Le Samouraï (1967)

Le Samourai (1967) movie poster

director Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 03/27/2012

Since I first saw, Le Samouraï, in the cinema as a revival sponsored in part by John Woo, I’ve become quite a fan of director Jean-Pierre Melville myself.  I’ve been working my way through his films and progressively digging them more and more.  But it had been so long since I saw Le Samouraï, more than a decade, I thought it was time to revisit the film myself, especially considering it is often cited as his best.

The film’s opening shot is really cool, looking in on a shabby hotel room, blinds drawn, as the titles roll over the image.  You realize that part of this still-life is Alain Delon, lounging on the bed, emitting a cloud of smoke, as he blends into the scenery.  He’s an enigma, perpetually so throughout the film, even when he emerges as an assassin.  He gets up from the bed, gets his trench coat and hat on and ventures out to steal a car, get the plates changed, pick up a gun, head to a club, and shoot down the owner in his office.  Most of this without a word of dialogue.

Though he establishes an alibi for himself, he gets picked up by the cops, and run through the works of identification.  French police films are an interesting contrast with American ones.  The classic image of the bedraggled but tenacious, fatalistic captains and their open dialogues with the criminals whom they are trying to prove guilty.  There is something utterly “French”, something very akin to an aspect of national character or identity in their archetype.  It’s humanist, world-weary, but utterly upright.

Delon’s character is a bit more of a cipher.  Though he seems to adhere to a samurai-like code of ethics, we know so little about the suave, handsome criminal, it’s also hard to fully establish his honor.

Melville’s world is possibly anomalous for 1960’s France.  It reeks of classic film noir, trench coats and fedoras, jazz, and styles.  But this film is also amazingly angular.  The opening shot actually shifts occasionally the perspective, but maintains this almost classic single-point perspective.  Other shots and sequences, particularly the one on an overpass when Delon’s assassin is betrayed by his employers, is entrapped by the angles of the fences and the pathways, figures amid an almost cubist spectacle.

Though it’s quiet and somewhat slow-paced, the film is very slick and alluring.   Right now, if I had to say, I think that Le Doulos (1962) is my favorite of Melville’s films.  But they are all stylish, way cool films.  He’s one of the best.

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