its earliest predecessors, German Expressionism. Lang delivers a disappointing entry, which proved to be his last American film.

Dana Andrews, another veteran of noir, stars as Tom Garrett, a novelist who recently got famous for his first publication. Now his editor wants him to churn out his second novel, but Tom's slightly distracted by his soon-to-be fiancé, Susan Spencer, as played by Joan Fontaine.

After watching an execution together, Tom and Susan's father, newspaper owner Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) discuss the major flaw of Capital Punishment: the possibility of putting to death an innocent man.

Also coming into play, is the District Attorney, Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), who Austin dislikes, and suspects of only being interested in advancing his career.

Now we've got Susan making her own advancements...Watching Joan Fontaine hit on Dana Andrews, and the two of them mugging down like a couple of teenagers is really disgusting. She's very bland, and prudish-looking in this film. Dana eventually join in with the sex-talk, and when Susan asks Tom what he'd like to do after dinner, Tom jovially states, “I know what I'd like to do!”

Ewww. So this is 1956? I'm sorry, but I'm slightly nostalgic for the coy and subtle dialogue of film noir in the 1940s. When everything was deliciously subtle; the innuendos were clever, and delivered with cattish-smiles, and side-long glances. Instead, we've got Fontaine and Andrews delivering embarrassing come-ons.

They’re making out in his apartment when the telephone rings. Tom looks incredibly uncomfortable, but for now, we don't know why.

Fast forward to the Spencer house, and we have Tom and Susan discussing marriage. Tom reveals that it was his publisher on the phone (or was it?) and that Tom desperately needs to start novel number two. He then tells Susan, I can't marry you now; I need to concentrate!

Susan gets mad and disappears. Tom and Austin are left alone, and they soon resume their discussion of capital punishment. Dawning upon them is a brilliant idea! To prove that an innocent man can be found guilty, Tom will frame himself for the murder of a local stripper -- a crime in which there is no apparent suspect -- and Austin will help him plant the evidence. Tom agrees to all this, thinking it would make for a good story, and happily puts off his novel and his marriage, in order to destine himself to the electric chair.

Despite proving himself to be an admirable character, what with his strong beliefs against Capital Punishment and the death of the innocent, I almost immediately suspected Austin Spencer of killing the stripper. Perhaps he saw Tom's need for writerly inspiration as a chance to frame his future son-in-law for the murder in which Austin committed. And of course when they attend the dead girl's former place of business, a burlesque club, Austin acts a bit suspicious while pointing out the girls to Tom.

Once inside the strip hall, we get a generous taste of a ditsy, 'full-figured' blonde. Of course we've already met this Marilyn-esque character during a scene in which Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols) was questioned by police, along with her dressing-room-mate, Terry, and another girl from the club.

I actually like the strippers. They brighten up the movie, if nothing else. And Tom Garrett likes them too...one in particular; he 'accidentally' spills his drink on Dolly, and later shows up in her dressing room. He flashes a wad of cash at her, to which she squeaks, "Hey, you're all right!"

You damn right he is. He takes her out to classy joints, and gets their picture landed in the society pages.


Meanwhile, he and Austin have been working on their experiment: they bought Tom a gray coat, since the only thing known about the man who bumped off the stripper named Patty, is that he wore a gray coat and a brown hat, smoked a pipe, and drove a black modern car. Of course, Tom already drives a black modern car and wears a brown hat, so now all he needs is a gray coat (remember that...).

They also go to the place where Patty's body was discovered, and Tom throws the lighter in which Susan has recently gave him -- it's inscribed with their names -- into the brush nearby.

The planting of the lighter is when I first became disappointed with the film's logic. Now, when a body is discovered, police and special investigators, and a slew of other professionals, scour the whole area for clues, right? If a shiny cigarette lighter were present when the body was discovered, they probably would have found it. It wasn't there during the initial search, but it suddenly makes an appearance during the second search? Well heck, anybody could have dropped something up there after the body was discovered! I think it would have been considered dismissible evidence.

Susan's got something a little more incriminating: the newspaper photo of Dolly and Tom! Susan reads the photo’s caption, wanting to know why it's okay for Tom to procrastinate on his novel in order to wine and dine some 'dazzling blonde', but they have to postpone their own wedding because Susan's a distraction? No thank you. She tells Tom, You want a postponement? You've got one!

And luckily, Joan Fontaine walks out again; I grew incredibly tired of her melodramatics.

Tom visits Dolly at the strip club.

Dana makes for a nice 'classy guy who's slumming it'. Both Dolly and her friend Terry want a piece of his action. I can't say I blame them! But Terry isn't so interested in Tom once getting an eye load of his black modern car. She insists Dolly be more suspicious of her new beau, so Dolly immediately calls the police. They show up and tell her just to act normal, they'll follow her. And sure enough, later that night, when Tom takes Dolly for a ride, the police are lurking in the darkness behind them.

