Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 16, 2017 6:28 am 
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1967 Le Samouraï

Alain Delon in Le Samouraï

1967 Le Samouraï

Alain Delon in cool gangster style

Le Samouraï shows off the impeccable elegance and cool of Alain Delon. He plays Jef Costello, a hired assassin who's rigorously professional - and ascetic, symbolized by the most monk-like pad in movies: a single large unpainted room whose only decoration is a cage containing a chirping sparrow. Which of course symbolizes his own rigid restrictions, and the fact that he will never escape. The first sequence of the camera in the middle distance focused symmetrically on this room is one of the best and most memorable openings in movies. Roger Ebert rightly remarks that it's an example of "how a filmmaker can suggest complete mastery with just a few strokes."

As he is paid to do Jef kills the director of a nightclub, at which there performs a pretty black keyboardist (Caty Rosier), with whom he later has a fling, inspired to by the way she has kept mum after seeing him.

But his employers are displeased because after the killing he is rounded up as a suspect by the Commissioner (François Périer). There are dozens of others, but though he has a double alibi, a girlfriend Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon, Delon's wife, who gives her own display of elegance and fatalism) and a group of men he's gambling with late at night, he remains the chief suspect.

And that's all there is to it. The film exists for Delon/Jef's displays of slipperiness and cool. When a listening device is planted in his flat, he finds and neatly removes it, like a large beetle. Twice he steals a classic Citroën DS 19's, using a raft of keys, then takes it to tiny suburban garage. It's as rough and austere as his flat. There, the same ritual happens, and Delon is still, or moves gracefully like a mime or a dancer. A man changes the license plates and gives him fake papers, then, in response to the click of the fingers, a pistol, in exchange for a big wad of cash. The second time he's told is the last and he agrees. Likewise when he goes back to the nightclub to settle scores, he leaves his coat check at the cloak room: he seems to know he will not come back to get it, that he will never leave. When he goes back to see Jane before this, he barely touches her. There is more emotion in his elaborate dodging of a laborious surveillance operation by the commissioner to follow him around in circles in the Metro. It's the last thing he does. What is the point of it but to show that he's quicker than they are, even dozens of them? We watch him with admiration. it's an exercise and style, like the rest. The Metro is a simple, elegant medium for him to work with.

The point of all this is Delon's impeccable clothes and implacable expression and the icy blue of his eyes. And the fatalism. There will be a certain fatalism again later in Melville's career when Delon returns to play a jaded cop in his last movie, Un Flic ("A Cop"). There he is pursuing some bank robbers who are equally jaded, the film following the classic model of a heist gone wrong. Everyone is a bit hangdog, beaten down, this time - but even, perhaps particularly, in his exhaustion, Delon is elegant and beautiful.

Jef Costello is a singularly charismatic killer. He appears to follow a strict code; that's why he's called "Le Samouraï" - and the film opens with a quotation from The Bushido, "There is no more profound solitude than that of the samurai, if it is not that of the tiger in the jungle." This is the way the movie wants us to regard Jef. But as he is alone, he is also doomed. What he does is cool, perhaps in some weird way noble, but is it wise? Hardly. When he barely escapes one of his employers with his life, he should get out of town, shouldn't he?

This is the paradox: Jef/Delon is impeccable in manner and style, but he is totally flawed and doomed. Not only is he an empty shell as a person, but he seems incapable of acting in his own interest.

Ebert also quotes Melville's saying that he was "incapable of anything but rough drafts," and this supports the assertion that Le Samouraï makes no sense and should not. It is not about the plot but the loneliness of its hero. The action provides Delon with opportunities to dance out his role and display his style. It's essential to his character as of tragic heroes and certain cowboys in movies that he will die. He dies on the stage in the glittering nightclub in front of the pretty keyboardist with the police in the distance, a fitting end, and we find out he was not intending to do anything. But it's better to dwell on the numerous satisfying and detailed sequences when he does do things, with flair.

Le Samouraï is in color, delicate color, grays, blacks and whites with a delicate touch of pastels. The Gitanes Disque Bleu are blue and so are Delon's eyes. This is in a Criterion Collection version and in it the delicate color shows well. You can watch it on Amazon for $3.99.

Melville 100, Berkeley
Thursday, June 8, 2017 7 PM BAM/PFA
Friday, June 16 8:30 PM BAM/PFA

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