Jean-Pierre Melville’s ultra stylish 1967 noir thriller is not as well recognised as it ought to be these days. The cult movie maxims that were codified in Le Samourai and then imitated in the dozens of hipster crime flicks that followed are now better known than the film itself. Yet Le Samourai is a great film in its own right, an elegantly constructed masterpiece of understatement and efficiency; pure movie expressionism distilled down to its most quintessential elements. The influence it wields over an entire generation of modern film-makers, who strain after its effortlessly detached sense of movie cool, has been incalculable.
John Woo describes Le Samourai as the most perfect film ever made. Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai virtually qualifies as a remake. Its spare use of dialogue reflects the laconic, pared down style of the Coen Brothers. And Melville’s self conscious referencing of movie lore in Le Samourai is echoed throughout the films of Quentin Tarantino.
Alain Delon’s ”samurai” of the title, Jef Costello, is less an actual samurai as he is a renegade ronin, a masterless hit man for hire, roaming the Paris night on single-minded missions of destruction. If Costello follows a code it’s a mysterious and implacable one, understood only within the framework of his own mind. He lives in absolute solitude, out of step with the world around him, totally detached from the ruthless murders he carries out. Delon doesn’t so much play a role here as inhabit a corpse. He wears the same stonily austere expression in every scene. His impossibly chiselled features might have been cut from glass. His glacial blue eyes appear to stare beyond the camera and into his own inevitable fate. Costello is more phantasm than man.
As the movie opens, we follow Costello’s actions in meticulous detail as he tracks down and eliminates a target. But not everything goes as planned. The police have Costello’s description and snare him in a witness line-up. His alibi – supplied by a mysterious female confident who may or may not be his lover – appears to be watertight, but Francoi Perrier’s perceptive police superintendent senses that something is amiss. When Costello attempts to collect payment for the hit, he’s the subject of an assassination attempt himself. The police tail Costello as he tracks down his attempted murderers in order to exact retribution. The story, a deceptively simple distillation of Hollywood noir cliché on the surface, eventually unveils multiple layers of hazy ambiguity. Not all of Costello’s actions can be explained coherently. Much of his motivation is left tantalisingly unexplained. The movie follows the logic of a dream, or a hallucination.
Appropriate, then, that Melville himself describes the film as a document of schizophrenic breakdown. Driven by the necessities of his profession to absolute solitude, Costello’s time is spent between tracking targets and waiting endlessly in his dilapidated hotel room. His living quarters are stripped of all but the barest essentials. Neat rows of empty mineral water bottles and cigarette packets line the top of his cupboard. A shabby looking caged bird offers his only companionship. Costello might as well be that bird, imprisoned within the loneliness of his chosen profession. We imagine his mind slowly unravelling as he waits in the silence. His actions no longer follow any external logic. Even his clothes – a trench coat and fedora – mark him as a man out of step with the outside world. It’s like he wandered in from a forties Hollywood noir film. He’s a translucent movie character struggling to take on reality in the outside world. It’s here that, for all the icy detachment of Melville’s style, Costello takes on a certain humanity. A cold blooded killer he may be, but he’s not necessarily an unsympathetic one. He’s lost in a world he can’t make any connection with.
As much as Le Samourai is a character study, it’s also an exercise in pure cinematic style. A movie about the movies themselves. Nothing in Le Samourai is understood outside of the context of the films that preceded and influenced it. It’s Melville’s reverent homage to Hollywood film noir – the hardboiled characters, the dangerously alluring women, the moral ambiguity, the understated yet expressionistic visual style. But it’s film noir as filtered through the lens of the French New Wave, with the characters self-consciously mimicking the detached cool of Hollywood movie stars. It’s in Delon’s upturned coat collar and the way that he deliberately places his hat with extreme precision while preparing for an assassination. It’s in the audacious tracking shots and abrupt, unexpected cuts, with camera trickery becoming an essential component of the on screen action. Whatever else might be said of Le Samourai, it’s an exquisitely realised film. Not a single aspect has been left unconsidered, not a shot wasted, or a scene paced without deliberate grace. And in true cinematic style, the story is told in pictures rather than in words. We don’t even hear any dialogue until ten minutes into the running time. In fact, no dialogue is used at all unless strictly necessary. It’s almost too perfectly executed. Le Samourai is a pure expression of the movie aesthetic in and of itself.
Given the scope of its influence and its almost achingly hip sense of style, Le Samourai is one of those films that really ought to have been anointed to the cult canon by now. Rather curiously, however, it’s a film often overlooked by all but a few cult devotees. Alain Delon’s icy, hypnotic and oddly sympathetic portrayal of a lone killer operating on both the fringes of society and quite possibly, his own sanity, properly belongs to the catalogue of immortal cinematic icons. In Le Samourai Jean-Pierre Melville – considered the “Godfather” of the French New Wave – achieved the fullest realisation of his stylistic aesthetic. After this, movies about killers, cops, guns and dangerous women would never be quite the same again.