Alain Delon and Robert Favart in Le samouraï (1967) (IMDB)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Samouraï’ Plays with the Perils of the Loner

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. Actually, I mentioned Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato’s often cited work and the Wachowski siblings’ cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn’t anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

It’s significant to consider how fast popular works of art can vanish from public consciousness. On a personal level, each time I encounter an archival “classic” from film history for the very first time, an emotional veil lifts—the sense of ascension out of yet another Platonic cavern. Sensual cinematic experience often recurs with new introductions to aged film genres, particularly film noir and French New Wave cinema. Thus, when it came time to screen Criterion’s Bluray digital restoration of director Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece Le Samouraï (The Criterion Collection, 2017/Janus Films, 1967), an unexpected thrill slowly overcame me, the result of Melville’s skilled blurring between these two revered eras of genre filmmaking.

Everywhere and Nowhere

The opening shot rests onto a plain dressed and beautifully eroding Parisian flat. A young male (Alain Delon) lay across an uncovered bed smoking. (How very French New Wave of him.) His stoicism and deep contemplation contrast against the gothic minimalist space. The man later referred to as Jef suggests an empty vessel in a relatively empty room. The rise of the smoke signals his escaping soul. Is he concentrating, meditating, waiting, or perhaps just wasting away? Two vertical windows allow light to penetrate the darkened room, creating a haunted glaze over the levitating smoke. The impression left implies a window to the soul, or at least the body where a soul should rest.

Jef finally sits up. A small canary flutters about a Venetian cage and, signifying caged emotion, the gentleman reaches for his trench coat and fedora. Out on the afternoon streets, the rain pours. All the trappings of noir unfold gently in the silent opening moments.

The Keymaster, or, an Occular Samurai

The gentleman Jef lays a necklace of keys down across the driver side seat of a small motorcar. One by one, he pulls a key off the ring without looking, and attempts to match it to the vehicular ignition. Once successful, he reaches for a cigarette and light, the only turn of his head comes as a soft female glance catches his eye while in transit.

Melville’s incorporation of silence early on allows deep and ambiguous moods to fall over the crime caper narrative. The film’s early lingering silence juxtaposes noir emphasis on stark visuals against more talkative French New Wave contemporaries like Breathless (Jean Renoir, 1960) and Jules and Jim (Francois Traufaut, 1962).

Parking at an undisclosed site, a garage man sporting an ugly Christmas sweater (anachronous, I know) changes the license plates. They exchange notes, and the noir samurai demands a handgun to complement the new plates.

The solemn contract killer next buzzes a young sleeping woman. She stirs, moves to the telecomm and replies, “Jef?” thus initiating dialogic narrative at the start of the film’s second act. The deliberate opening underscores Melville’s minimalist approach to stripped-down storytelling and the provocative power of silence, physical action, and eye lines.

Labyrinthine World-building in European Cityscape Mise en scène

Jef also stops in on an in-progress hotel room poker game but soon leaves for Martey’s club next to the Luminaries lamp and appliance store. Martey’s interiority suggests a throwback to the immediate postwar art deco designs that captured, and perhaps hid, the mood of Western nations still reeling from collective trauma while at the same time stumbling a bit over ’60s fashion-forward bubble chairs and milky glass.

However celebratory, the distraction of this artificial world will soon collapse for Martey’s denizens once Jef performs a cold-blooded hit job on an older man in the back office. Soon officers raid the nearby poker game, asking for papers and a timetable among the elite participants. The all white male crowd seems un-phased by their intrusion—almost anticipatory of it.

The police arrange a public suspect line-up in front of a crowd of familiars. This second act features a drawn out police line-up where Jef, among the participating suspects, receives mixed reception from the onlookers that he passed during his Martey’s hit job. Extended stares from the peanut gallery remain as fixated and ambiguous as Jef’s own gaze into oblivion. The line up room is distracting as one of the more dated sets in the film, as comparable to the timeless qualities of the many European exteriors.

