© 2015 by James Clark
David Thomson cherishes Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) for its “… configurations… so mysterious, so averse to everyday explanation;” and he goes on to wrap it up as an everyday bonbon. “Seen now, Le Samourai looks like a film from an earlier age, one made at a time when great films were necessary (and regular) because they demonstrated and fulfilled the nature of the medium.” That’s quite a niggardly pratfall! Not many sentences begin with avant-gardist premises only to flash logical-positivist conclusions. Such conclusions (living in the vicinity of Jean-Luc Godard’s academicism) are copiously pinpointed by Thomson’s last words on the subject, prefaced with passport-to-adulation effete pessimism. “Now that the medium is in ruin or chaos, Le Samourai looks as abstract, yet as beautiful and as endlessly worthy of study, as the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi. That which seemed fanciful has become an eternal and luminous lesson in how men behaved when they believed behavior mattered.” Such eloquent superficiality should not interfere with our engaging the film Melville in fact offers us, a film-phenomenon (rather than a concept) that has more serious work to do than prettily signing a death certificate for all innovative activity in our time.
There have been myriad endeavors over the fairly recent past stemming from conviction that behavior matters—in fields seemingly so disparate as quantum physics, ontology, architecture, sports and, to name but one more field which at the same time neglects many other efforts, film. None of them, however, has much to recommend in Giotto. Unlike researchers and builders in awe of the innovative lengths to be essayed, the unique human phenomena appearing in grounds-breaking films do not luxuriate in collegial centres. Thomson’s essay includes the alert about our film in the spotlight today (short-circuited, as it happens, to coincide with antiquated stasis), “Everything is in the playing or the enactment.” That is a window on the world which many (Thomson included) harbor a strong impulse to smash. Allowing oneself to babble on about such dynamics without including an iota of what they imply disqualifies one from effectively fathoming what a work like Le Samourai is about.
Although the film begins with an aphorism speaking to the violent conflict elicited by behavior mattering a lot, we’ll leave it for now and notice, as exactly as we can, what the sights and sounds are doing. There is a darkened room with, at first glance, attractively grey and textured walls, seemingly encrusted with some residue. A bird cage, where a small, nondescript finch pokes out barely musical sounds, catches what light there is in the locale, the two windows of which barely registering the murky grey overcast and rainfall. The metal constituting the cage has a silvery highlight according with the whitish, ash-like sprinkle of the walls. Smoke from a cigarette of someone lying on the bed enshrouded in deep darkness slides upwards, also matching the stressed silver throughout. Darkness, stillness, delicate fragile overtures are what we are confronted with. This introduction to bloody conflict wants us to be in on a dimension of energy having nothing immediately to do with mayhem. In a while the person on the bed sits up, catching the ambient light in such a way as to reveal a man dressed in fastidious formal corporate fashion, a dark suit, tie and white shirt. As he comes into closer range—bemused by a wad of torn-in-half 500 frank bills—those walls become unequivocally filthy, the wallpaper bubbled and torn in a few places. On the other hand, the bedspread and curtains are seen to be clean, with tasteful, almost early modernist abstract art incident (small black squares distributed with taste and authority). Noisy vehicles pass by, hissing on the slick surface. A musical motif has been in effect for a minute or so, its cascading form maintaining the tone of reverie. He draws his odd money along the rungs of the cage; he places that small treasure in the framework of a disused fireplace. He comes to a mirror by the door, puts on very carefully a light colored trench coat and places on his head a fedora of immaculate lines and material; then he deftly draws out with his fingertips the most minute but meaningful adjustment of the brim to reveal a quietly, vibrantly pristine construct dovetailing with the illuminative, chromatic presence. The postponement of the aphorism was one thing. But here, with the glorious dinginess of the first place we behold, it’s just about time to wind up that striking dispatch and let it soar in the way it was designed to. One little step, and we’re there! The favored one’s next move is sidestepping a cop writing and placing parking tickets along a street that, from the perspective of his cell, comes to us as another galaxy. He deals with it by stealing a car there by virtue of a suave array of keys (Will they take him everywhere?) strung on a wire in an attractive way. He