Originally published in Cinema Papers no. 1, January 1974, pp. 56-7. Republished with the permission of the author.
“There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai, unless it be that of the tiger in the jungle.”
Le Samouraï (The Godson, 1967), the tenth of Jean-Pierre Melville’s twelve [thirteen] features since 1947, first entered Australia in 1969. Apart from a couple of screenings in a French showcase at Sydney’s Ascot Theatre, this masterpiece of almost seven years’ standing still awaits commercial release.
Melville’s films are “difficult”, but not comfortably so as are Bergman’s or even Antonioni’s; they have not won acceptance on the Australian art house circuit. Léon Morin, prêtre and Le Doulos, both made more than a decade ago, now receive limited distribution to cultural and educational groups through the French Embassy; Le Cercle rouge, impaired by distributor cuts, has scraped through the odd miserable week at the city blood houses and drive-ins within a couple of years of its production (1970); Le Samouraï still languishes for want of an exhibition outlet.
In his own way Melville is as uncompromising toward his audience as Bresson, Dreyer or Mizoguchi. Severe, unremitting attention is required of the viewer; a fearful joy may be the reward for his pains. Yet to many Anglo-Saxon reviewers Melville’s attitude has seemed perverse because of his evident predilection for the thriller form without moralising. He is a self-confessed addict of the structure and ethos, but not the tone, of the Hollywood crime genres.
Thus his films, despite their formal affinity with some of the Japanese masters, have perplexed those seekers after cinematic “significance” who prize difficulty, so long as it is self-announcing and amenable to the literary intelligence.
As might befit one who took not merely his professional but his everyday name in tribute to the author of Pierre: or the Ambiguities, his style purifies the forms while it compounds the responses. In Le Samouraï Melville combines the cumulative what-happens-next tension of the crime thriller with a meticulous pictorial formalism which holds the lifestyle of a criminal assassin open to contemplation, as if under glass.
The assassin is a solitary, he knows the loneliness of the tiger in the jungle. An enigma whose gestures seem polished into expressions of alienation wilful and self-reliant, he makes his devotions to the singularly efficient performance of his calling; he lives in the world of the irreversible act where life – his or another’s – is at stake; and he moves with a saintly calm.
Melville’s achievement is to create within us, despite the studied mid-shot detachment of his style and the ambivalence of our feelings, an absorption in the figure of Jeff Costello analogous to Jeff’s self-absorption. On the evidence of the films we have seen in this country, Melville would incline to the dictum that artifice is a necessity and evident artifice is a virtue. He does not seek to simulate the world but to create anew from the materials of the world. The severe form, the precise detail, the delicate effect are part of a style which shows rather than refers to its subject.
The tone of the film is established in an extraordinary opening shot under the titles: the shot looks down the length of a plain, even dingy, room to a man stretched on a bed beneath two windows, smoke curling up from his cigarette. There is apparently nothing for the eye to fix upon as especially informative or dramatic; natural sound apparently incidental and remote; distance apparently fixed, yet we find our perception of distance is subtly altering; apparently monochrome, yet the cigarette point glows red for an instant (an exquisite detail: we begin to wonder if anyone can have gone to the extraordinary [though not entirely unprecedented if we have seen Wellman’s Track of the Cat] lengths of setting up an everyday prospect in which all the natural hues outside grey happen to be missing). Within the uninterrupted duration of a few minutes, purely by formal means, the apparently unremarkable has begun to communicate a sense of disturbance.
Melville has explained:
My intention was to show the mental disorder of a man who unmistakably had a tendency to schizophrenia. Instead of simply resorting to the now almost classical technique of a track back compensated by a zoom forward, I used the same movement but with stops. By stopping the track but continuing the zoom, then starting the track again, and so on, I created an elastic rather than classical sense of dilation – so as to express this feeling of disorder more precisely. Everything moves, but at the same everything stays where it is. (1)
He has also explained that he had banknotes and labels printed in black and white. This helps to delay the viewer’s aesthetic adjustment away from monochrome; for many viewers even the flesh of face and hands is drained of colour, or carries only a hint of it which their perception must struggle either to admit or reject.
In either case the shot has done its work. Although the visuals will continue to be severely controlled for the ensuing 90 minutes, there is no need for another shot of such extreme stylisation. Our confidence in our perception has been curiously shaken; for the remainder of the film we can not afford our usual complacency in taking for granted much of what passes in our visual field.
