Monday, December 05, 2005

Le Samouraï

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.


Blogger girish said...

Even if John at Tofu Hut only updates his blog once every month or two, I'm so there when he does.

December 05, 2005 8:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael's also had samurai on his mind lately.

December 05, 2005 8:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Bad Plus, one of the hottest currently-recording jazz bands out there, has its own blog:
Great new post on Ornette Coleman.

December 05, 2005 9:33 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I love that story about the tickets.

Great news that this is finally on DVD. I've been looking for it for ages.

December 05, 2005 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

A wonderful post, Girish; I like the way you focus on a number of interesting details. Did you happen to watch the Criterion DVD? If so, how's the quality?

By the way, that scene in Breathless is great.

December 05, 2005 1:11 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Heheh! I think we were actually at the same screening...I didn't see the fight though. :( There was another Melville that sold out quickly too, I think it was Le Cercle Rouge.

Anyway, I definitely agree about the Bressonian character of this film, particularly in the similarities to Pickpocket in terms of the sterileness of the execution of the crime. ...And that immobile figure/puff of smoke shot...Brilliant!

December 05, 2005 1:44 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

Sadly, I still haven't seen Le Samouraï yet, but I can recommend that other existential classic Point Blank, finally out on DVD this year. Much more artsy than the original Donald Westlake novel The Hunter (1962), but a great adaptation. It's possible to say that Walker dies at the beginning of the movie and is the walking dead for the rest of the story. Is he a phantom? Does the whole thing take place in his mind as he lies bleeding to death? Maybe either.

Note the sequence where Walker's wife dies of an overdose and he then waits until the delivery guy appears. It's impossible to say how much time passes; it could be hours or months. Kind of reminds me of that scene in Out of Sight where Foley and Karen Sisco are having dinner and then go to bed. Soderbergh slips forward and backward in time.

Needless to say, don't bother with Payback (1999), the remake of Point Blank.

December 05, 2005 1:48 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

I added this to my queue just the other week. It should be coming up in a few days or so...

December 05, 2005 3:09 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Interesting that you mention Out of Sight, pop view. Soderbergh's Limey is profoundly indebted to Point Blank. (Maybe that's why it's the only Soderbergh movie I really love.)

Some days I try to walk around like Jef -- set the jaw, make a beeline, do not dawdle. But you really need the hat and coat to pull it off.

Girish, I didn't realize those three movies came out the same year. Great year! But is Lee Marvin a hit man?

December 05, 2005 3:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa & David--You're in for a treat!

Michael--The Criterion transfer is yummy. It looks better even than the print I saw in New York.
I know you like Ran but I'm wondering: do you have a favorite of Kurosawa's earlier samurai movies?

Hey Acquarello--I had no idea you were at that screening! It was before we caught up with each other again at Doug's site last year.

Monsieur Pop View--Nice points about Point Blank. Great movie.
Also, to me, it seems really influenced by Resnais (as does The Limey).
I caught a nice screening of Point Blank in Canada once, introduced by Michael Ondaatje, followed by a Q&A with him about the movie afterwards; it's one of his favorite movies. And he loves Westlake too.

Rob, I was under the impression that Marvin was a contract killer who happened to not get paid. But it's been a few years. And also, since you recently saw Branded To Kill, and did that interview with Jarmusch a coupla years ago: isn't it neat to see all the traces of Le Samourai and the Suzuki in Ghost Dog, right down to the fake Japanese quotes and the birds?

December 05, 2005 3:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr nails Ang Lee:
"Film by film, Lee’s work seems almost painfully sincere, but in the aggregate his oeuvre looks disturbingly opportunistic. The culinary porn of “Eat Drink Man Woman” follows the commercial success of “Babette’s Feast” and “Like Water for Chocolate” just as “Sense and Sensibility” rides the Masterpiece Theater wave, “The Ice Storm” recreates a literary-flavored Sundance indie and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” appropriates the Asian martial arts boom of the 90s (as well as the elegant aerial ballets of the Taiwanese master King Hu) and waters it down for western audiences. Lee has yet to take a real chance with a film, and “Brokeback Mountain,” despite its superficial courting of controversy, is no exception."

December 05, 2005 4:18 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

I'm a Le Cercle Rouge man myself...

...but a wonderful post nonetheless, Girsh!

