Le Samourai: The rigid code of cool

6 Sep

Le Samourai (1967)

 

Precision like a clock work. Icy death stare. A world converged in deep steel gray tone. Talking is the last resort. Fluid action is the first. This is the world Jeff Costello (Alain Delon) inhibits. The world of rigid structure like the samurai’s code or more like ronin, wandering around hopelessly adrift but not without purpose, there is always a purpose.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s master piece ‘Le Samourai’ is the quintessential film noir that is totally derived from his creation. Instead of slavishly following the American’s style, Melville made it transcended, more peripheral, a combination of beauty, grace and deadly sophistication. Yet at the center, it is still a gangster/crime genre that we’ve known and loved but Melville made it cool, cold even- not to alienate the audience but to reinforce the idea that no matter how calculating and efficient we can be, things will go awry and doomed- the very essence of film noir, the romantic pessimism.

Jeff Costello is an assassin for hire, his mission is to kill a nightclub owner. Costello meticulously plans his moves down to the smallest details. Steals a car, takes it down to the garage, gets a new plate number, creates the perfect alibi and kills his target. Except he gets recognized by the piano player, Valerie (Cathy Rosier) on his way out. Costello gets rounded up as one of the usual suspects but during the line up session, Valerie pretends not to recognize Costello. The inspector (Francois Perier) lets Costello walks but he knows Costello is the culprit and orders his men to tail Costello.

What follows next is a game of cat and mouse between Costello trying to outrun/outsmart the inspector and Costello being double crossed by his employer, fearing Costello had made a deal with the cops. But the most fatalistic aspect that derails Costello’s methodical and almost mechanical way of life is his rising obsession with Valerie. Valerie’s unexplainable act of mercy and compassion is something that doesn’t factor in with Costello’s absolution view on life. Why would she do something that doesn’t benefit her in any way?

What separates ‘Le Samourai’ from countless noir films before and after it is the unbridled and almost tunnel vision like intensity in creating deafening mood not through dialogue, action or even drama. But through the visual flair of building suspense out of mundane everyday life and stretches it as far as it can go to create a majestic combination of mundane reality and a somewhat stylized entrancing world; Costello lying in bed, alone in a dark room, lights a cigarette and watches the smoke gliding toward the wispy light from the window or him sitting inside the car he’s about to steal and patiently trying out the keys from the key rings one by one. These seemingly mundane scenes fascinatingly work due to the brilliance of cinematographer Henri Decae preferable in creating a bleak desaturated look of heavy steel grey and Delon’s angelic but detached and expressionless face. Even his dialogue was so minimized to the point the audience were getting more used to his blanked eyes doing more emoting than speaking.

Melville practically reinvented the film noir genre by turning the cliché elements (the tough anti hero, the femme fatale, the beat up weary cop, the code) by tuning out/draining/muting the colors/characters/dialogue, he practically gave birth to modern film noir/cold assassin characters. John Woo’s ‘The Killer’ is practically a homage to ‘Le Samourai’, Ryan Gosling’s character in ‘Drive’ practically a carbon copy resurrection of Jeff Costello and of course ‘Leon’ is more or less trying to aim for the same territory as well. Melville likings to changing or moulding a familiar genre and made it his own version gave ways for the next generation of French new wave filmmakers to deconstruct film genres they grew up loving and putting their personal stamps on it.

tintascreenplay.com

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