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.
Project 77: Le Samourai: 00:03:51
Legend has it Jean-Pierre Melville was looking to work with Alain Delon for a few years by the time he approached the prominent French actor who had recently returned to the international cinema scene following a brief venture into Hollywood with an idea for a new project. Melville, a pioneer of the French New Wave before it had the name, visited Delon at his home to discuss this project and after reading several pages to him from the script, Delon stopped him and noted that he’d been reading for ten minutes and there hadn’t been a line of dialogue yet. He was interested. When Melville told him the name of this project was Le Samourai, Delon took him into his room where the only thing adorning the walls was a samurai sword hanging over the bed. He was in.
A perfect frame to freeze on, the character of Jef Costello is a brilliant example of the contradictions of cinematic invention. One of the most handsome men of his or any generation, a man who would stand out in any crowd, is cast to play a character who lives in the shadows, moving unrecognizably through the streets despite being one of the most stylish human beings ever to have their image captured on film. When we think about the phrase, ‘suspension of disbelief’, it’s oftentimes in reference to plot holes or alien invasions, but the first hurdle we all are asked to clear is going along with the idea that the people on the screen are just people, no different than you or me.
The face of a killer isn’t always one that would scare you. It’s blank, ambiguous and cold. It’s also mysterious and intriguing. Monsters don’t get the opportunity to be a monster by advertising their intent. The casting of Delon as the killer you would never expect is inspired in these regards. The casting of Delon as the killer in the shadows who no one would recognize is what academics would refer to as ‘movie’.
If you were ever wondering what a noir film looks like, this shot is what a noir film looks like.