2019 Tarkovsky Prize Second Place: Scully Randlett
Scully Randlett (18, Lowell High School)
The Noise of Le Samouraï
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is a complete movie. What is meant by this is Melville not only successfully executes in every aspect of film (composition, theme, character development, etc...), but also manages not to rely on any single element in the creation of this work of art. For each of these elements there is an essay to be written, but there is one through which this film marks itself as truly special. The use of noise is this defining factor. For my purposes, noise is, in a film sense, the sounds in a movie that are neither a part of the soundtrack nor dialogue. Traditionally, film has been considered, above all, a visual art. Tarkovsky himself regarded reliance on sound, especially music, to be detrimental to the narrative created by what is on the screen. Yet he also acknowledged the power of noise to create an atmosphere complementary to the optical aspects of the film. Le Samouraï goes far beyond this in its use of noise however, masterfully curating a listening experience able to dictate the tone of a scene, create sound signatures for different settings, and turn specific sounds into symbols.
Merely on the strength of the acting of Alain Delon and others, the film manages to fulfill much of its storytelling duties visually. This dynamic both frees the sound channels from dialogue and necessitates the tone of the film be infused by other means. One need not look any further than the opening of the film for evidence of this. It takes nine minutes and forty five seconds before a single word is uttered, and this is not in the absence of plot movement either. To establish a distant, secluded context to its classic noir protagonist, the opening scene make exceptional use of noise, blending light rain, passing cars, and the ever-important chirping of a bird. The theme of the film, composed by François de Roubaix, then surges as the viewer is introduced to Costello as a criminal. Before Nathalie Delon breaks the “silence”, another well-crafted scene unfolds. After he pulls his stolen car into an unmarked garage, an entire series of interactions between Costello and an unnamed man take place, while the viewer is kept on edge with the sounds of the turning of a screwdriver, the clanking of plates, light switches, and their shifty movements highlighting the tentious nature of the encounter.
The most omnipresent sound throughout the film is the sound of walking, and despite its sheer volume, its importance lies in its ability to remain subtle. There are a plethora of excellent examples of this, the best executed of them being Jef’s journey from the police station to the train station where he is shot. On his way to collect his reward, lengthy sequences dominated by Delon’s measured stride contrast heavily with the scenes of action surrounding him, further cementing him as the eye of a hurricane that has just begun to form. The seminal scene of the movie comes as two policemen break into Costello’s apartment and plant a bug. The scene is told through the interactions of three sounds: the pacing and shuffling of the first detective, the jangling of keys and wiretap by the second detective, and the nervous fluttering and chirping of the bird. On a backdrop of very intentional silence, these three sounds create a choking fear which leaves the viewer incapable of anything but experiencing, paralyzed, the terror of the bird.
The noise throughout Le Samouraï is set on creating an intense, cold environment, and by all means is successful. On a more minute level, noise also manages to create distinct cues that are specific to an environment. Most notably, Costello’s apartment is immediately recognizable; which is as much a product of the bird’s chirping, the noise of rickety drawers, and the infrequent rumbling of a passing automobile as it is of the shots of the shabby chic decor, foggy windows, and dark atmosphere. Serving as a sort of escape from the city, the garage provides a unique atmosphere of relative peace, while maintaining the sense of foreboding central to the picture. This unique atmosphere is produced by a specific palette of sounds, such as the turn of a screwdriver, the barking of a dog, the rattle of license plate, the buzz of a solitary light bulb, and the rumbling of a train passing overhead. An equally well constructed soundscape is the one that engulfs the jazz club, Marty’s. Marty’s audacious jazz numbers and loud crowd chatter deeply contrast the rest of the film’s relatively barren soundscape. Not only does this distinguish the club from anywhere else, but also gives it its own life as the heart from which the film’s conflict flows. It is also important to clarify that, because much of what makes this setting’s atmosphere stand out is the jazz played by the pianist (Caty Rosier) and her band, the music played does technically qualify as an element of the soundtrack; however, it being performed on screen allows it to function as noise as well. Another enigmatic sound signature is that of the police headquarters. The police headquarters in actuality includes several distinct locations, such as the interrogation rooms, the lineup room, and the commissioner’s office, each with their own sound signatures. However, an overarching aural concept is presented throughout: an overwhelming lack of noise. While there is distant chatter and the sometimes-audible hammering of typewriters in the background, these scenes serve as a foil to the more common strategies of the rest of the film. While the majority of the film creates a veneer of silence by highlighting noise, the actual absence of noise in the headquarters is filled with dialogue, switching the narrative duties over to sound and conceding tone creation to vision.
In its depth of tone and setting, Le Samouraï clearly demonstrates a seldom-paralleled mastery of expression. What truly elevates this film to its deserved status of genius is the inventiveness of the concepts expressed within this mastery. This genius is Melville’s creativity to recondition noises, one of the most neglected component of filmmaking, into symbols, some of the most impactful of filmmaking’s components. The first symbol would be the sounds of vehicles, so ever-present throughout the plot. Whenever it be automobiles, trams, or trains, there seems to be no reprise from the noise of mass transit, and this is quite intentional, as these vehicles are symbolic of the outside forces which tear at Delon’s character. As the opening quote from the Bushido states, “There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai...” and this rings especially true for Costello. In this lies the central conflict of the film, the struggle between Costello’s structured coolness and the outside world’s demanding chaos. This symbolism manifests itself nicely, with the loudest transit coming when Jef seems most embroiled by external affairs (being followed on the tram, hastily crossing a busy street, etc...) and being heard far less while he is being reclusive (his apartment, the garage, etc...).
The other aspect of this contrast would then be the symbol for Jef Costello himself, and, incredulously enough, that symbol is: the bird. More specifically, the noises the bird makes are reflections of Costello’s thoughts and emotions. This relationship can first be noted when Costello, after being shot, returns to his apartment to much less chirping that in the opening scene. This represents Costello’s emotional depletion after the whirlwind of events the previous day. Even more symbolic is how, after bandaging himself, he goes over to the bird and feeds it, symbolizing the nourishment he needs, which, unsurprisingly, is followed by the bird resuming its normal frequency of chirping. However, this is a far cry from the intricacy of the metaphor which occurs once Jef returns from his interaction with the pianist. On entering the apartment, both the viewer and he can immediately hear the frantic calls of the bird, and upon realizing the bird has been losing its feathers, Jef begins to search for the listening device, during which the bird never ceases in its frantic cries. The depiction of the bird’s state perfectly captures the internal decay within Costello, as the world seemingly folds around him. Beyond that, the bird’s frantic chirping and fluttering also serves to represent the anxious dialogue Costello is having with himself as he stays on constant alert against his surroundings; and as is seen the next time he is in his apartment, this is for a good reason.
It is on these three strengths: the ability to create a vast tonal atmosphere, to provide iconic soundscapes for particular places, and to harness the broader themes of the film into rivaling sounds, that Le Samouraï harnesses noise to realize its full artistic potential. It is truly impressive how Melville has both something original to express, and the ingenuity to express it clearly. However, it is Melville’s skill in expressing himself using both the commonplace techniques of film and his novel use of the proverbial road not taken that catapults this film into something beyond merely impressive. In a medium as expansive as film, there is so much room for innovation, and for as excellent as the traditional elements of this, and any other, film might be, experimenting with techniques old and new is what keeps film as an art form as wonderful as it is.