50 Years Ago This Week – Melville’s Le Samouraï

Le Samouraï, the tenth feature film of Mid Century Cinema favorite Jean Pierre Melville, had its premiere in France on October 25, 1967. Over the years it has come to be seen as the representative Melville film, and for many, their favorite of his thirteen movies. It is indeed a masterpiece; and one that is easily recognizable as a Melville production. In retrospect, it also can be seen as the first entry in the final phase of his all-too-short career. 

Le Samouraï is nominally the story of a solitary hit man, under suspicion by the authorities for a recent job and threatened by gangsters who fear that if finally arrested, he might expose their role in that murder. The story works very well (and holds up, if you think about it afterwards). But the movie endures as an expression of pure cinema, with its long silent sequences and muted color schemes. Melville spoke of his desire to make “black and white films in color,” an apt description of what one sees on the screen—a subtle example of which can be seen with the use of photocopied notes to remove the color from bundles of cash. (Long-time affiliate Henri Decae was responsible for the stunning cinematography.) And much of the film passes wordlessly; its long, silent sequences are worthy of Hitchcock, the master of silent storytelling. There is the oft repeated anecdote that it was reading pages and pages of the screenplay without coming across any dialogue that sold Alain Delon on the film. But the dialogue that remains speaks volumes, as with one of the great lines on the Melville oeuvre: “I never think”—uttered by a cop who actually always thinks, but never makes presumptions about the guilt or innocence of any party, regardless of reputation, or the possibility of any scenario, however unlikely.

Influenced by noir classics This Gun for Hire (Alan Ladd is the double-crossed hit man in that one) and The Asphalt Jungle (especially in the line-up scene), Le Samouraï was the first of what would for obvious reasons become known as the Delon trilogy; the subsequent entries were The Red Circle and Un Flic. In addition to their leading man, these films share several of the characteristics of Le Samouraï: Melville’s exquisite command of long, silent passages, the muted color schemes, and the vanishingly thin line that separates the “good guys” from the bad. It has been said that Hitchcock shoots love scenes like murders, and murders like love scenes. Melville shoots his cops to look like gangsters—and they often behave like them.

The Red Circle, which also featured Yves Montand and Paul Crauchet (unforgettable as Felix in Army of Shadows), was Melville’s greatest commercial success. It reflects many of his traditional themes, such as honor and betrayal amongst men—one of the first orders of business for Corey (Delon) upon leaving prison unfolds in a tense, understated confrontation with the man he kept quiet for (well aware that his ex-girlfriend is listening from behind the bedroom door). Montand plays a ruined alcoholic of an ex-cop, who takes up with the gang to restore, successfully, his own sense of self-worth (and perhaps confirming the admonition of the head of Internal Affairs that “all men are guilty.”)  Shot by Decae, The Red Circle is also distinguished by its impeccable framing in one scene after another.

Un Flic, Melville’s last film, has a mixed reputation, even among dedicated Melvillians—but we recommend it without hesitation. Look past the candidly ridiculous helicopter/train sequence and occasionally underspecified motivations, and stay for a series of marvelous sequences and thoughtfully drawn character studies, especially of some members of the gang. The movie opens with an astonishing eleven minute bank robbery, all rain, pounding surf and teal blue—a robbery that goes wrong, of course, but not all wrong, as the job was actually undertaken to finance a more ambitious heist. So you’ve got the cops (exceedingly ruthless) on the hunt, a set of competing gangsters, and the second job still to be pulled. There’s a central triangle with Richard Crenna competing with Delon for the affections of Catherine Deneuve, and a jaw-dropping, through-the-looking-glass inversion of a pivotal scene from Army of Shadows, when Deneuve dons a nurse’s costume and murders a fallen comrade in cold blood. It’s enough to make you hold your breath, and forget the toy helicopter. 

 

Le Samourai 1

Le Samouraï: Jef Costello (Delon) on the Job

 

Le Samourai 2

Line-up

 

Le Samourai 3

Time Running Out

 

Red Circle Guilty

The Red Circle: "All Men are Guilty"

 

Red Circle Montand

Montand on the Rocks

 

Un Flic Cops

Un Flic: The Cops will Get What They Want

 

Un Flic Drinks

Delon, Deneuve, Crenna – Is that Drinks for Two, or Three?