The action proceeds; only narrative at first, then plot can be discerned; already there are thematic impressions but not yet thematic structures. The man rises from the bed and busies himself with unremarkable preparations for going outside. His movements are distinguished by a remarkable economy which might be mechanical if it were not for their equally remarkable grace. He counts his money, acknowledges the bird which is his only companion, puts on belted coat and hat as if they were a uniform, makes two fingertip adjustments to the brim in a richly epiphanic gesture, and leaves. Later we will learn that he is Jeff Costello, an independent contract assassin of Paris on his way to carry out on an assignment.
In the streets he selects a parked car and installs himself behind the wheel with a ring of ignition keys at hand. Methodically and impassively he tries them one by one. A shot from outside the car through the rain-streamed windscreen shows what a passer-by might notice: a handsome young man sitting, perhaps a little stiffly, in his car. Paradoxically, it is the shot from outside which allows us to shift our sympathy to “inside” the character.
There are slight differences between our perusal and that of the passer-by. Their slightness is significant. The shot is not travelling, the distance is a little less, the duration a little more. This makes for a higher level of contemplation which does not vanish when the image itself does. The interposition of the streaked glass reminds us metaphorically of the artifice which mediates between what we see and what we make of it. Already we now more about Jeff’s action at this moment than a shot from that angle can show; the action which is engaging his critical caution is blocked original] from our view. The fascination of seeing him from the outside in his innocent aspect draws us inside to the suspense and audacity of his action. Narrative and contemplation contend and balance; the film is taut.
Eventually the car starts; Jeff glances behind and pulls away from the kerb; his concentration has not eased despite the physical sense of release. An attractive woman motorist catches his eye; there is time for smiles to be exchanged amidst the traffic. This is a freely recurring molecule of behaviour in our culture and beyond – one may be tempted to call it “natural” – yet the gesture of attraction is not reciprocated, and the man drives on.
He drives to a backstreet garage and pays a criminal contact for false number plates. Their talk is laconic, professional, with an edge of something that might be respect or affection. Thence he proceeds to engineer the two parts of his alibi and carry out the assassination, which he does, brisk and business-like in the office of a nightclub. The plot gets complicated when he comes face to face with a witness in the corridor outside. The witness is also an apparition – a beautiful young woman as poised as he, an entertainer with black skin and white dress. She is also an enigma: why does she show no fear but gaze steadily?
It is a crucial moment for Jeff (2); to ensure survival he should kill her, but he refrains. Subsequently she denies recognising him in a police line-up. He is drawn to her again but she is unwilling (unready?) to become involved. The hazards in his life increase. The police inspector still suspects him, harasses him with bugs and shadows, then tries to pressure Jeanne, the girl who has provided part of Jeff’s alibi. She is staunch, but the pressure will increase. The pay-off man’s attempt to kill Jeff indicates that his faceless employers fear he will be broken by the police. He dresses his own wound no more nor less calmly than everything else he does. When he learns that the witness is marked for assassination by his hand, he eludes a heavy surveillance team of police, tracks down the contract boss and kills him. Now the practice of his vocation is closed to him. He returns to the nightclub, approaches the entertainer and draws a gun, only to be cut down in a blast of police gunfire. His own gun is empty. Jeff Costello, the man who said “I never lose, not really”, having chosen the place, the time and the executioner, has committed ritual suicide.
Ambiguities abound, there is no explanatory dialogue or omniscient narrator but only inference about observed behaviour. We will not all infer the same things from Jeff’s behaviour and situation, especially in the early part of the film before a plot can be discerned. Yet even then we know his style, and can deduce or intuit some judgements about him. It would be out of style for him to have either snubbed the smiling woman motorist or failed to notice her. More likely – just because it is more aesthetically pleasing – that he merely had no feelings to spare for her, no surplus energy to spend on manners, the poor man’s ritual. His needs are few and regular; his interests in life have long since converged.
He cannot relax, merely rest; he cannot deviate, merely improvise in a tricky situation. He exists without play. His life is, in a sense, completed. It is in this sense, I believe, that Melville referred to the Samurai in an interview as already dead in the opening shot, “laid out in death”.
