Le Samouraï

Alain Delon

Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish 1967 hitman flick Le Samouraï has danced down the decades, leaving its mark on everything from William Friedkin’s The French Connection, to Walter Hill’s The Driver (and, by extension, Nicolas Winding Refn’s homage, Drive), Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, Anton Corbijn’s The American and the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. Even John Wick can trace its ancestry back to Le Samouraï, Keanu Reeves being a 21st century update on the lone wolf operator going into battle against forces known and unknown.

The opening shot alone makes Le Samouraï noteworthy. A darkened room, a man lying on a bed. The camera does one of those perspective-altering Vertigo zooms, gets about halfway into it before reversing out, then in-out again, very quickly this time, the whole effect designed to elicit a “what just happened?” response, which it does.

The plot is unsettling too. A hitman called Jef Costello (Alain Delon) walks into a busy rinky-dink nightclub, enters the owner’s office and shoots him dead. Unlike everyone else, who’s dressed in nightclub-appropriate clothes, Jef is wearing a hat and trenchcoat. He sticks out like a fire on an icefield. Nor has he tried anything fancy. He came in through the front door, did what he came to do, and then left, giving a good half dozen of the staff and guests a chance to see what he looked like, in particular the club pianist (Cathy Rosier) who gets a full close-up of him in a corridor.

Jef doesn’t seem overly bothered about being hauled in by the police either, and at the copshop, what do you know, no one can quite get a proper ID on the killer, until one witness hits the bullseye so square on that… and even here there’s a wriggle and Jef is free.

Cathy Rosier as the pianist
Cathy Rosier as the pianist

Melville is playing with us. He understands what we’re expecting and then teasingly gives us some of what we want, along with something quite unexpected. Jef also gets something he wasn’t banking on – the pianist flaty will not identify him, even though her eyes confirm she knows damn well it’s him, which propels Jef into as much of a funk as an ice-cold, dead-eyed existential hitman can muster. What if the hunter has somehow, in among all this kerfuffle, in his too-cool-for-schoolness, become the hunted?

This was Melville’s first colour film and he plays with his new toys in a way that’s also unexpected, sticking as close to a monochrome palette as he can – some outdoor scenes necessarily involve Parisian street colour. But when Delon is on the screen and the action is taking place in a studio, almost everything is shades of white/grey/black. The pianist gets her own separate colour palette, too, her brown skin reflected in the monochrome cream/beige/coffee of her surrounding.

This hitman genre was pretty new ground in 1967 and so what’s even more remarkable about this film, in retrospect, is how pared back it is, as if Melville knew he was designing a template as well as a standalone art work. There’s scarcely any dialogue – Delon speaks barely a word. Movement is kept to a minimum too. In scenes with a number of people it’s rare that anyone is moving except for the protagonist (often in the shape of François Périer, as the cop on Jef’s tail). Similarly, master photographer Henri Deaë uses pools of light to light characters selectively. If you’re not involved in moving the action on, chances are you’re in the shadows.

The whole effect is super stylish, dreamlike almost. But Melville reserves one surprise for the end, when Jef hits a bump in the road. He’s dressed in black and wearing white gloves, like an update on Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Those silences, the aversion to daylight, those long reposes in darkened rooms, Jef’s hold over women (notably Nathalie Delon, Alain’s wife, as Jef’s booty call and alibi). Is this not a hitman flick at all but a vampire movie?

There are a couple of decent versions of this film out there. The 2K Pathe restoration isn’t bad, and is sharper in places than Criterion’s version, but Criterion wins overall – there’s just more shadow detail and it really makes a difference in Le Samouraï to be able to see some way into the murk. So that’s what I’m linking to below.

Le Samouraï – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Le Deuxième Souffle

Gu in a car pointing a gun

The title of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 gangster drama Le Deuxième Souffle is often translated as The Second Wind, though The Last Gasp would also work pretty well, since it’s a story about a career criminal breaking out of jail and trying to get out of France with his woman. Stuck for cash, the fugitive takes part in a “one last job” heist, which does indeed turn out to be his one last job.

