Sunday, September 26, 2010

Le Samourai

Jean Pierre Melville, 1967, 95m, French, Alain Delon

The movie opens with wisps of cigarette smoke rising from a hardly visible source in a dimly lit room, as a shaft of light penetrates around a half opened curtain. A bird in a cage chirrups agitatedly in the center of the room. In the dim light you can't distinguish anything but the smoke and the sound.

The Samurai in question is a Parisian hit man. The film is a gripping crime thriller, distiguished by style and atmosphere. Delon, as Jeff, a professional assassin has an uncanny resemblance to Tatsuya Nakadai in the Sword of Doom (1966). Whereas the Japanese movie ends with a sword arrested in mid-swing, the French one enigmatically ends with the firing of an unloaded gun in order to fulfill a contract.

What does the metaphor of the samurai stand for? The Jeff character has been described as Bressonian. The professional warrior must wear death on his sleeve. He holds emotions and nerves in tight leash. Jeff hardly speaks. The character is expressed in agility and grace of movement, like a lonely tiger, and imperceptible flickers of facial muscles, and on one occasion, beads of sweat as he pants. The most talkative creature in the film is the caged bird which he keeps in his sparsely provided room.

The plot: after furnishing himself with a solid alibi, Jeff kills a restaurant owner, but he is observed while getting away and ends up as one of the suspects in a line up for a police identification parade. He can't be pinned and has to be freed. Subsequently he is chased by the police as well as those who hired him for the hit job. He maneuvres through the metro system like a hunted beast in an electrifying (oh, poverty of vocabulary!) chase sequence. There are betrayals and loyalty and a climax of bizarre perfection.

The secret of the movie's ability to cast a spell on the mind is in the mechanics. It is a perfectly tuned piece of clockwork, an inspired sequence of puppetry, a meticulous architecture. Who is the caged bird? It is as though the script and code of Jeff's life has been written out for him, but there is something of the heroic in this unnaturally handsome, almost effeminate, cold blooded killer. The code which he obeys is internal and he answers only to himself.  The film concludes in an act of ritual suicide, as if to establish that he was more than a machine.

The noisy little bird in the cage is a disturbing symbol, as it flutters around desperately. If one may overstretch an interpretation, it is the anguished human being behind the glacial exterior, bound in the cage of his body.

Ebert's Great Movie Essay


Nathanael Hood said...

This is it. This is THE film that made me fall in love with French cinema.

Everything was flawless.

The acting! The cinematography! The characters!!!

The ending!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What a perfect film.

S. M. Rana said...

And like in any great movie, so hard to put one;s finger on what exactly makes it tick.

Anonymous said...

This gray movie is memorably dry, cold, and austere. - and it is, above all, a very fascinating study on an interesting character. I want to revisit this movie when the time comes.

S. M. Rana said...

It is one of those movies which cannot be absorbed at one viewing--their secret lies in the minute things. I also don't know if the time will come.

litdreamer said...

Sounds like I have another movie to add to my list, especially since, according to Roger Ebert, Melville helped pave the way for the French New Wave (though this movie came after Breathless, in which he has a cameo).

S. M. Rana said...

@LD: It is here that Melville comes into his own and finds his true genre.