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.

Le deuxième souffle

Le deuxième souffle (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 11/30/09

There is no such thing as a bad Jean-Pierre Melville film as far as I can tell.  From Bob le flambeur (1955), Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), and Le Cercle rouge (1970), the French filmmaker crafted his own breed of films noir.  All of his films that I have seen have been remarkable, and it’s easy to understand how his style influenced and impressed the French New Wave, with his fatalistic films about the criminal world, of doomed characters in intractable situations, and his strange traits and characteristics.

Le deuxième souffle (which roughly translates to “Second Wind”) is based on a novel by José Giovanni and offers a strange disclaimer about its treatment of the characters of both the criminal and the corrupt detective who hunts him down.  The film starts with a wordless escape from prison, shot in stark angles, in which a notorious criminal known to friends and foes as “Gu” (Lino Ventura), makes good his getaway.  In returning to Paris, he meets some old friends and a lover who help him hole up in preparation for leaving the country.  But Gu is lured back for one last heist, but one in which he has been set up on both sides to take the fall for.

Melville used location shooting, giving a strong sensibility of Paris and Marseille, and this aspect, as well as the fatalism and tragic romance of the criminal, were so appealing to Jean-Luc Godard and others.

The opening sequence, which is quite striking, with the three men leaping over a wall (one to his death) and then racing onto a moving train and then departing company, all wordless, though not silent, is something that Melville approached in a more extreme way later in Le Cercle rouge, in which an entire 20 minute heist sequence plays out without a spoken word.  And while I see reference to this style as being considered “reporting”, I think more he has a focus on the craftsman or professionalism of the criminal, process-oriented, workmanlike.  While not necessarily noble souls (they are killers and thieves), they have skill, intelligence, and aspects of loyalty.

But crime does not pay, not here, nor in France.  These characters are not perhaps truly tragic, just simply doomed.  They never really had a chance, nor did they have another way out.  What is interesting to me as well is that I started reading a more modern series of French crime novels by Jean-Claude Izzo, his series referred to as “The Marseille Trilogy”, and this film in particular strikes me as consistent with his themes and locations.  These characters of the underworld who live and die by crime, walk the same streets, drive the same roads.

Melville’s films are aesthetically pleasing and engaging, really quite something.  If you haven’t seen them, you should.  There is much to be appreciated in this filmmaker, himself a craftsman.  And perhaps one of the best of his time.

Le Doulos

Le Doulos (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 01/05/08

Director Jean-Pierre Melville is experiencing a renaissance, in the U.S., at least.  The Criterion Collection has shuffled out more and more of his films in their canon.  And many of them had apparently never been released stateside before.  Which is hard to fathom because his work is so solid and cool, such style and character that is easily appreciated, these slick, interesting crime films, noirish, yet significantly different, and very influential to boot.

I’ve actually seen a number of his films, and all of them have been brilliant.  The first one I saw was Le Samouraï (1967), but since, I have seen Le Cercle rouge (1970), Bob le flambeur (1955), and most recently Army of Shadows (1969) which caught a lot of attention a couple of years ago in a theatrical release.  All of his films that I have seen have been excelent and stylish.  Le Doulos is no exception.

Le Doulos stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as the titular snitch.  According to the film the term “le doulos”, which means “the hat”, refers to a police informant, making you wonder if it should be “the rat” instead of “the hat”.  Actually, I am not completely sure of the connotations, whether or not the informant is considered a good guy or a “stoolie”.  Belmondo’s character rides the line.  He is friends with a police lieutenant and also a murderous thief.  He plays both sides to such an extent that it’s a little hard to determine what he really thinks, what he really intends.  But he is a slick master manipulator.

The film opens with an awesome tracking shot, following the recently released criminal in his trentchcoat and hat as he walks down a sidewalk under overpasses and shadows, down a dark empty road.  Melville does some amazing things with the camera.  One of the impressive sequences takes place in the police headquarters where Belmondo is being interrogated.  The camera swivels 360 degrees as the interrogation takes place.  In some ways this shot is a tad subtle, but it is a long take orchestrated around the pivoting camera.  It’s pretty neat.

The ending, which I will not disclose, is actually super cool too.  I know that isn’t too scholarly a thing to say, but it’s just a fact.

Melville’s films are entertaining and interesting, I recommend if you haven’t seen them to definitely dig in.  It’s good stuff.  Excellent, in fact.

