Welcome to The Wright Stuff, our weekly column following the career of Raptors point guard Delon Wright. Since we can’t influence his training or anything on the court, we’ll recommend films that reflect his past week and hopefully inspire a leap forward. It’ll be part film breakdown, part essay, and part whatever loose piece of wisdom we can shake from the experience.
Delon Wright has said — multiple times, and to anyone who asks— his goal this season is to average one three a game. It’s a laudable target, one that zeroes in on perhaps the biggest weakness in Wright’s game, while highlighting a necessary skill for most (all?) guards to have if they are to survive in the modern NBA.
Unfortunately, through seven games, the mission has been a failure. Wright is shooting 4-for-23 from three, good for 17 percent, which is — there’s no other way to say this — extremely bad. (And this is only because Delon went 2-for-4 last night, otherwise his percentage was floating around 10 percent.)
It’s good to set personal goals though! And Wright has obviously done a lot to improve, if not necessarily change his game. He’s stronger on the ball defensively now (remember when a single pick would take him out of the play?), he’s proven himself to be a better passer (another uptick in assists this year to 3.0 per game), his off-speed attacks of the basket are getting even more potent (and fun to watch). These are the elements that make Delon such an enjoyable component of this year’s Raptors team.
But that shooting stroke begs a question: Can Delon change his nature in this one single regard?
It’s just coincidence that the star of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai is named Delon. His full name is Alain Delon, and he’s one of the more famous French actors of all time. Melville, meanwhile, is no slouch himself, having written and directed a bunch of films many now consider classics, including Bob le Flambeur, Army of Shadows, and yes, Le Samourai. And since we’re reflecting on names, Melville isn’t Jean-Pierre’s real last name; he assumed the mantle because of his affection for the American author.
A love of Herman Melville isn’t the only thing “American” about Jean-Pierre and his films. Le Samourai, like others, was born from the crime genre filmmaking in 1930s Hollywood. It’s lean, few of the characters could be called “good,” and it involves a typical downward spiral of the plot — no one gets away clean. In the cyclical history of filmmaking, this is my favourite ouroboros: French director apes American crime films, helps create French-style noir films, and in turn inspires a New Wave of French directors whose collective style eventually ripples back to American shores. (Read up on the making of Bonnie and Clyde, to name just one prominent example.)
In 1967, four films from the end of his career, Melville made Le Samourai, perhaps the purest distillation of his style. The story is simple: an assassin named Jef Costello (Delon) completes a contract by killing a nightclub owner in Paris. On his way out of the building, a piano player Valérie (Cathy Rosier) locks eyes with him. Jef doesn’t kill her in the moment, and later, upon his apprehension by the police and (nameless) dogged detective (François Périer), she returns the favour by not pointing to him in a suspect lineup. The reason for this is a mystery to Jef, compounded later by one of the film’s finest scenes:
The above clip is short and slight, but then, that’s the point of the entire film. In any case, Jef has to figure it all out — why did the piano player let him walk, why is his boss on the job now trying to kill him, and, of course, how is he going to stay one step ahead of the police on his tail. The solution involves foresight, precision, and a deep-seeded knowledge of himself. Much of Le Samourai boils down to this latter kernel of an idea, and the image of a man apart.
Jef is a hitman, he lives alone with only a caged bird to keep him company. His alibi in this particular affair is Jane (Alain’s real life wife Nathalie), but he does not have any actual friends or other associates. He exists on the outer rim of society. Like any other noir film, there is no happy ending here, the characters within don’t transcend themselves. Jef solves his problem in the only way he can: by sticking to what he knows.
Most every time Delon Wright sets up beyond the three-point line, we sense the trepidation. He knows he’s supposed to take that shot — the Raptors’ whole new-look offense is designed around generating and taking more open threes. But the more Wright has tried — Wednesday night’s 50 percent outing in a blowout notwithstanding — the more it has looked like he is struggling upstream.
There’s the briefest of moments in Le Samourai when we wonder if Jef will break out of the life he’s created for himself. Jane is obviously in love with him, and while he never admits to caring for her, you can almost, just maybe, imagine a life where they run off together and forget the whole gun-for-hire thing. Of course, that doesn’t happen: Jef never breaks characters, he doesn’t elope with Jane, and in truth we know there’s no way he ever could do anything else. Contract killers don’t tend to retire peacefully.
I don’t mean to steer this in a dark direction like a noir film. Wright has many years left in his career, and time enough to change. NBA players of all size and type have found success transitioning into long-ball shooters. It can be done, but it can also be a lonely and frustrating process.
At the beginning of Le Samourai, Melville leads off with a quote from the Bushido, the Book of the Samurai: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle... Perhaps...”
A fitting thematic summary for the film. But also: it’s a fake quote — not wrong, but also not binding. Perhaps... anything is possible.