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Tone and style are everything with Le samouraï. Poised on the brink of absurdity, or a kind of attitudinizing male arrogance, Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film flirts with that macho extremism and slips over into dream and poetry just as we grow most alarmed. So the implacably grave coolness of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello is audaciously mannered, as he puts on white gloves for a killing and announces that for him “principle” is merely “habit.” (The film deserves one moment, one shot, of him alone in his room, when the impassive noirist suddenly collapses in unexplained laughter.) Whereas, as we see him stretched out on his bed, the source of a silent spiral of cigarette smoke, like a patient, tidy corpse-in-waiting, he is not just Delon, or some against-type Costello minus Abbott. He is the distilled essence of cinema’s solitary guns for hire, suspended between the somnambulant calm of Lee Marvin in Point Blank and the self-destructive dedication that guides Robert Bresson’s priest in Diary of a Country Priest.
And in that strange juxtaposition you have so much of Melville: the French Jew who changed his real name (Grumbach) to that of the New England author; the defiantly lone operator in postwar French cinema (for years, Melville had his own studio, which burned down during the shooting of Le samouraï; did all that cool inspire heat?); the assiduous admirer and imitator of American tropes; and the tough guy who could appreciate Jean Cocteau and Bresson as easily as he could Dashiell Hammett and Django Reinhardt. You can imagine Melville’s rapture (a spiritual condition, not just professional satisfaction) when he outlined the story to Delon, only to be interrupted by the actor after ten minutes with, “This story has no dialogue so far—I will do it.” And then, finally, in mute recognition of kindred feelings of honor, Delon revealed his own room to Melville, with a samurai sword as its only piece of decor and its omen of fate.
It has always been a vital French tradition to film the commonplace, the clouded ordinariness of the banlieue, and make it poetic; this is a motif that reaches from Louis Feuillade and Jean Vigo, through Marcel Carné and Cocteau, to Mel-ville, Georges Franju, and Jean-Luc Godard. It is the atmospheric that lets us know we are in a city very like Paris, but in the mindscape of dream, too. Consider the auto shop where Jef has new plates put on his stolen cars: it is a twilit alley on the edge of town, where clouds gather in the desolate sky, dogs bark, and the mechanic never speaks.
That stealthy treatment of place was evident in Melville’s early films—in Le silence de la mer as well as in the greatest Cocteau film ever made, Les enfants terribles (directed by Melville from Cocteau’s novel and screenplay). It is there in Bob le flambeur (such a threshold to the new wave) and, of course, it is there in Le samouraï, a film in which Henri Decaë’s elegant color scheme is obsessed with gray, white, and black, the hues of classic still photography. And stillness is everything in this film, just as its hero wants to be a pool untouched by ripple or tremor.
As Melville himself said, when asked to explain the curious detachment of his films and his minimal attempt to fabricate decor or underline the photography: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”
And sometimes that ease is problematic: some true admirers of Melville’s (like Bertrand Tavernier) complained that Le samouraï was nearly comically removed from French realities. “Why not?” Melville might ask, when that freedom allows us time to sink into the dream and absorb the many divergent ideas that exist in the simple claim: “Alain Delon is Jef Costello in Le samouraï.”
Take Delon first: the enigmatic angel of French film, only thirty-two in 1967, and nearly feminine. Yet so earnest and immaculate as to be thought lethal or potent. He was also close by then to the real French underworld: it was in the years right after Le samouraï that Delon and his ex-wife, Nathalie (his uncertain lover in the film, but looking like a sister), were caught up in real-life scandals of association with criminal circles. (And don’t forget that when Le samouraï was released in the U.S., after the sensation of The Godfather, in 1972, it was retitled The Godson!) Delon is not so much a good actor as an astonishing presence—no wonder he was so thrilled to realize that the thing Melville most required was his willingness to be photographed. As for “Jef,” it is American but bitten off and slightly futuristic; Jeff is also the name Robert Mitchum bears in Out of the Past. As for “Costello,” it could certainly be a reference to Frank Costello, the actual mobster. And then there is samouraï, a word that was far more novel and exotic in the 1960s, and a promise of American modes being seen through a glass of Japanese ritual.
What is a samurai? When he wears a fedora as crisp as glass and a pale trench coat that could have been sculpted by Brancusi? He is doomed. He is an icon out of his time. He is a hired killer, yet he is a last emblem of honor in a shabby world of compromise. He is a man who believes in tiny adjustments to the perfect shadow cast by the brim of his hat, who exults in the flatness with which he can utter a line, and who aspires to the last lovely funeral of brushes on a drummer’s cymbal. His essence is in timing, gesture, and glance. And he is as close to the eternal spirit of the poet as, say, Cocteau’s Orpheus.
I made the comparison earlier with John Boorman’s Point Blank and Lee Marvin. And I think that it is important. Nearly forty years after these two films were made, the crime film has gone through such lurid flights of exaggeration and stylization, and has succumbed to such terrible, unfelt violence, that they may seem nearly Etruscan or Greek in their cultural provenance. And that is largely because the two directors had such faith in the natural dreamscape of film, and such reverence for the codes of honor or perseverance that could make a criminal’s life seem heroic. Marvin, in Point Blank, and Delon, in Le samouraï, are immense cinematic forces who are hardly there or credible in literary or realistic terms. We may decide that both films are the last dream of their central characters. But then consider how rich they are in ambivalence and how much they say about our urge to experiment with the “other” life—the life of crime—through dream and film.
The story line of Le samouraï is intricate yet very simple, and quite predictable. Jef is doomed. Like us, he wonders why the nightclub pianist (Cathy Rosier) does not give him away, for she has seen him in the act. Does she love him? In a way, yes, but she is also a kind of Death figure who has selected him as Her next client. And She chose him earlier, as their two cars paused together at a traffic light. That pianist is a throwback (black, but wearing white; wearing black, but in a white chair) to the angel of death (Maria Casarès) in Orpheus.
Yet in its acting out, this “contract” ennobles and redeems Jef. It doesn’t matter that the story is slight and unmotivated. The movie can be followed, over and over again, like music, because its configurations are so mysterious, so averse to everyday explanation. Everything is in the playing or the enactment. Seen again now, Le samouraï looks like a film from an earlier age, one made at a time when great films were necessary (and regular), because they demonstrated and fulfilled the nature of the medium. Now that the medium is in ruin or chaos, Le samouraï looks as abstract, yet as beautiful and as endlessly worthy of study, as the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi. That which seemed fanciful has become an eternal and luminous lesson in how men behaved when they believed behavior mattered.
David Thomson is the author of Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Rosebud, and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, among other works, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times, The New Republic, and The Independent (London).