Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
The inspirations for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive are no secret. Perhaps the most direct analogue is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), which shares so many of the same characteristics that Refn’s film stops just short of being a remake. The general plot of both follows a nameless getaway driver of exceptional skill as he navigates a complex web of criminals, cops and would-be lovers, speeding to stay one step ahead as these forces converge around him. Drive features more minute homages to Hill’s film, too, including a redo of a particularly iconic scene in which the eponymous Driver (Ryan O’Neal) executes a high-speed chase in reverse gear. There’s something very American about a car chase in reverse, no? Difficult to say whether the instances of breakneck backpedaling in Drive or The Driver are done well, though, when the only competition is from the likes of The Transporter, Fast and Furious, Talladega Nights, etc…
Anyway. There’s sadly no reverse car chase in Le samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville’s quiet masterpiece of crime and criminal code. But it is undoubtedly an influence on Refn’s Drive, and is in many ways a more appropriate analogue than Hill’s Driver. Starring Alan Deloin as a largely-emotionless killer-for-hire, Le samourai went a long way to establishing a minimalist aesthetic in the gangster film — a genre more often associated with shootouts, explosions, larger-than-life mobsters and, yeah, reverse car chases. But the quietude of Melville’s film is haunting, reflected in the flat visage of its main character, and Le samourai went on to influence Woo’s The Killer (1989), Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998), Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999), Mann’s Collateral (2004) and countless others.
That willingness to give silence space within the film is what links Refn’s Drive and Le samourai, and what ultimately nudges Hill’s Driver out of the mix. Ryan O’Neal’s protagonist is a blank slate, sure, but the film itself rarely surrenders to complete and utter motionlessness for any notable stretch. Drive and Le samourai, by contrast, are filled with moments that border on the awkward in their lengthy stillness. The end of this scene from Drive, centering on Gosling’s driver and his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) in her apartment, is a great example:
The lead-in is full of motion — the camera speeding along the L.A. river with the car, the dynamism palpable between the characters, the thumping synth of the soundtrack — and that makes the stinger so powerful by contrast. The camera floats in but then stops, and the four simple lines of dialogue between the two takes over a minute of screentime. This sequence has Melville all over it, letting imagery do the talking as much as possible, unrushed and yet undeniably stylish.
It helps, of course, that Alain Delon and Ryan Gosling (and Ryan O’Neal, for that matter) are each a Master of the Brooding Stare. Delon played Tom Ripley in Purple Noon, a 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and that’s really the height of this particular character trope. Ripley is hollow, through and through, and such is Delon’s casting and performance in Purple Noon essentially perfect: his inner life can be read in the emotions on his face…except there are none. He’s empty. In the Ripley series, one could note that this emptiness drives the character’s every action. Like a black hole, Ripley fills his inner void with whatever he can, no matter what it destroys in the process. And like a black hole, it’s never enough.
What makes Le samourai even more chilling is the absence of this causal thread. Delon’s stonefaced assassin spends considerable time inspecting himself in the mirror, but it’s tough to say that his kills ever satisfy him in a personal way. Quite the opposite, perhaps: this is a man driven only by a code that defies understanding. In Drive, Gosling’s unnamed driver exerts his own code a bit more explicitly at times, detailing the parameters of his hiring to potential clients in a robotic recitation. But we’re still in the dark about his inner life, save for the intrusion of Irene, who brings about a passion in him that overflows from time to time.
Prior to a 2017 Melville retrospective at the Film Forum, The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane summed up the rules for being in a Melville movie:
Tell nobody what you are doing. Even your loved ones—especially your loved ones—must be kept in the dark. If it comes to a choice between smoking and talking, smoke. Dress well but without ostentation. Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless of whether there is rain. Any revolver should be kept, until you need it, in the pocket of the coat. Finally, before you leave home, put your hat on. If you don’t have a hat, you can’t go.
Swap out a scorpion jacket for the raincoat and a hammer for the revolver, and you’re at home in Refn’s Drive as much as in any Melville film. Reverse car chases are notably not included in these criteria.
It’s easy to make a loud film. Cinema by its very nature is defined by movement — primary (movement in front of the camera), secondary (movement of the camera) or tertiary (movement in the editing) — and so it’s almost an unstated law that stillness or lack of movement is to be avoided. They’re motion pictures, after all. In this respect, with Le samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a restraint that had rarely been captured in narrative film to date. This is the same game Refn plays with Drive, and the game is far trickier than having your main actor simply withhold outward emotion. Despite their familiar subject matter, both films stand apart from the pack due to their self-control, their calm, their composure. Paradoxically, the stillness in Le Samourai and Drive is what makes them so exciting.