More than a caged bird: Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samoruai as ethical criticism

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Though made 23 years after Paris's liberation, I contend Jean Pierre Melville's masterpiece Le Samouri (1967) is deeply tied to the events of the French occupation in World War II. This reading is grounded not only in elements of the film itself, but also in Melville's personal history and filmography. Melville's time in the Resistance manifests itself in themes of friendship, secrecy, and silence that are common to all of his films, though most overt in his films that deal directly with the Resistance. In Le Samourai traditional noir elements like an overwhelming feeling of suspicion, trench coats, hats and hitmen combine with these narrative elements common to Melville's resistance films to create a film that exists not only as a brilliant gangster picture, but also as a detailed representation of the relationship between individual and collective identity. Utilizing Simone de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity and the greater historical context of the occupation, I contend the film can be read as an in-depth study of one's subjective existence when fighting against oppression. Melville not only critiques the simplistic nature of the American interpretation of morality during the war put forth in American film noirs, but also provides the viewer with a much subtler understanding of ethics in the face of evil. More than just an exquisite stylistic exercise, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai provides the viewer with a personal narrative, detailing the ambiguous nature of taking up arms against oppression.

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