As soon as Tom turns off the engine, he tries to turn Dolly on. She's not interested. Too tired, she says. But Tom doesn't listen. He's hard up to convince her otherwise...and when she starts screaming, the cops appear and carry Tom in for questioning. Guess what: he's arrested for Patty’s murder, and soon put on trial.

All the pieces of evidence Tom planted are used against him.

The only new piece of evidence is that Tom withdrew three-thousand dollars a few days before Patty's murder. After the murder, he re-deposited all but two hundred of it. The reason it's used against him is that the dead girl had a large sum of money on her before she died, and wouldn't tell a fellow stripper how she got it.

Perhaps Tom gave it to her?

This was the first time such a thought entered my mind. I was still thinking perhaps Austin was guilty, and once Tom was safely stashed on death row, we'd see Austin Spencer laughing it up on the beach somewhere. But no: Austin Spencer didn't kill that girl. Upon realizing this, I enjoyed the first (and what proved to be the only!) scene of any dramatic suspense...Austin is getting ready to go to the courthouse, to hear the jury's verdict, and with him, he's taking the envelope filled with all the photos, receipts, and other such details of his and Tom's experiment, in order to clear Tom, knowing damn well the jury would read a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death.

Of course Austin Spencer never makes it to the courthouse. He dies in a fiery crash. Which also destroys the only proof of Tom's innocence.

Tom is found guilty, and put on death row. His lawyer, and Susan, and Susan's ex-boyfriend Bob (Arthur Franz), who works with the district attorney, all believe Tom's story and scramble for any possible way to convince the Governor to grant Tom a pardon.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when we find out, thanks to one of her former strip-club employers, Patty had changed her name from 'Emma', and was once involved with a drummer who liked to rough her up. One night, she ran off with all his dough, and the drummer swore he'd catch up with her, if it was the last thing he did.

How very film noir-ish! And now we have a suspect. Unless, of course, Tom and this drummer are actually the same person. Which could have been interesting, but no. Turns out, the drummer's long been dead.

So now Tom's gonna be executed. An innocent man on death row, just as they planned it! Suddenly a letter shows up at the district attorney's office. Bob and Susan are there, along with Roy Thompson: it's a letter addressed to him, from the late Austin Spencer.

Thanks to this letter, Tom's name has been cleared, and the Governor is on his way to grant the pardon! Susan is talking to Tom in the warden's office, when Tom accidentally drops a bomb that kills the entire film. Apparently Tom was married to the dead stripper Patty! Back when her name was still Emma, she tricked him into marriage (by pretending to be pregnant?), and then promised to go to Mexico and divorce him. Well, she never did, and once Tom was successful, she showed back up and Tom killed her.

Now at first, this plot-twist seems so completely tacked-on just for last-minute shock value, but if you remember the phone call Tom received while he and Susan were up in his apartment...I'm sure that was actually Patty on the phone, and not his editor, considering how Tom instantly looked uncomfortable and angry upon answering.

So Tom wanted to go along with the experiment, because once Austin Spencer cleared Tom's name by proving it was all fake, Tom would have been pardoned, and once you're pardoned for a crime, of course, you can never be convicted of it again. And he would have gotten away with it! If it weren't for his big mouth...

Now Susan knows Tom really is a murderer. At first she's all womanly about it, and isn't gonna say anything because, boo-hoo, she loves him so much, and crying on Bob's shoulder, what would Bob do if Susan were a murderer? Of course Bob has a more logical head on his shoulder (his own!), and tells Susan to do what's right. She calls and stops the Governor just seconds before he signs the pardon.

Tom Garrett is going to die.

I think they should have included that in the ending. It wouldn't have made up for the total disappointment of the film’s sudden change, but perhaps served as a nice consolation. They could have done it Cagney-style! But in reverse; not with Tom crying like a rat, but completely void of emotions, numb while walking to the chair, and reminiscing about the murder (where we could see it in flashback!). But no. Fritz Lang goes out on a gray note. There's absolutely nothing visually interesting in the ending, or in the entire film. And now the plot's ruined too!

There's so many things they could have done with this story, as written by Academy Award winning screenwriter, Douglas Morrow, but instead, it all falls flat and illogical. Remember Tom buying the gray coat? Well, if Tom was actually the murderer, he already owned a gray coat. Plus, and way more importantly, the cops would have known from the murder investigation if Patty had ever changed her name, and they would have known she was married to Tom, even if Tom had changed his name, too.

God, it's so implausible, it makes my head hurt!

What a waste of an interesting concept.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Donald Westlake R.I.P.


Mr. Westlake is gone and Richard Stark goes with him. The Grifters and Point Blank are must watch films this week.

"If you leave me here," the guy on the floor said, "he'll kill me tomorrow morning." Parker looked at him. "So you've still got tonight," he said.
-Parker in Dirty Money



Continue to this week's Film Noir pick, Le Samourai here

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.’

video

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.





Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley Noir.com