“Le Samourai” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1967)

The term “film noir” was originally coined by French film critics to refer to Hollywood B-grade films of the 1930s and 1940s that concerned stories of shady characters in a dark, gloomy, and corrupt urban environment.  But the true mastery of the film noir form came later, with the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Le Samourai (1970) has become famous as perhaps the extreme, quintessential expression of the genre. Accordingly, the film’s renown led British film magazine Empire to rank the film 39th on its list of "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" (i.e. non-English-language films) [1].

Melville (nee Grumbach) was a self-made auteur who imbibed much of his craft by watching countless Hollywood films in his youth.  After serving in the French Resistance and the French military during World War II, he determinedly launched his film career by seeking independent funding on his own and even starting his own film production company [2].  From the outset his films were atmospheric, and he had early successes like Le Silence de la Mer (1949) and Les Enfants Terribles (1950); but his first full-fledged film noir was not until Le Doulos (1963).  From there on he was a hardcore “noir” filmmaker.

I have remarked that films noir characteristically encompass three basic characterological themes [3]:
  • Fatalism
    The key characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters at every turn.
  • Truth  
    The world is dark and obscure, and the truth is always elusive. At every turn, there is someone ready to double-cross you, and the police are as untrustworthy as the gangsters.
  • Loyalty  
    Because everyone, including the cops, are liars, there is a heavy demand to find someone who can be trusted – and then to remain loyal to that rare person. This leads to a professional code, the “honor among thieves”, which places life-threatening demands of loyalty on the trusted partners in the story.
In Le Samourai these three notions are particularly dominant and take precedence over basic narrative concerns of realism and motivation.  The story is about an underworld hit man, Jef Costello (played by Melville favorite Alain Delon), and his surreal world of isolation and violence.  This is no ordinary gangster thug; Costello is the ultimate icy smooth professional, and the murder he is contracted to commit in this story is for a fee of 2 million francs [4].  But we become fascinated following this severely isolated and seemingly soulless individual.  He is the ultimate loner trying to make his way in a hostile environment.  Indeed at the beginning of the film, there is a displayed title that is purported to be a quotation from the Bushido code of the samurai (but actually a Melville fabrication):
“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, . . .
. . . unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle.”
Costello is the samurai and his world is dark and dank – everything seems to happen at night in his world.  This is not gritty realism; it is an abstract expressionistic nightmare more along the lines of such noirish cartoons as Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95). Crucial to this evocation of expressionistic gloom is the cinematography of Henri Decaë, who masterfully contributed to a number of outstanding films, including several directed by Melville, during this general period – notably: Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1958); Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959); Francois Truffaut’s, The Four Hundred Blows (1959); René Clément’a Purple Noon (1960); Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybele (1962); and Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), Bob le Flambeur, (1955), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970).  The atmospheric cinematography of Decaë does not slow down the relentless pace, however, thanks to the smooth cutting-on-action editing of Monique Bonnot and Yolande Maurette.

The story of Le Samourai, which is thought to have been inspired by Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), progresses through five phases.

1.   The Contracted Killing
The film opens without dialogue for the fist nine minutes.  In an opening long shot, Jef Costello is lying fully clothed on his bed in his bare and dismal apartment and contemplatively smoking a cigarette.  The only sounds to be heard are the chirpings of his caged bird.  Costello then gets up and puts on what will be his signature attire, a white trench coat and a fedora, and goes out onto the street. Finding a parked Citroen that is unlocked, Costello gets in, takes out his large key ring with dozens of keys on it and quietly begins trying them in the ignition.  One of the keys works, and Costello drives off in the stolen car.  All the while Costello is in full view, but his expressionless countenance doesn’t attract attention.  Then he goes to a garage in a nondescript Parisian banlieue and wordlessly arranges with an underworld associate to purchase a gun and get a new license plate for the stolen car. 

Costello now starts making arrangements for his alibi.  He first visits his girlfriend Janine Lagrange (played by the extraordinarily beautiful Nathalie Delon, who was Alain Delon’s wife at the time). When he learns that she will be hosting her usual “customer” at 2 am, Costello then goes to visit some shady friends involved in an all-night poker game, so that he can secure his alibi for the rest of the night.  (Why Costello needed this second alibi was never clear to me.)

Costello next goes to Martey’s nightclub, where a beautiful jazz pianist, Valerie (played by West Indian Caty Rosier), is playing on stage.  Donning white gloves (to conceal fingerprints), he quietly goes to a backroom and ruthlessly murders the proprietor.  But as he is leaving Martey’s room, he runs into Valerie, and they exchange momentary glances.  So Valerie may become a key witness in connection with the later criminal investigation.  Then Costello goes out and dumps the gun and his gloves off a bridge and into the river.  Finally, he calmly returns to his alibi sites to cover himself.  All the while Costello has shown no emotion and barely said a word.

2.  The Police Investigate
Now the focalization shifts to the police investigation, which is led by police commissioner (“Le Commissaire”, played by Francois Perier).  In contrast to the solitary, existentialist sphere of Costello, the police counterforce is depicted as a vast, messy machine with almost unlimited resources.  The Commissaire orders the police to roundup 20 suspects from each of the city’s 20 precincts for a lineup.  And he is willing to compromise any principles in order to get things done.  As he tells Janine Lagrange when he is interrogating her at one point,
    “The truth is not what you say. It’s what I say. Whatever the methods I use to get it.”
But Janine is utterly loyal to Jef and stands by his alibi, which proves to be airtight. (This shows Janine  to be an ideal partner for a film-noir protagonist.) And, mysteriously, Valerie does not identify Costello during the police lineup, either.  The Commissaire still suspects Jef, though, and he orders the police to tail him wherever he goes.  They also go to Jef’s apartment while he is out and install a hidden radio bug.

