not in our stars, but in ourselves
From seven samurai to Le Samouraï (1967) – oh, how clever am I? Told you it was getting Franco-Japanese around here. Anyway, I’d be lying if I told you that Le Samouraï is anywhere near the same league as yesterday’s film – it’s like comparing Jamaica’s Olympic runners to the baseball team in A League of Their Own, they’re such different leagues and such different games, even – but it is awfully stylish. In fact, it’s pretty much all style and no substance – and this is one of the very few times that I will say that about a movie without intending any slight.
We open with an alleged excerpt from the Bushido, or the samurai code of conduct (although really, it comes from writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville): “There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” And then we meet Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a young hitman. On a rainy April evening, he leaves his sparse little apartment (complete with a little sparrow of some sort in a cage) to kill someone he’s never met, at a smart nightclub. This he does, precisely and unemotionally. He allows himself to be seen by several witnesses, seeming to take no particular precautions against later identification except throwing away his gun and the white gloves he wore at the time. In due course, he is one of many rounded up and brought to police headquarters as a possible suspect. There is little consensus among the witnesses as to whether or not he was the killer – but the Chief of Police (François Périer) has a feeling that it must have been Costello.
And so on, and so forth. The plot isn’t really the point. What is? For me, the point is Delon. Looking at him, reveling in him, wondering how he got such big blue eyes, etc. He’s so pretty, and yet so sharp: it’s as if someone made Jack Nicholson insanely attractive and switched his language settings to French.
According to David Thomson, who wrote one of the essays accompanying the Criterion DVD (god do I love Criterion), I’m somewhat correct! Lisez:
Tone and style are everything with Le samouraï. Poised on the brink of absurdity, or a kind of attitudinizing male arrogance, Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film flirts with that macho extremism and slips over into dream and poetry just as we grow most alarmed. So the implacably grave coolness of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello is audaciously mannered, as he puts on white gloves for a killing and announces that for him “principle” is merely “habit.” … He is the distilled essence of cinema’s solitary guns for hire, suspended between the somnambulent calm of Lee Marvin in Point Blank and the self-destructive dedication that guides Robert Bresson’s priest in Diary of a Country Priest.
Calling it a “great film” may be a bit much – but Costello is certainly the quintessential gun-for-hire. And maybe, just maybe, Melville is trying to say something about the true emptiness of such a quintessentially masculine archetype by making such a seemingly empty movie. So many men aspire to be Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Robert Mitchum, even Edward G. Robinson. But what’s behind those men? What’s behind those characters? Behind Costello is just a rather sad looking boy who dotes on his caged sparrow, visits his girlfriend when he can, and seems spiritually exhausted by the whole charade. Machismo: at what cost?
Considering how fresh in my mind the question of the samurai is, I can’t help looking for comparisons between this and Kurosawa’s seven. As I said, rather dismissively, they are playing in different leagues in different games – and yet, they’re both playing. They are seeking some sort of examination against one another, even if only superficial. And I think that, in a funny way, Costello reminds me of Kambei – the best of the seven samurai, but also the weariest, and the one who knows full well that he always fights for the losing side. Costello is similar: a consummate professional who knows all the tricks but is tired of the game. At one point, Costello says, “I never lose. Never, really…” as he trails off, lost somewhere in thought. He may never really lose, but he never really wins either. He’s always at someone’s mercy – same as a samurai, same as any man obsessed with proving his manliness. Le pauvre.