Widely regarded as the filmmaker’s filmmaker, and one of the greatest figures in post-war French cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–73) directed 13 feature films between 1947 and 1972. After completing a poetic adaptation of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), a film that now seems something of an anomaly in the Melville canon, he established his reputation with taut, minimalist crime thrillers including Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1963). In such films, loyalty and adherence to strict behavioural codes among thieves and the cops plotting to catch them were front and centre. Almost effortless in their brilliance, the films helped define the essence of the French policier, which under Melville became a unique synthesis of film noir style and rigorous examinations of existential male crisis. A former soldier, Melville also fought in the French Resistance, and alongside his thriller work, is well known for two major contributions to Resistance cinema: La Silence de la Mer (1949) and the superlative late masterpiece L’Armée des Ombres (1969). Again, codes and ethics are at the core of these pictures.
Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach but adopting the name Melville in honour of the American novelist, Melville was a huge admirer of American popular culture, with a penchant for wearing Stetsons and driving large American cars. We can think of him as a kind of forerunner to Wim Wenders. The popularity of his work largely insulated him from critical favour, as did the establishing of his own production facilities and studios, which tragically burned down during the making of Le Samouraï. Perhaps the greatest luxury afforded Meville by control of his productions was the capacity to work on his own terms and without interference, leaving him free to gently subvert, or tailor to his own carefully calibrated specifications, key elements of the American gangster film and relocate them to a French milieu.
Part of a trilogy made with Alain Delon, which also comprises Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Melville’s final film Un flic (1972),Le Samouraï (1967) is the Melville film I consistently return to. It remains something of an obsession, and like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), is a film I consider perfect in conception, style and execution. No word, look or gesture is extraneous.
Despite briefly being a figure in the French New Wave, Melville was unlike his contemporaries: he made no attempt to engage with politics yet still enjoyed commercial success, despite his work often being critically undervalued in France. Upon release Le Samouraï was described by Michel Cournot in Le nouvel Observateur as ‘a very banal gangster story, nothing more’. Inspired by Bresson’s understated Pickpocket (1958) and extravagantly stylised, it is now regarded as the pinnacle of Melville’s cinematic examinations of melancholic male protagonists. Reissued in the 1990s thanks, in part, by a campaign led by John Woo (who once declared ‘Melville is god to me’), it now forms the centrepiece of any Melville retrospective, the jewel in a star-studded crown.
Cast by Melville for his androgynous beauty, Alain Delon gives a career defining performance as Jef Costello, a contract killer with samurai instincts who adheres to Japanese lone warrior mythology. This is made explicit in the opening quote from The Book of Bushido: ‘There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless perhaps it might be that of the tiger in the jungle’. The words are actually composed by the director – Melville’s starting point for the film was an idea for an alibi. ‘A man commits a crime in the presence of eyewitnesses, yet remains unperturbed. Now, the only alibi you can really count on in life is backed up by the woman who loves you… she would rather be killed than give you away’.
Though Melville’s summation hints at the film’s potential for narrative urgency, with his customary plotlines involving betrayal and interdependence, it’s soon apparent that his main interest lies in exploring the loneliness and detachment of his white gloved, trench coat sporting gun for hire. In fact, the film’s plotting is fairly pedestrian and benign. Even the sex is an afterthought, just another alibi for Jef. When interpreted as a character study and analysis of emotional torpor, Le Samouraï is elevated to the status of something extraordinary.
Haunting a nocturnal landscape of bars, bridges and backstreet garages, Costello drifts through nocturnal landscapes shot in steely blues and greys, giving the impression that Melville’s protagonist is a ghost in his own movie. Biding time between assignments in his sparsely furnished apartment, Costello’s sole attachment is his caged bird, a chirping reminder of his own imprisonment. For Costello, freedom is death, and so with little remorse or trepidation, once he has become a victim of circumstance, he doesn’t hesitate charting a course toward it.
Film historian David Thomson has likened Delon’s Jef Costello to "the distilled essence" of Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967), as well as the self-destructive quest that guides Bresson’s priest in Diary of a Country Priest (1951), recently revisited by Paul Schrader in First Reformed (2017). The Schrader element here is the most instructive; Jef Costello could be seen as the template for Travis Bickle. A silently suffering soul who is ‘god’s lonely man’.
Jason Wood is the Artistic Director: Film at HOME Manchester. The author of eleven books on cinema, he is also a visiting professor at Manchester School of Art and Salford University.
 Reproduced in Ginette Vincendeau’s superb and highly recommended Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris. BFI publishing, 2003.
 The 1996 November edition of Cahiers du cinema, an edition dedicated solely to Melville.
 From an interview with Melville that originally appeared in Rue Nogueira’s equally superb but devilishly hard to find Melville, Secker and Warburg, 1971.
 'Death in White Gloves', an essay written by Thomson for the 2005 Criterion DVD edition of Le Samouraï.