drives the grey and spotless new Citroen (a nice match for his trench coat) to an industrial pocket that would even raise eyebrows in Detroit and readily gains entry from a mechanic who, with neither a word being spoken nor a glance to acknowledge that mammals have supplanted reptiles, changes the plates. This downpour of disorientation takes us by the throat and asks us none too sweetly to get some things straight. First off, there is that abode which could only be called surrealistically sublime having its mojo seen to be not of the world known as planet Earth. But this is a reading requiring an arrest of racing away from that starting gate to find out what’s going on at a later time. Without allowing oneself to energetically perceive what that introductory film-in-itself has to offer, it will be way too late to sift through the tea leaves down the road. The moment of solitude in the first scene was not simply about a peacock in a mysterious garden spreading his wings in delight at the gifts of nature. The bite of the incident includes a form of readiness to face down a world of danger and menace. The aphorism runs, “There is no greater solitude than that of the Samourai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle.” The beautiful tiger here, in his shadowy lair, informed by actor, Alain Delon (one of world cinema’s paragons of glamor), is palpably consigned to death, the abysses of the pristine dynamic progressions marking him (and us, if we follow his motions with care) for certain, if indeterminate, extinction. The relish for near-stillness and poised order also rings so daringly and strangely that other people come about as almost invariably hostile obstacles to that frisson without which life is grotesque.
Intrinsic to such a cinematic rallying of the viewer are elements of other films which vitally contribute to the comprehension of Melville’s effort. We are expected to assimilate both primal and historical disclosures coming to light on the screen. Having planted ourselves in darkened theatres of modern discovery for countless hours entails being on the spot to deliver something Giotto didn’t know. Perhaps the optimal delineation of that high and inside pitch to us would include at this point what the very cool customer does after his silent (that’s a surprise) and loyal mechanic does the trick. He drives to an apartment building—all glass and shiny surfaces (an Antonioni structure, like the one Monica Vitti’s Vittoria inhabits in L’Eclisse (1962), co-starring guess who)—and, knocking at a door opened by a just-wakened broad-faced and full-lipped beauty on the order of Vitti, he walks in without looking at her and dictates to her the time-frame that night she must vouch to the police for his supposed amorous visit. She (far from as self-possessed as Vittoria regarding handsome men) produces a tiny, anxious smile and tells him, “I like when you come here because you need me.” The protagonist says nothing but you know from his face and bearing that his needing her has next to nothing to do with affection. He drives to a cheap hotel (the decor of which has a semblance of care, making his own place and its peeling, dirty wallpaper look like an abandoned shack for those in expensive, tasteful clothes to shack up by the industrial docks of Ravenna [where we saw Vitti as Giuliana in Antonioni’s Red Desert ]) and arranges to participate in an all-night poker game, from 2 a.m. onward. Coming to a jazz/supper club that Antonioni might have designed, he goes to the washroom, ceremonially puts on a pair of white gloves and unceremoniously kills the owner with the hand gun the silent garage mechanic provided him with when he snapped his fingers and then went on to hand over a wad of bills—eye contact not on the board. A black woman jazz pianist, who has reinvented Kitty White singing for actress, Mady Comfort performing “Rather Have the Blues” [than what I’ve got] at the Pigalle Bar in Bob Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, sees him leave the owner’s [Martey’s/Mickey’s—Spillane?!] office (registering very little emotion in the process—Comfort first?); he beholds her impassively for a split second, and then walks past her and back through the club, having brought to attention several of those on hand. In the subsequent police investigation the musician denies having seen him; he looks her up and in their conversation during her driving him to her too-posh to be jazz-financed place, she wonders why he would be so hostile toward Martey. The killer—his name. Jef Costello, surfaces during the extensive effort to secure witnesses by way of a police line-up—tells her that he had never even heard of him until the day of the killing. At this the entertainer (perhaps a bit cruise-boat-smiley and generally over-cordial in her delivery of bubbly numbers along with two bland sidemen) who had gazed at him with what could have been fascination during the interrogation of witnesses becomes at one with her fat cat clientele, asking, “What kind of a man are you, anyway?”
