Le Samouraļ

(Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967)


Jean-Pierre Melville had the flair to invent a quotation from the "Bushido Book of the Samurai" as an on-screen preface: "There is no greater solitude than the samurai's, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle ... perhaps."

No further allusion to Japanese culture is required: that's enough to give Le Samouraï an abstract, mythic, timeless air. It is a breathtaking work, stylised to the point of asphyxiation, in which the imaginary world of cinema beats reality hands down. No wonder filmmakers from John Woo to Paul Thomas Anderson via Quentin Tarantino and Walter Hill have plundered it as the veritable Bible of cool moves.

Jef (Alain Delon) is a steely hit man for whom the adjective hardboiled is an understatement. Methodical, asexual, and apparently amoral in his willingness to kill on command, Jef finds himself set-up and pursued – like his namesake played by Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947), he's "in a frame" and needs to go in and "look at the picture". His ultimate confrontation with the witness who could incriminate him exposes the enigma of his inner motivations throughout.

Melville's vision of Paris is filtered through his love of American film noir: jazz nightclubs with black singers, dark and rainy streets. The cops function as in a Fritz Lang film, mapping the city through intricate surveillance and tracking this elusive human blip. Yet the heady atmosphere of movie fantasy is balanced by Melville's legendary, maniacal attention to detail, which itself borders on the obsessiveness of a police procedural: the logistics of every gesture, of every movement around the city, are impeccably plotted and recorded.

It is hard to watch Le Samouraï – largely without dialogue, in which every sound (such as the chirping bird in Jef's apartment, the roar of an car engine, or the clanking of a key ring) is isolated and heightened, in which actors pose like gorgeous mannequins (Delon here as porcelain as Deneuve in Belle de jour [1967]) – without remembering Bresson. Melville rejected the comparison, but it's true: Jef is almost an ascetic priest, animated by an inner calling.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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