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Le Samourai


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OI said that next to the listing as a bit of a joke. On the cover of one of the VHS releases, it has a pull quote from Jon Woo saying: "This is the most perfect film I have ever seen." Or something like that.

But he really isn't far off the mark. I haven't been able to catch <i>Le Cercle Rouge</i> yet even though it has hovered around this area for a month or two. Many Melville fans say that is his best. I certainly like <i>Le Samourai</i> better then his bombshell <i>Bob Le Flambeur</i> or even <i>Riffifi</i>. It just comes across as more mature, and much more solid psychologically. In <i>Le Samourai</i> his gift for giving the audience access to his characters really pervades the viewing experience - so much so that the shocking conclusion isn't quite so shocking. The innovative step he makes in the storyline at the end works well because he has built such a good foundation for it.

It is the story (typically basic for this genre) about a hired gun who is explicitly careful in the crimes he commits. We follow him from an assassination through his arrest and release and into the thorough investigation by police which leads to a very startling conclusion. The assassination sequence itself is worth the ticket price.

This film is pretty late (67), but there is something quintessentially French about it. It is a highwater point for Noir it seems. He takes the convention of the solitary criminal slipping through the shadows of society to a new level and then unfolds the reality of the convention at the end of the story in an unexpected way. There is something far more Noir about this than the somewhat predictable conclusions to something like <i>Bob</i> or <i>Breathless</i>. I wonder if <i>Le Samourai</i> is to French Noir what <i>Unforgiven</i> is to the Western.

<i>Bob Le Flambeur</i> was much more influential of course. It was interesting to watch <i>Le Mistons</i> (Truffaut's second short) so close to seeing so much Melville. You can see Melville's hands all over Truffaut's early stuff. Even in terms of the way he takes us through his stories with such a literary flair. He begins <i>Bob Le Flambeur</i> with this great voiceover that works like an establishing shot, and really throws you right into 50's urban France. But in <i>Le Samourai</i> we have a more atmospheric approach embellished by his hyper-stylized use of color. And some killer jazz.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Finally saw this tonight. It's almost impossible not to see how this influenced John Woo's films, especially The Killer. Woo lifts entire scenes (i.e. the subway chase scene) and subplots (the nightclub singer), as well as character quirks (for example, both protagonists - named Jeff, natch - are clued into danger by the most infinitesimal things and both are meticulous).

However, the two movies couldn't be more diametrically opposed emotionally. The one word I'd use to describe Le Samourai is "wintry". There isn't an ounce of human warmth or emotion in the entire movie, except for maybe the final exchange between Jef (the killer) and the nightclub singer, and only then in hindsight. The entire movie is suffused in cool blue tones, such that even the sunny day on which Jef goes to meet his contact gives you the shivers. And the characters are completely amoral, wrapped up in their own lives, their immaculate suits, trenchcoats, and hats serving almost as suits of armor.

The Killer, on the other hand, is melodramatic to the extreme, at times reaching soap opera-esque heights. I think I read a description of Woo's films once that said it was like each and every one of his frames was dipped in nitroglycerin and detonated. Not just in terms of violence and action - which is very much the case with The Killer (especially the amazing dragon boat assassination sequence) - but in terms of any sort of emotional content.

All in all, I think I prefer The Killer because of this. However, there is certainly something immaculate about Le Samourai that appeals to me as well.

Having finally seen Le Samourai, I'm all the more excited that Woo is planning to tackle Le Cercle Rouge.

Edited by opus

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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For what it's worth, Rififi was directed by Melville, but ex-pat American Jules Dassin (on my shortly for favorite all-time director). Similar styles, though, especially once Dassin started working in France.

Also, I don't know if I'd call Le Cercle Rouge Melville's best — some of the emotional themes are fantastic, and it is a fantastic film. It's just about 30 minutes too long, and those 30 minutes are excruciating.

