By DAVID BEILSTEIN
IN HIS ESSAY introducing Eastern Press’s leather bound edition of Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby Dick, Or The Whale, the late Clifton Fadiman distinguishes between a ‘tale’ and a ‘myth’. He writes, “A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings.” Later, Fadiman writes, “Moby Dick a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story.”
In reading Fadiman’s essay before watching Jean Pierre Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samurai, I cannot help thinking this beautiful crime movie is visual myth … myth in the sense that it captures the “longings and terrors” of human intercourse in symbolic, cinematic language. Tone and style, observed by critic David Thomson, go “poised on the brink of absurdity” in Le Samurai. That language, instead of being a 19th century novel, is the French interpretation of cinema, — influenced by Hollywood’s greatest genre accomplishments, and beautifully rendered in humanities’ tilt toward depravity.
Again, unlike modern crime movies, more so high octane action movies nowadays, Melville’s Le Samurai takes its time … and in taking its time it establishes a clean and well-lit tone; a character driven myth coasting over the aesthetic of the film. It shuns explosion and pomp for the intricacies of character and human striving, — of the good, bad, and ugly pervading humanity.
We are introduced, again, to Melville’s actor Alian Delon; playing Jef Costello, — a dualistic, finely tuned man — a brutal man with a razor sharp edge smoking endlessly in a stark, empty room. Costello is a dapper professional hit man. His movements are precise, his mood edged, and his presence a thinly guised heaviness. Costello’s preparation to eliminate a target at the beginning of the movie, exude that provision.
In the opening scene, as Jef Costello smokes passively … a bird chirps. When Costello finally rises from his bed he has been smoking on, he walks over to the cage. He stares in at the bird inside, pivoting and walking away. Symbolically, Jef Costello is that caged bird, within a labyrinth, again, carrying him toward the rewords of the fate of his profession.
Soon after leaving his shabby apartment, the movie sets up an elaborate alibi. Costello steals a car, and has the license plate changed in a working class garage. Later, Costello heads to a lover’s house named Jane. Then he moves, like a storm, to a nightclub to kill his target, a man named Martey. In all this, Costello disguises himself with a rapier fedora, — a pressed trench coat — and clings to shadows, so witnesses can barely make out his features.
The killing of Martey is witnessed by Valerie, a nightclub pianist played by the late Cathy Rosier and sets off a cat and mouse game between Jef Costello, his employers, upset by the police attention and French authorities, led by a taciturn Police Superintendent. After the killing, the French police grab Costello, but his alibi — between the poker game and his love nest — prevent his arrest. None of the people at the nightclub can recognise him except the beautiful pianist Valerie, who declines to name him in a police lineup. The French Police Superintendent, played brilliantly by Francois Perier, knows Costello’s the killer but must spring him because of insufficient evidence. This projects Costello into a caldron of danger when his employers seek to snuff out his life on a sparse subway station platform in the middle of the day. Costello comes for payment — his employers come to kill him. He escapes, shot in the arm, realising the funnel of presentiment carrying Costello into the depths of destruction.
The film is beautifully shot … using the French stew of sky and weather to provide a haunting score to the drama. Frame by frame, bleakness expands — tone and mood collide, moving crushingly forward. Like in Melville’s 1970 masterpiece, Le Cercle Rouge, the film is about people and faces and actions … of human comportment in a mythic literary fusion. The film is a masterwork of minimalism — on purpose.
Melville himself, quoted in the Criterion Collection DVD booklet, said,
I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognisable as something that happens in 1968.”
And that is the beauty of this film … it is not of a certain age or period … what it is, impeccably, is human and sparse — like the landscape the characters carry out this myth disguised as a story. It would be redundant to fast-forward to the end of this wonderful movie. It would spoil and cause the food of this picture to go bad … quickly. On a personal level, like all great movies, Le Samurai can be watched over and over again.
Whilst stark and bleak, Le Samurai continues to be an interesting film within our modern epoch. There is, also, the shadow and tempo of old Hemingway here too, just like Melville’s later film, Le Cercle Rouge. Where the trajectory of the hero — even Melville’s hit man Jef Costello — the blues intermingle with life’s most entangled experiences and loyalties, gyrating about in the mould of human intent and purpose.
There is love, here. And there is death and betrayal, too. There is longing and fear — and in the end, release. What comes before blooms ever more clearly in this modern look at genre movies through the eyes of a Jewish writer, director, now gone, taking his last name from that great American writer that gave us the foundational myth of self-dedicated destruction.