In France, there are few more admired directors than Jean-Pierre Melville. He changed his name from Grumbach after he read Moby Dick and used to wear a stetson and dark glasses, as if to prove his allegiance to American style. But though Hollywood films, especially of the pre-war variety, were his model, his work remained unmistakably French. In fact, many thought Melville was as much influenced by Bresson as by films such as Huston’s Asphalt Jungle. But he would usually reply that, on the contrary, Bresson was influenced by him. Melville was the true ancestor of the French New Wave.
Certainly, he made a series of films that were unlike anyone else’s, and Le Samouraï, one of the best of them, could be regarded as one of the greatest psychological thrillers, addressing questions of honour, loyalty and betrayal.
It gave Alain Delon his best part. Filmed on the wide screen and in wonderfully muted colour to add atmosphere – the great Henri Decaë was Melville’s cinematographer – it has Delon as a ruthless hired killer living alone in a dingy apartment with a bullfinch as his sole companion. The girl who loves him (Nathalie Delon, Alain’s wife) lives in greater luxury elsewhere at another man’s expense and is prepared to give him a perfect alibi after his next contract. He executes it with chilling skill in a nightclub and successfully avoids a hood sent to kill him and a posse of police on his trail.
He is, however, doomed from the first, or, as Melville puts it, “laid out in death”. He is tempted by a girl he saw in a corridor of the nightclub and should have killed as a witness; thus he breaks the first rule of his trade, which is not to get emotionally involved. It’s a bad mistake and honour demands that she has to be his next contract. But, almost masochistically, he deliberately uses an empty gun and is shot down by the police. He has virtually committed hari-kiri.
It is difficult to see how this story could be better accomplished. It has all the best virtues of American film noir but with a European sensibility that could have seemed melodramatic or pretentious in a Hollywood film. Paris becomes a city of shadows. In the first scene, where Delon lies stretched out on his bed in the half-light, a sense of acute foreboding is created. This is rigorously maintained throughout, with very little dialogue to disturb it.
Le Samouraï is as efficient a piece of cinema as it is darkly romantic. Melville shows us his lone killer’s methodical precision with great flair, and the police manhunt through the Métro is as good an action sequence as any.
The film opens with a purported line from the Book of Bushido – the source of the Japanese warrior class’s knowledge: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” After the film was shown in Japan, Melville admitted he wrote the quotation himself. But Delon expresses this perfectly with his deliberately impassive performance.
It wasn’t for nothing that Godard gave Melville a bit part in A Bout de Souffle. He and other New Wavers acknowledged his mastery freely while understanding that he was an individualist who would never subscribe to any movement.