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Netflix was certain I would give this movie 4.5 stars, and whaddayaknow, I think they’re right. This is the movie The American wanted to be but wasn’t. Alain Delon is, of course, ridiculously good looking in this movie, but there’s an undercurrent of icy deadness that's somehow even colder than his Tom Ripley in Plein Soleil. He plays the consummate professional killer, and is in many ways an enigma to the viewer. Much of the film plays out as a three-way contest between Delon’s Jef Costello, the police, and the criminals that hired Costello for the initial hit. But, where we understand exactly what the police are up to, we seldom get any insight into Costello’s thought-processes. He is a mystery, and this of course contributes to the ending.

The women in the case are less well-defined; it's a very "male" sort of world. Costello's relationship with Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon) might provide some clue to the state of his soul, but we can’t be sure. There is one moment when Costello’s icy veneer breaks and we see that he is fed up with the whole game--I mean the moment when he's sitting in the garage toward the end of the movie. But he metaphorically reassumes his hat (that hat, sitting so stiffly, is a ceremonial object for this French Samurai, a symbol indicating his status) and goes to the final confrontation.

In short, I admired this movie very much. I'm going to have to put some more Melville onto my [expanding, alas!] Netflix queue.

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The women in the case are less well-defined; it's a very "male" sort of world.

As far as Melville films go, this isn't exclusive to this film, either.

The only other Melville film that I've seen is Le Cercle Rouge and it's also a very "male" sort of world -- it's all about stoic men and a cold, calculating form of machismo. In fact, I don't recall it having any significant female characters.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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The great exceptions to this in Melville's canon are:

Army of Shadows, in which a female figure plays a very bold and significant role.

Les enfants terribles, in which a girl plays a very odd and significant role.

FWIW, Le Doulos has been playing on IFC lately. It is worth seeing, though I like it less than the other two great Melville caper films.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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The women in the case are less well-defined; it's a very "male" sort of world.

As far as Melville films go, this isn't exclusive to this film, either.

The only other Melville film that I've seen is Le Cercle Rouge and it's also a very "male" sort of world -- it's all about stoic men and a cold, calculating form of machismo. In fact, I don't recall it having any significant female characters.

FWIW, the Criterion essay on Le Samourai opens with this line:

Tone and style are everything with Le samouraï. Poised on the brink of absurdity, or a kind of attitudinizing male arrogance, Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film flirts with that macho extremism and slips over into dream and poetry just as we grow most alarmed.

And yeah, I think there's an extent to which Costello's stoic resolve pushes him in a hyper-masculine direction (though not hyper-masculine in the way that, say, Vin Diesel could be considered macho). Since I've read elsewhere that this movie is basically a remake of This Gun for Hire, I'm wondering to what extent Melville is commenting on the "male" aesthetic of the noir genre, and to what extent he's even aware of its existence as a problem.

Darren H:

I watched this over the weekend and was struggling for the first hour to justify its inclusion in the Top 100. But from the subway chase on, the film falls neatly into that Dostoevsky > Bresson > ______ > Schrader > Dardenne line.

Care to elaborate on that? I think I kind of get what you're saying, but I'm not sure.

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The women in the case are less well-defined; it's a very "male" sort of world.

As far as Melville films go, this isn't exclusive to this film, either.

The only other Melville film that I've seen is Le Cercle Rouge and it's also a very "male" sort of world -- it's all about stoic men and a cold, calculating form of machismo. In fact, I don't recall it having any significant female characters.

I managed to see Le doulos, and if anything it's more male-centric than Le samourai; I wrote on my 'blog:

Le doulos is a movie about men. Men plotting, men killing other men, men manipulating (and then killing) other men on behalf of still other men. It's the kind of movie where a woman, if she comes into the picture at all, is a pleasant method of dealing with (what else?) a man; more often, she's a betrayer. Sometimes she's a corpse. It's the kind of movie where a seduction can turn into a savage attack without a pause; where one man can say of a woman, "I hope you don't mind me saying that I beat her unconscious" and the other just shrugs as if to say, "These broads, eh?"

Apparently, when Le doulos was released, Melville was accused of mistreating women--to which he replied (not unreasonably) that he didn't mistreat women; his characters did. I get the impression that Melville doesn't so much dislike women as much as he's just not interested in them as subjects for his films; his themes seem to be a very specific sort of homosocial bond between these almost archetypal males with faces like masks and minds like roulette wheels. And this concern seems to make for movies that are fascinating, but somehow incomplete--either because these men never make the bonds (never can make the bonds) they seem to need, or because it presents a one-sided world.

