Review: Le Samourai (1967)

le samourai 1There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…

It would be easy for some to call Le Samourai flat and pedestrian due to its visual style and even the workings of its plot. All very straightforward with cool tones and characters who barely crack a smile. Emotions are even less common. But that’s disregarding how exquisitely confident it is in its execution. Jean-Pierre Melville is a director who evolved into one of the great forgers of crime films for the very reasons mentioned above.

His hero played so iconically by Alain Delon is one of those great film characters who does not need to fill every moment of silence with a witty comeback. In fact, Jef Costello is not one to spitfire witty repartee at all. Instead, he’s calculating, steely-eyed and ridiculously phlegmatic. He fits the corridors of this film like a glove, perfectly suited for the cold exteriors and drab interiors.

We meet him not in some moment of dramatic action, but while he reclines silently on his bed, veiled in shadow, cigarette smoke clouding over him and the chirps of his caged canary piercing through the traffic sounds murmuring outside his window. Although we linger there for a time as the credits roll, it takes a moment to acclimate. If you’re not paying attention, the contours of his body are almost lost to us — an extraordinarily ordinary man. But that’s precisely what he wants you to think.

Meanwhile, he highjacks cars, puts an airtight alibi in place, takes on a hit at a local nightclub with ease and disposes of all evidence without even a hiccup. Veins of ice and nerves of steel give him the perfect physique for a hitman. Top it off with his uniform — a trenchcoat, fedora, and cigarette, bolstered by Delon’s imperious stare and it’s difficult not to be mesmerized by his every movement.

It’s the kind of self-assuredness that allows another character to ask him, What kind of man are you? and no answer is needed — at least not with words — because with every action, every look, he tells us precisely what he is. An aloof assassin of the highest order. Yes, if you want to make the comparison, a samurai.

le samourai 2And though he does call on his lovely girlfriend (Nathalie Delon), who is absolutely devoted to him, as well as making eyes at the nightclub pianist who is the main eyewitness to his hit, Jef for all intent and purposes, is alone. It’s a kind of forced solitude, a self-made exile created by his trade. After he goes through with the hit, he must shut himself off more and more. That is his job.

So he goes to the police station to be questioned. Goes through the lineup. Stairs down the witnesses and goes home. Not to his girl but the dismal flat with his mournful canary. His contractors are out to get him, the cops are looking to catch him in his fabricated alibi and still, Costello maintains his composure as is his habit. He’s unphased by bugs or tails and when he has a gun to his face he never blubbers, only proceeds with beating up his assailant when the opportunity arises.

And although there is never much of overt romance in Le Samourai — Jef never shows any kind of passion — there are still glimpses that he cares about people. Perhaps he holds onto chivalry as part of his moral code. Even after staying away from his girlfriend for many days he comes back to her not expectant of anything but asking her if she’s alright. Pragmatic but concerned. Distant but still invested.

The same can be said for the film’s tremendous finale. Le Samourai is not a film of gratuitous killing but pointed moments of violence that are careful acts of deliberation. Costello kills two people and the film ends with his third and final hit. But it is in these tense moments that we gain yet another insight into the moral makeup of a world-class hitman.

Melville was obviously an admirer of American gangster films but what makes his vision of the genre so fantastic is the demeanor of his characters. Again, some might say boring, but that is probably a predilection of those raised on Hollywood action. There is no aura left. No shred of intrigue or tension left to be examined. Le Samourai is a crime thriller that performs differently, its pacing is entrancing and far from being tepid, it elevates the hitman to enduringly riveting heights to the last bullet fired. It doesn’t hurt that Jef Costello just might be the coolest action hero of all time.

5/5 Stars

L’Eclisse (1962)

leclisse3Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But, then, maybe they shouldn’t fall in love at all.” – Vittoria

When it comes to being aloof, apathetic, and distant Monica Vitti knew no equal, and she works so marvelously against the worlds that Michelangelo Antonioni creates. Her sultry pair of eyes speaks volumes as far as sensuality and charm — making words hardly necessary. When we look at her and how she moves so indifferently through this romantic space with her former lover, it becomes all too obvious. There’s no feeling there. There’s no magic left to be tapped into. That happens with love sometimes, and it’s excruciatingly painful, even to watch.

In these opening minutes, nothing is said yet it’s hardly boring. There’s something tantalizing about sitting and waiting for some piece of exposition to come our way. Besides Antonioni’s extended shot length, a steadily smooth camera, use of mirrors, and a wonderful manipulation of the interior space to frame shots keep us constantly engaged.

leclisse5The initial scene in the stock exchange is gloriously tumultuous and it never lets up. This is the dashing young Piero’s (Alain Delon) domain that he rushes through with lithe business savvy. What this arena becomes is the quintessential Italian marketplace, a hectic theater of business made up of all kinds, involved parties and observers alike. Vittoria (Vitti) is one of those who looks on with mild interest and really throughout the entire film she is a keen observer as much as she is a person of action.

