1 August 2004 | Quinoa1984
May be my favorite Melville film with a style that has inspired some, but is hard to match
Jean-Pierre Melville took the idea of the lone gunman (perhaps more akin to the western genre than the crime genre), and created a film with star Alain Delon as a ultra-calm, smooth-operating contract killer Jeff Costello in Paris, who may be at least a little insane. The result is a blend of stylistic and thematic excellence, a suspense film where sometimes that aspect has to take a backseat to the psychological drama of the killer, and the side-story of the police procedural (headed by 'Superintendant' played by Francois Perier). The film carries very little dialog with a couple of exceptions, which gives Melville a chance to perfect his storytelling technique. Deleon, as well, was a very fit choice for the role of Costello. It's actually fascinating that Melville made this character, mostly a night owl with a look that's usually cold and hard boiled like some neo-hood from the 30's, the protagonist.
There's also the look of the film, provided in part by Henri Decae, who would later lens Melville's epic Le Cercle Rouge. In the opening shot, were given the feeling of distortion on Costello's uniquely blank one-room apartment. Is this to bring us inside of Costello's frayed consciousness, or is it just one of those style moves done by directors in the 60's? I might go for the psychological part, but what I noticed about Le Samourai, adding to the appeal of it, was the theme of Costello's mind-set is put forth subtlety. This is a pro put into tight circumstances (getting heat from his employers as well as the police), so who is there for him to go to? Just an on & off again girlfriend (Nathalie Delon), a little bird in his apartment, and a witness to one of his contracts (the late Cathy Rosier, in a performance of some note despite the one-sidedness of her part). When the action comes, it's not as bloody as in the films it later inspired (most obvious of which are John Woo's The Killer and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog), yet that too just adds on to the emotions provoked by the settings and the mis-en-scene.
So, would I recommend Le Samourai to fans of crime films? Well, it may not to those who sole obsession are the crime films that pack all the high octane juice and gore, such as in a John Woo or Hong-Kong action film, or to the Tarantino fans that may not appreciate the patience Melville has (the deliberate pace and silences) as opposed to laughs and ultra-violence. I'd guess that Le Samourai is most successful, and why it is one of the best films I will ever see, because it is heavy on the nuance and detail, doesn't skimp on keeping the genre characters believable, and leaves the gun-play as true surprises even on repeat viewings (however, this is the kind of film to be watched maybe once every year or once ever few years, so that it keeps fresh when seen again).
Aside from delivering the goods in terms of the story and as a drama, for the audience it seeks out it's highly absorbing and an example of subtlety in cinematic grammar. It's not a crime or police movie for the mainstream (and I'm sure some will seek this out from the under-ground buzz, start watching and say, "oh man, this stuff's in subtitles? I can't bear to watch"). Really, it's appeal will hold more to fans of the french new-wave, which Melville set off with Bob le Flambeur, film-geeks, and for those looking for a dosage of atmosphere and cool bravura directors can't seem to latch onto in recent times. For me, it is one of the truly sublime time-capsule of what the gangster/noir genre/mood can produce.