Jean-Pierre Melville, maverick writer and director of Le Samouraï who specialized in crime stories with a debt to American films noir, was an inspiration for the French New Wave. He was particularly valued for his ability to tell a story through camerawork and editing, unlike the acting and writing focused French Tradition of Quality which people like Godard and Truffaut rejected.
For Melville’s admirers, literary concerns were a secondary consideration. The skeletal story in Samouraï provides a good case in point. Joe Costello (Alain Delon) is an assassin hired to kill a nightclub owner early in the film. Several witnesses identify him as the killer, but others refuse to do so, and he has to be released. The rest of the film’s suspense centers on how the police will trap him, and how Melville will treat the cat and mouse game.
Delon, in regulation trench coat and fedora, moves with feline grace from one scene to another, always a step ahead of the police and, eventually, the hoods who hired him. There is nothing to Costello except his cool as he glides through the sleek, worldly ambiance sparkling around him. The ritualistic story is no more plausible than The Wizard of Oz, but it is embedded in an everyday world polished to a sexy sheen. Do professional assassins even exist? “Who cares?” Melville seems to ask, thumbing his nose at literary construction by introducing obvious questions without pretending to answer them. Why, for example, does the chief witness against Costello exonerate him even though she clearly saw him? While that question makes for some sexual tension later, other holes have less justification.
There is a lengthy sequence, for example, in which the police track Costello only to lose him. So when they later plant a bug in his apartment, it is unclear how they found out where he lives. That bug planting follows a scene in which Costello’s employers decide to eliminate him. So it is easy to think they, not the police, are the ones planting the bug, a confusion compounded further when one of those crooks does break into the apartment. The thug’s sudden appearance is a small masterpiece of timing and camera placement and a testament to Melville’s considerable skill. But the crook’s presence makes little sense, and like the bug, nothing comes of it.
How important is the lack of cohesion and substance? The bare bones story and lack of emotional depth undeniably enable the fast pace. Moments of pensive contemplation and the frequent lacunae suggest a deliberate, if elusive, purpose. On the other hand, the deadpan virtuosity does not overcome the confusion nor hide the blatant set-ups. The contradictions and holes may be intentional, but the shiny style is not quite enough to compensate. Every plot thread in a movie need not be tied up, but when too many dangle, the fabric threatens to unravel even in the hands of a master tapestrier.