Le Samoura was the second of Jean-Pierre Melville's color films, but it very well could have been shot in black and white. The desaturated colors of the Parisian streets and the grayish walls of the interiors suggests a moral gray zone, a place in which the characters drift and occasionally crash into each other. Like most of Melville's well-known works, the film's soul is deeply rooted in the lan of American film noir and its constricted universe of morality gravity and fateful interludes. As a child, Melville had absorbed everything Hollywood could offer and gave it his own spin when he came into his own as a film director in the 1950s, working independently out of his own studio and recasting American genre films with a decidedly continental flair.
Melville's hero in Le Samoura is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), the "samurai" of the title, albeit not in the sense that we typically think. Jef is not defined by nobility of purpose or even consistency of vision, but rather by his loneliness. A made-up quote at the beginning of the film informs us of the loneliness of the samurai's life, something Melville invokes immediately with Jef's drab-gray one-room apartment. Like most iconic tough guys, Jef is a man of few words, but he is also a man of little action. A hired assassin, he takes out a night-club owner early in the film, an act that kicks of a domino effect of events that will eventually lead to his undoing. Yet, Jef is so resigned to the yin and yang of life that he hardly seems to care. In a sense, he is the epitome of "ultra cool" (hence why both John Woo and Quentin Tarantino are such fervent admirers of the film), but at the same time he seems like a ghost in his own life.
A Parisian police investigator (Franois Prier) is sure that Jef was behind the hit, and he even manages to haul him into the police station for a line-up. However, Jef has a perfect alibi concocted with his girlfriend, Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), and a pianist at the club (Caty Rosier) who saw him walk out of the owner's office, but refuses to identify him for reasons that are made clear only later. However, even though Jef seems to get away with murder, he continues to be trailed by the police and then becomes a target himself when his employers decide that his being brought in puts them at risk.
This makes Le Samoura sound plot-heavy, but it really isn't. As in his other crime films, Melville takes his time drawing out the events, focusing more on the characters and the atmosphere than the who, what, when, where, or why. A more plot- and tempo-focused director would have moved through the police station sequence in about half the time Melville allots to it, but Melville likes to linger, taking in the details of what's happening and how his various characters interact. Some elements are left intentionally vague, including the character of Jef, whose lack of a backstory and motive turn him into a fantasy projection of male stoicism.
The role not surprisingly made Alain Delon a star. Despite his limited range of expressions, Delon conveys a great deal through his piercing blue eyes and the smallest bits of body language. The coolness so often attributed to him is a product of his complete self-assurance, which leads him to make a crucial decision in the last act that finally imbues him with a sense of nobility in addition to all that loneliness.
Copyright 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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