Lone Warrior: Examining Melville’s Le Samouraï
Academic Paper by William Conlin.
By the late 1960’s world cinema was embracing the concept of the lone warrior. The styles that great Japanese filmmakers such as Kurosawa and Inagaki had portrayed were being globalized. In 1965 Sergio Leone began his “Dollars Trilogy” based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone’s trilogy was completed two years later with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. At the same time Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” was coming to fame a recently resigned member of a prominent film theory was making his own lone warrior tale. Showing a meticulous care for mise-en-scène, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is a masterpiece of world cinema that both repudiates and embraces aspects of the French New Wave movement. Thematically, Le Samouraï takes a great deal from “lone warrior” mythology, juxtaposing ideas of honor and justice into a modern era. Through examination of its stark settings, painstaking detail and uncompromising performances a viewer can gain a great appreciation of Melville’s style and how it shaped so many films and filmmakers after him. Focusing on specific sequences within the film, this essay will present a careful analysis of Le Samouraï’s visual style and themes.
From the first frame of Le Samouraï the viewer can see that Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is an impossible mystery. Dressed in recessive clothing and resting literally at the bottom of the frame, Jef is kept at the end of the content curve and in the location symbolically reserved for those of least importance. The only sounds we hear are the cars passing below and his caged bird chirping without end. At the completion of the opening credits the camera performs a dizzying push/pull shot, which alters the special appearance of the room while maintaining Jef’s position as the least dominant part of the frame. The following sequence establishes Jef as a contract killer preparing for his next job. It is quickly made clear that Le Samouraï has an overwhelmingly recessive feel to it. The sets are stark, the dominant color of the film is blue and the subtle music lulls the audience into a calmed state before jarring it with moments of violence.
The only scenes in Le Samouraï with a warm design are scenes in Jef’s girlfriend’s apartment. Although they seem to have a divide between them, she appears to be the only light in his life. Her scenes are inviting and affectionate. Later in the film, when the police investigator visits her, the scene is significantly colder, even though it’s at the same location.
The audience quickly sees that Jef is reserved and meticulous. Maintaining his mysterious nature, Jef doesn’t utter a single word until nearly fifteen minutes into the film. While stealing a car he carefully tests keys in a specific order until he finds the one he’s looking for. Once he has his vehicle’s plates changed, he secures his alibi and is off to fulfill his mission. Maintaining the stealth nature of a samurai, Jef glides in and out of rooms and makes himself invisible in plain sight. He does such a good job that later in the film, people who looked directly at him can’t indentify him to the police.
The nightclub Jef is to commit murder at has a blue, recessive nature to it, from the interior design and lighting all the way to the neon blue sign outside. While inside, Jef carefully refrains from all eye contact (except for his ill-timed exit from the victim’s office). He carefully places white gloves on in the bathroom and makes sure he doesn’t get held up anywhere along the way. But for all his samurai skills, he can’t avoid being sighted by some. As he slinks out of the club the normally smooth editing gives way to a rapid series of dolly shots (moving right to left) of people seeing Jef from a distance.
Further into the film Jef is brought into a police station for a line up and questioning. This is where Le Samouraï highlights its thematic tones of honor and justice. The investigator is dedicated to capturing the true killer, while Jef is resolute in maintaining his alibi. The cat and mouse game between the two is subtle yet powerful. Edited with a dignified, restrained pace, the sequence in the police station is reminiscent of classic procedural dramas. Despite the police being just in their quest, when the investigator moves through the station his movements are shot right to left signifying a negative balance against him. Jef is almost always shot left to right except for when he is in danger, such as the scene where he’s being attacked on the train platform, he is shot right to left. This is the also the first moment that handheld is used. Up until this point Jef has been in complete control. When the scuffle begins the camera cuts to a handheld shot from the perspective of a person on a passing train. This shot symbolizes Jef’s sudden loss of the upper hand.
In the same vein, Jef’s meticulous nature is often mirrored by the mise en scene. Camera movements flow through rooms in the same way that Jef glides from space to space. As his control over the scenario begins to fall apart, so does the smoothness of the camera. More shots are handheld and the movement staggers instead of flows.
By the end of Le Samouraï it is clear that Jef is going to die. His framing has tightened significantly, closing the world in around him. His allies have abandoned him and his enemies are closing in. As he returns to the club to kill the musician his normally tall stature seems to give way to everyone else. In earlier scenes people have looked up to Jef (the patrons witnessing his exit and when he’s on the police line up), but now the bartender and the musician are both on higher planes. They look down to him; diminishing his significance and making him look weak. As Jef approaches the stage he maintains his position at the bottom of the frame, symbolizing his eminent death. The moment he is shot by the police, the entire editing style of the film shifts. What had been a paced series of long cuts is suddenly interjected with a group of disorienting close-up jump cuts of hands with guns. When the editing returns to its standard pacing, Jef is dead on the ground and the framing has returned to wide. The revelation by the investigator shows the audience that Jef’s gun wasn’t even loaded, reinforcing the theme of samurai honor. Costello had no intention to kill the woman who had protected him earlier.
At heart, Le Samouraï is a crime thriller with a hint of American Western style, but in a broader sense the film explores the ideas of the lone warrior, highlighting traditional samurai honor and justice. Jef lives and dies by the code of the samurai. Stylistically, the film uses recessive colors to keep a distance between the audience and the characters while the pacing shows a painstaking care for detail. Alain Delon’s restrained yet powerful performance as Jef Costello gives the audience both a hero and a villain. Le Samouraï is a masterpiece of French filmmaking and holds a place with the best of world cinema.