Le Samouraï (Melville, 1967): doomed tale of a romantic lone wolf

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Title: Le Samourai
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Language: French
Year: 1967
Critical Reception: A Criterion release, with essay by David Thomson. Kudos from: Johnathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert. Rottentomatoes Cream of the Crop rating of 100% (6 reviews).
Psych Index: Existentialism, Narrative psychology
In Brief: Alain Delon played a lone hitman in Paris, who was paid to kill a man in a bar. He left a witness at the murdering scene, a pianist who later refused to complicate him in the murder when he was lined up as a suspect at the police quarter. The film moved along this thickening plot, and soon the wounded wolf found himself being closed in both by the police and the ones who paid him. The film examined the loner's mindscape, his extreme macho principles (or as he called it, "habits"), and the author Melville even claimed that his character was schizophrenic (hardly). It's an influential crime thriller that married American gangster noir with Japanese Samurai films' philosophy, inspiring numerous directors to follow (he left an indelible mark on John Woo's films, such as The Killer, A better tomorrow, and Hard Boiled.)

It started with an idea for an alibi. Melville, in an interview excerpt by Rui Nogueira for a book published in 1971 ("Melville on Melville"), said that he began writing the story of Le Samourai (1967) with the simple notion that "the only alibi you can really count on in life is one backed up by the woman who loves you." Melville also thought that he was committing to the screen the portrait of a schizophrenic. While the new wave director may have had some questionable notions regarding women and schizophrenics, the film nevertheless came through so assuredly a poetic work of one who had unquestionable control of his craft.

The establishing opening shot showed an austere looking room. The walls seemed to be drained of colour, and the only furniture in the place seemed to be a bed, a chair, a dresser, and a table with a bird cage on it. There was very little movement, saved for the bird's one-note chirping and a cloud of smoke hanging in the air. Outside, there were sounds of the rain and some vehicle zooming by, casting a shadow across the ceiling. There was a 'proverb' accompanying the scene: "There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it be that of the tiger in the jungle ... perhaps ... - The book of Bushido (Book of the Samurai)." Soon after, the music struck as the camera's depth perception changed, rather discordantly. The person on the bare bed got up, facing the double windows with perfect symmetrically drawn curtains. And the day began.

Jef Costello (Alain Delon)'s room seemed less like a home (he was fully clothed on his bare bed when he got up, as if this was just a run-down hotel room he rented for the night), and more like a head office, where he planned his day and did the bare necessary things to survive. The room, in psychoanalytic dream analysis, is but a representation of the person's psyche. The change in depth perception gave the impression of someone (us, the audience) adjusting to a character's world, one that was perhaps slightly on the disturbed side. It was not certain if Jef was inflicted with any mental disorders, but we knew, from the externalization of his psyche symbolized by the room, that he was disciplined, detail-oriented, minimalistic, socially isolated, and emotionally flat.

Judging from Jef's behaviour, it was unlikely that he was as his creator claimed: a schizophrenic killer. Schizophrenia is a condition characterized by impairments in reality perception, commonly manifesting in auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking that lead to significant social or occupational dysfunction. Jef was a meticulous and sharp individual who was capable of planning and carrying out murderous plots. He perceived the common reality with clarity, and it helped him elude those on this trail and figure out who wanted him dead. If we were not given the scene where the mobsters and the police planned their next move, one could possibly deduce that he was just having a persecution delusion. However, the actions were real, he was highly motivated, his speech was eloquent, his thinking was organized, and reality - although at times carried a heighten sense of poetry - was that he was a contract killer cut off from ordinary social life. One could argue his flat affect was a symptom of schizophrenia - but this was not entirely true either. He showed emotions towards the two women important to his life, however minimally. And when he was in a tight situation towards the end, he showed some exasperation that would not be characteristic of a flat affect person.

As it was, this was not a film about a schizophrenic killer. While it would be tempting (and probably not far fetched) to imagine that a contract killer must be afflicted with some sort of mental disorder, Jef Costello was just an extreme case of a very isolated, intelligent individual who rationalized that he must not be attached to anyone in order to be good at what he did.

The various themes of existentialism, narrative psychology principles, romantic macho beliefs, and Buddhist philosophy on attachment probably have more to do with the film than any mental disorders. Meville was a new wave director, and this film was distinctively new wave in style and substance, with new wave being a particular philosophical approach to film closest to existentialism. Jef created the world he lived and died in, as understood from an existential point of view. The picture was that of dread and isolation, two particularly existentialistic themes. Jef's social, physical and emotional isolation dramatized the existential belief that we are all alone in the world. There was, as noted by various critics, a death projectory to his life. The caged bird motif meant that only death could set it (and its owner) 'free'. Death, as personified perhaps by the pianist, seemed to be Jef's final destination - the chance meeting with her lead to a series of events culminating in his final bow in front of her. She was his final mark, and he was hers all along.

As a contract killer living in isolation from the 'normal' social world, he was afforded the excuse to say no to the need for human attachments (his 'girlfriend' who gave him the necessary alibi). He carried out his life according to what he reasoned it should be: he would not get involved with needs because that would interfere with his work, and it would bring troubles to those attached to him (he told the alibi girlfriend that he did not need her even though he clearly had feelings towards her, and that he would 'take care' of the troubles he brought to her). The story of a loner that he told himself enabled him to lead his life the way he wanted, and to be incredibly good at working as the lone assassin. Yet, he did not do all of his job by himself. The romanticizing of the samurai films' 'lone wolf' idea would lead him to believe he was virtually alone, when in reality, he had help from at least two individuals on a regular basis (the girl and the mechanic). He was not alone; he just bought into the idea that he was. Or, at least his creator did.

Even though he was a murderer, and conventional film plot dictated that the 'bad guy' be punished (Jef indeed carried within himself a death sentence, which he meant to carry out), his fate was not in his hands alone. A man may be doomed to uncertain fate of his own doing, but this fate lies at the feet of the women in his life - or so the film suggested, as both Jef's angel of death (the pianist) and guardian of life (the girlfriend) were female. The didactic portrayal of women in the film was in keeping with the straight male's fantasy of women being the be all or end all to their glorious journey in life, a particularly popular noir theme.

Le Samourai's repetitions and the draining of colour gave the film a ritualistic, dream-like existence. Hypnotic and compelling from the first to the last frame, the film captured the essence of the lone warrior journey typical of many romanticized Samurai portrayals. It should be noted that reality was not interesting to Melville - he lived and breathed cinema. Any factual errors concerning Samurai's historical characteristics or the film's highly doubtful details (such as the deployment of a team of police officers to tag one suspect) should be held in light of the film's intention. Its aim for hyper-realism meant that it existed only within the context of cinema, which was itself an alternate reality created to give life meaning, not unlike what its anti-hero, Le Samourai (and by extension, us), journeyed through the film for.

Thoughts in point form:
- The lone wolf chose his fate, and knew this
- Macho independence is a self-centered creation
- He was not as alone as he thought: without those who helped him with his alibi and his disguise, he would not be where he was.
- The importance of women in his life: a protector, and an angel of death, sometimes both in the same person (the pianist)
- Extreme take on the idea that we are all alone in this world - very existentialistic, and fatalistic
- Death projection: man carries within him his death sentence, and Jef was walking towards it, knowingly
- Caged bird and hit man: only truly 'free' when dead
- Repetitions and the draining of colour: ritualistic, dream-like existence
- Note: the 'proverb' was actually Melville's creation, and not from any Samurai book.


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