This notion is communicated initially by pictorial means and confirmed by subsequent instances of his behaviour. Images do not state propositions, nor do thematic structures. Le Samouraï is an amalgam of the starkly plotted and the elaborately visualised. Severity of line and dimness of hue do not prevent the images from being richly and consistently expressive in their depiction of the surfaces of behaviour and milieu. But such an amalgam carries many temptations for us to explicate it by simile, the imaginative process of “as if”.
Even the auteur himself is given to discussing the content of his film by this process. When Melville says it contains “several parallel worlds which never overlap but merely brush against each other from time to time”, I can turn to the work itself for confirmation; and his reference to Jeff as a lone wolf would have occurred to most viewers through its proverbial connotation. But I can not find in the film the occasions for simile which justify him in equating the aftermath of Jeff’s being shot in the arm with the notion that “when a lone wolf is wounded he becomes more dangerous but is considered to be finished”. I cannot accept Melville’s comment that the police inspector is (as if) Destiny, although I recognise the analogy of functions: not to execute personally but to set the machinery in motion. I can see no more than a heavy conceit in saying that Jeff falls in love with his own death in the person of the black woman clothed in white, and relating this to the white woman clothed in black who personified death for the poet in Orphée.
On the other hand, I have been tempted to assert a number of similes and constructions which will seem strained to others. Even my attempt at a simplified synopsis is interpretative as much as descriptive.
Nevertheless, I believe it to be both valuable and appropriate to explore and compare our responses to a film like Le Samouraï, to assist each other in trying for common ground in “as if” territory. It is another paradox of this work that it should be so rigorously self-strictured and yet liberate the figurative imagination in its viewers.
The Samurai is embodied in pretty boy Alain Delon, Europe’s answer to Tony Curtis. In addition to the behaving skills that make them stars, both possess considerable acting skills. Delon may not have the flexibility and passionate drive that his Hollywood counterpart can produce when the challenge is there, but he is finely attuned to the extremes of introversion and extroversion, and has a more beautiful “surface”.
The character of Jeff Costello is ascetic, self-absorbed, professionally dedicated; he is one of those rare beings whose every gesture is expressive of the values he lives by. Inasmuch as the crime film is a depiction and examination of an ethos, the central character is the film (3).
Delon’s Samurai has such qualities of polish, strength and impenetrability that metallic similes suggest themselves: I am reminded of Faulkner’s Popeye, the man of death in Sanctuary, who had “the vicious depthless quality of stamped tin”, with fingers “cold and light as aluminium”, and wore a hat “all angles like a modernistic lampshade”. Tom Milne speaks of Jeff’s “steely, passionless mind”. Melville has made of Delon a marvellous artefact. He has wrought one of the finest examples of the cinema’s own “hammered gold and gold enamelling”.
Melville in an interview has stressed that he is not a documentarist. Le Samouraï is not a social document; he has taken pains not to locate the events in an historically definable place and time. His frames of reference are stringent and dispense with much establishing data we may feel we have a “right” to expect. We can only speculate upon Jeff’s background and career, his relationship with Jeanne, the social position of the man who les the assassination contracts (Melville had intended to grant him Cabinet status but decided such information was gratuitous). It may still need to be said, since some of us are still naïve in our expectations of realism, that a film can have precision and particularity and yet diverge far from documentary.
Melville’s achievement and the delight – albeit a cold delight – we may take in it illustrate the paradox that severity is a form of indulgence. Behind the simplicity we may be able to find a finely wrought complexity which disguises itself; beneath the stillness a firmly leashed power; beyond the conventions there may be intimations of the sublime, orphic transports induced and moderated by classical restraints. For many of us who harbour literary standards of worth and significance in our evaluation of movies this will be an artistic truth hard won and long resisted.
Le Samouraï is a film to change your concept of film. The ethos of solitude and the mythos of killing are beheld in an ethereal suspension. The contending pulls of contemplation and narrative are poised in an exquisite balance. The entire work is so phased that it is utterly still because it is utterly tense.
1. Melville in Rui Nogueira (ed.), Melville on Melville, trans. Tom Milne, Secker and Warburg, London, p. 130.
2. We may be reminded of the Gene Coon script for Siegel’s The Killers (1964), in which the drive to solve a similar enigma is the mainspring of the plot.
3. In this respect we may consider some honourable comparisons in recent years: Marvin in Point Blank, Ventura in Classe tous risques (The Big Risk), and with perhaps as much restraint but less rigour, Scott in The Last Run, Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle.