Out of the Past: Le Samourai

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Jeff Costello, a professional to his white-gloved fingertips, makes his trenchcoated way through a Parisian nightclub and downstairs to the office of the club’s proprietor, where—fulfilling with his usual cold efficiency the terms of a contract—he shoots the man dead. But just as Costello comes out of the office, another consummate professional, the club’s stylish black pianist Valérie, emerges from another door and sees him. She takes a good, long, quizzical look at his face. Most of the narrative twists that follow in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (seen seven years after release in a Vancouver skid road theater, dubbed and retitled The Godson!), depend upon this short scene and its surprising sequel, when Valérie deliberately fails to identify Costello in a police lineup. Melville makes the puzzle of Valérie’s motivation as teasing to us as it soon becomes to Costello himself. Admirers of this director, however, will not be surprised to learn that the extraordinary impact of the film is minimally dependent upon mere plot.

We’re about ten minutes into Le Samouraï, ten of the densest, richest opening minutes I’ve ever seen, before Costello (Alain Delon) even arrives at the nightclub. Ten minutes, incidentally, sans dialogue. Though the movie is in color, the opening shot is virtually monochromatic. Smoke curls up through the close air of Delon’s darkened, cell-like room, providing the only movement other than the titles which begin to come up. Gradually we make out the “samurai”‘s supine figure, and thanks to some archetypal noir instinct, we sense that this guy is lying there fully dressed on his bed, having a nice quiet smoke before he goes out to bump somebody off. Only two sounds are audible, intermittently: the swish of car tires passing outside, and the soft chirp of a bird in a cage. The shot is held, the smoke rises, the titles appear and disappear. One more movement becomes discernible, but it scarcely disturbs the monastic stillness. Light reflections, thrown by those remote, outside-world automobiles, slide across the darkened ceiling. Finally the titles end. Delon gets up, adjusts his iconographic soft fedora carefully before a mirror, and leaves. The intense, curiously sacral mood is sustained as he finds an unlocked parked car, enters it, places a huge ring of potential ignition keys on the empty front seat next to him, out of sight, and—staring all the while steadfastly, white-eyed, straight ahead—tries one key after another; as a key turns, at last, in the lock, and he pulls out and away; as he stops at a traffic light and sits gazing through wipers at the obligatory noir rain, then notices a very pretty girl in the sportscar alongside, watches her slide down slightly to get a better look at his blank handsome face, and pulls smoothly away again; as he drives through the gathering dusk to the outskirts of Paris and Decaë sets up a rather formal shot, to be repeated exactly, with a heightened feeling of ritual, later in the film, of the headlights moving directly toward the camera down a deserted lane of low houses that looks for all the world like the dusty main street of a Mexican small town. Still no dialogue. Delon drives into a garage, a metal door clangs shut behind him, and a man comes out of the shadows to begin the businesslike process of changing the plates. The process completed, money changes hands. A pause; a peremptory snap of the fingers from Delon. The plates-changer lays in Delon’s palm, with some evident but unexplained reluctance, The Gat. End of preamble to Le Samouraï.

The story gets into gear now, and we even begin to get some dialogue. But the most evocative, haunting moments of the film remain nonverbal, touched by ritual. Delon, again, adjusting the felt hat before the mirror, studying his own face with a sort of impersonal concentration before he emerges from his cell on another mission. Delon alone in his room, solemnly dressing and binding a messy gunshot wound in his arm, a ceremony of professionalism infused by Melville, in one long, quiet take, with a kind of tenderness. The two impassive plainclothes cops moving silently about Delon’s dark, dingy chamber, their flashlight beams choreographing the search for a good place to plant a “bug”; then a shot of one of them, set up all alone with his equipment in a brightly lit hotel room across the way, the tape reels revolving slowly and his head wired in to the suspect’s darkened sensitized digs, waiting…. At length, the first sound engraves itself on the tape—cheep … cheep … cheep: Delon’s beloved bird.

Of course everybody here is just a bit too impassive, for my money, and there are one or two times when even Melville/Decaë’s gripping control of the medium can’t prevent things from tipping over into risibility. Like the scenes between Delon and his dedicated girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon): her imploring need-to-be-needed; his superdeadpan ”I need nothing.” Sometimes it’s a relief to switch back to François Périer’s slightly hammy police inspector, waving his hands around, working his eyebrows, mugging. Or Delon’s bird, fluttering in its cage. In one of the film’s many great moments we see the play of—hurrah!—intelligence invade Delon’s smooth sullen features, as he registers the bird’s agitation; takes in the fact of uneaten food in the corner of the cage; and quietly sets about looking for the bug that was planted in his absence.

But amidst the pervading impassivity, the most special pleasure is to find in the person of the beautiful light-skinned nightclub pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier) a confluence of the enigmatic, the unflappably professional, and the irresistibly vital that enables her actually to steal scenes from the sober “samurai” in the face of the riveting presence Melville has given him. The first time we see Valérie, when Delon comes to the club on his homicidal mission, the camera stays on her a long time, and we’re given what seems, considering the film’s obsessive attention to people going silently, portentously about this or that heavy business, a surprisingly long swatch of her lightly swinging progressive jazz piano. We get to watch her graceful shoulders punctuating particularly tasty phrases, we see her eyes sparkling with the pleasure of making good music, in fulfillment of her own “contract,” with a congenial (white) rhythm section. It’s an image of integration—pun intended—that contrasts strikingly, reverberatingly, with the potent-but-vulnerable loner image of Delon, coming into the dark back room of an after-hours gambling den, say, where the card players sit around a table in a pool of brilliant light and Delon, stopping only long enough to establish an alibi, draws up a chair, sits backwards on it, still in the dark, apart, talking to the gamblers from there, his murderous hands, the only part of him to catch the light, resting on the chairback. Watching this figure shaking one plainclothesperson after another in a prolonged and fascinating Métro stakeout or keeping his cool throughout the marvelously constructed lineup sequenced, under increasing pressure from the exasperated Inspector, it’s easy to see why he should be tantalized and ultimately destroyed by the seemingly kindred, yet incomprehensibly different, figure of the pianist. In an earlier scene, Delon uses extreme, calmly professional violence to extort from a fellow gangland hireling the name of the kingpin who gives the orders (including the order which instructed the hireling to try to kill Delon). “You wouldn’t know him; he’s not one of our kind,” the beleaguered man cries in his extremity. The trap which springs on Delon’s lone samurai—a rover, a ronin—is his assumption that the lovely piano player, like his colleague the would-be killer, like others who are his friends or antagonists according to purely professional shifts in fealty, will be instinctively aligned with him against the “they” whose own hands are clean. The instant the frightened, ruined gunman yields up the kingpin’s name, Delon relaxes. “That’s a good way to lose a job, pal,” he says, fraternally. But Valérie, centerstage, faced with the muzzle of Delon’s gun in the final nightclub scene, says: “Don’t stare,” and continues playing for her public. And she doesn’t miss a beat.

LE SAMOURAÏ
Direction: Jean-Pierre Melville. Screenplay: Melville, after the novel The Ronin by Joan McLeod. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Art direction: François de Lamothe. Editing: Monique Bonnot, Yolande Maurette. Sound: René Longuet. Music: François de Roubaix.
The Players: Alain Delon, Cathy Rosier, François Périer, Michel Boisrond, Nathalie Delon, Jacques Leroy, Robert Favart.

Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler