Monday, 7 March 2011

Le Samouraï (1967) - Jean-Pierre Melville

 Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is an assassin, the sort of guy you shouldn't really double cross. So when after a successful job Jef is pulled in for questioning by the law, his employers decided that he's a liability and decided to off him. They botch the job, and now Jef is out after blood. If you read that synopsis on the back of the DVD, would it make you watch this? I'd probably stick it back on the shelf thinking that I've seen that film a few hundred times before. Yet Melville, like all great directors is able to take a familiar yarn and turn it on it's head, creating something entirely original and recognisably his.

Le Samouraï is unmistakeably Melville, containing as it does several of the directors trademarks. For a start before anything happens we are presented with a hokey quote, supposedly from some ancient samurai text, but of course being straight from Melville's pen. Then there are the Melville staples - the doomed loner character (Jef), the huge American car (Valérie's), Jef's white gloves and long hard gaze into the mirror at the start of the film. All of these things appear again and again in JPM's films. Even the staircase in Jef's building turns up a number of times in his flicks.

By '67 Melville had well established his film language, all muted washed out colours (usually greys and pale blues) and sets that had a more than run down appearance. His characters always dress to the nines with police and gangsters adopting the same dress code, that of trench coats and trilby hats. Something that is touched upon in the scene where Delon is told to stand in a line up amongst other policemen, all of whom are told to put on their coats and hats, of course they all look like gangsters, or is that policemen? Then there's Melville's meticulous eye for detail and his relish at showing the audience the minutest details of the most mundane things. In Le Samouraï we are very carefully shown exactly how Jef sets up his alibi and walked through how the police plant a bug for example. Sometimes these scenes almost feel as if they are shot in real time, although of course they aren't. The weird thing is that despite this obsession with detail, his characters don't appear to breathe the same air as us. His world is a few steps removed from ours, for example when Jef (twice) steals a car he does so in broad daylight by simply walking up to it, opening the door (unlocked!!), then using the huge ring of keys that he carries around with him, he slowly and methodically works his way through key after key until finding the one that will start the car. Interestingly a similar scene is to be found when the police break into Jef's apartment using the same massive bunch of keys.

As I said Melville's world is like ours but slightly different. It's almost fantasy like, when Jef shoots his victims, both times you see Jef taking his white gloved hands out of his trench coat pockets, he isn't holding a gun, then we cut to the victim who has pulled a gun and quickly goes to pull the trigger, however quite unbelievably Jef manages to outdraw them. As I said it's Melville's world as much as when you watch Play Time it's Tati's.

Melville worked almost exclusively in two genres throughout his career, those being crime and resistance films. This isn't my favourite of his crime films (Le Cercle rouge just pips it, just), but it's still a masterpiece. There is just so much to enjoy about this film, such as the wonderfully cold performance from Delon. He's almost like a mannequin, he hardly talks during the film (in fact there is no dialogue at all for the first ten minutes), and when he does it's very spartan, with almost no emotion detectable. The room he lives in is a reflection of him, only the barest essentials are on display, water and cigarettes are stacked neatly on top of a wardrobe, a bed pushed against one wall the chest of drawers empty. The caged bird that Jef keeps is an obvious metaphor for Jef, who as far as we see has no companions, no love, nothing. Delon is often framed entirely alone, frozen out from the rest of the people that populate the film. There is more to say, but I just feel that I'm wittering on, I haven't mentioned the use of Kurosawa style wipes in the editing or even the great fetishistic way Jef is with his hat, let alone any sort of discussion about how perfect the end of the film is (hint think about the title). The thing is there has to be some stuff for you to discover for yourself, you don't want me telling you everything now do you?

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