This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
This is the first suggestion in this series, from the author of Over-The-Shoulder. I recommend checking out their blog if you like this one, especially the discussion of if a small budget makes Reservoir Dogs a better movie than it would have been otherwise. I have a few other recommendations to get through, but if you’d like to add to the list, instructions are at the bottom of this post.
Today’s film is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, which provided heavy influence for the style of action movies today. The titular samurai is Jef Costello, played by the notoriously handsome Alain Delon. There is no description or discussion of Delon I can find that does not specifically call out this detail, which is fascinating. He’s great looking, obviously, but it’s interesting how consistently you see it called out when you read about his career. His charm is important, as he’s playing a laconic hitman with a curious code of honor.
Jef lives a stoic life. We see his apartment with a bunch of cigarettes and water bottles and not much else. He moves with determination, marching through life in a raincoat and hat and a grimace. We see him steal cars using a huge ring of skeleton keys and each time he stares straight ahead, clearly nervous but also intent on anyone watching seeing just another person. He must blend in, so even this distinctive look is intended to be forgettable among everyone else in Paris.
A handful of the better James Bond movies had just come out when Le Samouraï was released. The audience must have made the comparison, with this handsome gunman who oozes cool confidently entering scenes and demanding things of other characters. When Jef establishes his alibi before the hit, he tells a group of poker players that he never loses, not really. The “not really” is important, as it takes this beyond cliché and into a statement about who he is. Everything he does, from a simple apartment setup to the way he speaks with people, is tied up in an idea of himself as a lone wandering warrior. On the one hand, he kills for money, which seems inconsistent with any sort of code. However, it’s very clear he has no moral issues with this. He does what people ask and the rest will sort itself out.
Roger Ebert is almost always worth quoting, obviously, but here I want to pull out more than usual. He said Le Samouraï “teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense—how action releases tension instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don’t care about are happening constantly.” I could not agree more and I feel like this is the most important element of the film. A “cool” and quiet hitman who doesn’t care if what he does is right or wrong is a pretty bad starting point for a story. In lesser hands than Melville’s, this would be a character that would be really difficult to root for and a plot that it would be hard to connect with beyond wanting few people to die.
It works because of how little happens. Jef trades in his car’s license plates several times and barely speaks with his handler. He establishes an alibi and outwits the police once he’s identified, but most of what happens is other characters moving the plot. Jef is shifty and odd, but Delon is so handsome you find yourself drawn in. It’s really important that we have this time to develop an interest in Jef’s success, because if he was shooting people and running down alleyways all the time, we wouldn’t care. He’d just be James Bond.
I saw Drive before Le Samouraï, and it’s a very weird experience to see the result before the inspiration. I suspect most people will fall into that group, but I especially encourage you to see Melville’s film if you liked Drive. There’s obviously a lot going on in Drive that’s different, notably Le Samouraï spends a lot of time silent where Drive is mostly the soundtrack, but the connection between the main characters is hard to ignore. There have been other quiet anti-heroes, but this is really an obvious lift.
When something finally does happen, you care about it. You don’t really know if the police will catch him or if he wants to be caught or if he has something else planned until it all pays off. The ending is important to not spoil, so I won’t, but I will say that it pays off Jef’s code and ties up everything in an unexpected way. Melville isn’t necessarily trying to say something here so much as to show us something, but that’s not a criticism. This story model and this character type come up again and again in action films, but you are unlikely to find one where the director delivers so completely on their intention. Almost every scene is tense, even though almost nothing happens. Melville teaches us to constantly expect something even without paying off that intention until we finally care whether it happens or not. It’s not all explosions and car chases, but it’s a grander accomplishment than a continuous surprise that isn’t surprising at all.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. Melville was an interesting character who played the interview subject in Breathless and he’s worth learning about if you aren’t familiar. He was fascinated by American cinema and there’s a larger discussion worth having about the influence of American film on Le Samouraï and vice versa. If more action films cared about their protagonist, I think we’d be much better off. In the Mood for Love is a totally different kind of movie that has a lot more space to breathe and to seep into your mind. It’s far less self contained and has a leg up for that, alone.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, but I think it might be the best action movie of all time. I’m not sure what my other pick would be, probably The French Connection. That’s a discussion for another day, but I think what draws me to Le Samouraï is that there’s enough of an internal consistency to what Jef does that he feels like a real character. We don’t see enough to learn why he does all this, though, and the fact that he’s in it for the money but lives such a cheap life is a fascinating element. It suggests that he really does view himself as a warrior who is intended to work this way. What would get you to that way of thinking? We don’t see, but that lets you fill it in yourself.
You can watch Le Samouraï on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.