December 05, 2005 4:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt--Le Cercle Rouge was my virginal cinephilic experience.

December 05, 2005 4:29 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, that's a good question. Perhaps Yojimbo (I haven't seen the companion film, Sanjuro), but also perhaps Throne of Blood (which got the Criterion treatment not too long ago). Like many, I'm also partial to Seven Samurai and Rashomon. And then there's Kagemusha, which preceded Ran only by about five years (so it's not an early Kurosawa); it's a breathtaking epic.

The interesting thing about Kurosawa is that, as famous as he was for his samurai films, some of his best work was outside the genre, including Ikiru, which he made in '52. A couple of years ago, Susan Sontag selected a series of Japanese films to be shown at the LA County Museum of Art; she picked Kurosawa's No Regrets of Our Youth. I missed the screening, but I hope the film will make its way to DVD at some point (if you're interested, you can see all the films she picked -- and her criteria -- for that series here.)

December 05, 2005 5:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

P.S. Glad to know the Criterion transfer of Le Samourai is so good. Their new transfer of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player comes out tomorrow. I'll be going at lunch to pick it up!

December 05, 2005 5:06 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

It's been a few years since I've seen Point Blank, too. You may be right. All I can remember is that he wants his money and he'll knock a few people around to get it. Since he never kills anyone during the movie (that I can recall), I guess I had my doubts.

Jarmusch is a big Melville fan, and Ghost Dog is a great homage. (BTW, I wrote a bit about Ghost Dog for the next issue of Paste, but in a different context.) Those quotes are from Hagakure.

To bring things full cercle: the scene where Ghost Dog shoots the gangster through the drain is from Branded to Kill.

December 05, 2005 5:29 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been a while since I saw Le Samourai. I really liked Bob le Flambeur which I saw theatrically. I saw No Regrets for our Youth introduced many years ago at the Denver Film Festival, introduced by Donald Richie. As you probably know, John Woo names Melville as an influence. I think Donnie Yen's Ballistic Kiss is an attempt to recreate the Delon cool.

December 05, 2005 5:43 PM  
Anonymous nilblogette said...

When I think of this film, I first think of Delon's face, and then of the "Oui" scene. It is quite a moment for as subtle as it is.

December 05, 2005 7:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, thanks for the Sontag link.
She did a couple of great series for the Toronto cinematheque a few years ago of her favorite movies: Sokurov, Zanussi, etc., and one of her all-time faves, Kurosawa's High And Low (I'm a big fan of this one too.)
Yes, I like all the ones you mention, except Sanjuro which I'm yet to see.

December 05, 2005 9:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah Rob, I had forgotten.
Jarmusch's quotes were authentic.
But Melville's epigraph wasn't: he attributed it to the Book Of Bushido but he made it up:
"There is no solitude greater than a samurai's, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle."
Apparently, even Japanese critics praised his choice until they found out they'd been had!

December 05, 2005 9:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nilblogette--And I thought I was the only one infatuated with the "Oui" moment!

December 05, 2005 9:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter--Woo presented the film in Toronto and called it his single favorite movie.

December 05, 2005 9:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Those lovely Criterion people.
Coming soon:
Renoir's La Bete Humaine.
(Remade later as Fritz Lang's Human Desire with Glenn Ford & Gloria Grahame; would've made a nice 2-DVD set; alas, some people are never satisfied.)
Also in the works: Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln.
And Whit Stillman's Metropolitan.

December 05, 2005 10:12 PM  
Blogger MEM said...

hey girish...this may seem like mere shameless self-promotion, but i'm kinda hoping we can file it under something else.

couple years ago i entered some kind of "remix" contest sponsored by some software company...the point was to demonstrate the universe-crushing properties of their software by submitting a remix of some piece of art, processed by (you guessed it) their software.

anyway, i chose le samourai. here it is...all of the sounds in this come from the VHS Artificial Eye release:

listening to it now, it's a bit...half-hearted, but at the time it seemed not so bad...thought it might be of interest to someone.

December 05, 2005 11:02 PM  
Blogger Shasta said...

supposedly it inspired pulp fiction, too...

December 06, 2005 3:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

That sounds pretty intriguing, MEM.
I'll be sure to check out your remix.
And Shasta--I've never heard that before but it doesn't surprise me at all.

