Julien Allen on Le Samouraï
In an early sequence of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), professional assassin Jef Costello (Alain Delon) spots a man parking his black Citroën ID 19 on a Parisian street outside his apartment. The driver leaves the door unlocked, so Costello climbs inside the car and takes out a large, full keyring and places it on the passenger seat. He unhooks it and begins to remove its many keys, one by one, slowly, meticulously, to try each one in the car’s ignition. Then, with the same purposeful precision, he places each unsuccessful key neatly down on the seat, adjacent to the others. The keys look broadly identical, and there appears to be about a hundred of them. Francois de Roubaix’s synthesized piano scores the sequence, as the rain lashes down on the windshield. The fifth key Costello tries guns the engine and the car moves away. What is most arresting about the action is that we know, very early on, that Costello would have tried all one hundred keys if he had to—without modulating his tempo, mood, or heart rate. The sequence is just under a minute long, but by its implications it can look and feel to a distorted memory as if it is interminable.
Like most men of taste, Jean-Pierre Melville idolized American things: films, literature, buildings . . . he even spoke English with an exquisitely broken American accent. He was a voracious, evangelistic cinephile, weaned on the transitional era from silent cinema to the incomparable, burnished golden age of early Hollywood talkies of the ’30s and ’40s. Handed a 9.5mm Pathé-Baby projector for his sixth birthday, he was watching five films a day by his early teens. Alain Delon once said of Melville that he knew more about the cinema than anyone he had ever met. (From a man who worked with and befriended Visconti, Antonioni, Losey, Godard, and Agnès Varda, this is no tossed-off compliment.) That encyclopedic heft, that famous “baggage” which Melville himself imposed as an entrance qualification for any great filmmaker, pumped intellectual oxygen through his entire body of work, fueled the insolence of the Nouvelle Vague, and ultimately bled out into all crime cinema that followed. This “influence” would eventually span the globe, from East to West: from the Hong Kong action film industry, utterly transformed by John Woo’s Melville homage The Killer (1989), through the hard-boiled French commercial hits of the seventies and eighties to Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and contemporary American crime auteurs Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann.
Sharing with Welles and Kubrick the unlucky statistic of having completed only 13 features, Melville is a filmmaker who tends to be celebrated at a distance. Unlike other famous French temperamentalists like Jean-Luc Godard or Maurice Pialat, his private persona did not enter the public consciousness when he was alive. Nor was he a brand, an entertainer, or raconteur, like Alfred Hitchcock (even if he was exceptionally articulate on the few occasions he spoke in public). He committed firmly to his own, hard-earned misanthropy; he never parlayed it for PR purposes. You could almost say that he didn’t appear eager to please. But he worked in a mainstream register, which is to say that he deplored the idea of being connected to an artistic movement and—separately from this—wanted to make films that would make money, something he took as an artistic achievement. His work was fiercely personal, critically divisive, and only moderately successful. To Melville—perhaps because of his upbringing—films could not be naturalistic, they had to feel false, like dreams. In fact, he placed these “dreams” in very real, at times overly naturalistic settings, and this juxtaposition between stylized action and reality—at times aesthetically disarming, such as the opening and closing sequences of Le doulos (1962), shot amongst squalor and rubble, respectively—would deepen and sharpen the “Melville look.” François Truffaut, writing on Les enfants terribles (1950) called Melville’s cinema “sensorial” and “olfactory.”
There are three key pieces of received knowledge about Melville: the first is reductive, the second fallacious, and the third also wrong but more interesting than the other two. 1) He made lots of films with men in trench coats and fedoras featuring smart nightclubs that a lot of other filmmakers thought were cool and subsequently copied. 2) His wartime dramas Léon Morin, Priest (1961) and Army of Shadows (1969) glorified the French resistance and contributed to a revisionist denial of French history, which films like The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) sought to rectify. 3) He made a clutch of “serious” war films, but far more crowd-pleasing crime films—and those two categories of his work are commonly dissociable. Closer analysis of the third assumption prompts a rewarding evaluation of Melville’s work, which posits that his crime films were no more or less profound or commercially minded than his war films and that his wartime experiences (even his assumed name—Melville, after the American man of letters—was a Resistance code name, like “Bison” in Army of Shadows) and in particular his own experience of death, informed and enriched every frame of his cinema.
