One of my nearest and dearest movies has finally come to DVD. The last time I saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï on the big screen, it was at Manhattan’s Walter Reade Theater a couple of years back. I had arrived an hour early, bought my ticket, and was lounging, people-watching. A commotion broke out. The screening was one ticket away from selling out, and two men, one French and the other American, stepped out of the line. As we gaped incredulously, they rolled up their sleeves and solemnly fought a bare-fisted duel for the prize ticket. Meanwhile, a young African girl stepped forward to the booth, paid for the last ticket and coolly walked into the theater, leaving the men in mid-male-ritual.
My DVD viewing of Le Samouraï last night (probably the fifth or sixth time I've seen it) had no such accompanying excitement. But the film remains eternally beautiful and hypnotic:
It's a hit-man movie that Bresson might have made: the concentrated and reverential attention to the ordinary; the detailed anatomical recording of a contract killing; the blank emotionally neutral faces; and the waving aside of psychological realism and motivational backstory.
The lack of interest in realism is one of the movie’s most attractive aspects for me. Nobody characterized it better than Melville himself: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le Samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”
Impassively icy icon Alain Delon, in his belted alabaster trenchcoat, is an über-macho figure but paradoxically brings to the role a delicate androgyny. He and his lover, played by his soon-to-be-ex-wife Nathalie Delon, share an almost sororal resemblance.
A tiny, almost invisible detail, but it kills me every time. She’s in bed. There’s a knock at the door. She walks over, puts her ear to it. She asks: “Jef?” Comes the soft reply: “Oui”. She opens the latch, he steps in. Then, later in the film: another knock at the same door. Once again she asks: “Jef?” Comes the same answer: “Oui”. She opens the latch, and the cops burst in. Here's what gets me: For the “oui” the second time around, Melville used not the voice of the police but the same recorded Delon voice as in the first knock. Realism this ain’t. And proud of it.
The movie’s poeticism is signalled by the music. Melville does something unusual. He’ll begin a scene with Delon in his room, and lay behind him a little wash of piano, organ and harp with a trumpet line. A few seconds of it is all he needs to suggest a mood. Then, the music dies out quickly while the scene continues. The quotidian sounds and ambient noise now drop into the soundtrack. The music’s been erased, but its after-mood somehow lingers, combining with (the music of) the clattering sounds around the room and the sharp soprano of the canary in its cage.
1967 was a killer year for hit-man movies: in addition to Le Samouraï, we were also given John Boorman’s Point Blank and Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill.
Godard cast Melville as a famous author in Breathless. Jean Seberg asks him at a press conference: “What is your ambition?” The first time around, he ignores her. When she asks again at the end, he replies hilariously and brilliantly: “To become immortal, and then to die.” Real life has a way of wickedly reversing the prophecies of art: Melville died in 1973, without realizing how influential and widely imitated he’d later become.