He does return to her workplace. She warns him, “Don’t stay here.” He takes out a gun (Finishing the contract?), points it at her and some of the many cops who had been trailing him since his release from the line-up kill him with a shower of bullets. She discovers that there were no bullets in his gun. Not, in fact, about the winning and losing, this film is all about what kind of a man Jef is and what that means to us.
At the beginning of Le Samourai a bird sings without joy. At the end of Red Desert, Giuliana assures her son, whom, along with her technocrat husband, she is striving not to shoot dead, that the birds in the vicinity of an industrial wasteland he worries about (trendy little bugger that he is) “have learned not to fly near” the poisonous yellow smoke. (The effective end of the line for those two takes place when his beloved Dad [he of the nifty gadgets and experiments] is out of town on business and Valerio the till-then playable brat feigns having lost the use of his legs, driving, as he knew it would, Giuliana to despair.) Tracking the pulse of Le Samourai would be tantamount, then, to seeing the point of being a remorseless killer and finding the way “not to fly near” that toxic gratification.
After the episode constituting the turnaround in Red Desert’s sickbay, Giuliana pronounces to a stranger at a docked ship (recently quarantined) she has a notion to use to cut out, “We are all separate…” Earlier, she had served up to an underwhelmed Valerio her own liberal arts strengths in the form of a fantasy wherein a young girl on an uninhabited and glowing tropical island hears a lilting passage of wordless soprano singing and reflects, “Who was singing? Everything was singing. Everything.” The distressed walls of Jef’s home maintain a haunting affinity between the protagonists of Melville and Antonioni, a cinematic confluence the thrust of which haunts the snow-white-clad pianist of in the club where Jef’s bullet-riddled body awaits disposal. That she was far from up to Kitty White’s business only increases the complex beauties of the saga. One more far-ranging trope and we’re ready to meet Jef in his far-reaching homeland. Giuliana had been medically treated for depression and been given the bemusing remedy of “loving something”—a pet, for instance. Jef’s pet, so apparently incongruous, represents the first of three birds we see him attempting to accommodate within rounds suffused with planet-scorching hostility. Delon’s perfection of body, apparel, stolen Citroens and poise is, to reiterate, not an aspect of “character study” in moral turpitude but a cosmological graft the course of which holds many (surreal) nightmares.
After the protagonist draws us into his meditative idyll on a bedspread arrayed with De Stijl black squares on a grey field the Boogie Woogie of which comes alive by way of his sartorial preening, he touches off distemper so sharply remote from the starting point as to constitute a malignancy making impossible the regime Giuliana survives, however unproductively. The most incisive tip-off about the disability befalling this overture pertains to the car-repair garage where Jef, not merely a fashion plate on the order of Aldrich’s Mike Hammer, bedecked in de rigueur light tan, California trench coat (and driving, we have to notice, someone else’s car), pays a visit pointedly different from those warm and funny moments with Nick, the avatar of Va-Va-Voom at the repair shop in sunny LA. In rainy, gloomy Paris we have a scowling, taciturn worry wart lacking the slightest semblance of joie de vivre. Add Jef’s near catatonic gaze in the direction of the mechanical man and you’d know in a flash that this team has an insurmountable morale problem precluding any thoughts of making it to the playoffs. Jef holds out his hand and snaps his fingers, rather peeved that he had to do that much to acquire a hand gun. Then his hand is imperiously thrust out again, this time holding a wad of money. The flat excuse for a pal snatches the bills away without coming so much as to distant range of eye contact, never mind a smile or a peppy remark. After the cold assignation and calculation with an arrestingly warm Valeria, he gives us a bit of a variation on the theme of harsh advantage. At the poker forum, someone demands, “Bring cash in case you lose.” Jef, uncharacteristically fires back, due perhaps to the remark touching a nerve he can’t quiet, “I never lose. Not really.” Pretty stiff, verging on dull. But it casts light upon his barely contained contempt for a planet of weaklings the benightment of which leaves them always far beneath him, always lacking the bounty the harvest of which he is in on, to a considerable extent. Jef is never at a loss for trumping his enemies. But how is he doing with the prescription to make some friends?