Incidentally, while I can think of other movies that have a similarly male-centric viewpoint, I can't think of any that are so relentlessly clear in this perspective; movies like The Magnificent Seven just don't push the same buttons at all. So now I'm wondering if Melville doesn't have some sort of a critique hidden away here, but I'm not yet familiar enough with his body of work to be sure.

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OI said that next to the listing as a bit of a joke. On the cover of one of the VHS releases, it has a pull quote from Jon Woo saying: "This is the most perfect film I have ever seen." Or something like that.

Finally saw this tonight. It's almost impossible not to see how this influenced John Woo's films, especially The Killer. Woo lifts entire scenes (i.e. the subway chase scene) and subplots (the nightclub singer), as well as character quirks (for example, both protagonists - named Jeff, natch - are clued into danger by the most infinitesimal things and both are meticulous).

Looks like Woo is closer than ever to doing his remake of this film...

...the director began to talk actively of remaking Melville’s movie, and that project is still in play to some extent. In a new reeport, Woo says that the script is being worked on now, and that German financing will be one big reason to transplant the action from Paris to Berlin.

The text below is translated from German (and likely first translated from Chinese to German, adding another later of potential problem) but Woo’s explanation for shifting the remake to Berlin is:

The reasons are numerous. Some have to do with money, others not. What is important for me, that’s the place I want to film. Paris – as well as London and other European cities – is happy with its status. Berlin, however, has not yet arrived where it wants to go. It’s still hungry. If I succeed in bringing this hunger to the canvas, then I have achieved what I hope to.

Story here.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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A truly terrific essay by Sheila O'Malley about the character Jef Costello in Le Samourai.

Jef Costello is clearly handsome, because he is played by Alain Delon. Alain Delon is up there with Greta Gabro in terms of unforgettable enigmatic cinematic beauty. So there’s that, it is an undeniable fact of Jef Costello’s existence. It’s genetic. He can’t help it. I imagine that many women do a double take when they first lay eyes on Jef Costello. The double-take would then turn into a triple take, of that I am sure. She glances at him casually, she looks away. Then, something ignites inside her (Wait … is that man as … beautiful as I think he is?) So she looks back to check. Yup. Damn fine-looking man. She looks away again, not wanting to be busted for staring. But then … The third take would be inevitable, and the most interesting. Despite his beauty (and it’s more beauty than handsomeness), there would be something about his face that registers as … off. Eerily “other”. Perhaps it is the “uncanny valley” effect in operation. You can sense, just by looking at him that something is not quite right, although you may not be able to put your finger on what that might be.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, bounty hunter Rick Deckard gives an “empathy test” to those suspected of being androids. Empathy is the key to being human, the only thing that separates us. And time and time again, Deckard gets that prickly weird feeling at the back of his neck while giving the test, knowing that he is in the presence of something that LOOKS human, but ISN’T. (This, by the way, is a known effect described by social workers/prison counsellors and others who have regular contact with psycho/sociopaths. It is one of the “tells”, a primal fight-or-flight response telling you: “Get the hell away from this person.”)

John Steinbeck describes it best in his character description of Cathy in East of Eden – he could be talking about the uncanny valley:

Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her.

She made people uneasy but not so that they wanted to go away from her. Men and women wanted to inspect her, to be close to her, to try and find what caused the disturbance she distributed so subtly. And since this had always been so, Cathy did not find it strange.

Historically, people have gotten very annoyed when I write about psychopaths. It seems to be a “thing”. I am not sure why. There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered, but people seem annoyed by the asking. Perhaps it cuts too close to the heart of who we are, our identities, what it means to be human. People are attached to the environmental explanation, and for understandable reasons. We don’t want to believe that androids (so to speak) can be born to human parents. To suggest that there are those who are born without the essential elements that make up human beings (empathy, compassion) is controversial, and threatening. There has been a knee-jerk rejection to even discussing it, and it happens so regularly I could set my watch by it. Clearly, this hasn’t stopped me, but it is something interesting I wanted to point out.

Edited by John Drew

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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