Police Presence as Precursor to Postmodern Surveillance Culture

There are comical qualities resonant among early scenes featuring a police inspector credited as Le Commissaire (Francois Perier). Le Commissaire’s interrogation extends into a series of shots that show the audience everything about this inspector without telling them anything. He does a bit of old fashioned redressing of suspects with their wardrobes. The blocking of this scene speaks to the repetitious replaceability of noir fixtures and the trench-coated, fedora sporting lone gunman figures in particular. The redressing between characters and pacing between rooms suggests a post-industrial cognition where physical labor predates forensic science. The scene also communicates a stand-in for the perfectionist director, Le Commissaire suggesting Melville’s own work as meticulous production designer. The inspector must locate a logic between wits and evidence that will satisfy his natural curiosity. Since time is of the essence, Le Commissaire moves mechanically, methodically, like clockwork.

Once such curiosity winds up, it proves difficult to control. Eventual inconclusive eye witness accounts require Le Commissaire to release Jef. This shifts the film back to an exterior inner city cat-and-mouse between a surveillance team unconvinced of Jef’s alibi.

Jef uses the machinations of modernity to escape his would-be pursuers. In a setting naïve to quantum physics, ironic intercombinations of weathered transit and old world architecture give the film transitional moments of haunting beauty. Le Samouraï, like its messages and messengers, revels in transition.

As punishment for getting caught, Jef must then elude assassination from his contractor. This sends the quiet samurai back home wounded—his canary increasingly agitated as it flaps about its own gothic structure. Like the canary, Jef is now imprisoned in a cage of his own making. While he currently resides outside the bars, increasing restrictions nevertheless loom large.

Longing but not Belonging

As a creature of repetition, Jef tends to his wounds then returns inexplicably to Martey’s lounge. Not only does he drop blood samples outside his apartment for police to collect, but he also encounters numerous previous eyewitnesses, deepening his self-incriminating existence. Implications suggest Jef’s razor sharp attentiveness runs contra against a lack of intuitive introspection. His gaze upon the world is far-sided, and such vision makes Jef blind to self-entrapment.

The hit man is drawn to the single eyewitness (Cathy Rosier) who spoke Jef’s freedom into being by denying her recognition of him to police. She works as the nightclub piano player, and when their eyes meet they are incapable of speaking the reality each feels. He owes her a life debt, and the curiosity toward her actions drives his internal motive to spend time with her.

“What kind of man are you?” she remarks.

La police raid Jef’s other female alibi, a would-be lady of the night Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon). The inspector’s desperation to close his case speaks to an alternative darkness in his desire to manipulate and dominate the populace in the name of State justice. Le Commissaire’s “overzealous” drive clouds his morality and thus extends audience sympathy back toward the stoic noir samurai Jef.

Consider Le Commissaire’s poetic yet utterly coersive monologue aimed at Jane:

In the police, promotion means a lot

Using strongarm tactics… doesn’t interest me.

I’m very tolerant

I’m all for individual freedom

Live and let live.

Provided the way one lives doesn’t cause harm to others, doesn’t disturb the peace

And can in no way be considered an offense against public decency.

Observing Jane’s youth and beauty, Le Commissaire remarks, “I have a daughter your age. I would feel really bad [to take away your best years]. Indeed, Nathalie is a sight for sore eyes cut from the Parisian paramour mold—unfortunately (or perhaps intentionally) relegated to laying about a lavish apartment funded by another sugar daddy gentleman caller. When Jef ultimately returns once more, he rejects her loving gaze out of his own shortsighted need to complete his monetary (and existential) final contract.

Le Commissaire tips his hand and severs polite social ethics. “The truth is not what you say, it’s what I want;” another strong-armed male authority, oppressive if only to maintain liminal morality in the status quo.


Manual Surveillance

As a reaction to Western politics and popular culture, Jef is the anti-James Bond. He is a man without a land or people. He exists only in existential crisis. Booze, dames, and killing for queen and country won’t provide him with the requisite catharsis.