December 06, 2005 7:34 AM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...

And Girish, here's some more Criterion love coming in March:

- Soderbergh's Traffic (re-release)

- 3 tasty treats from Louis Malle: Murmur of the Heart; Lacombe, Lucien; Au Revoir Les Enfants

- Marco Bellocchio's feature debut, Fists in the Pocket

- The money shot here: Welles' Mr Arkadin (includes three different versions, a la Criterion's Brazil)

December 06, 2005 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...

And almost forgot, according to the new Criterion newsletter: new versions of Seven Samurai, Sanjuro, and Yojimbo somewhere in 2006.

December 06, 2005 2:03 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Just to add to Aaron's list: Criterion will release Bergman's The Virgin Spring on January 26. Can't wait for that one.

December 06, 2005 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...

If Criterion are truly on the ball, they'll include some talking-head time with Wes Craven on the Virgin Spring release, considering it's the basis for his Last House on the Left.

December 06, 2005 3:56 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Aaron, that could be a provocative conversation, given the difference in reputation and reception of the two films.

December 06, 2005 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...


December 06, 2005 4:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I've been waiting for Fists In The Pocket forever! Great news.
By the way, Aaron, do you have an inside scoop on Criterion releases, because I subscribe to the newsletter and a lot of this was not on there.

One of my most anticipated Criterion release candidates is a series of three Sam Fuller movies including The Steel Helmet. Maybe it's just a rumor, but even just the rumor gets me all excited about it.

December 06, 2005 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...

There are some Criterion forums lurking out there, but usually scoops the next month's titles a week or two before they're formally announced. is another great place to check out what's slated (and cheapest) for Region 1 titles, and is regularly more useful/current than Amazon.

December 06, 2005 4:59 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Lacombe, Lucien is my favorite Malle. It feels almost like a cousin of a Fassbinder film to me.

December 06, 2005 5:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Never seen Lacombe, Lucien. (Or Zazie.) But I'm a big Fassbinder fan. Murmur Of The Heart is a beaut. And I hope Rialto is allowing Elevator To The Gallows to be put out on DVD at some point.

December 06, 2005 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I love Zazie. Because of the film I've also read a couple of books by Raymond Queneau.

December 06, 2005 8:20 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

To clear up some points about Point Blank...

Donald Westlake has written a whole series of novels about a professional thief called Parker (no first name) under the pen name Richard Stark. The first set was published from 1963-74 and then he dropped the character. He revived Parker (and Stark) in 1997 and has written five additional books.

A number of film adaptations have been made from the Parker novels, but the character is never called that name in the films. In Point Blank, Lee Marvin is Walker (an apt name for the walking dead). He helps his buddy Mal Reese pull off a job to help Reese pay off a debt to the Mob. But Reese's half isn't enough, so he and Walker's wife pull a double-cross, shooting Walker and leaving him for dead.

Walker's share was $93,000. He comes back to get his money and starts at the lowest levels of The Organization (as it is called) and works his way up. More than a dozen times he says to someone, "I want my money back." He doesn't seem to have a clearly defined goal beyond that and he never does get his money. The criminal venture is as much a bureaucracy as any another and no one will authorize such a payment. So, that guy dies and Walker moves up to his superior.

Yeah, I don't know why The Limey didn't spring to mind, but it's totally influenced. In fact, Steven Soderbergh appears with Boorman on Point Blank's DVD commentary track and I think he absolutely cops to how much he ripped-off for The Limey.

December 08, 2005 1:18 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Thanks for the tipoff on The Bad Plus blog. I dig those guys. That is a lovely piece on Ornette.

December 08, 2005 10:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Glad you liked it, Michael.

December 08, 2005 10:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

M. Pop View--I had no idea Soderbergh was on that commentary track too. Must check it out.

December 12, 2005 9:34 PM  
Blogger Richard Gibson said...

'Le Samourai'is an excellent film. I think I do prefer it to 'Le Circle Rouge'. It was actually on DVD in France with English subtitles so I managed to get a copy from there. I also recommend to anyone who hasn't seen it 'Les Doulos' which is readily available on DVD here in UK.

I heard that John Woo is remaking 'Le Circle Rouge', I am not hopeful that he'll do a good job.

January 05, 2006 4:36 PM  

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