Welcome to Project 77, a series in which we will examine some of our favorite films by breaking them down and analyzing what we see every 77 seconds on screen.
First up, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 French Noir Masterpiece, Le Samourai.
Le Samourai: 00:01:17
Is it easier to design a busy set, or one that only has a few distinct pieces? For a film like Le Samourai, which can be considered both slick and sparse, the taste level in design must be exceptional because so much of the film is conveyed with the visual expression of ideas and the unspoken interaction between characters rather than dialogue.
At the 00:01:17 mark of the film, we’re given a perfect example of the film’s minimalist approach as the credits for key members of the Art Department, Francois de Lamothe, the Production Designer, and Theobald Meurisse and Robert Christides, the Assistant Set Decorator and Set Dresser, are displayed on screen.
The shot is a long static one, lit by light pouring in from two large windows. We’re introduced to the person we discover is our main character, Jef Costello, played by Alain Delon, as he lays on a bed with no sheets, in a room with bare walls, save for one framed picture. The rest of the room contains a birdcage with a bullfinch and a few pieces of furniture that balance the frame as a billow of smoke hangs in the air.
Melville wanted Costello’s home to have an icy feel to it, which inspired de Lamothe to work in shades of grey. Delon was so pleased with the set they had been created he said to de Lamothe, ‘it’s great what you did, my hen!’
It is ironic that the film opens with a billow of smoke, because on June 29, 1967, four weeks into production, Melville’s Studios Jenner burned down and the film was nearly abandoned.
Seeing how distraught Melville was, standing in his pajamas, drenched from the fire hoses and clutching his cat amongst the smoldering ashes, Francois de Lamothe was determined to see the film get completed.
Thanks to his team and the generosity of the director of the studios at Saint-Maur, the sets were recreated in two short weeks and the production of Le Samourai was able to resume.
The bullfinch in the birdcage unfortunately perished in the fire.