Friday, March 21, 2008

The Coolness of "Le Samouraï"

The Coolness of "Le Samouraï"
Le Samouraï ****
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville and Georges Pelligrin based on the novel The Ronin by Joan McLeod
Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon and Cathy Rosier

"There is no solitude greater than the samurai's, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.

Lately, I have been re-watching Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samouraï. I've been using the film as a reference point for a screenplay I'm writing. However, I am not growing sick of this movie as a keep watching it over and over again; I become more enamored in it as I find new tidbits and discover different kinds of shot I haven't noticed before. Still, this movie is one of the coolest ever to be made.

Jean-Pierre Melville was obviously influenced by American culture. A lot of his films were influenced by the film-noir and Gangster films that were prominent in the 30's, 40's and 50's. "Melville" is not even his real last name. It the unflattering last name "Grumbach". He changed his surname to "Melville" as paying respect to Moby Dick writer, Herman Melville. Yet Le Samouraï is more Japanese than it is American. Sure, the lonely noir antihero is immeadeately associated with American film noir. Then again, in Japanese mythology, there is a lone warrior. This character appears in many Japanese films in the 50's and 60's (especially that of Akira Kurosawa) and coincidentally, influenced American Western.

So that my nubish film geek can compare more modern directors to French New Wave, Melville was like the Tarantino of the gang. He was the rebel of the group. Instead of making films about rebellious youth or the day in the life of an intellectual, he made gritty crime dramas that predated New Hollywood. Le Samouraï would be his ultimate statement of who he was. A director who just followed his principles. And the character he created for this film, Jef Costello, embodied that spirit.

Alain Delon played Jef Costello. Alain Delon, for lack of a better term, was a pretty boy. Yet he was an incredibly potent actor. His performance as the cold and stoic hit-man made the viewer forget that he is a looker. No makeup. Just acting. Jef Costello, the antihero of this story, immediately pulls you in the first few minutes of the film. In the opening credits, he lays on his bed, in sparse apartment, just smoking. He then get up, looks at the symbolic birdcage, and puts on his trench coat and puts on his hat with the flick of the brim. He keeps the same emotion as he does that. He then steals a car, looks at a woman in another car, and gets his gun from his little helper friend. He does this without uttering a word and cracking a smile. Who can do that? Jef is also a perfectionist. He's perfect in what he does. Too perfect. The way he stole the Citroen was done in such a quiet manner, that you forget what he was doing. Perfection that's cool, not creepy.

Jef is out to do another hit. He goes to his girlfriend's (Nathalie Delon, Alain's wife at the time) apartment to set up an ironclad alibi, then goes to another apartment to set up the rest of his alibi with some bosses playing poker. Both ways were perfect. The hit. That's a different story. He goes to a night club and kills the owner. As he leaves, the piano player, Valerie (Cathy Rosier), sees him quite well and then he leaves, drawing too much attention to himself. So much for that perfect record. Despite his alibi, the alibi's of others, and Valerie denying his existence, the Police Superintendent (François Périer) still believes Jef did it. After Jef is released, the police, and his higher ups, begin a cat and mouse chase through the streets of Paris, as Jef tries to get is act back together, get his revenge on his higher ups, and becomes close with Valerie, who for some strange reason, warms up to the cold hitman.

The following scenes of Jef trying to fight of the police and the underworld are done in the most minimal way possible. Instead of big ol' car chases and gun duels peppering the screen, small encounters between parties are shown instead. Jef meeting with the middleman on the train platform is a relatively long scene, as it begins with Jef walking to the destination, then having a brief, yet tense moment which turns into a quick gun fight. Despite it's shortness, it's damn exciting. Another brilliant sequence would be the metro chase. Jef is consistently followed by undercover cops through each stop on the Metro would be redundant on paper, but the way it's directed and performed make it absolutely captivating. Melville's direction turns this minimalist crime drama into one hell of a thriller. And it continues to pull you in as Jef's world spirals into darkness.

The film is carried by Jef and his principles. He doesn't adhere to distractions. Just look at his apartment. Nothing except for a bed, a birdcage, and a lot of empty water bottle. He also manages to make his girlfriend keep those principles. In one scene where the Superintendent interrogates the hell out of her. He basically compares her to the common prostitute. Yet see holds up and keeps Jef ahead of the curve for a while. Everything Jef does is not spontaneous. He calls it "a habit". He knows that there are mics in his apartment because of habit. He doesn't want his middlemen to point guns in his face. He does everything in a schedule. He also has honor to protect.

Honor? How can a hit man have honor? Look at the ambiguous and stunning ending. I will only tell it in a discreet manner. Jef returns to the bar to kill Valerie, who may or may not be an assassin herself. But what happens to Jef in this movie poses the question. Did he do this intentionally to preserve his honor after failing? Or was just a plain setup? Maybe the title of the film can have your explanations. Jef is like a Samurai. He has some code he strictly follows yet it is never mentioned in the film. Or the title describes Jef of who he is. A loner with nothing to lose. Jean-Pierre Melville was kind of like Jef. The outsider of French New Wave. Then again, Le Samouraï will always stand out as one of the best films ever and one the coolest. It has influenced a wide range of directors from John Woo to Jim Jarmusch. To think, the loner is actually the coolest kid you know.

Alain Delon and Cathy Rosier

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