Putting Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai in Context

In 1967, Jean-Pierre Melville released Le Samourai, a markedly different film from the “New Wave” films that dominated the French Film market of the day.  Melville’s masterpiece is a meticulous and objective study of behavior, criminality and existentialism.  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 and its isolation as a film during the height of the New Wave powers.  Melville’s divergence from the New Wave creatively, and his understanding of France’s position in the Cold War politically gave his films a disillusioned edge from that point onward, an emphasis on the existential crisis in the every day living of France.  Critics do not consider Le Samourai  a remarkably dark film but, in the light of socio-political analysis, I see no other way to view Melville’s film.

Le Samourai is a visually bleak film. Henri Decae’s photography lacks the romance often attributed to Paris.  Instead, the city appears worn, tattered and desolately gray.  Melville wants the history of the film’s urban environment to be palpable, to be understood.  Le Samourai is a film of the Post-Second World War era in the midst of the Cold War.  The film’s city holds no secrets or illusions and is void of any romantic flare. As a result, this backdrop becomes more real in the minds of the audience. Melville’s narrative is endowed with a special sort of trust from his audience, a trust in the reality he has constructed.
In Rui Nogueira’s Melville on Melville, the director describes the character Jef Costello as a schizophrenic.  Within the context of the film alone, that is never made explicit.  In this 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); one wonders for a moment if he will kill her as well.  By the films conclusion, Valerie stands guilty of betrayal. Our sympathies have changed all together, turning against her and for Jef Costello.  Thus, Melville has achieved a reality in this picture where the innocents are guilty and the guilty have innocence — a reality within the confines of post-war existentialism.

The objectivity and obsession over process within Le Samourai are reminiscent to the modes and operations of Fritz Lang’s early sound masterpiece M (1931).  Both films deal with criminal and judicial process objectively and thoroughly, but M lacks 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.  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 is not merely an aesthetic one, by the time Melville had made Le Samourai there had been a Second World War, German Occupation, a Cold War, and a cultural revolution.  It makes sense that a filmmaker would 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 processes depicted in turn becomes a parable for the existential problem of formulated process against the anarchy of human nature.

The style of realism and naturalism of Le Samourai has its roots in the Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s (particularly 1954’s Magnificent Obsession).  Sirk was always careful to give his characters layers of motive, and complicated relationships that transcend the judgment and (occasional) sympathy of the audience as Melville has.  The credit of authenticity this realism affords the film is immeasurable, and equally as essential to the success of Le Samourai both as a human and an existential drama.

The celebratory tone of the French New Wave by 1967 stands juxtaposed to Le Samourai’s ambiguity and coldness of manner.  Godard was as fixated on the unrealism of the cinema as Melville was determined to bring realism to his cinema of the existential. This does not 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, Alain Delon).   So what we have is a film unlike any other in its moment that has become as important to cinema as it was different upon its release.

By Robert Curry

Le Samourai screening this Wednesday,
August  17th, 7:30pm
L’Etage  / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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