Giuliana has a significant other in the form of her son, Valerio. Jef has a significant other in the form of his smitten kitten, Valeria (a Velda exposed to violence from a Gallic Mike’s enemies, here the police). The pianist in her leopard-skin-patterned outfit—Velda’s rendition of the stance being tiger stripes—comes to decorative view as another incarnation of a would-be friend. En route to his assignment with being killed as remorselessly as he has dished it, our multi-dimensional protagonist asks Valeria, “You’re in trouble?” [Her place having recently been torn apart by a crew the lieutenant of which, certain her alibi was a lie and pushing her to hand over the facts while thereby beating a perjury rap, mocks, “They’re terrible! I can’t keep them from being overzealous…] She replies gently, “No, I’m never in trouble because of you” [a parallel of sorts to his, “I never lose. Not really”]. They embrace; and for this couple of seconds friendship is true on both sides. “She asks, “What can I do, Jef?” He tells her, by way of good bye, forever, “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.” Then he goes on to execute the double-crossing inspiration of the contract (think Frank and Leo, in Mann’s Thief ) pertaining to the boite de nuit (a black box, Pandora’s Box, of sorts).
Overlaying this dash of paradoxical and heavy-handed truth which Giuliana has kept in play, there is a lengthy helter-skelter of the lieutenant and his men attempting to shadow Jef’s every move on their having to release him that night of the line-up, due to Valeria and the pianist supporting his claim of innocence. During Jef’s leading them on a wild-goose chase in the Metro, there is a quick glimpse of signage on a window of one of the cars, to the effect “des Fetes” (on boarding the line the end of which is Place des Fetes). And sure enough, this whole scramble is suffused with Tati’s Jour de Fete and its civil servant intent on using the latest (American) technology to make a better world. Things come to the point where dozens of cops fan out through the Paris underground, leaving the lieutenant trying to signal sighting points in front of a light-up map while confronted by a totally garbled public address system, recalling the railroad platform fiasco at the outset of Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday. What is a bit of a challenge for us to twig on to is that not only the defenders of justice come across as missing the boat, but Jef, too, scampering around the facilities like an errant schoolboy, is diminished, his remarkable train of solitude derailed. In the midst of this miasma, while the lieutenant and his overzealous goons dump upon Valeria, the executive underachiever trots out a rubric that does find its way to the essential disarray of Jef’s nice looking adventure. “I’m for individual freedom… provided it doesn’t harm others.” In his course of bringing pain to any number of insufferable idiots, our protagonist has—unlike Giuliana—demonstrated not having what it takes to skin those cats without bringing down on himself the Keystone Cops.