3.  Betrayal
Costello goes to an arranged remote location to collect his payment for the murder from a criminal “syndicate” agent.  But he is double-crossed when the agent tries to kill him.  Costello is wounded and barely gets away.  The syndicate boss, Olivier Rey, is later shown telling his colleagues that now that Costello has become a police suspect, he is a liability to their organization.  So it is now clear that he is being hunted by two ruthless forces – both the police and the syndicate.

4.  Closing In

Costello still doesn’t know why the syndicate betrayed him, but he suspects the jazz pianist, Valerie, may hold the clue.  The few meaningful gazes they have exchanged with each other up to now have seemed to connect the two in some sort of mysterious affinity. Is it love? We don’t know, and probably those two don’t, either.  Jef now tracks down Valerie, and they go to her luxurious apartment to have a guarded conversation.  She tells him she will give him more information in a couple of hours.

Shortly thereafter, though, the same syndicate agent who almost killed him barges into Costello’s apartment and offers him another 2 million francs to carry out another murder.  Now things have become even more complicated.  Why the change of heart on the part of the syndicate? We don’t know yet who the targeted victim is, but apparently Costello now does.  So far, though, he has not known who his underworld contractors are. So he strong-arms the syndicate agent to learn the identity and location of the syndicate agent’s boss, Olivier Rey.

But the police are tracking Costello closely, with the Commissaire ordering 50 men and 20 auxiliaries to tail him.  Costello is aware of this surveillance, and there follows an extended cat-and-mouse chase on the Paris metro system as he tries to get clear of them.  He does just manage to elude them all, then steals another Citroen in his usual fashion, and gets ready to carry out his next contract.

5.  The Finish

Costello first goes to Olivier Rey’s apartment, which we (and presumably Costello) are surprised to see is the same place where he had conversed with Valerie.  When Costello sees Rey, he quickly shoots him dead.  Then he goes to Martey’s nightclub, where there is another surprise in store for us.  Costello’s murder target this time is Valerie. Wearing his white assassin’s gloves, he walks up to her piano, and again they exchange emotional gazes.  She urges him not to stay, but he mournfully pulls out his gun and says, “I was paid to. . .” 

Before Costello can do anything, though, there is a hail of bullets from a police ambush behind the curtains, and he is killed.  When they examine Costello’s gun at the end, they find that it was not loaded.  His last gesture was apparently an act of suicide.

There are a number of things that we never know in this story.  What were the syndicate’s motivations?  What was Valerie’s involvement with the syndicate?  Was she ultimately colluding with the police?  And what was the connection between Jef Costello and Valerie?  And, of course, what was behind Jef’s final actions?  These are mysteries that are unknown to us and probably mostly unknown to Costello, too.

What we are left with is the bleak loneliness of the film-noir samurai.  This is powerfully conveyed throughout the film by a number of metaphorical elements which seem to have an emotive significance beyond our schematic explanations:
  • The chirping bird in the cage. The mournful vitality of the bird has a haunting feel to it. It may suggest entrapment, but also hidden secrets yet to be unveiled.
  • Enclosure.  Throughout this story Jef Costello is faced with a threatening world closing in on him, such as when he is closely tracked by police spies all through the metro system, for example. The police machine is seemingly boundless and soulless.  (This metaphorical presentation of a seemingly helpless fugitive in flight from a massively resourced police machine was repeated in Melville's Le Cercle Rouge.)
  • Jef’s attire.  His fedora, trench coat, and white gloves are always carefully donned, as if they are a crucial part of his persona.  Indeed there is something absurd about this, since this “uniform” would make him more identifiable to the authorities.  This attire, though,  perhaps represents to him the mark of his samurai-like code of conduct. 
  • The gazes of Jef and Valerie.  Although we might think of this film’s material as concerned with extreme masculine discipline, both Jef and Valerie are androgynous figures.  Valerie, for instance, has short hair and an innocent boyish look.  Delon, whose androgynous good looks have always felt a little sinister to me, in this film also has an innocent look to him (even though we see he is a killer).  When we as viewers look at each of these two figures, we are drawn to seek empathy with them, even though we are given no information about their backgrounds, goals, or concerns.  This makes them even more fascinating to look at.  The whole effect is magnified when the two of them gaze at each other.  Indeed Valerie is one of the only people in this film whom Jef looks in the eye. Melville’s extended treatment in this film of the gaze, which is recognized by phenomenological philosophers as an essential instrument of self-consciousness [5], is one of the most aesthetically significant and interesting aspects of this film.
Thus because of these various considerations, Le Samourai stands as a great film.  It is not my favorite Melville film noir; his subsequent Le Cercle Rouge is.  But Le Samourai remains as one of the ultimate explorations of the film noir genre.

  1. "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema", Empire, Bauer Media Group, (11 June 2010). 
  2.  World Film Directors, V. II., John Wakeman (ed.),  H.W. Wilson Co., NY 1988, quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Jean-Pierre Melville Le Samourai 1967”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIII:6), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (10 October 2006).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Le Doulos’ - Jean-Pierre Melville (1963)”, The Film Sufi, (27 February 2009).  
  4. I would estimate this to be about US$ 30,000 in today’s currency. 
  5. Shaun Gallagher, “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (24 December 2014).

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