I discovered French director Jean-Pierre Melville a few years ago when I attended a screening of a revival of one of his films at the NuArt Theater in West Los Angeles. Immediately after the film, I walked to the corner and entered a video store that specializes in obscure and hard to find films and proceeded to work my way through every one of the director’s films available on tape or DVD. Since then, a couple of his other films have also received revivals and the Criterion Collection has also begun to release restored versions of some of these films.
You have probably never seen a film by Melville, but you have most certainly seen a film influenced by the director. Melville was admittedly influenced by the great American gangster and Noir films of the 40s, so influenced that most of his films would deal with the various elements of gangster, heists, policemen and detectives. And he has, in turn, influenced filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. Woo actually ‘Presented’ the recent revival of “Le Cercle Rouge”, another Melville film exploring many of the same themes as “Le Samourai”. That review will be added soon.
Melville was an extremely independent filmmaker, so much so that he owned his own studios until they were destroyed by fire in the late 60s. Because he produced his own films, he was always looking to save money and part of this meant shooting scenes in existing locations and at real exterior locations, giving his films a real, gritty look. This would eventually influence the French New Wave and directors Truffaut and Godard.
Melville used or reworked similar themes and plots in many of his films, as though he was trying to perfect a formula. With slight variation, he created a number of very memorable films exploring the world of gangsters, their crimes and their relationships. Another common occurrence in many of his films are long sequences depicting the lead or a group of characters going about their business, in silence, with no dialogue. When Melville met with Delon to talk about his appearance in this film, Melville began explaining the story. After a few minutes, Delon stopped him and asked about the dialogue. Melville said that there wouldn’t be any. Delon was intrigued, because he would have to show any emotion through facial expressions and body language.
“Le Samourai”, produced in 1967, is one of Melville’s best films and is available in a stunning Criterion Collection edition.
Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hit man, pure and simple, and he is very good at his job. His apartment is all he wants or needs, just in case he is caught or killed at any time. Why complicate matters? In preparation for his newest contract, he visits Jane (Nathalie Delon), his girlfriend and gives her the rundown; if anyone asks, he was with her all night. But she tells him she has a ‘friend’ coming at 2:00 am. Okay, he was with her until 1:45 am. He then finds a floating crap game and asks them to help. He then travels to a nightclub, walks in and enters the owner’s office. After he kills the man, he leaves but runs into Valerie (Caty Rosier), the featured singer. She gets a good look at Jef before he tears himself away and leaves. Soon, the Superintendent (Francois Perier) orders a round up of people fitting his description. At the police station, a number of the people in the nightclub, including the piano player, are present, yet unable to identify him. Jef knows the piano player got a good look at him, so he is a bit dubious about her inability to identify him. But the Superintendent knows it was him and refuses to give up on his number one suspect; he has Jef tailed. Jef shakes the tail and goes to meet with his contact, to get paid, but the contact has other plans; part of the contract was to complete the job with no complications. Getting pulled in for questioning is a complication. The contact pulls a gun and Jef manages to get away with only a wound. Now, he has to figure out how to get out of this mess. He has the cops and the underworld after him.
The beauty of a Melville film is that they are so visual. He doesn’t feel the need to have all characters talking at all times. As a result, he has long sequences with little or no dialogue. This only adds to the aura of the characters. Would it make sense for a hit man to be talkative, blabbing to everyone and anyone he comes into contact with? Of course not. So Jef is a very quiet guy, so quiet he is almost expressionless. As he moves through the dark and quiet streets of Paris, Jef methodically goes about setting up his alibi. After he is released from the police station, he quietly moves through the early morning streets in an effort to allude the tail. Then of course, there is the hit itself. He quietly enters the nightclub in question, his eyes scanning the landscape, speaking to no one. From the looks he receive s, we get the feeling that at least a few of the employees are ex-cons, because they recognize he means trouble. The hit comes off quickly and with little fuss. As he is leaving, he runs smack into the piano player, who has just finished her set.
