The Samurai Jean-Pierre Melville (Fr; 1967) Alain Delon. Francois Périer; Nathalie Delonviewed Star and Shadow Cinema 2nd July 2023; ticket: £7
the way of the camera
Melville’s ‘The Samurai’ is in some respects a walk through experience. The plot is derived from a neo-noir template following the familiar twists and turns of the noir genre. The key point in the movie being the script’s volte face when the hired killer has to turn his gun onto the people who originally hired him. A old complication: you sometimes have to bite the hand that fed you. The script features many familiar and well loved tropes: the loner anti-hero, an adoring moll, the sudden eruption of man with gun into a room (as per Chandler’s dictum that if things get little slow and uneventful, insert a man with a gun into a room – everything changes), a watertight alibi and a pernickety meticulous cop determined to get his man and of course ‘The Samurai’ the hired killer in the form of Delon. In the long durational wide shot that opens the film, at first we don’t see him; we hear his caged bird chirping and at last notice cigarette smoke wafting above the sofa which is back to the camera. When ‘Jeff’ pushes himself up from his prone position we barely make him out in the low light as he walks over to the front door, dons coat and carefully adjusts his hat before going out. The opening sequence is an introduction to the man who in some respects is inexistent. An idea.
With all it’s stylistic gloss the film belongs to Delon as ‘Jef’ who literally walks through the film occasionally breaking into a run, his brusque walk and angular movements highlighting the pursuit scene set in the Paris metro. The part was conceived and written for Delon who functions as a noirish phantom with signature trench coat and a fedora hat moving like the spectral ghost of movies past through the scenario with invariant expression invariant stance and invariant silhouette, doing the necessary to keep the story moving.
What makes the film more than a cinematic work-out is Melville’s understanding of the role of the camera in shaping the audience’s perception of his film. Cinema differs from theatre in that through placement the camera can represent oppositional points of view. To put it simply (and it is certainly more complex than this) the camera can be subjective or objective in its placement and in the implication of what it ‘sees. The ‘subjective’ camera is the classic ‘point of view’ shot where the camera is so placed as to stand for what the subject is seeing/experiencing. The audience are also aware that what they are seeing in the shot is what the subject is seeing. By contrast the ‘objective’ shot records what is happening from the point of view of what is sometimes called a privileged observer (though who they are and how this can be manipulated is part of the craft of film composition). Filmic tensions are easily manipulated by creating uncertainty confusion etc in the viewer as to what point of view they being shown.
‘Le Samourai’ works superbly well because Melville’s shooting script instructs the camera to be exclusively objective. We never see a ‘Jef’ point of view. ‘Jef’ is the object of our gaze. A sort of specimin. We stare at and into him but he gives nothing back. He is an object entity, like a man from Mars or perhaps a Samurai. He is an unreadable affect image. When he ‘kisses’ his moll, who is putting her life on the line for him, we see he shows no trace of emotion: the embrace no more than a mechanical gesture. Throughout the film whether he is killing, loving, on the run, under cross examination or dying he is the perfect Samurai, presenting to the camera to the watching audience the same baby faced blank immobility. He is an entity dominated by an ethos of service to murder. Melville’s understanding of the nature of his camera and Delon’s affect image combine to produce a film that is a realisation of ideas, all process but cool and engaging.
‘Le Samourai’ is a witty piece of film making. In effect it’s an homage to Hollywood’s golden era of gangster movies with their wonderful scripts derived from writers such as Chandler Cain Hammet et al. ‘The Samurai’ works as a parody, a playful parody of the tropes that play out in the genre. The humour lies in Melville’s realisation that the scaffold of the ‘Noir’ genre, with its oppositions and tensions could sustain and deliver a film that although it was shot quite differently from the Hollywood model and in a setting outside its original purlieu of the USA, it could still deliver almost as an abstract transcendentance, a statement about finality and futility.