The relationship between Melville’s depiction of the French resistance in Le silence de la mer (1949), Léon Morin, Priest, and Army of Shadows and the iconic, signature stylings of his crime films (including 1966’s Le deuxième souffle and his final, 1972 film, Un flic) can and should be seen as a relationship of similarities, populated by the same components, and imbued with the same sentiments. In Army of Shadows, Melville showed the resistance—in all its lack of glory—for what it was: an army of crime. The two worlds (war and crime) shared uniforms, codes of honor, duty killings, and a potent sense of the overarching, numbing effect of violence, all feeding the singular, existential purpose of their protagonists. The escape from German incarceration in Army of Shadows is planned and executed as methodically as the heists in Bob le flambeur (1956) and Le cercle rouge (1970). The struggle between the human and the detached is foisted on the audience and touches everything, from the gruesome murder of the young traitor Paul in Army of Shadows to the contract killing of the nightclub owner in Le Samouraï.
Melville is a filmmaker of objects, too. The plainest of items for him would frequently carry visual, symbolic, narrative, and sometimes wider thematic significance. Take the unadorned birdcage in Jef Costello’s bare room, seen in the very first shot of Le Samouraï, lit—as if by Stanley Cortez—white on gray. It evokes imprisonment, loneliness (the bird is Costello’s only companion), and a flicker of life in a landscape of desolation and death. Melville’s most frequent and prominent cinematic object, the “feutre”—or fedora—is also much in evidence here, as it is in most of his films. Those who latched onto the sartorial influence of Delon’s character in Le Samouraï might assume the hat itself to be the most iconic object in the film, yet despite deputizing for all of Melville’s signature locked-in characters, it carries far less meaning here than it does in Le doulos. There, Belmondo’s fedora was a scripted talking point and played a more active role, being—in the film’s final sequence—the cause of the hero’s death through mistaken identity. The image of the felt hat rolling on the carpet in Le doulos would re-emerge in the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) 30 years later. Perhaps the most shocking—and in retrospect, moving—appearance of the fedora might be in Army of Shadows, when the German gestapo officer arrives at the door of Ventura’s cell, flanked by two hoods, faces in darkness, symbols of violence and menace. They are wearing the same “uniform”—trench coats and fedoras—as Melville’s own antiheroes.
In Le cercle rouge, a wall-mounted sensor, which provides the means of opening the safe room during the silent heist carried out by crack-shot sniper Yves Montand, is objectified beyond reason via numerous pans and slow and fast zooms. This is expositional, but it also becomes aesthetic and emotional: our obsession with the apparently insurmountable challenge this tiny target poses becomes entwined with Montand’s own psychosis (he is a paranoid alcoholic), finally purged by his snap decision to remove the rifle from the tripod and shoot out the sensor by hand. And Army of Shadows itself features one of the most overwhelming “objects” in Melville’s cinema (or possibly anyone else’s): the cyanide pill filmed in close-up in the palm of Jean-Pierre Cassel’s hand. It is almost ridiculously tiny, a white speck on a dirty, calloused surface (like the sensor in Le cercle rouge, surely too small to fulfill its purpose). In an exquisite, ultra-Bressonian moment, it lingers in the frame for a little too long, in deliberate silence, interrupting the dialogue of the two prisoners. A devastating show-not-tell.
