Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was enormously popular and influential among critics, audiences, and filmmakers when first released. It presented itself as an art house film that could be enjoyed by the common cinemagoer, made all the more accessible by its in-the-moment star Ryan Gosling, probably one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Audiences going to see the film expected a car-chasing thriller from the trailers, but were instead treated to a somber study of human relationships and the consequences of bad choices.
Because of the film’s popularity, comparisons have been made to many previous works that may have influenced Refn. Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece Le Samouraï is another early example of this kind of “accessible art house” filmmaking. The film also stars an actor that would have resonated with a wide range of people at the time, Alain Delon. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, went as far to say that Delon was “an actor so improbably handsome that his best strategy for dealing with his looks was to use a poker face.”
However, neither of these films are classics because of their attractive male leads. Like Drive, Le Samouraï starts off with the protagonist, in some way or another, committing a crime while driving a car. With such memorable opening sequences, audiences could expect both of these films to be full-fledged crime thrillers, complete with car chases and gun battles. However, in both cases we are treated to a reflective character study of two men who speak only when spoken to, who live a life devoid of pleasures, and most importantly, who live by a code.
The opening of Le Samouraï begins, much as Drive does, in a sparsely furnished apartment. After the opening titles end, a quote appears on screen:
Despite the Book of the Samurai being a fictional invention (I’m sure Melville didn’t worry about audiences doing any research on Bushido) this quote allows the viewer to understand Delon’s character: he is a man who will do what he needs to without compromising his moral fiber. Gosling’s character in Drive is the same, though he lives by no explicit code other than his own. At the end of both films, the protagonists sacrifice themselves for a greater cause: the safety and welfare of the women they love.
Both of these films say something about the human experience in that the only occurrence that can change man is the act of falling in love. Fifty years later, this truth no doubt continues to resonate with audiences today. It is easy to simplify these films as faux-thrillers where an attractive lead does not say much. However, the continued legacy of these films is in their protagonists, men that live by a code in a world that does not allow for morality.