Movies seldom get much bluer or Frencher than Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 Le Samourai. This highly stylized gangster picture chronicling three days in the life of a contract killer is visually spellbinding yet curiously unsatisfying. I saw a 16mm print of it nearly 30 years ago, and certain images have remained as vivid in my mind as family photographs: the rigorously framed, Ozuesque opening shot of the hit man smoking a cigarette in his dingy apartment; a tawny-skinned, silver lamé-gowned pianist performing in a chrome-and-mirror jazz club. If Melville’s minimalist screenplay were as plangent as his imagery, Le Samourai would indeed be the “classic film noir masterpiece” the publicity for its current revival proclaims. Instead, it remains, as I remembered it, a haunting but hollow curio.
Alain Delon stars as Jef Costello, a hired assassin contracted to kill a nightclub owner. After establishing an intricate alibi, Jef executes his assignment, but is observed leaving his victim’s office by the club’s pianist, Valérie (the exquisite Caty Rosier). A few hours later, the police pick Jef up for interrogation, but Valerie mysteriously refuses to finger him as the culprit. Although the investigator in charge of the case (François Perier) is convinced of Jef’s guilt, he lacks sufficient evidence to detain him. Shaking a police tail, Jef arrives at a payoff rendezvous where he is wounded by a gunman. Pursued by both the cops and his employers, he hides out until he is offered a new contracton Valérie.
Le Samourai begins with a quotation from The Book of Bushido: “There is no greater solitude than the Samurai’s, unless perhaps that of the tiger in the jungle.” (Subsequently, Melville admitted that the epigram was fraudulent, his own invention.) The filmmaker’s conceit is to present Jef as committed to a code of behavior as rigid as that of the warriors of feudal Japan. We’re offered no insight into the protagonist’s previous history, psychology, or motivation, and basic questionslike why a handsomely paid hit man would choose to live in a claustrophobic, filth-encrusted chamberremain unaddressed. In transposing ancient Japanese military-caste values to the Paris underworld of the ’60s, Melville offers only a few veiled allusions to his sourcethe Japanese ideogram on Valérie’s kimono is the most evidentbut the film’s stately pace and solemn tone inform us that we’re observing the re-enactment of a ritual.
One of the progenitors of the French New Wave, Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris in 1917. (Obsessed with American culture, he adopted the surname of the author of Moby Dick.) Throughout his careerhe died in 1973he remained a renegade director, forming his own production company and working outside the constraints of the French commercial system. Although he directed adaptations of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (1949) and Béatrix Beck’s Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961) and appeared as an actor in Bresson, Cocteau, Godard, and Chabrol films, he is best remembered for his explorations of underworld loyalties and betrayals, notably Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1963).
Melville altered his style from project to project. In Le Samourai, the obvious influence is Bresson, specifically Pickpocket. The steely-faced actors reciting dialogue without inflection, the meticulous concentration on physical details (the caged bird in Jef’s spartan apartment, the ring of keys he uses when stealing cars), the precise framings and relative absence of camera movement, and the indifference to psychology stem from the agenda Bresson outlined in his journals, published as Notes on Cinematography. But Bresson’s style is inextricably linked to his persistent themethe redemptive power of divine grace. Bresson’s movies are about what is never (and can never be) seen. Melville’s application of this austere approach to Le Samourai is, ultimately, a perverse affectation. For all its striking imagery, there’s less to Melville’s film than meets the eye; the solemn, untheatrical tempo Bresson employs to suggest metaphysical mysteries seems pretentiously punishing when applied to something as prosaic as a gangster yarn.
Still, the look and mood of Le Samourai are hypnotic. Like Demy’s similarly problematic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s an exercise in pure cinematic style. The actors are used exclusively as iconographic presences. Delon, as becalmed here as he was wickedly vibrant in the recently revived Purple Noon, is reduced to a set of perfect cheekbones, Rosier to a pair of enigmatic eyes in a satiny face. The film’s real star is cinematographer Henri Decae, who also collaborated with Malle, Truffaut, and Chabrol. Building his images from a spectrum of blues, with white, silver, and black accents, he creates a virtually monochromatic parallel universe. Although I suspect that Le Samourai would be most effective presented in a totally stylized mediumit would make one hell of a balletthis ambitious failure should be seen by adventurous cinephiles. I don’t share filmmaker John Woo’s high regard for the picture (“the closest thing to a perfect movie that I have ever seen”), but if I’m still around 30 years from now, I wouldn’t mind watching it again.
Writer-director Jonathan Mostow kicks off Breakdown with an unabashed but tense rehash of the opening reels of The Vanishing (George Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-French original, not his botched 1993 Hollywood remake). Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are driving from Massachusetts to San Diego when their red Jeep Cherokee breaks down on a deserted Southwestern highway. A seemingly helpful trucker (J.T. Walsh) offers Amy a lift to a cafe so she can telephone for help while Jeff guards the car. He manages to get the vehicle started and arrives at the cafe to discover that Amy has mysteriously disappeared. The rest of the film consists of his attempts to rescue her from her abductors, a band of creeps who prey on affluent travelers.
Mostow’s screenplay, co-scripted with Sam Montgomery, is so stripped down it makes a Road Runner cartoon seem like a Tom Stoppard talkfest. The Taylors are generic figures, characterized only by a few yuppie possessions (Jack’s cellular phone, Amy’s Benetton sweater), and their tormentors are even less developed, mere vessels of malevolence. Following the initial kidnapping, the film becomes a protracted chase, climaxing in a hyperkinetically staged road battle involving four vehicles and a bridge spanning a deep chasm.
Movies like this defy criticism, because their primitive, one-note narratives offer nothing to interpret. They can only be distinguished by how strongly they engage the viewer to root for the protagonistin this case, not much, because bland, square-jawed Russell isn’t a particularly charismatic personalityand how many obstacles can be tossed in his path before the de rigueur triumphant fadeout. Nail me for elitism, but my expectations as a moviegoer (nuanced characters, a multi-dimensional plot, originality, wit, ideas) differ from those of illiterate viewers in underdeveloped countries, the global audience Hollywood producers now vie to attract.
To be fair, Breakdown is superior to most films of its ilk. Jeff is seldom required to behave cretinously to accommodate plot twists, and rarely executes absurd feats to save his skin (except in the preposterous climactic showdown, a throwback to The Perils of Pauline). In his directorial debut, Mostow does an efficient job of revving his audience into a bloodthirsty mob that cheers each time one of the subhuman blackguards is dispatched. Perhaps I’m overly squeamishyeah, I know it’s only a moviebut watching Breakdown at an Alexandria multiplex was an uncomfortable experience, the suburban equivalent of witnessing a cockfight or a bearbaiting.CP