Le Samouraï  (1967)


*. I have two responses to films that I don’t like as much as I’m told I should. The first is to think they’ve been overrated. I use this one when I am in no doubt that I’m right and everyone else (or at least the critical consensus) is wrong. The second response is to throw my hands up and confess that I just don’t get it.
*. I just don’t get Le Samouraï. People whose opinion I respect think that it’s great, and it has quite a passionate following, but even though I’ve tried hard to like it . . .
*. It’s most often said to be a film of pure style. This means it gets a pass for telling a very simple, unconvincing, and unoriginal story, with little dialogue, about a character who remains a complete cipher. All of which I can forgive and issue a pass for. What I can’t abide is just how dull a movie it is.
*. The dullness seems to follow from the style, which is both static and a pose. It’s often praised for its suspense, but I don’t feel any of this. There are a number of quiet, set-piece scenes — the men planting the bug in Jef’s apartment, Jef finding it, the pursuit through the subway system — but I didn’t find these very interesting. They seem to me like scenes that other directors had already done before and done better. If I can say it without seeming flip, there’s a difference between suspense and just dragging a scene out. Melville drags a lot of scenes out in this movie, but doesn’t build much suspense.


*. When it comes to the look of the film, its supposedly definitive and unmatched evocation of “cool,” I am, again, unimpressed. Aside from that washed-out apartment (Melville: “My dream is to make a color film in black and white”), I didn’t like any of the jarringly theatrical interiors (jarring because they are juxtaposed with realistic street scenes). The nightclub in particular looks tacky and cheap. That this was by design doesn’t help.
*. I don’t even find Jef particularly well dressed in his retro trench coat and fedora. Then again, I don’t find Alain Delon that handsome either. He’s just pretty and incongruous. That’s not cool. It’s more creepy and weird.
*. Another word that often gets applied to this movie is “beauty.” I see even less evidence for this than style or cool. What is beautiful about this film? Some of it looks nice, but that’s as far as I’d go.
*. Does the style mean anything? I can’t see where it does, except as a costume. The silence is also a red herring. To me it simply represents the fact that Jef has nothing to say, because he’s never really thinking of anything. Except his job. It’s not just that he’s solitary and withdrawn, but that his mind has withdrawn as well. And by that I mean it’s shrunk.
*. The most obvious comparison is to Point Blank, which came out the same year and which is also a dream of a gangster film with accentuated style points. But Point Blank sets the hook in you hard right from the start and doesn’t let you go, driving forward like Walker (Lee Marvin) marching down that long hallway, his heels banging out the drum taps of doom. Le Samouraï has none of that momentum, and (I think) even less style.
*. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — there are few films I like as much as Point Blank — but if I’m being totally honest I even prefer a gangster film like Fernando di Leo’s Caliber 9 (1972) to this. At least in that film the characters had some depth and were relatable. As I’ve already noted, I don’t find anything complicated about Jef.


*. I’m not even sure the movie is coherent thematically. Despite the title and some ersatz epigraph from the Bushido Code (that Melville actually wrote himself), there’s little connection between Jef and a samurai. Roger Ebert: “The quotation and the whole pose of the Costello character are meant to suggest a man who operates according to a rigid code. But as Stanley Kauffmann points out in his review, ‘a samurai did not accept commissions to kill merely for money: honor and ethics were involved.’ Here the honor and ethics seem to be Jef Costello’s loyalty to himself; a samurai was prepared to die for his employer, and Costello is self-employed.”
*. Critics have had to work hard to make the connection, but the best explanations of the title they’ve come up with have to do with Jef being bound for death and the ritualistic nature of his killings. Which, when you think of it, is pretty weak.
*. The main theme is said to be solitude. Jef is the ultimate lone wolf. Only he isn’t. He has a girlfriend (played by Delon’s wife, Nathalie). Or is she his girlfriend? Melville apparently liked the fact that they looked like brother and sister, and we know that she has a boyfriend/lover/john that Jef doesn’t object to. So maybe she’s just a professional alibi. It’s hard to tell.
*. Some, perhaps most, of my inability to get this movie comes down to a matter of temperament. I’m not a fan of the French New Wave. The editing is interesting, but when it’s the most interesting thing about a movie I think there’s a problem. And aside from being interesting, I don’t think there’s much to say about Le Samouraï. It’s not a film I enjoy.


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