There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s

Unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle

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A great film invites a conversation between the audiences and the film itself. A great criminal story asks audiences to imagine a murder and a murderer. Jean-Pierre Melville is doing something better than that by holding back those conversation and that work of imagination. By alienating us from his murderer, the samurai, Melville refuses any explicit emotional attachment and sentimental judgment. The impassive, cold samurai, with his elegant white gloves, remains as a poet holding the gun, falling to his own heroic death at the end.

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Jef Costello (Alain Delon), is probably too handsome, or precisely pretty, and elegant as a professional killer for hire. As a man walks in the shadow of the night street, lingers around the lethal and potent French underworld, Costello is designed and performed as a beautiful figure too perfect by every inch of his skin. Consider the straight black suit covered by a well-organized pale trench coat, the absolute flatness at the brim of his fedora, which is neatened every time when he puts it on, his calm, cold, blue eyes that pierce straight through the screen, and his rigid manner sorting out the keys one by one, the bright white gloves he carefully wears, the tightly holding hands for 48 hours in the police, and his constant silence: our killer seems to be totally indulged in his own enigmatic and alienated world, in the untouchable solitude of a samurai. Just as film critic David Thomson once describe him: “a beautiful destructive angel of the dark street”.

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Perhaps we don’t necessarily need to understand his world, but we are certainly manipulated to like him, as Melville masters our feelings and questions. Throughout the film, Costello hardly bares any emotions and  offers little dialogue, thus going beyond our imagination and hindering conversation, which results in our endless curiosity and interest towards this attractive and charming killer.

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The storyline is pretty simple and straightforward. It does not confuse us as much as the impassive romanticism between the two women and Costello, and the intricate but alienated feelings inside our killer. As a professional killer for hire, Costello shoots a man to death in the bar, witnessed by a pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) passing by the door. An investigating officer (François Perier) considers him  the prime suspect. However, he is proved innocent through the support of an alibi provided by Jane (Nathalie Delon), a woman who claims to be Costello’s fiancé. Free from detention, he is later under continuous surveillance and tracked by the cops, even as he is betrayed by the men who provided the police with his alibi. They then try to kill him, which drives him on the way of revenge.

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Melville is definitely a master of storytelling. The lack of lengthy dialogue, use of silent moment, detailed and rhythmic character actions, unsettling music and fluid camerawork perfectly illustrated what Alfred Hitchcock refers as using the images to tell a story rather than showing images of people talking. Looking into the excellent  sequence where he gets a gun from the mechanic, atmospheric suspense and character traits are built up spontaneously by pure action, performance and cinematography. After driving down to a narrow pathway in an outskirt area out of nowhere and wheeling into a garbage, Costello simply gets out of the stolen car and watches the mechanic changing the license plate. Without any dialogue, he reaches his hand for the request, with a sudden cut to a close up and rising unsettling score. Exchanging the money and gun, he leaves with the car. Everything is simple and straightforward. The whole sequence is presented as the essence of banality and silence. But the dramatic information and suspension are concealed in Costello’s minimal gesture and cold glance, in the smoke, in the gun, in the shadow, and ultimately, in the mind of spectators.

The films flows as smoothly as poetry, as pieces of beautiful images coherently building up a world of fantasy and dream. As Melville says: ‘I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.” Obsessed with a passive and gloomy color scheme: grey, blue, white and black, Melville’s images are as beautifully constructed as pieces of paintings in the shadow of a nourish, expressionist lighting. The camera lingers around the city, the night streets, the underground, the bar, and Costello’s drab hotel room. And we, the spectator are drawn into an obsession with the perfect killer, linger around a fantastic art gallery in the heart of French underworld.

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If you’re observant, Melville offers us hints  right at the very beginning. The spiraling smoke catches our attention in the darkness, with titles turning up and disappearing in the mist of the still image. Before approaching our solitary samurai, the camera suddenly shakes and blurs the images, creating a dizzy and disorientated effect. It is probably an invitation for the spectators to enter Melville’s fantasy, and the dream of a samurai.

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The most romantic and fantastic moment of the film, is probably the eye exchange between Costello and the pianist in their first encounter, as they see each other as their cars pass in the rain. As the camera zooms in to Valerie (Cathy Rosier)’s window, her glance at that beautiful face of coldness and determination means everything. Perhaps she doesn’t love him. But at the moment, when the rain washes off the window, revealing Costello’s cold glance into the screen, we may fall in love with him, a solitary samurai as beautiful as a poetry.

Cassandra Qiu