Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unpublished Reviews: Le Samouraï

An old friend was watching a Japanese film with me one day - Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress - when he saw Toshiro Mifune brandishing a sword and accurately identified it as a "katana." I was in a mischievous mood that day, so I asked him where he got the information. When he said he got it from his role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, I asked him how he could be sure that it was indeed a katana if he got the information from such a source.

I was just fucking with him, but it would've been far more gratifying if I had had the chance to fuck with Jean-Pierre Melville, whose film, Le Samouraï, is a particularly unreliable attempt to give depth to an otherwise humdrum story of the travails of a hired gun.(1)

There is something rather sad about a Frenchman who goes nuts for all things
American, down to changing his name to Melville, then devoting his energies (besides adapting – rather well – Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles) to making gangster flicks (Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Cercle rouge) – with his own money no less.

I found Le Samouraï as phony as a French $3 bill. The English title was Cop Out, which just about sums up this sterile exercise in Franglish "le style".(2) Adopting American stereotypes to foreign films is a terrible process that has since spread to Asia.

That silliness of quoting from "le Bushido" at the beginning should’ve tipped me
off. Watching the angelic Delon (Alain, not Nathalie) proceed from killing to killing reminded me of a better film he made in America with Burt Lancaster – Scorpio, which was evocative enough for me not to forget it in all this time. That film was about competing assassins on either side of the cold war front (with neither side winning – a cherished pacifist pipe dream). Only the director, Michael Winner, didn’t insist on Delon wearing a mackintosh and fedora.

The title, Le Samouraï, and the quote at the beginning, are nothing but red herrings. Stanley Kauffmann, who liked the film much more than I did, wrote in 1997 on the film's re-release, "The original title is wrong. A samurai did not accept commissions to kill merely for money: honor and ethics were involved. But Delon's character is simply a technician with no criterion except efficiency and no purpose except cash."(3) Like Jim Jarmusch's ridiculous Ghost Dog (1999), whose protagonist, played by an obese Forest Whitaker, works out with a katana, Jef Costello (Delon) is not a contract killer but a warrior, a knight.

There is one thing other than cool that Delon's performance evokes: sterility. It's what happens when you introduce elements from American gangster films to a patently French setting. The result is bereft of life and of verity, and exercise in form alone, artificial to the core, like Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Melville's love for Hollywood staple is misplaced, but it wouldn't matter if he had the talent to invest his characters and situations with requisite truth. And the reduction of Alain Delon, so frightening in René Clément's Plein Soleil (1960), to a suspiciously effete assassin belies Melville's macho credentials.

More artistry went into the design of The Criterion Collection’s DVD, on which is a shadowy profile of Delon with a little bird perched in the center – the bird Jef Costello keeps in a cage in his suitably spartan hideaway.

In the end credits, "le jeune fille au chewing-gum" appears. There is no corresponding word in French for that deplorable American invention. Just as there is no real equivalent in French for Public Enemy, Little Caesar or Scarface. The French should’ve counted themselves lucky.


(1) Now they've gone and remade one of my favorite Charles Bronson films, The Mechanic (1972). Not having seen it, the remake (with Jason Statham in Bronson's role) probably makes the Bronson film look like a masterpiece.
(2) When the film was released in America in the '70s, its release title was The Godson, to capitalize, in the purest sense, on its mafia content.
(3) Kauffmann, The New Republic, 17 March 1997.

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