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 06/27/06 at Balboa Theater, San Francisco, CA

The Balboa Theater has become a great repertory cinema of late and is starting to get the buzz. There have been more and more films playing there that I have wanted to go and see, but hadn’t been able to pull off. It felt great to get over to that little Outer Richmond District neighborhood and get to see a recently released print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about the French Resistance during WWII.

Melville made a number of significant cinematic works, Bob le flambeur (1955), Le Cercle rouge (1970), Le Samouraï (1967), and many feel that Army of Shadows ranks right up there with them. It’s hard to argue with, in that it is an excellent film, much more earnest and poignant in many ways than the others which fall into more flamboyant genres.

It’s an interesting war film, a perspective that I have never seen, that of the ordinary French underground, populated by regular people in suits and trench coats, rather than stiff, uniformed soldiers or other types of the War genre. The film never speaks of nationalism per se either, which is very interesting. No moments of “We must fight to save France from the Occupation or from the Germans!” No pandering asides. In fact, the protagonist’s alliance is to the leader of the resistance, a somber math theorist turned resistance leader.

They operate in the shadows, in the underground, but in the actuality of France, in Paris, in Lyon, in Marseilles. In their trench coats and hats they have an air of noirish figures in a Kafka-esque world that is filled with real danger and ruthlessness.

There are some great scenes: the parachute jump, the barbershop, the run from the firing squad, but this is not an action film, and the violence and deaths that come are tough and realistic.

Melville served in the war and one could imagine that this film had a personal significance perhaps, though there is this very “French” indifference or lack of sentimentality or existentialism or something hard to pin down that gives this film much of its tone and character.

There is a lot here to work with, and it’s an excellent film.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur (1955) movie poster

(1955) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 08/09/03

This is the third Jean-Pierre Melville film that I have seen, and the first that I have seen on DVD, since I have had the good luck to watch Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970) at the Castro Theater, which is obviously preferable. At least this time, I was watching a DVD on a decent-sized television screen at a friend’s house, much better than the small screen I have at home. This film is the earliest of Melville’s films that I have seen and potentially the most significant. And as where his other films I have seen are sort of post-French New Wave, in style and vintage, this film is almost pre-New Wave (if that is an accurate statement to make or not).

Like the other films of Melville’s that I have seen, it is slickly produced and fun to watch. The opening shots of the sleepy dawn on the rough Parisian streets, lingering on the neon lights, are stunningly romanticized, even when attempting to show the wrong side of the tracks.

Despite really liking this film, I am not finding much to say about it. I thought that Isabelle Corey, as the sexually precocious Anne, was something quite notable, too.

Undoubtably cool film.

Le Cercle rouge

Le Cercle rouge (1970) movie poster

(1970) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 05/12/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I’d actually been to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) at the Castro Theater a couple of years ago, another slick post-New Wave crime flick, full of detached cool and studied Noir homage. Le Cercle rouge cut from a very similar cloth, still very hip and slick, and apparantly very influential as well. The new print of Le Cercle rouge was brought about in some way by John Woo, who is an avowed fan of Melville’s.

The jewel heist that is the centerpiece of this film, which last (I am speculating) like 40 minutes almost, is handled without a single spoken word. In an amusing comment on this, the inspector comments, upon viewing the videotape of the crime, that the thieves are not much for words. That self-reflective comment could easily apply to the entire film, which for its length and slow pacing, is incredibly economical with diaglogue. Narrative plays out almost entirely by visual means, with small pieces of exposition. The film is quite amazing in this aspect, really.

The characters are so cool and detached that when they meet their inevitable end, they do so with great fatalist inevitability.

I liked the weird bar at which the characters often rendezvoused, where there was always a strange stage show of 6-7 women dressed in identical period/stereotypical costumes and wigs, dancing to a hep jazz ensemble like robots. They were largely the only females in the film. The world of the film was one clearly inhabited solely by males, for as little dialogue as the main characters spoke, I don’t know if a single female voice uttered a word. There was one scene with an ex-girlfriend of Corey’s, who remained almost completely on the periphory of the action, behind a closed door while the main action of the scene transpired. For the rest of the film, she was relegated to discarded photographs. I don’t think that you need to be up on your feminist criticism to grasp the nature of this depiction.