In 1967, Jean-Pierre Melville released his film Le Samourai. It is not a “New Wave” film, it is a classic genre film; it is a meticulous and objective study of behavior, criminality and existentialism. The films lead, Jef Costello, is in turn played by Alain Delon, whose beauty sets him far off from the ruggedness of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Albert Remy, Jeanne Moreau and other stars of the French New Wave. It is these ingredients that make Le Samourai a picture of singular merit, both within its moment and onward to the present.
Five years before Melville shot Le Samourai, he withdrew from the New Wave filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard. Until 1962 Godard and Melville shared a mutual friendship and respect, which was forever lost over a dispute with regard to Godard’s film Vivre Sa Vie (1962). Vivre Sa Vie marked a new and more consciously Brechtian style to Godard’s filmmaking process which Melville dismissed as not actually being cinema. This fact is important in understanding the approach Melville had toward the material of Le Samourai. Melville’s divergence from the New Wave, and his understanding of France’s position in the Cold War gave his films a disillusioned edge from that point onwards, an emphasis on the existential crisis in the every day living of France.
Le Samourai is a visually bleak film as photographed by Henri Decae. Paris appears worn, tattered and desolately gray. Melville wants the history of the films urban environment to be palpable, to be understood. That Le Samourai is a film of the Post Second World War era, a film in the midst of the Cold War. As seen in the film, it is a city of no secrets or illusions; void of any Romantic flare it becomes more real in the minds of the audience. Thus, Melville’s narrative is endowed with a special sort of trust from his audience, a trust in the reality he has constructed.
In Melville on Melville by Rui Nogueira, the director describes the character Jef Costello as a schizophrenic. Within the context of the film alone, such a fact is never made explicit. In that case, much of the film prefers ambiguity to specificity. It is in the rigorous objectivity that Melville finds any truth to his characters, slowly unfolding their motives and relationships through the film’s long scenes of criminal and judicial process so that the characters manifest themselves as the starting point of their own existential crisis. In that regard, the audience has no singular sympathy for one character; all characters are as sympathetic as they are despicable. Only scene by scene do the allegiances of the audience change. For instance, a scene in the beginning of the film has Costello shoot a club owner in a dressing room, only to be witnessed by Valerie (Cathy Rosier); and one wonders for a moment if he will kill her too. But by the films conclusion, as Valerie stands guilty of betrayal, our sympathies have changed all together, turning against her character for Delon’s character Jef Costello. Thus, Melville has achieved a reality in this picture where even the innocents are guilty and the guilty have innocence; a reality within the confines of post-war existentialism. The latter is a paradox that runs through much of Melville’s filmography from Les Enfants Terribles to Le Cercle Rouge.
The objectivity and obsession over process within Le Samourai are reminiscent of the modes and operations of Fritz Lang’s early sound masterpiece M (1931). Though both films deal with criminal and judicial process objectively and thoroughly, M avoids the human realism of Le Samourai. Melville has fewer characters to clutter his narrative, as he also has a definite focus on human behavior and realism. Regarding realism in M, it would seem odd in Lang’s film, given his success with the unreal of German Expressionism with which he had his first career as a silent filmmaker. Fritz Lang’s film M is populated by characters with a pulp dynamic as overt as Melville’s naturalism, which have clear and singular motives, desires and relationships. But this difference of realism isn’t just an aesthetic one, by the time Melville had made Le Samourai there had been a Second World War, a German Occupation, a Cold War, and by the 1960s a cultural revolution. So it begins to make sense that a filmmaker would wish to closely analyze objectively the behavior of the characters within his film. If nothing else, it is behavior that is the universal language of man. Melville’s interjection of human realism within the judicial and criminal processes depicted in turn becomes a parable for the existential problem of formulated process against the anarchy of human nature.
I do not mean to isolate Le Samourai from the other films of French cinema, on the contrary, Le Samourai is as equally influential as Godard’s own Contempt, Rohmer’s L’amour l’apres-midi and Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Le Samourai is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, and in 1972, Michael Winner took much of Le Samourai’s visual style and naturalist pacing as well as the lead Alain Delon and used them for his own thriller Scorpio (a film which also recast Burt Lancaster with his co-star from The Leopard). The passage of time has hence proven Jean-Pierre Melville to be as much a necessity to the development of French cinema as his younger contemporaries of the New Wave; rediscovered and celebrated posthumously.