After you have watched a few Melville films, you will begin to recognize the trademark sequences and themes he incorporates into all of his films. In “Le Samourai”, he uses these elements with a spare ness sometimes lacking in his later films. “Le Cercle Rouge” contains many of the same elements, but it runs about 30 minutes longer. Granted, “Rouge” has an additional story line, but it seems a little bloated. It is still a fine film, but not quite as good as “Samourai”. This is considered by many to be his best film for this sparseness; many view it as a sign that he was working at the height of his powers and able to confidently paint many of these story points with as little time or work as possible.
Even though this film is set in Present day Paris, which for the film is 1967, the film could easily take place in the 40s. Jef wears a fedora and a trench coat in the entire film, removing them only when he is in his apartment, tending to his wound. He doesn’t even remove the garments when he is with his girlfriend because he has only stopped by to elicit her help with his alibi. When he enters the nightclub, an old fashioned musical number is happening onstage, pulled right out of an old Warner Bros. gangster film. At the revival screening I attended, people in the audience giggled and laughed because the image is so dated, yet I would later come to realize, so Melville. As mentioned before, the director was very influenced by these same films, so it makes sense he would include images reminiscent of them. These are the subjects, the stories, the people he felt most comfortable with, and it makes sense that he would want to be around them as much as possible.
Melville’s films always include some form of a cat and mouse chase. In “Le Samourai”, this involves the police watching Jef as he consciously attempts to allude them in the Metro. As soon as Jef leaves the police station, the Superintendent instructs his men to follow him, he knows Jef is not telling the truth. The thing is, Jef knows he is being followed, so he keeps an eye open for undercover police as he switches back and forth through various Metro stations. At each turn, another undercover cop waits, ready to report on the criminal’s whereabouts. At one point, a perfectly innocuous housewife sits on the train, staring impassively ahead. Yep, she is reporting on his whereabouts. Naturally, the same person cannot follow him throughout, which would raise too much suspicion. There are a number of people placed throughout the city, ready to jump into the fray at a moments notice and report back to headquarters via wireless. Back at headquarters, the Superintendent tracks his every move on a large map. Until they lose him.
Throughout, Jef has to figure out why the people who paid him off are also after him. At one point, he is talking to the piano player and she asks why he killed the nightclub owner, when he didn’t even know him. “Because I was paid to.” She doesn’t understand, but we understand. He took a contract and his honor is at stake.
After we meet the Superintendent (Perier), the narrative occasionally follows him home as he returns to a quiet apartment and his collection of hungry cats. On the DVD, Criterion has included televised interviews with two of Melville’s biographers. In one, the historian notes the Superintendent is almost the complete opposite of Jef. Jef is quiet, calm and barely expressive. The Superintendent is very vocal, always moving, always thinking. This is another trademark of Melville’s films. In most, the lead character is almost always the least expressive, as though the rest of the story is happening to them and they are merely a pawn in the larger story. A more expressive, more active person generally compliments them. In “Le Cercle Rouge”, Delon once again plays a gangster who is very quiet, very introspective. A detective who is very similar to the Superintendent tracks him. In “Un Flic”, Delon play the detective this time, but he is equally as quiet and sedate. Richard Crenna (yes, Richard Crenna) plays the lead gangster in Melville’s last film.
Melville is a filmmaker who is clearly devoted to and in love with the art of filmmaking. In every frame of every one of his films, he is clearly trying to present the best story, characterizations and scenery possible. Melville is a filmmaker you should become more familiar with.
This DVD edition, as with any other Criterion Collection edition, is superlative. The film transfer is beautiful and aside from the dated elements within the film (the nightclub dance sequences for instance) you would never be able to tell “Le Samourai” was made over thirty years ago.
The two interviews included are very informational and very French. The historians discuss his work in a fashion that is much different from our current fascination with box office figures and who is sleeping with whom. Believe it or not, many in our country once discussed film with the same enthusiasm and fervor. Those days seem to have disappeared in favor of tabloid journalism charting the everyday whereabouts of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. They discuss the meaning of Melville’s art, what some of the images and sequences mean and more.
The DVD also includes a excerpt from “Melville on Melville”, a very thorough book and one of a series of books on filmmakers in which the subjects discuss their art, their influences, and their lives.
This is a DVD every film buff should own.