“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… Perhaps…”
— Bushido (Book of the Samurai)
What is it about obsessiveness that is so beautiful? To detail the movements and passages of people across a city, Melville’s great gift, is like grand opera. Men and women pass each other, or move in spheres that never meet, each with their own destinations, motives, delusions. Simplicity itself, pure mundanity. But in films like this it feels life-giving. We are at the mercy of this surgical choreography. Scenes are masterpieces of microcosmic activity, in a Paris gone to monochrome. A metro ride. An interrogation. A visit to a jazz bar. A note-book, a decent map, and the migrations of this film could be documented with some kind of precision.
I’ll start by pointing out that there is no such quote in the Book of the Samurai. Melville made it up, purely for the purposes of this film. Why? Romanticism, perhaps, a touch of mystique; certainly it is great comedy. Alain Delon is a killer in a raincoat and fedora hat, who wears it even when numberless people are looking for a man in a raincoat and fedora hat. Does he have anything of the samurai about him? Maybe. He lives in a world of sparsity and aestheticism, sure, functioning in somnambulistic preparations for murder. And he communicates everything through his mannered walk, a jingle of keys, a breeze of smoke. He is a man who does not exist, except through his acts, and those acts are violent. Is he falling into mental disintegration? Perhaps. Solitude often leads to madness.
And so the film is a dream, the kind where you wake to the chirping of caged birds, into cold light, realising that you have been somebody else for longer than you can tell. There is an austere drift here, the feeling that things are repeating unconsciously, and have been for some time. Bresson hangs over it all, two great windows for eyes, though Melville would have detested the comparison. The man in the raincoat is country priest, escaped man, or suffering donkey; except that he is also butcher, and filled with honour: his own.
The killer is pursued, caught between two women; one who protects, one who he must annihilate. Only twice does his death-mask slip: once in terror, and once in longing. And it is at the close, in yearning, that he commits seppuku, the modern form of it, allowing himself to be gunned down by inferior men: thus, he becomes bushido. But is this the great silent hero, the one that American gangster movies promised us, or are we to giggle at the ridiculousness of it? There are more appropriate musings from Yamamoto, that Melville may have committed to memory:
“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.” Master Ittei commented, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”
One of the purest, strangest film experiences I have yet encountered. Writing about it has been painful. Ask me in several months.