The blonde-haired man who grazed Jef’s arm with a bullet atop a beautifully framed transit platform catches him at home at gunpoint. This occurs seconds after Jef’s canary alerts him to a police bug planted in his apartment—ever the crafty animal.

Growing desperate, Le Commissaire sends out innumerable police surveillance on foot and by mass transit. The number of bodies patrolling Jeff feels comparable to the contemporary millions and billions spent on contemporary government surveillance intended to thwart alleged terrors to Western civilization. Melville ratchets up tension through combining previously established elements of scene, setting, eye lines, and silent action. The success of the film’s climax can be read within the film but also spread across generations of subsequent filmmakers including Michael Mann, Paul Greengrass, and David Fincher.

Through eye contact and tell signs, every denizen becomes a canary to Jef’s samurai instincts. He struggles to evade police presence, his resistance a sign of superhuman stamina. A French fable to say the least in the early decades following German occupation.

Embracing the film’s meditation on repetition, Jef follows the same patternistic visits that initiate the film, albeit in mirroring order to earlier scenes. He emits what scholars Lawrence and Jewett describe as the American Monomyth (The Myth of the American Hero, 2002), a dark hero journey that denounces sexual proclivities in favor of righteous vengeance. Jef shoots with deadly accuracy and he never forgets a face. Eyesight, visualized through multiple conceptualizations of the gaze, frame Jef’s signature attributes.

But as the film’s climax reveals, the gaze works two ways and Jef’s greatest asset becomes a function of his ultimate demise. It’s a beautiful reflection on power, isolation, and the limits of State government, as well as expressions of “freedom” in the West. On a less symbolic level, Le Samouraï works simply as great filmmaking and a valuable contemporary update on the myth of Icarus. Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it’s hard not to dwell upon the film and read it as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

As a cultural artifact, Le Samouraï continues to impact subsequent films and filmmakers (like the Wachowskis’) with its visual presence, skillful direction, and philosophical angst. Not dissimilar to how all audiences enter popular culture in media res, there’s no question contemporaries will recognize and appreciate the works of a John Woo or the Jason Borne series or even The Matrix movies without fully grasping (or ever viewing) their primary influences. Like shadows dancing on the wall, pop culture is steeped in allusion as much as it functions as aesthetic illusion. Perhaps this is partly why in the original Matrix Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) laments, “Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Sometimes emerging from within the cave requires crawling backward in an effort to appreciate the majesty of the cave’s construction.

Criterion Supplemental Materials

As always, Criterion archives the best of the best in rich and informative supplemental materials. Interviews include author and film critics Rui Nogueira (Melville on Melville, 1971) and Ginette Vincendeau (Nean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, 2003). The former does not mince words, proclaiming Melville “the father of new wave”. Nogueira informs audiences how Melville’s work “changed the face of cinema” because of low budget devotion to location shooting. There are exceptional recollections, stories about real-life financial and studio tensions that contextualize the pulpiness found in his films.

The Vincendeau segments add to Melville’s origins and film lore. The scholar notes how Melville specializes in genre mixing at a time when studios would have fought for more standardized control. Vincendeau calls Melville “a cinephile” that “educated himself by watching movies” — words that resonate similarly with classic and contemporary directors and explain aspects of Melville’s ocular fascination.

Additional content includes a decades old interview special with the cast and director. Archival interviews from French television that aired between 1967 and 1982. Segments feature insights and impressions from the director as well as castmates Alain Delon, Nathanlie Delon, Cathy Rosier, and Francois Perier.

Criterion also incorporates the 2011 documentary Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit, an ode to Melville and Delon’s collaborative process. Olivier Bohler directs the short D’Honneur et de nuit which highlights the interpersonal relationships that strengthened collaboration between director and actor. Finally, material collectors will savor the booklet insert, which combines shorts essays and excerpts from David Thompson (“Death in White Gloves”), John Woo (“The Melville Style”), and the aforementioned Ngueira (Melville on Melville).