I finally saw a French film that I had frequently seen mentioned and referenced with the same reverence that was usually reserved by film critics for new wave heroes like Godard or Truffaut: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.
The film tells the story of an spartan and intensely professional assassin as he carries out his meticulous and dangerous work with the police and his enemies drawing ever closer. The script is sparse and the plot is mostly carried through brilliant visual details, one memorable shot reveals above a dresser in the assassins otherwise empty room a row of perfectly aligned bottles of mineral water, mirrored by neat stacks of cigarette boxes, all the same brand. The film wears it’s 1930’s American Noir influences on it’s sleeve and dark suits, brimmed hats and trench coats abound but the look and feel is utterly original, filtered through a strongly French sensibility: a classic.
After this I needed more, I couldn’t believe this was a one off and I decided to see another well regarded Melville picture ’Le Circle Rouge’ and was pleased to see similar elements return: dark suits, terse dialogue and a trio of Men concerned with honor, precision and with little regard for there own emotions or safety, planning and executing a complex jewellery theft.
This time around we see some motivations for our characters in the form of a girl and a drinking problem respectively but these take a back seat to Melville’s love of anti-heroes and the sense of anarchic freedom that there actions dictate. These men rarely talk but through their clothing, habits and a few brief actions we learn what we need to know, when you’ve seen so many elaborate and talkative American thrillers this approach is revelatory.
After seeing these pictures I feel that they far outshine the new wave, Godard and Truffaut wish they could have created something with this pure a film making approach, movies that don’t treat cinema like a visual novel but rather as what it is, a purely separate medium with its own language, an approach that seems ever rarer and Melville shows how wonderfully realised it can be.
I looked into Melville’s biography and one thing that seems telling is that he was heavily involved in the French resistance during the second world war (Melville itself being a pseudonym he used at the time). I can’t help but wonder that through the medium of crime films involving unsentimental, highly disciplined protagonists working quietly against the backdrop of impending capture or death if he isn’t reflecting on his time at war, and the psychological conditioning it required.
Whatever his motivation, these are artful, visually brilliant and entertaining movies whose influence Hollywood cinema has rarely drawn upon (although I feel Drive must have been somewhat inspired by Le Samourai)