Lino Ventura plays the criminal Gu, short for Gustave, so ruthless a character that Melville puts up a disclaimer before the film that he personally does not condone any of the actions that the audience are about to see on screen – it’s just a story, he’s saying, more or less. It’s great casting, Ventura being a former wrestler and exactly the sort of man’s man that Melville liked to use in his films, the better to explore codes of masculinity, and particularly of criminals.

If that first paragraph is a bit spoilerish, in my defence I’ll just point out that there is a doomed aspect to Gu from the start. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest attribute, its atmosphere of fated inevitability. Gu, far from a good guy but in some way an existential hero Jean Paul Sartre would recognise, is determined to live his life according to his own lights, and if that means death, then so be it.

Opposite Gu, and the only character who really has full use of their face – Melville keeps the rest of them under rictus-tight control, a smile rendered as a flick of the corner of the mouth, anger as a tiny flash of the eyes – is Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), the cop on the case and an avenging angel who’s charming, suave, a bit of a ladies man, clever and hugely sarcastic. When Blot arrives at the scene of a shooting early on, he goes from one “I saw nothing” witness to the next, not even bothering to question them, and instead telling them the story they’re about to tell him, detailing exactly how they saw nothing.

Christine Fabréga as Manouche
Femme fatale Manouche

Melville was known for his love of American movies and this is a 1960s movie with the ambience of a 1940s American one – hats and macs, cars and bars, and a femme fatale (in the shape of Christine Fabréga) with only a totemic function. Manouche (Fabréga) has little to contribute to the plot but is there because… well, that’s the way these things are done.

Detail is the other thing that Melville is famous for and his command of a fetching location. Le Deuxième Souffle is screengrabbable in the extreme. Especially when it gets to the moment of the grand heist, when tightly claustrophobic interiors suddenly give way to the wide open expanse of a windy, hairpinny road where a bullion van containing platinum is about to be jumped by Gu and his new brothers in crime.

Atmospheric, impeccably filmed in rich monochrome (this was Melville’s last black and white film) and beautifully edited, this film is a delight for lovers of craft and technique. But it’s also a long, slow film and, considering that its plot can be sketched in half a sentence, can be a frustrating watch if you’re not in the mood to bask in the locations Melville has so painstakingly chosen – a swish nightclub, a grotty hideaway, a lush apartment where Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin) is organising the heist Gu will eventually join, the heist panorama itself – and the tightly controlled actors Melville has chosen to play his characters. Was any film better cast? Every face tells a story, from that of Fabréga, the blonde floozy, to Marcel Bozzuffi, who plays mastermind Paul Ricci’s crooked brother, to Michel Constantin, a noble henchman with a doomed thing for Manouche.

There is honour among thieves in Le Deuxième Souffle… until there isn’t. Melville’s story isn’t really about criminal justice catching up with Gu, but about the criminal code of honour failing him when it matters, and in Lino Ventura he has an actor who wears the realisation that his time might be up on his face from the first frame.

Le Deuxième Souffle – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Le Cercle Rouge

Vogel and Corey face off

Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 gangster-heist movie, starts with a quote from the Buddha about all men eventually finding themselves inside the red circle. Regardless of what they think they’re up to, or how self-determined their actions are, human beings cannot outwit fate.

The quote is entirely bogus, having been written by Melville himself, who picks up and drops the idea of fate/luck/chance throughout his movie, relying on it to operate when he needs a fanciful meeting of two key characters to occur, for example, but keeping it out of the picture for the film’s centrepiece, a long, silent heist sequence.

The film is a self-assured and elegant exercise in style and technique, a homage to 1940s film noir – guys in trenchcoats, wearing hats, smoking, not saying much, driving American cars and frequenting the sort of clubs where young women sell cigarettes table to table – in much the same way that Chinatown also apes 1940s noir (which Robert Towne was sitting down to write when this first opened).

The plot: career criminal Corey (Alain Delon) gets out of prison eager to pull off a robbery, and accidentally winds up with Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè), a convict on the run, in the boot of his car. Together they recruit Jansen, an alcoholic technical genius (Yves Montand), to help them pull of a massive jewel heist. Meanwhile, a doughty cop – also in trenchcoat and hat – is doggedly pursuing the lone fugitive Vogel, little realising the jackpot this is going to yield.