Through the mutual connection of her distraught mother, she and Piero become acquaintances. No more, no less. But we expect there to be more, because how could you waste stars like Vitti and Delon without at least a few romantic interludes? But we are made to wait patiently as they share a little contact, watch the extraction of Piero’s car from its underwater mortuary, and take a long walk.

Again, Antonioni continues with glorious panoramas, a meticulous framing of shots, and exquisite overall composition of mise-en-scene. It makes every image that comes onscreen hold merit and they stay onscreen certainly long enough for you to truly appreciate them. He’s audacious enough not to feel the need to have his figures centered in the frame, and he dances around them, placing them really wherever he pleases, but there’s still something strangely satisfying about it. Doorways, trees, pillars, heads all work nicely.

leclisse1And the narrative becomes perhaps even more tantalizing than love because it’s the prospect of romance that keeps it going. But it never seems fully realized. It’s frustrating, unfulfilling in a sense, like most of his films. Whether it’s an unsolved mystery or the most perplexing conundrum mankind has ever faced romantic attraction, he always leaves us an open-ended denouement.

There are laughs and moments of immense satisfaction, but they are transient — invariably lasting for only a very brief instant. In fact, this film’s finale is a dour twist that submerges L’Eclisse even lower than we could ever expect. With a title such as “Eclipse,” there’s a potential for foresight, but there also are very few warning signs. Then, all of a sudden, we are privy to a newspaper dotted with headlines like “nuclear arms race” and “fragile peace.” That is all.

It’s in these final moments that L’Eclisse takes a far more haunting turn than Dr. Strangelove and any of its compatriots. It just stops. No explanation. Not even a sign of our protagonists. Again, it’s that maddening ambiguity that comes with waiting out this lull. But the ultimate joke is that there is nothing after the lull. The frame literally gets darker and quieter and then everything ends altogether. There is nothing more. Enveloped in darkness, it simply ceases to be, another enigmatic visual tour de force from one of Italy’s most fascinating titans.

4.5/5 Stars

Purple Noon (1960)

purplenoon4Right off the bat, there are two things that stick out about Purple Noon. First, you cannot help to notice the colors because the blues and reds pop like some vibrant 1960s painting. Then there’s Alain Delon who at the age of 23 made his rise to stardom, thanks to this film and Rocco and his Brothers (1960). As Tom Ripley, he finds a role that is fascinating in more ways than one.

During the first interludes of Rene Clement’s thriller, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, I didn’t really know what I was watching or what to think. Tom was sent to Italy to bring the wealthy Phillipe Greenleaf back to San Francisco at the wishes of the man’s father who is paying Ripley. Their story begins as an entertaining jaunt through the city. They lounge at cafes, take carriage rides, and generally have fun living it up at night.

Tom is nothing like Greenleaf. He’s far poorer coming from a humbler background, but he is also much more resourceful and clever. When he takes a trip with the wealthy young man aboard his yacht, he finally hatches a plan to get what he wants. He abruptly stabs Greenleaf during a game of cards and the whole trajectory of the film changes in an instant. It began playfully absurd and quickly switches gears as a thriller involving murder, stolen identity, and deception.

He plpurplenoon5ays up the tiff between Greenleaf and his girlfriend Marge, telling her that he is still angry and so he went off somewhere else without her. Thus, begins Ripley’s transformation into Greenleaf, forging a passport and signatures until he can pass off as the man himself. He starts dressing differently, spending more money, and continually acting as if he actually is Greenleaf. But things get difficult when he nearly runs into folks he knows, and Marge is desperate to know where her love is. These all prove problematic and yet Ripley skirts most of these entanglements with relative ease. It’s when a friend of Greenleaf’s named Freddie Miles figures out his charade that things begin to escalate because Tom’s only option seems to be murder. He commits the act coolly and plans his next move with calculated ease.

The police are after a murder, but it looks as if Tom has tied up all the loose ends and we find him relaxing reclined on the beach. He doesn’t know that the game is up, because of what the police found at sea.

The visuals of this film definitely do justice to the young Delon who is strikingly handsome with piercing eyes, but his turn is interesting in its own right because he was always so adept at playing the coolest of characters. He’s no different here and Purple Noon proved to be the initial boost to his storied career.

4/5 Stars

The Leopard (1963)

Directed by Luchino Visconti and starring a stellar cast including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, this Italian film revolves around a Prince and Patriarch during a period of social change in Italy in the 1860s. 

