“A man got to have a code.” — Omar Little from The Wire
If there’s one contribution to cinema that Jean-Pierre Melville is most certainly “guilty” of, it would be his characters. Stoic anti-heroes, existential killers, and methodical men seem to pop up as the protagonists in so many of his films. It was the director’s distinctly French New Wave take on the doomed heroes we had in film noir here in America. However, it seems that influence is a cyclical force and the characters that Melville populated his movies with made an impact on the young up-and-coming directors stateside, and in some cases abroad. Le Samouraï in particular struck a chord with these filmmakers. Who can blame them? Le Samouraï feels like the most distilled and aesthetically alluring (not to mention tight) film of Melville’s filmography.The film’s protagonist Jef Costello (played by film legend Alain Delon) simultaneously refutes, embraces and elevates the hard boiled heroes of the ’40s and ’50s. That complexity and aesthetic would start popping up in years to come and does so today. So here I present you with a short list of films to seek out after watching Le Samouraï. The films have an array of styles and tones, but without a doubt, they owe a debt to Melville and his code-bound killer.
1. The Driver (1978), dir. Walter Hill
It’s only in 2017 after the release of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver that we are starting to see Walter Hill’s taut and stylish masterwork finally start to get its due (it was largely ignored in the United States at the time of it’s release), but more eyes are always welcome. Le Samouraï’s influence is so evident on The Driver that the film almost plays like a slightly souped up American adaption of Le Samouraï (The Driver features some truly astonishing driving and car stunts). Like the Le Samouraï the characters in The Driver feel closer to archetypes than they do actual characters. They behave like symbols of some sort of Greek tragedy. The film doesn’t shy away from that idea either. Look at the credits and you’ll see that the three main characters are named The Driver, The Gambler and The Detective.
2. The Killer (1989), dir. John Woo
At first look, you might have a hard time seeing any influence from Melville on John Woo’s film. The Hong Kong visionary’s style can best be described as operatic. His films are loud and full of unfiltered and uncut emotion, which feels like the antithesis of anything you would find in Le Samouraï. But Woo is a disciple of Melville. As he said in an essay about Melville in an issue of Cahiers du cinéma, “Melville is God to me.” You can find the influence in the way Woo allows his actors’ performances to bring out the emotional aspects of the film. Chow Yun-fat’s character Jeffery (clear reference to Delon’s Jef) is portrayed with such an intensity that you practically feel it burning through the screen. However, unlike Walter Hill and The Driver, Woo doesn’t see Melville’s characters as archetypes; to him they “are not heroes, they are human beings.”
3. Ronin (1998), dir. John Frankenheimer
A samurai is generally known for their practice of the Bushido, a code and a way of life that has them loyal to the masters they serve, but once a samurai loses their masters they become wandering guns for hire, loyal to no one but themselves. These warriors are now called ronin. While this is a gross oversimplification of the Bushido and ronin, it’s the basis from which director John Frankenheimer and writers David Mamet (credited as Richard Weisz) and J.D. Zeik worked from to make Ronin. The film itself is a mish mash of genres, a spy thriller, high octane action movie and heist film all rolled into one, so it’s not as lean as Le Samouraï. However, its main character Sam (played by Robert De Niro) is a man who’s bound to his codes, but instead of codes’ loyalty or honor to the people who are paying him for the job, it’s codes and practices that serve himself, codes that keep him alive and on the move, almost the antithesis to Jef in Le Samouraï. Ronin plays with this and has his tough decisions be how much of himself will he give to the dangerous situation at hand. Much like Jef in Le Samouraï, he’s methodical. As he states in the opening of the film, “I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.”
4. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), dir. Jim Jarmusch
Ghost Dog falls into a category with Pulp Fiction of films from the ’90s that are a tapestry of obscure and blatant homages that coalesce into something new and exciting. Ghost Dog makes clear references to Le Samouraï (keys that unlock any car, white gloves put on before a killing, pet birds that alert them of danger) as well as Seijun Suzuki’s 1967 fever dream Branded to Kill, but throws in some kooky and interesting wrenches into the mix, like the influence of hip-hop over the film (it has an incredible score from RZA and songs from a ton of great hip-hop artists) or the comically incompetent aging mobsters who employ Ghost Dawg (played by Forest Whitaker in the role of a lifetime). It’s definitely an underrated gem in Jarmusch’s filmography.
5. Collateral (2004), dir. Michael Mann
It’s been pointed out that The Driver is probably where the bulk of Michael Mann’s cinematic influence comes from, but I think Mann eventually went straight to the source. This is pretty evident in Collateral where the premise plays like “what if you were trapped into chauffeuring around Jef from Le Samouraï?” It’s a tense and dangerous movie and one that feels like it gets lost in the shuffle of Mann’s other masterpieces.
6. John Wick (2014), dir. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
John Wick is the definitive American action film of this decade thus far. It’s a blissful ballet of bullets and a titan of technical film craft. It’s also a surprisingly good portrait of grief and world building. It captures the quiet emotion of Le Samouraï simply by showing you Keanu Reeves’s face (who gives his best performance since The Matrix). Sure he explodes and lashes out, but from scene to scene you can see the pain he’s working through after he’s been wronged at the beginning of the film. Also like Le Samouraï and some of the other films on this list, the world in which we are put in feels so dreamlike (or nightmarish depending on your point of view). The world of assassins in this film feel like they’re closer to gods of Greek mythology rather than hitmen for hire. Normal people barely even seem to notice their presence until the danger starts. John Wick is the ideal combination of artistic intent and the wants and needs of the contemporary mainstream audience.
Please join us for Le Samouraï (September 14th at 7:00 pm) and four other films from director Jean-Pierre Melville as part of IU Cinema’s exciting fall series 5X Jean-Pierre Melville: Dangerously Cool. The rest of the screenings will be of Le Cercle Rouge, Le doulos, Bob le Flambeur, and Army of Shadows.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.