Le Samouraï March 26, 2015
Alain Delon has had it. It’s 1967, he’s sitting on the hot seat of France’s famed movie series, Monsieur Cinéma, and he’s promoting Le Samouraï. “We have the great pleasure of welcoming Alain Delon to our show,” the host says, looking in his guest’s direction. “Alain Delon is in the spotlight because 'Le Samouraï' is opening this week.” But the ambiance doesn’t feel like a respected Inside the Actors Studio precursor; it feels more like a talk show, and Delon isn’t in a good mood. He’s been better known for his looks than his talents for his entire career. He’s proud of the work he has done in acclaimed works like Purple Noon and The Leopard, but he finds himself taken less seriously than he’d like to be simply because he resembles a suave Dolce & Gabbana model. The Male Bardot, they call him.
But he’s 32. He doesn’t want to be labeled as a pretty boy who somehow gets enviable parts any longer. So instead of saying thank you to his host’s polite but slightly condescending introduction, he elaborates on the date of the film’s opening. “It’s this Wednesday,” he smirks. Aware of his guest’s snarky mood, the host tries to pick himself back up. “The posters are all over Paris, and they’re very striking. ‘Le Samouraï', in big, black letters.”
“Red,” Delon interrupts before his interviewer can even say “letters.” He’s seen it all before: the host who actually knows nothing about the film but pretends to love it, the host who puts on a grin in order to appease disinterested viewers. Maybe he would have let this fly in the past, but Le Samouraï is far too important to him. He believes it to be a turning point in his undermined career. This isn’t just some fluffy movie audiences hear about on a television program like it’s Dean Martin’s newest vehicle; this is “a work of art,” he puts it. “A true auteur film in every aspect.”
He goes on to discuss the ins-and-outs of the film with the watchful eye of an obsessed movie buff, and it’s unlike anything we’ve seen Delon do before, personally or professionally. He’s always been the confident kid who whisks by with a hint of danger, an exotic woman by his side. This image, along with the entire introduction of this review, may or may not be dramatized speculation on my part, but when I picture Delon, I picture him as the guy from L’Eclisse, fiendishly charismatic but in a tug-of-war between boyhood and the idea of an adulthood in which being taken seriously is everything.
Jean-Pierre Melville uses Delon in a way most directors would be afraid to attempt. Before, Delon’s charm was his selling point. But in Le Samouraï, his allure is snatched from him. Melville takes away any ounce of precious dialogue in favor of a more nuanced approach, forcing Delon to embody a particularly cryptic character mostly through body language. In the past, actors in gangster films have been able to mangle the script and somehow spike their delivery to sound more menacing than usual. But Delon has to do something even harder, having to exude invincibility all the while keeping an icy exterior. People turn towards scenery-chewing performances when thinking about characterizations that “moved” them; in contrast Delon has done something masterful with subtlety, undoubtedly more impressive than the booming Shakespearian actors who began to creep out during the 1960s.
He portrays Jef Costello, a hitman who secludes himself in stark landscapes in order to wash away any hint of an emotion. Famously, the film opens in a darkly lit apartment, completely silent except for a bird chirping every few seconds. Cigarette smoke dangles in the atmosphere while Costello lies on his bed, looking out his window with reflection. As Melville holds this shot for several uncomfortable minutes, the character is developed before we are even given the chance to hear his name. Whether he’s a comedian or a Liza Minnelli impersonator or an assassin, we’re witnessing an individual so drenched in solitude that the idea of loneliness may not even occur to them.
We see Costello go through his daily rituals, putting on his trench coat and fedora with strange precision, keying a car to get some extra loot, later pulling a job at a nightclub. Throughout the film, he doesn’t show the slightest smidgen of a feeling. Is he numb? In denial? It doesn’t matter. Though the storyline sees his normally smooth routine being interrupted by an investigation, he doesn’t seem worried about the government closing in on his every move. He is so far into a life of crime that dying for his cause doesn’t seem all that bad.
This is probably why the film is called Le Samouraï, as the samurais in all those Asian epics were more than willing to lose their lives in order to appease their reputations and their peers. Unlike Melville's earlier projects, Le Samouraï doesn't have the same blatant criminal romanticism. It's slick and crystalline, yes, but every frame carries enough tension to suggest that Dolph Lundgren might come out of the shadows and Machine Gun Kelly everyone to death. A tragic ending is a given. Silence is cherished in the film; along with Delon's moodless characterization, the facsimile of scenic solitude is furthered. The greyed-out style, Melville's intricate direction, and, of course, Delon's performance, work together with astonishing virtuosity.
The only complaint I ever find myself having with Melville films is how untouchable they are. They feel miles apart from us, detached, so stylish that we grow to be more appreciative than adoring. But there is no denying how great a filmmaker Melville is. "He's the greatest director I've had the good fortune, pleasure, and honor to work with up to this point," Delon drily gushes later on in the Monsieur Cinéma interview. Melville is not just a guy with a dream; he's a visionary, a poet of style. A-