Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Great Movies: "Le Samouraï"

Le Samourai 
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967

This movie reminds me of a lot of the other movies I have watched in the Great Movies project. It fits into the noir tradition of The Big Sleep. It shares a post-war European milieu and sensibility with La Dolce Vida. Like last week's M, it has a character who is hunted by both police and criminals, and uses clever imagery and editing to point out ironic similarities between the cops and the robbers. Like Blow-Up, or 8 1/2, or even Ikiru, it is drenched in the chic alienation of mid-century existentialism.

Many IAT readers will have seen Jim Jarmush's Ghost Dog, a movie which must have been conceived as a sort of remake of Le Samouraï. Both films are about introverted hit men who adopts a rigorous personal code of honor that, for them, adds structure and meaning to their lives and work. This is patently ironic, of course, because of what they are: hit men. They kill strangers for money. By definition, their lives are wholly devoid of honor. But both movies mess with us, making their protagonists sleek and compelling (in Ghost Dog, affable; in Le Samouraï, grimly sexy). Whereas the Jarmush film is dark comedy, however, Le Samouraï is all about the alienation. At the movies, existentialism comes across as a kind of emotional constipation, with glamorous, world-weary characters doing what they must do despite their constant battle with zee ennui.

Plot: A professional killer struggles against the police and other forces in order to retain his precious freedom -- "Freedom," in this case, consisting of smoking cigarettes in a drab apartment. In the end, the killer must choose between living on his own squalid terms, or not at all.

Dialog: The protagonist can't have more than a few dozen lines in the whole film. Between this and his failure to register an emotion of any kind, the role might as well have been cast with a wax statue. The first lines are spoken perhaps six or seven minutes into the film, and there are lots of long passages with only ambient noises on the soundtrack.

Visuals: Melville uses a drab, drab palette for his drab, drab subject matter. In the long opening shot of the killer's nasty apartment, you initially think you are watching a black and white film. You gradually become aware that no, everything in the apartment is grey and dirty white. His walls, curtains, furniture, and bedding are all grey. He has no apparent possessions, other than a shelf of dozens and dozens of bottles of mineral water. He wears a white shirt, a black tie, a grey coat and hat. He has a grey bird in a grey cage that chirps unpleasantly and constantly. But, he has his freedom!

Prognosis: If you like mid-century European cinema, you'll like Le Samouraï. If you don't, you won't.

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