Minutia Madness: Le Samourai
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! ahead for the movie being examined.)
I intend for this to be as weekly as possible and up top here will go just a brief explanation of what ‘Minutia Madness’ is all about.
But here’s the deal. A lot of movies are awesome and people know it. Whether it is the acting, directing, writing, lighting, sound, music, or a combination of everything working together… such wide broad terms as “compelling”, “exciting”, and “roller coaster thrill ride” are thrown out to try and describe the entire movie as a whole.There’s lots of great articles and essays out there written by extremely qualified film critics/historians. Criterion Collection has a couple, one by filmmaker John Woo and One by David Thompson and I feel for all the great movies the content of these essays focus on the same thing, but some people are just better at writing it or conveying the certain aspect. I don’t want to just be another entry into the Le Samourai is great essay pool. Well, maybe one day, but not today…
Here at Minutia Madness, we won’t be talking about all that. We’ll be talking about the 2 second clips (or so) of the way an actor does something, a certain look they give, a certain emphasis they put on a word or how they say something, or a particularly small but great line of dialogue/camera movement.
I had an improv teacher once, a very eccentric one who in order to cut through the bullshit of second guessing yourself, would usually be ‘shocking’ in the way she talked… but it was all in good fun. One of the phrases she used a lot was the term ‘horny gay-gay horny’. This was what she used to describe that small touch you can add to a character to make them more real.
Perhaps your character is nervous? And picks their ear for earwax? Well don’t just ‘drop’ the earwax once you’ve picked it. Play with it, roll it up into a ball (she was always suggesting we roll things up into a ball; earwax, lint, food) and flick it as she demonstrated the process… then she would look out at us, a group of inspiring improvisors clinging to every word, phrase, and technique this master could teach us, and she would smile… “Makes ya kinda horny gay-gay horny, doesn’t it?” We would all nod and say “Yes Master.”
This is my film equivalent of that.
Written and Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring Alain Delon & François Périer
Of all the genres of movies, Heist is the most delicate in terms of balancing Style and Substance. Too much style and you could end with gaping plot holes or an inferior challenge for the thieving protagonists. Too much substance and you could risk being just a boring procedural. Le Samourai isn’t really a heist film, but it has a lot of the makings of one. Instead of stealing something, our ‘hero’ is assassinating someone. There’s still a deadly cat and mouse game of a dedicated cop trying to catch the killer, in the same way the greatest threat in a heist film is simply ‘getting caught’.At the start of the movie, Jef Costello (Alain Delon) leaves his apartment. As he prepares to go out, he puts on his hat and strokes the brim ever so slightly. We come to learn that Jef is a dedicated hitman for the French mob. His life is his profession. And in the face of danger (an approaching cop as he is stealing a car) he is unflappable (slowly flips through each individual ‘master’ key on his ring). He pulls off a hit but is spotted. Doesn’t matter. He just walks away. His alibi is in place. Now it’s time to put it to the test. When the cops pick him up, he puts on his coat and hat, paying special attention that his hat is on just right…
Even though the Superintendent suspects Jef, his alibi is just too good. Part of the alibi is that he was with a married woman (played by Delon’s real life wife, Nathalie Delon) and that as he exited her apartment, her husband caught a glimpse of him. The Superintendent divises a test so that if the husband can’t pick Jef out of a lineup, it gives him a glimmer of hope. The Superintendent has a bunch of men form a group, but to make matters harder, has them all switch hats and coats. The husband comes in and is not only able to pick Jef’s face, but separately identify his coat and hat; therefore cementing his alibi. BLAM-O! HOO-RAH! [insert victory dance here]
(sorry for the crappy quality but I wanted to highlight just the moments in question…)
As Jef gets his coat and hat back, he puts them on and strokes the hat brim ever so slightly. He readjusts the top making sure it’s on just right and then strokes it again. There it is. The second hat brim stroke. Kinda makes you horny gay-gay horny doesn’t it?
What Jef has just accomplished is amazing. The dedication and foresight on his part plus the ability to stay calm while his alibi is run through with the finest of fine tooth combs makes him one cool cat. You can imagine every time he goes out for a hit he goes through the same process, whether he is ever brought in for questioning or not. In this moment he should celebrate, give out a whopping Fred Flintstone Yabba Dabba Doo! – okay, maybe not, but at least smirk a little? No… wouldn’t want to give himself away in the slightest. That’s the dedication he has. Every time he puts his hat on he strokes the brim because he is about to go out into the world of cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys. He has to focus himself so he can be alert and prepared to stay on top. But here, he is not just focusing his energy, he is reeling it in, trying to hold back. He is not preparing to be a badass, he just got done being one. Hence… that extra little ever so gentle stroke of the brim.
I remember the first time I watched Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark with my brother and dad. That classic moment when the bad guy approaches Jones with his scimitars, twirling them about and Jones just gives in a shoots him… I think that was the hardest I had seen my dad laugh at amovie and he must have rewound it about 5 or 6 times. Every time I watch Le Samourai, the inner film nerd in me comes out and I gush over this scene and rewind it about 5 or 6 times. It’s a moment that is the perfect example of how in a ‘heist’ film or movie like Le Samourai you can’t just act, or pretend to be, cool… you really have to be cool.
The movie carries on… The Superintendent still has his hunch and Jef is still a badass. There’s an perfect film moment of a shootout/escape on a bridge, but shot from a moving train. The ending can only be talked about in terms of Japanese Bushido, hence a French heist-y/hitman movie having the title Le Samourai. If you haven’t seen it and want to increase your pretentious artsy foreign/old film cred this is a must see. And be sure to pay special attention to this two seconds just before the 35 minute mark.
So what do you think? Is that second hat brim stroke worthy of making you horny gay-gay horny? Or am I just crazy for focusing on this minute detail?