Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Production: Filmel, C.I.C.C., Fida Cinematografica; colour, 35mm; running time: 105 minutes. Filmed in Paris, 1966.
Producer: Raymond Borderie, Eugène Lepicier; screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville, from the novel The Ronin by Joan McLeod; photography: Henri Decae; editors: Monique Bonnot, Yolande Maurette; assistant director: Georges Pellegrin; art director: Francois de Lamothe; music: Francois de Roubaix; sound editors: Alex Pront, Robert Pouret; sound recordist: René Longuet.
Cast: Alain Delon (Jeff Costello); Francois Perier (The Inspector); Nathalie Delon (Jane Lagrange); Cathy Rosier (Valérie); Jacques Leroy (The Gunman); Jean-Pierre Posier (Olivier Rey); Catherine Jourdan (Hat-check girl); Michel Boisrond (Wiener); Robert Favart (Barman); André Salgues (Garage Man).
Nogueira, Rui, Melville on Melville, London, 1971.
McArthur, Colin, Underworld U.S.A, London, 1972.
Nogueira, Rui, Le Cinéma selon Melville, Paris, 1973.
Zimmer, Jacques, and Chantal de Béchaude, Jean-Pierre Melville, Paris, 1983.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema, London, 1985.
Bantcheva, Denitza, Jean-Pierre Melville: de l'oeuvre à l'homme, Troyes, 1996.
Variety (New York), 8 November 1967.
Image et Son (Paris), December 1967.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1967.
Truffaut, François, and Rui Nogueira, "A Samurai in Paris," in Sightand Sound (London), Summer 1968.
Focus on Film (London), September-October 1970.
Milne, Tom, Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1971.
Gow, G., Films and Filming (London), July 1971.
Milne, Tom, "Le Samourai," in Focus on Film, No. 7, 1971.
Filmfacts (London), no.16, 1972.
Koebner, Thomas, "Aus dem Leben der Automaten," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), vol. 46, no. 11, 25 May 1993.
Reader, Keith, Sight and Sound (London), September 1993.
Rouyer, Philippe, "Le petit théâtre de Jean-Pierre Melville," in Positif (Paris), no. 418, December 1995.
Hogue, Peter, "Melville," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 32, no. 6, November-December 1996.
Hoberman, J., "Portrait of a Hit Man," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 42, 4 March 1997.
Canby, Vincent, in The New York Times, 26 December 1997.
Peachment, Chris, "A Man Apart," in New Statesman, vol. 127, no. 4405, 2 October 1998.
* * *
Jean-Pierre Melville had made his first, highly distinctive contribution to the "policier" in 1956 with Bob le flambeur, returning to it in 1963 with Le Doulos which, with Le Deuxième souffle (1963) and Le Samourai (1967), comprises a loose trilogy that represents one of the very summits of the genre.
The French crime film is less well-known than the American variety (with the possible exception of Du Rififi chez les hommes), but its relative neglect is unjust, and Melville is one of its finest exponents. As Roy Armes has noted, he has adapted the mythology and iconography of the gangster film to his own distinct ends: "His criminals are idealised figures, their appearance stylised (with raincoat, hat and gun predominant) and their behaviour oddly blending violence with ritualised politeness. The director has no interest in the realistic portrayal of life as it is and disregards both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume. He uses his stars to portray timeless, tragic figures caught up in ambiguous conflicts and patterns of deceit, relying on the actor's personality and certainty of gesture to fill the intentional void."
Le Samourai opens with a quote (though largely made up by Melville) from the "Book of Bushido" to the effect that "there is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai, unless it be that of the tiger in the jungle." Solitude is a particularly Melvillian theme, explored in different ways in Bob le flambeur, Le Silence de la Mer, Leon Morin, pretre, Les Enfants terribles and L'Ainé des Ferchaux. Indeed, in his own life Melville was a fiercely independent filmmaker. In Le Samourai this theme of solitude is embodied in the hired killer Jeff Costello, depicted while on a series of increasingly mysterious and dangerous contracts, with the police gradually closing in on him and a beautiful nightclub pianist, Valérie, mesmerising him.
From the opening shot, with Jeff lying stretched out and silent on his bed in a darkened room (as if "laid out" in death, as Melville himself put it), it is as if we are witnesses to a long, drawn-out, ritualistic process of harakiri. The mood of doom and fatefulness is as tangible as in a Fritz Lang film, and Melville heightens the feeling of strangeness and unease by zooming in and simultaneously tracking back—not an unusual technique by this time, but Melville considerably refines it by stopping the track occasionally as he continues the zoom, producing the effect that "everything moves, but at the same time everything stays where it is."
From here, the film progresses both as a classic American gangster film a la francaise and a wonderful exercise in mythology that quite specifically recalls Orphée (Melville had directed the film of Cocteau's novel Les Enfants terribles at Cocteau's own request). On the gangster level, as Tom Milne has evocatively described the film, Le Samourai is "redolent of night, of gleaming city streets, of fast cars and guns weighed down by silencers as the lone wolf killer lopes steadily and disdainfully through a battery of police line-ups and interrogations, of encounters with syndicate hoods on lonely railway bridges and in the silence of his own room, never moving an inch from his chosen trail." Quite outstanding in this respect is the elaborate pursuit of Jeff by the police through the Paris metro (according to Melville, one of the officers on the Paris crime squad remarked enviously to him: "If we were given the resources to set up tailing jobs like that, our task would be a lot easier"). Almost equally striking, however, are the scenes in which Melville simply observes the mechanics of Jeff going about his business, such as the complex setting-up of an alibi that occupies the first two, virtually dialogueless, reels of the film. As Milne notes, scenes such as these hinge entirely on "Melville's meticulous observation of the precise, self-absorbed gestures and movements of a man alone and sufficient unto himself, whether he is hunter or hunted."
As a myth, on the other hand, Le Samourai is a variation on the theme of Orpheus being called to the underworld. If, in Orphée, it was the otherworldly Princess who becomes susceptible to human feelings and returns Orpheus's love, here it is the icy, solitary Jeff whose feelings are awakened and who, thus shorn of his strength, deliberately accepts death and destiny. And just to underline the parallel with Orphée, the Princess is a white woman dressed in black, while Valérie is a black woman dressed in white.
Le Samourai presents us with an utterly compelling, totally self-contained universe. Accordingly, nothing, but nothing, has been left to chance in the mise-en-scène. This is a film of almost Bressonian rigour and austerity, as elliptical as Jeff is abstract. So muted and atonal are the colours that at first one has the impression of watching a black-and-white film, or a bleached-out print. But gradually one realises that what we are witnessing is, as Milne has it, "a visual equivalent to Jeff's steely, passionless mind. In him and around him, cold and toneless, Paris becomes a city of shadows, as silent and mysterious as Cocteau's 'zone de la mort:' a place, in fact, where one is not in the least surprised to find Death herself waiting, beckoning the lonely samurai into her arms with her alluring promise of peace and companionship." A word of warning, however. The dubbed version of this film is hideously duped and is also missing nine minutes of footage. To appreciate the true beauties of Le Samourai it is absolutely vital to see the original, or subtitled, version.