‘Le Samouraï’ or — “Brim”-ming with Style?
The plot to Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967) is so simple it could be written down on the back of a packet of Gauloises. Yet what does this minimalist plot support? An experiment in style? An examination of the way a killer moves through cinematic dream-space? Or is it about how a director can shatter the noir genre into discrete units — hats, maps, coats, gun-shots, etc — and rearrange them into new and complex shifting and inverted patterns? Maybe it’s all of the above combined with a sophisticated use of time and sound? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is an assassin for hire who functions with perfection. He carries out a meticulously planned hit at a nightclub only to be recognised by the bar’s pianist meaning he has left a potential loose end. Yet when a police line-up doesn’t pan out the way Jef expects then he realises that a game of cat-and-mouse is about to begin, not just with the cops who know Jef’s the killer but also with his employer… and his employer doesn’t like loose ends.
Delon’s Costello is a character minimalistically reduced to the point of absurdity; he consists of nothing except precisely controlled mannerisms and physical signifiers. This minimalism allows Jef, just like Lee Marvin in ‘Point Blank’ (also 1967), to move through the frames of the film more easily and to uncouple himself from time (although Jef is unable to escape space). Everything else about Jef — personality, emotion, feelings — has been bleached away (is this bleaching process by Melville also the reason his gangsters wear white, and not black, gloves?).
This sensation (and it’s almost a physical one) of dealing with precise, discrete units extends to Melville’s use of time which is always moving forward yet possesses a circular pattern. At one point there’s a shattering moment when night instantly becomes day simply by the opening of a blind which doesn’t so much effect the available light as the temporal nature of the room. Likewise, there’s a moment later when the movie makes a big song and dance about the fact that ten minutes have passed. Melville is making us pay attention and that results in complete engagement. By the climax Costello is re-enacting previous exact movements and actions as we (and he) realise he is caught in a loop and none of the keys dangling off his own closed circle can open an exit (did the Wachowski’s watch this before making ‘The Matrix Reloaded’?).
Sound is also stripped back to almost the atomic level but it would be inaccurate, if tempting, to compare ‘Le Samouraï’ to a silent movie simply because Costello doesn’t speak unless necessary. Instead this active silence provides a vibrating background for highly crafted and specific sonic elements to exert themselves. This is the reason the tonal change of the chirping of a bird can have such a devastating, and exciting, effect. Or notice the scene when Costello is on the Metro — the camera moves and editing are steady and stable, but it is the carefully orchestrated (and utterly hyper-realistic) noises that create the unbearable tension and feeling of claustrophobia.
The dominance, and importance, of the sound design is, again, highlighted when Costello turns off the switch on a listening device, the image almost subliminally cutting to the eavesdropper for only the length of the click. The sound is driving the visuals and it’s an exhilarating piece of sonic design.
(Side note — Is it not hilarious that we watch the police bug Costello’s room when we know he never says a word? Again, this is Melville getting us to pay attention and actively participate with the film)
Not that it’s all technical panache here with no psychology at play. The scene when the police inspector questions a witness he suspects is lying is the work of someone who knows, like Melville did, what interrogation feels like first hand. The inspector doesn’t resort to force or torture but, instead, the real weapons of interrogation — the intimidation of “moral authority”.
On the other side of the law are Costello’s employers, headed by a man of whom all we know is that he “isn’t like us”, and that’s an understatement as the implication is that he’s something else entirely and if you notice the painting behind him when we’re first introduced to him it appears to be stating he might even consist of totally different nuclear material from the rest of us and has the capacity to see through time, space and solid matter. Costello knows this which is why he also knows escape is impossible.
By the end of the movie we understand why there is such importance focused on Costello’s contrived outfit, on his costume — because if Jef is wearing a costume then anybody could be wearing a costume meaning that that young girl over there could be a killer and because Costello isn’t paranoid (he, more than anyone, knows the rules of the dream) the effect of this is chilling. We know why he runs.
‘Le Samouraï’ is a phenomenal work of… art? Design? Sound and space? Light in the form of a narrative? It’s a movie, I know that much for sure, but I can’t think of anything else that plays so dazzlingly with what that actually, and potentially, means. It is the reality altering thrill of witnessing perfection.