Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Opening Shots- "Le Samourai" (1967)

A quick preface to this series that we will be tackling from time to time...a little while ago Jim Emerson on his Scanners site started a project called "The Opening Shots Project." The idea was to analyze and argue for the greatest opening shots in cinema. What makes them work. What they set up for the rest of the film. The definition of a great opening shot varies, but when you see one it can be recognized immediately. We really like the project so we decided to do some of our own entries, which we will be sending to Emerson in hopes of inclusion on his main site. Even if that doesn't happen, consider these our additions to the project anyways. Be sure to take a look at the project here. It hasn't been updated for a bit, but we hope that it keeps going strong. -James Hansen

The opening shot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 noir masterpiece “Le Samoura├»” establishes the tone of Melville’s contemplative crime film, defines its amoral protagonist Jef Costello (Alain Delon), and introduces the connections between Costello, a hired assassin, and the concept of the Japanese samurai, particularly the ronin, or masterless samurai. The nearly three-minute shot maintains a simple but wonderfully expressive composition throughout, remaining within the drab gray-blue confines of Jef’s apartment.

Jef lies stiffly on his white mattress with black polka dots in the bottom right corner of the frame. Two windows, overflowing with soft light, balance the composition by providing visual anchors in the center of the frame. Jeff’s pet bird chirps away in his birdcage, resting on a table centered between the two windows. Chairs and dressers crowd the outskirts of the frame, completing the layout of Jef’s ascetically simple, disciplined apartment. For minutes, the only sound is the constant drizzle of rain outside the windows and the intermittent whooshing of cars on the street below, punctuated by the light cries of Jef’s bird. Jef’s lights a cigarette and when he puffs, the smoke floats up softly, stagnating in the light of the windows, rolling around as if trying to escape. The completely still shot seems as if it’s attempting to emulate the frozen camera of Ozu. Jef lies with solemnity and his imprisonment in his dreary apartment is analogous to the situation of his caged bird.

Following the credits, text appears in the top right corner of the shot. The text reads, “There is no greater solitude than that of a samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle . . . perhaps . . .” The quote is attributed to Bushido (Book of Samurai), which Melville fabricated for the film, and illustrates the connection between Jef’s disciplined isolation and the social exile experienced by great warriors, like samurai. Particularly interesting is the connection between Jef and ronin, or masterless samurai. Ronin are noted in Japanese storytelling for their lack of morality and existential listlessness, caring for themselves above all and feeling no loyalty to exterior forces. Jef exemplifies this sort of selfish existence, which, as with the ronin, fates him to a sense of dread and, ultimately, death.

Immediately after the text appears in the frame, the shot begins undulating violently from rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs. The jarring mutation of the shot results in the shot actually being wider, the camera further away from Jef. His isolation and distance is intensified, correlating with the revelation of Jef as a type of modern ronin. Following the widening of the opening shot, Jef sits up in his bed and turns his back to the camera, facing the windowed wall, smoky light dancing over his head. He has turned away from the camera, away from the audience, delving further into his own separation and loneliness. This is Jef’s acceptance of his role as the necessarily solitary warrior, an enforcer of the zeitgeist of “honorable” violence.

The slow, lingering pace of the opening shot of “Le Samoura├»” sets the momentum of Melville’s film and the gray-blue dreariness of the color scheme is consistent throughout, almost as if Melville is attempting to make a color film in black and white. This anachronistic quality is ultimately what defines Jef, a remnant of the past, of the legend of the ronin, a pre-vanquished anti-hero seemingly awaiting his own extinction.

by Brandon Colvin


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Excellent Brandon,
This is one of my all time favorite films, and yes it does indeed contain one of the great openings ever.
I ricochet back and forth between this and LE CERCLE ROUGE as my favorite Melville is damn near impossible for me to choose.
Melville and Delon...possibly the most badass and brilliant team in cinematic history...I love this film.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks for your comment, Jeremy. I hope Emerson decides to use it. I really like "Le Cercle Rouge," but "Le Samourai" absolutely blows my mind.

As far as brilliant cinematic teams, I would put Melville/Delon up there with Fellini/Mastroianni, Godard/Belmondo, and Hitchcock/Stewart(or Grant) for greatest director/male actor combo of badassery.

Anonymous said...

What about Kurosawa/Mifune? It may not be the height of "badassery", but there's an intrinsic amount of badass innate to all things samurai. Another great team is Bergman/von Sydow. And I'm somewhat surprised to see your inclusion of Hitchcock/Stewart since I thought you hated the latter (though they definitely deserve inclusion in this pantheon).