#2 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
After the self-indulgence of Le Deuxieme Souffle, Jean-Pierre Melville actually pulled back a fair bit in his next film, Le Samourai, creating a smaller, more focused telling of the French underworld, centered around the extremely subdued performance by Alain Delon. What becomes obvious is that Melville was concerned mostly with describing process in his films at this point. That can feel mundane, but he was a smart enough filmmaker to give us a grounding and obstacles that move beyond just documentation but enter into drama. Much like Le Doulos, this film’s ending snuck up on me and gave the whole film a certain character and emotion I wasn’t quite expecting.
Jef Costello (Delon) is an isolated assassin for the underworld with some obvious OCD tendencies. His bare apartment is monochromatically black and white, down to his choice of pet bird in a cage, and he seems to have no life other than waiting for the time to execute his next contract. That contract takes him to a nightclub where he dons his traditional white gloves and shoots the owner without a second thought. His escape from the club is witnessed by the piano player Valerie (Caty Rosier), and all of his efforts to establish his alibi, mostly by telling his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) to say he was at her place all night. Still, he goes through his process of discarding the evidence and showing up at a poker game where the police find him as part of a dragnet on suspects and take him in.
After a few hours of questioning and insight from witnesses from the nightclub, the police superintendent (Francois Perier) is convinced that Jef is the one who did it. However, when Valerie insists that Jef isn’t the man who did it, the superintendent decides to let Jef go, keeping a tight tail on him to try and gather up any incriminating evidence they can. This is essentially the first half of the film, and large swaths of it are mostly silent. The focus is on process, and the filmmaking style is rather cold and distant. It fits really well with the subject matter of the film, giving us our introduction to the world and how it works for Jef. It’s exacting, precise, and objective, just like Jef.
Things move in an unexpected direction when Jef’s contact (Jacques Leroy) tries to kill him upon their meet for payment. Along with Jef’s mistaken assumption that he had shaken the police tail on him (he had lost them, but they found where he lived) Jef’s save little world is collapsing in around him.
I think it’s easy to see how this film would be such a groundbreaking thing for film students of the era. This is a 1930s gangster film without any sentiment, melodrama, and with an exacting eye for detail. The lack of any feel of exploitation encourages attention, and the focus on process ends up being a rather sneaky source of tension, especially as Jef feels the net closing in around him, first in the form of a large police operation designed to track him through the metro of Paris and followed by the reappearance of the intermediary with a gun and another contract.
Process takes over again, but there’s a different subtext to it all. The first third of the film was the introduction to Jef’s world. The final third is the complete destruction of it. Like in most of Melville’s work, the destruction is brought on by women. The women in his films tend to be ornamentation more than characters. Jane is the loyal and steadfast companion who is unwilling to give him up even in the face of some rather strong pressure from the superintendent despite not really understanding why she would be loyal to him in the first place. Valerie, though, ends up the focus of the finale, and her insistence on not identifying Jef to the police, despite the fact that she saw him face to face right after the murder, seems to confuse Jef. Little is said between them directly, though they do have a pair of conversations, and Jef’s theories on her motives are the product of his own thinking rather than hers. He can’t see the perfectly human motive why a woman working for a man in a nightclub might not care that he was killed.
Jef lives in a cold world without any real emotion. His only real human contact is Jane, and it’s pretty clear that he sees her as little more than a source of alibis. She is just another thing in the world for him to use towards his own ends. The human reaction of Valerie seems to confuse him to the point that he willfully enters a point of self-destruction.
It’s sad, really. Here’s a man who has survived with his own quirks in a bubble of his own making, and when it gets penetrated it’s not the threats of violence from the men who hired him or the threat of imprisonment by the police that breaks him. He can deal with that easily enough. It’s the humanity of a single woman who extends him a kindness for reasons he doesn’t understand.
I do enjoy Le Deuxieme Souffle, but this is a leap above that. This is a return to form after the two lesser (though still good) works that preceded it for Melville. This is Melville telling an interesting story in his own way and finding ways to affect the audience in unexpected direction like the attention to detail in processes that creates tension and the lack of connection between characters that creates an emotional connection with the audience.
Melville marched to the beat of his own drum, and I have to say that I like to march along with him. He’s exacting and precise while still finding ways to move beyond his cool exterior.