Sunday, September 6, 2009
ZOMBIE INTERNATIONALE: IT WATCHES "LE SAMOURAI"
My brother and I have been fellow cinephiles and co-writers for years, but we don't see eye to eye on everything. Our first major cinematic disagreement happened about 15 years ago, when we got into a spirited debate about whether or not a movie could succeed on style alone. My brother took the anti-Wildean position that without a strong screenplay and compelling story, a movie can be nothing more than a collection of disparate aesthetic elements, perhaps impressive on their own terms, but not enough to qualify as a truly successful film. I was on the other side of the aisle, espousing the belief that with the right mix of skilled cinematography, stylish costumes, and mood-elevating music, a film could transcend a perhaps-subpar script and become a satisfying experience in its own right. In the intervening decade and a half, my stance has shifted more or less completely over to my brother's side (at least as far as the film we were initially debating, the Alec Baldwin-starring The Shadow, is concerned). But then yesterday, I saw Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967) for the first time, and I realized that I had found the film that could settle the style-vs.-story argument once and for all. Roger Ebert once wrote that what a film is about is much less important than how it it about it, and no film better exemplifies this philosophy than Melville's brooding, icy-cool crime thriller, which is quite simply one of the best-looking and most stylish films I have ever seen.
Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a real nowhere man. He lives in a sparsely furnished room with no personal effects save for an incessantly chirping, feather-shedding bullfinch in a small cage. His wardrobe is composed entirely of sharp but anonymous suits and raincoats, always topped off with a cool fedora, the brim low over the eyes just so. And Jef's persona is as cold and blank as his living quarters and wardrobe. His voice is a deep, flat sound untouched by emotion, and his poker face and deep blue eyes seem dead to the excitement and stimulations of life. No surprise that this man kills for a living, with the icy professional detachment of an android. As the film begins, Jef goes about his bloody business. He acquires a gun and a fresh set of license plates from a chop-shop denizen with whom he exchanges not a solitary word. He pays a visit to Jane (Nathalie Delon, Alain's then-wife), a woman with whom he is obviously having an affair but with whom he stays only long enough to establish an alibi. Then, he drives to a glittery Paris nightclub and guns down the owner...but not before being sighted by Valerie (Cathy Rosier), the sexy pianist in the house jazz band. Jef is picked up by the cops and hauled into a police lineup, but Valerie's denial of his identity sets him free. He seems to be in the clear, but then he's double-crossed by the men who hired him for the nightclub job, and with the still-suspicious police on his tail, he's got to find out the reason for the betrayal, Valerie's shady motives for helping him out, and whether he has it in him to do what he's paid to do, no matter what.
The screenplay for Le Samourai (written by Melville and Georges Pellegrin) could very easily have (and in fact more or less has) provided the backdrop for a dozen humdrum noir thrillers about cold-blooded killers, their hot-blooded women, and canny cops in hot pursuit. But in this fine French film, as with fine French food, the magic is all in the presentation. First and foremost, one must acknowledge the sterling contribution of cinematographer Henri Decae, whose work here is flat-out some of the best and most incongruously beautiful I've ever seen. This is a world of ice blue, steel gray, and rich, threatening blacks, a fiercely gorgeous Parisian purgatory captured by Decae with crystal clarity and precision (the Criterion DVD transfer of this film is impeccable). Much of the film is done in measured still frames or fluid pans, but Decae occasionally mixes things up, as with a tense handheld cat-and-mouse chase through a Paris Metro station or a quick shot of violence captured as if from the window of a passing El train. Francois de Lamothe's art direction supports Decae's work with locations both seedy and sumptuous (or sometimes, like the nightclub, both at the same time), and composer Francois de Roubaix undergirds the enterprise with a tense, pulsating score inflected with '60s jazz cool.