Within the parlance of this film’s precursor as to “Rather Have the Blues,” Jef has, from the get-go, misplayed the broaching of a virtually forbidden avenue of action, that of a Pandora’s Box whereby one could outwit a plurality of rabid dullards—by means of ruthless energies as tempered by a purchase upon traces of a hinterland of courage and its love—or could dispense with that messy option and become a graceful, stylish, meticulous butcher. Jef’s course has been to, like Mike, be reckless (“overzealous”) in his embrace of intoxicating innovation; and then fetch about for a fusion to temper catastrophic errancy. (Recall how Mike’s rhapsodic distress on Velda’s behalf marks such a startling galvanization when compared with his warehousing her at the outset.) The protagonist’s complex and confused interaction with the pianist as perched upon an item of the playlist she would not aptly bring off—even Kitty White was no Nat King Cole—allows us to explore at length the volatility of the phenomena of such great interest to Melville and his stylish shadow, Michael Mann. Ditching (or at least distancing) his markedly middle-aged, not very agile adversaries calling themselves clever arbiters of healthy living, Jef waits at her Dr. Soberin-black sedan, where, in a leopard-skin coat she appears after work. Maintaining, as always, that fusion of good bedside manners and bird of prey, she rattles off a formulaic probe of his rashness (“What did he do to you?”) and goes by the boss-culture book in reproving him for his admission that he kills for cash. Big cash. At her oligarch-level flat he gets tangled up on the business of his treacherous employers (she looking utterly bored)—“I have to find them before they find me”—and she gets rid of him by promising to clarify, by phone, two hours hence, the answer to his surmise, “You were told not to recognize me.” (On that latter occasion she tells a thankful Jef, who had just completed an impressive performance of sangfroid, at the station house, “It’s the least I could do.”) Two hours hence he, now seen to be not so cool, he phones her and she lets the phone ring, her Japanese-design-salient kimono locating her in a stereotypical range of conflict. (The lieutenant’s both frustrated and impressed remark, “He’s not normal,” gaining slightly ironic impact here.) Be that as it may, Jef’s longing looks (Has, at some dimension of his reckoning, her blue-chip materiale eclipsed Valeria’s ground-floor studio?) on coming up to her piano for the last time—and her own sincere warning and dispensing, for how many seconds, with advantage—furnish a glint of polluted affection to factor into a suicidal denouement the blood aspect of which is as refined as the club’s dining service and the interior design with its Antonioni touch. The camera pulls back to some distance to sustain a focus on the musician and the peculiar gift she has just been given. The jazz theme song, in lieu of “Rather Have the Blues,” ably complements this situation of life showing a new side, both darker and brighter than what has gone before.
The aphorism about the tiger in the jungle being possibly as steeped in solitude as the Samourai offers the opportunity to contemplate an individuation more nuanced than jungle murderousness. Just before playing cat and mouse with the cops in the Metro he comes to a news stand where one of the publications has a color photo of a tiger and the name, “The Life of Beasts.” (His savoring the silence, the birdsong and the swish of a rainy day, not to mention his cigarette and the configuration of smoke it produces, shows us from the outset a contemplative impulse far beyond the sensibility of a big cat [or all the fat and old cats populating this story of a unique solitude].) But there is the nemesis of Jef’s “overzealousness,” a nudge to that effect being apparent when parking near Martey’s for the last time (in a black Citroen—his having been told by the disappointing Nick, “I’m warning you, Jef, this is the last time” and having replied, “OK”—just as he doesn’t bother to pick up his hat check ticket) and being situated right beside a lighting appliance concern, its sign “Luminaire” [Lighting/ Luminary] being a sad measure of a good man’s not being good enough. And that brings us to another brave heart going down in flames, namely, Joan of Arc. During the first unseemly chase with a police crew including a gum-chewing (regular kid, right?) young woman, he passes through the precincts of Chemin de Fer d’Orleans. At an overpass within that venerable rail facility he’s shot in the arm during a struggle with a contact whom he imagined was about to pay him for his troubles and completion of the assignment. (He had become problematic the moment he became known to the law. Could his little pack of torn bills be a memento of another interrupted payment?) Back home, his dressing his wound gives us ample scope to assimilate his running amok no country for the too young at heart. On taking care of his bloodied arm, he feeds his bird. Solitude and empathy, no doubt. But a bit on the soft side in view of the odds. Or is that better put, too little too late? (The name Jef recalling the protagonist of the noir, Out of the Past.) A savvy optical input apropos of falling short is his passing by a large and colorful beach motif poster for the soft drink, Orangina, en route to drive the cops crazy with his clever moves underground while he makes his way over to the CEO of his trade to murder him (a monarch needing some adjustment). Giuliana’s party scene was by a sludge-filled container port. But she, unlike Jef, gave it a shiny beach remake allowing for more days in the sun, however darkened by careless hearts.