Jean-Pierre Melville is a true master. This is something I seem to have internalized without seeing his films, and by seeing one of his least acclaimed films, Un Flic, first. I found it in a DVD bin, and found it a gripping cop thriller. And if that’s mediocre, I wondered, what would great be? The next film of his I watched was the brutally oppressive picture of the French Resistance working in Nazi occupied France, Army of Shadows. I felt like a power drill was twisting my guts into knots, as I watched the agents operate, not knowing who would be betrayed, to be dragged off by Vichy scum. Or when vengeance could be wrought, years later. You feel the sense of terror these people must have had very clearly, and it stands as one of the great artistic representations of organized moral terror.
But Le Samouraï is something else. It takes the anti-hero of a contract killer named Jeff Costello and strips it down to the barest of essentials. A man, a code, a girl, a gun. It went on to inspire John Woo to make The Killer, Jim Jarmusch to create Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Luc Besson to give us Léon. We meet Jeff in his spartan flat, smoking a cigarette and watching the ceiling fan turn. A scene later cribbed by Francis Coppola for Apocalypse Now. A tiny caged bird flutters in its prison, tweeting discordantly and scattering feathers. Before the visuals begin, we are given one epigram: “There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.”
I read Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of this long before I saw it, and the detail of Jeff’s flat containing only packs of cigarettes and bottled water struck me as brilliant. We never see Jeff eat. He is gaunt and haunts his surroundings like a spirit, in his long grey trench coat with the collar pulled up, and his immaculate fedora. He has a relationship with a call girl named Jane, but only uses her as an alibi, not for pleasure. He doesn’t desire her, he needs her; this inspires her loyalty. As Jeff heads out for a job, he becomes robotic. He has a ring of car keys and slips into a Citroen, his eyes flicking side to side as he tries them all. Like the famous kitty cat clock, until one turns and he takes off. He slips into a jazz club to do his work, and faces his target.
Bar Owner: Who are you?
Jeff Costello: Doesn’t matter.
Bar Owner: What do you want?
Jeff Costello: To kill you.
His work is done without splash or emotion; the jazz singer Valerie, perhaps intrigued by this fellow jungle cat, follows him to the hallway, and sees his face as he exits. His one mistake, catching her eye. Jeff lives in a drab world leached of all color. Noir is a black and white world where everyone is a shade of gray, but Melville chose color for Le Samouraï. And somehow it is still beautiful, unlike the overused desaturation we’ve seen everywhere since Saving Private Ryan. He is the perfect killer, and thus must face his diametric opposite, the unstoppable detective. Known only as The Superintendent, he immediately senses the professionalism of his prey and wastes no time, putting all his forces into play to catch this faceless assassin. We respect him, and our loyalties waver. Just a hair.
Of course, Valerie doesn’t finger him, and neither does Jane. Alain Delon’s Jeff is not merely handsome but intense and alluring, despite his stone face. His steely eyes exude his loneliness, and they are drawn to the abyss. The plot has been copied a dozen times; not only is he pursued by the police, but doublecrossed by his contractor. Instead of being paid, he’s shot and escapes. He tends to his wounds with stoicism, in a scene that directly inspired the recent and memorable No Country for Old Men, when Chigurh plucks buckshot from his knee. As Jeff dodges the police and hunts down his employer for vengeance Melville delivers a spectacular foot chase through the metro. The French Connection and even The Taking of Pelham One Two Three owe a debt to this fantastic scene with double backs, escalator jumps, and even simple glances as Jeff spots the undercover cops with their transmitters, broadcasting his location.
This is deconstruction done right; the character and story of a contract killer whittled to the bone, where he resembles a Buster Keaton with his moral compass turned to magnetic south. The emptiness of a room, a life, a soul fills the screen with such rich minimalism that it proves that for a story, all you needed was a girl and a gun; Godard may have said it, but Melville proved it.