So, what is it about the keyring in Le Samouraï that—for me at least—trumps the other objects from Melville’s work? Costello is a samurai, a tiger in the jungle, a lone killer armed to survive and drained of all other purpose and all other desire. He finds no joy in what he does, he is neither Butch Cassidy nor Raffles, the gentleman thief. His attitude to life is governed by his disgust at what he has seen and done. The keyring in Le Samouraï is first and foremost an expositional tool. It is as old as the Chaucerian hills to describe a character by his belongings; by itself, lain carefully on the car seat—as deliberate a motion as him donning his gray fedora in front of the mirror—it is a remarkable object to behold. Its sheer size speaks to Costello’s bases-covering professionalism, its homemade aspect (a stretch of bare wire bent to its make-do purpose) speaks to his specialism, its impeccable neatness and uniformity speak to his fastidiousness. On the heels of this immediate descriptive impact, Costello’s treatment of the object—the meticulous removal of the keys—communicates an implacable persistence and patience, which it is not hard for the audience to imagine must extend to the other, much less salubrious elements of Costello’s profession. Thereby in one short, silent sequence, the character of Costello becomes impressive, intimidating, and pitiable. Le Samouraï presents us not for the first time with a fully interiorized, “locked-in” Melville protagonist, like Bob in Bob le flambeur or Maudet in Magnet of Doom (1963), but one whose loneliness and single-mindedness are mechanized and supercharged. This object explicitly demonstrates his corresponding ability to unlock, infiltrate, and destroy the lives of others.
The keyring itself is never seen again, but the sequence housing it would come to have a significant influence on action cinema in its mise-en-scène and pacing alone. Around this one expository technique, cinematic connections abound—both backwards and forwards in time—and the slow purposefulness of Delon’s actions, staring straight ahead emotionlessly as he carries out his work, make me think back (along with the film’s titular reference) to Kenji Misumi’s blind samurai picture The Tale of Zatoichi (1962). Crucial to the instinctive appeal of samurai cinema—a genre soaked in moralism and loyalty, neither of which are much in evidence in Le Samouraï—is the silent, educated, and controlled threat of the samurai’s ability, most often trailed slowly and unleashed fitfully, sometimes over in a flash (see Yojimbo ). Subsequent influences, depicting the quiet virtuoso in existential genre cinema include the unnamed character played by Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and especially Frank, played by James Caan, in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), which carries many narrative and aesthetic similarities to Le Samouraï. The emotionless, methodical approach of Delon’s killer also evokes a (now familiar) breed of intimidating, unrelenting villain, typified and dehumanized by James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984).
Beyond these psychological and technical dimensions, there is something about the keyring that feeds into a wider appreciation of Melville’s craft. Because craft is really what we are seeing in this sequence: the requirement for mathematical and mechanistic insistence to pick a lock and conjure a profitable result. Delon’s Costello, in his cool, determined, almost obsessive professionalism is a convincing alter ego for Melville himself (certainly more so than the conflicted Lino Ventura in Army of Shadows). In this sense, each key Costello tries in the car’s ignition is a different Melville take.
This cold methodology, which came to define both Melville’s personality and work, is sometimes mistaken for a lack of sympathy or emotional intelligence, but to audiences who pay closer attention it is a means of creating and provoking the very same. The world according to Melville—a man who was traumatized and scarred by war and death—is as hostile as the landscape of a genre picture. Those who lived within it (combatants, thieves, killers, civilians) often didn’t do much more than survive, clinging to a single purpose: something they knew how to do well. That purpose could be high-minded (the defeat of the Nazi occupation of France) or low (a contract killing, or the heisting of jewels); it was nevertheless a means of survival. But Melville also knew that in a cold, cruel world, occasional warmth—usually feminine warmth—burns more brightly. In Le Samouraï, Costello has a woman friend, Jane (played by Natalie Delon, Delon’s wife), who is as locked-in and lost as him. While none of their emotions are outwardly displayed, emotions nevertheless percolate through their words and actions, and a connection is made. Jane lies to the police to defend Costello and he vows to protect her. Later, Costello will become entranced by a nightclub musician, Valérie (played by the extraordinary Cathy Rosier), who also vouches for him, for reasons unexplained.
At Le Samouraï’s climax, Costello, the man with the keyring and a heart of ice, has come to carry out a hit on Valérie with an empty chamber. Flanked by the elaborate glamour of the brightly lit nightclub clientele, Melville allows us to see for the first time the emotions on both of their faces: fear, despair, fascination, love. The poignancy of this sudden tonal and visual pivot is every bit as explosive as the gunshot that kills him.