Melville's direction here is singular in the thriller genre for its almost unparalleled quietude. When you're going to see a film about hitmen and femmes fatale, the last thing you expect is silence. But Le Samourai features no dialogue whatsoever until about ten minutes in, when a terse exchange between Jef and Jane gives way to several more minutes of silence before Jef arrives at the backroom card game that will provide the second part of his alibi. The whole film is like this: brief, brusque dialogue exchanges buffered by extended scenes of silence. The whole Paris Metro chase is dialogue-free, as is an enthralling sequence in which cops plant a bug in Jef's rented room and listen from a hotel across the street, for minutes on end, to nothing but the soft sounds of Jef moving around the room and the neverending chirping of his bird. I would guess that Jef himself speaks fewer lines of dialogue than any protagonist in cinematic history, and when he kills, it's without wisecracks or verbal preludes of any kind; we know that violence is coming not when he promises it, but when he slips on his light gray linen gloves, the better to keep gunpowder off his impeccably manicured hands. Even the violence itself, while startling, is also curiously muted, over in a flash and without the blood and chaos that frequently accompanies such occurences in both other films and real life. Moviegoers more accustomed to the constant sound and fury of contemporary thrillers will likely find Le Samourai's approach to the genre peculiar if not downright dull. But for me, it worked in much the same way that the canyons of silence functioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey (no. 96 on the Zombie's 101 Favorite Screenplays list). By withholding aural stimulation from us, Melville draws us further into his film's penetrating images, making us work with the director as we rise to meet his film rather than having it come at us from the screen. It should also be said that the film, while not a cut-a-minute blur of action, is never slow-moving; Jef's dilemma compels the viewer relentlessly forward, and the whole affair wraps up in a just-about-perfect 105 minutes.
Melville's actors are fully in the groove of their director's approach, their performances matching the visuals' tone of cool surface detachment and deep inner turmoil. Francois Perier is suitably oily as the police superindentant on Jef's trail (he has one surpremely sleazy scene where he attempts to blackmail Jane into betraying her lover), and the pixie-haired Rosier is sexy and dangerous in the way that only Frenchwomen with secrets can be. Jacques Leroy also has a few strong moments as the double-crossing gunman who figures in the film's most explosive episodes of violence (in one startling moment, his hand, holding a loaded automatic, crashes unexpectedly through a window). But naturally, if Delon doesn't work, the movie doesn't either, and the actor's work here compliments the director's style like a hand in a gray linen glove. For the bulk of the film, Delon pares his movements down to the bare essentials, his face betrays not even a flicker of emotion, and his eyes are as cold and lifeless as the frequently gray sky that glowers over his head. But as with the silences that accompany his bloody progress through Paris, Delon's becalmed sense of menace draws us into the character's predicament as we scrutinize the blank, handsome planes of his face for some semblance of humanity. It's therefore surprising and unexpectedly affecting when we find just that, as when Jef tries key after key in his latest pilfered automobile and his face grows subtly but noticeably desperate as his escape is delayed by precious and ever-increasing seconds. It's a tough balance between a seemingly blank performance that actually conceals untold depths and a portrayal that's just lifeless, and Delon gives us a zombified dealer of death whose robotic facade hides his bone-deep solitude (it's no surprise that Delon played one of literature's great nowhere-man manques, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, in Purple Noon around the same time).
Really, the whole film exudes this sense of buried secrets, pains left umplumbed, passionate emotions forever unexpressed. From Camus and Sartre to The Professional's Leon (a more sentimental heir to Jef Costello's hitman tradition), no one does existential angst quite like the French, and Le Samourai is arguably the cinematic apotheosis of Gallic gloom and darkness. This is not a depressing film, but it's a dour and impenetrable one in many ways, and contemporary audiences who expect a little touch of the human even in their stone-cold killers (witness Jules and Vincent's extended dialogues about food in Pulp Fiction) may be put off by the utter implacability of Delon's gun for hire. But the film's unrelenting aura of impending dread and the subtle sadness of Delon's azure eyes will leave the viewer forever searching for clues to Jef's inner pain, the past anguish and present persecutions that have driven a young man of potential to dedicate his life to ending life. French gunslinging bad-asses are never just bad-asses, and Melville is not unaware of the romanticism inherent in Jef's solitary, brooding existence. It's the same thing that compels young girls to fantasize about the bloodsucking Byronic swain of the Twilight books: great physical beauty + deep reserves of inner torment + a touch of potentially lethal danger = almost overpowering allure. And of course, like many of the great existentialist narratives of the 20th century, Le Samourai culminates in a final deadly act that, once we realize its true nature, reveals itself as that most romantic of gestures...an act of self-sacrifice.
Le Samourai is a film that has perhaps meant more to other filmmakers than to general audiences. Its influence can be seen in the work of directors from Tarantino to Walter Hill, not to mention Hong Kong action impresario John Woo, who has called Melville's thriller a nearly perfect movie and who named the existential hitman in his 1989 masterpiece The Killer Jeff in the film's honor. But really, for all its impact on the action-thriller genre, Le Samourai is a singular viewing experience. I will be keeping an eye on the calendars of the repertory houses here in town, because I intend to see this film on a big screen as soon as I can. Melville's film tells a story that has been told a hundred times, and will likely be told a hundred times more. But no one's ever told it with this kind of style...and as the French themselves might say, vive la difference.