His Excellency the Prince of Salina (Lancaster) is a highly respected noble, who lives with his family on a large estate in Sicily. In his own life, the Prince is annoyed with his marriage and perturbed about the company his nephew Tancredi (Delon) is keeping. However, a revolution led by a man named Garibaldi means great change for the nation and finally following the lead of his nephew, who joins the rebel redshirts, the Prince sides with the new way and supports the plebiscites that are set up. His nephew falls for the beautiful daughter (Cardinale) of an aristocrat, and despite the fact that his own daughter has an eye on Tancredi, Don Fabrizo fully supports the marriage knowing it is good for the family. Because of his title and the respect he has garnered, the Prince is offered a position as a senator in the new government. But he courteously turns it down feeling he is too old and too attached to the old ways. Tancredi and Angelica are to be engaged and they are presented together at an extravagant ball. Over the course of the evening, Don Fabrizo has time to talk, dance with the young beauty Angelica, and reflect on his own life. As the lavish evening begins to dwindle the Leopard walks off to clear his head. 

In some respects, I saw this as an Italian equivalent to Gone with the Wind, and I could see some precursors to The Godfather here because the Italians portrayed are very religious and chivalrous people who can also be ruthless. However, I think it is fair to say that The Leopard is its own film entirely, and it should be taken as such. Tancredi and Angelica are no Rhett and Scarlett and the Prince is not the Godfather. They are their own unique characters. In my personal opinion, I would recommend the Italian version because that is the way the director meant it to be seen and Lancaster’s normal voice seems out of place in the film. Some may say that this detracts from his performance, but I think his presence and acting ability show through even if he is dubbed.

4.5/5 Stars

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

LecerclerougeDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville and starring a cast including Alain Delon and Yves Montand, this crime film hearkens back to heist films such as The Asphalt Jungle, back in the 1950s.

In a cold open, two storylines are introduced. One man, Vogel, is in custody and is handcuffed to a policeman as they board a train. At the same time, a man named Corey is let out of prison, on good behavior, and he is tipped off on a possible heist job. In both cases, we have little background information to go on. Then, Corey pops in unexpectedly on an old mob boss and forcibly “borrows” some money from the man, who has also stolen his girl. He buys a new car and throws off a couple of thugs who were sent after him. As the morning dawns, the captive on the train makes a daring escape and flees into the nearby forest. Soon roadblocks are set and the manhunt begins. He desperately gets into an open car trunk to hide, ironically it is the same car of the man, who was recently released.

However, he was noticed and Corey tells him to get out of his hiding place.  Vogel is tense but his cool and collected acquaintance helps him sneak through a checkpoint noting that Paris is his best chance of escape. Corey is chased down once again by Rico’s henchmen, but Vogel sneaks out and comes to his aid. They head to Paris and find a sharpshooter to case the jewelry store and help them with their plan. The police detective is still searching for his quarry, and he tries to enlist the help of a crooked club owner. Meanwhile, the plans are made, and the heist is pulled off with great precision and efficiency. They get away with the jewels smoothly enough. However, the marksman settles to take no part of the plunder, and their initial buyer falls through. Relatively quickly there is a new person interested, so Corey takes the goods to him. Only too late Vogel comes to warn him, and just like that, they must flee the premises with police all around.

Much like Le Samourai, this film gives off an extremely cool vibe, and it makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. Alain Delon is such a smooth operator, and whether it is the way he dresses, talks, smokes, or pulls off the heist, it cannot be easily dismissed. However, the other main players give serious and nuanced performances of their own, which cannot be overlooked. Melville makes all of his scenes so interesting, through the setup and the fashion in which his characters go through the world of the film. His characters act in the mode of behavior that they believe is correct and most are rather taciturn and guarded. I cannot decide if I like Le Samourai or Le Cercle Rouge better, but it must be said they are in a special class of crime films.

4.5/5 Stars

Le Samourai (1967)

2858d-lesamouraiStarring Alain Delon as the title character and with direction by Jean-Pierre Melville, this film pulls from the French New Wave as well as Hollywood Noir and Crime films making something entirely distinct in its own right. Jef Costello is Le Samourai, an expressionless and cold professional hit man who can be seen in his trench coat and hat with a cigarette. He executes a hit on a nightclub owner and he is seen leaving by the female piano player. His girlfriend gives him an alibi and the eyewitness accounts do not line up but the investigator still suspects Costello. The hit man is let off and goes to pick up his payment only to be shot instead. He gets away and fixes himself up only to return to the night club later. He returns to his room knowing something is up because the canary is agitated and he finds a bug. The police keep on his girlfriend as well but she will not retract her statement. Costello is confronted by his assailant from before only to be offered a new contract, but they struggle and Costello gets the name of the boss behind it all. Jef is on the move again and he says a goodbye to his girlfriend before going to Rey’s home to knock him off. One last time he returns to the night club piano player and in view of everyone he walks up to her a pulls out a gun. With all eyes on him he explains his new target is her, but before he can do it, Le Samourai is gunned down. The police are relieved to have got there in time, but then they realize Jef never meant to kill her. 

Delon plays such a delightfully deadly killer with a moral code. In a sense he is a tragic hero we ultimately respect because he lives a life full of solitude and honor as is the code of the samurai. I must admit that I cannot wait to see more Melville or Delon for that matter.
 
5/5 Stars