The four leads are well cast. Delon is the ideal Melville actor – impassive, handsome, thoughtful-looking. Volontè sits well in the rough-diamond fugitive role initially destined for Jean-Paul Belmondo, a Melville regular. Montand actually does have the look of a man who’s just recently dried out, and André Bourvil is excellent as the fastidious and philosophical cop who embraces whatever leads chance might throw his way.

Delon and Montand in a night club
Corey meets Jansen

En route Melville examines codes of honour among men, as he tended to do. These loners (and the cop is one too) represent a peak of masculine agency. They act alone, only occasionally throwing their lot in with fellow lone wolves for the purposes of the job at hand. A gruff mutual respect develops. Friendship would be stretching it.

The long, beautifully restored version I watched, from Criterion, reinstates much of the footage cut in so many earlier versions. It now runs around 140 minutes, about 40 minutes longer than it used to, and gives us a lot more texture. At one point Corey guns his black Plymouth off the road, past an advertisement for Esso heating oil, and walks into a roadside eatery, all melamine, faux stone and chintzy muzak. Melville has an eye.

In a way Melville kept making the same film again and again – the guys, the coats, the cars, the love affair with America – and if you’re after a great example of late era Melville (he’d only make one more film before dying aged 55), Le Cercle Rouge is the writer/director in full flow. Go for 1956’s Bob le Flambeur if you’re after earlier, monochrome Melville (coats, hats, cars all also in evidence).

The 27-minute-long silent heist sequence towards the end is a clear echo of Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic heist movie Rififi, though Melville claims to have had the idea for a wordless heist before the American Dassin arrived in France in 1953. Either way it’s a marvel of how these things should be done, Melville a master of film geography – spatially, we know where everyone and everything is at all times – and it’s as good as the many, many reworkings of the Mission Impossible franchise or Ocean’s 11 – meticulous planning, lots of tech, tick-tock precision, men moving as if on castors, and communicating only with a nod.

Bechdel Test fans, look away, this is a film about men, and women feature only as waitresses, girlfriends or whores. There’s not even a femme fatale in sight.

Le Cercle Rouge – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Bob Le Flambeur

The original poster for Bob Le Flambeur



If you’ve seen Frank Oz’s garbled heist movie The Score, starring Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton, you might have asked how come three acting legends were inveigled into appearing in something so average. The answer is Bob Le Flambeur, the “one last heist” film they obviously thought they were channelling. Reeking of the late 40s but made in the 50s just as France was about to embark on the New Wave, it is the last word in Parisian chic, a mix of Gallic savoir faire, American hats and cars, dialogue drawled out the side of the mouth and jazz pouring out of radios, bars and nightclubs. Roger Duchesne plays white-haired Bob the Gambler, a retired crook with a one-armed bandit in his room, a bad debt on the roulette tables and a “one last job” idea up his sleeve. What’s different about Bob, as opposed to almost every cinematic heist merchant since, is that he’s patently a loser – not a guy who has had a bit of bad luck, like George Clooney in Ocean’s 11, but someone who wins big, then loses big, then does the whole thing again. He’s in the grip of the gambling process, believes in lady luck and all that stuff. What will be familiar will be the dry run for the heist itself, a familiar trope even in 1956, though Melville puts a new spin on it, one I won’t ruin by explaining.

Some claim Bob Le Flambeur is the first film of the French New Wave – Melville shot much of it on a handheld camera attached to a bicycle. But whereas Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and the New Wavers shot handheld for artistic reasons, Melville was doing it because he was broke, and he took pains to hide the paucity of his technical means and made his film look as slick as he could.

A lover of film noir and Americana in general, Melville had changed his name from Grumberg to honour the author of Moby Dick. His characters, Duchesne in particular, are working the same turf, collars flicked up, eyes narrowed, they’re paying homage to characters played by Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and James Cagney – bad guys, sure, but bad guys with a code of honour. Perhaps, from some angles, they were actually the good guys. Which is where we are with Bob, respected by the cops, admired by his contemporaries, regarded with awe by younger guys, who are perhaps surprised he’s even still alive. Neil Jordan took the bones of Bob Le Flambeur and remade it as The Good Thief in 2002. But even with Nick Nolte in the lead as the fascinating deadbeat it simply doesn’t get close.

© Steve Morrissey 2013



Bob Le Flambeur – at Amazon