Blog Directory CineVerse: Le Samourai passes the white glove test

Le Samourai passes the white glove test

Monday, November 7, 2022

Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t a name well known by many, but perhaps it should be considering how influential his 1967 masterwork Le Samourai has become in the 55 years since its release. The CineVerse spotlight shone strong on this French feature last week, which generated and engaged dialogue about the various virtues of this picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Highlights of our conversation are recapped below.

What did you find interesting, unanticipated, memorable, or curious about Le Samourai?

  • The title is a bit off-putting in that it makes us think of a classic Japanese samurai—a highly skilled fighter/killer; yet samurai typically follow a code of ethics and personal honor and were often pledged to protect and defend, not necessarily kill, especially not as a mercenary.
  • This is an exercise in style over substance to some extent, a film with a relatively simple plot and spare dialogue but which carries a vibe of detached coolness, relying heavily on the quiet stoicism and poker-faced magnetism of Costello, as suavely played by Alain Delon.
  • It’s a film assumedly set in modern times (1967, that is), yet it isn’t anchored to anything that would make it feel dated.
    • Director Jean-Pierre Melville said: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”
  • The director, in the words of Roger Ebert, “uses character, not action, to build suspense. Consider a scene where one of the underworld hirelings calls on Costello, to apologize and hire him for another job, and Jef stares at him with utterly blank, empty eyes. ‘Nothing to say?’ the goon says. ‘Not with a gun on me.’ ‘Is that a principle?’ ‘A habit.’"

Major themes

  • Abiding by a personal code. Jef is an impassionate killer with nerves of steel, an antihero with negative qualities; but we admire the extent to which he conducts himself with professionalism, intuitively sniffs out his enemies, and evades capture and death. The fastidious way he dons white gloves prior to a killing shows how savvy he is at his craft and dedicated he remains to his routine.
    • Costello also follows a samurai-like bushido code in that he’s willing to both commit suicide at the conclusion and, at the same time, abort the killing of a woman he admires (the pianist, Rey’s wife). Why does he choose not to kill her? Perhaps it’s because she protected him earlier during police questioning. Why does he choose to be cornered and killed by the police? Maybe it’s because he has accepted his doomed fate, realizing that it’s only a matter of time until the police catch him, and he wants to go out on his own terms.
  • Honor among thieves. Jef has several accomplices and complicit friends who are willing to help him even if it means breaking the law.
  • Deceit, double-crossing, and betrayal. Jef’s client attempts to have him killed after they fear the police will capture him. Rey also hires Jef to kill his wife for reasons undisclosed.
  • The hunted becomes the hunter. Costello turns the tables on Rey, who previously hired him to murder the nightclub owner, by killing Rey.
  • Isolation and alienation. Recall the film’s opening quote: “There is no solitude greater than a samurai's, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle."

Similar works

  • Point Blank
  • Blast of Silence
  • The French Connection
  • The Conversation
  • Bullit
  • The Driver
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
  • Thief and Heat by Michael Mann
  • Leon: The Professional

Other films by Jean-Pierre Melville

  • Army of Shadows
  • The Silence of the Sea
  • Bob the High Roller
  • The Doulos
  • The Red Circle

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