LE SAMOURAI (1967)
After a professional hitman is seen by witnesses his efforts to provide himself an alibi drive him further into a corner.
There’s not a lot to say about Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai that hasn’t already been said. It’s almost unbearably cool, with an austere, seductive beauty all its own; a bold stylistic exercise that approaches cinematic perfection. Yes, it’s all that and more but, perhaps it’s not quite as clever as a long line of critics would have us believe.
In many respects, Jean-Pierre Grumbach can be thought of as the first auteur, making his earlier films as the theory was being developed and ahead of it becoming dominant when refined and applied in the pages of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1950s. He’d changed his name as an alias whilst in the French Resistance during World War II—in honour of his favourite author, Herman Melville—and kept this professional moniker when embarking on his film career.
True to the ideal auteur mould, he had no film school training and hadn’t worked his way up within the industry. Instead, he’d learnt from watching films, mainly Hollywood thrillers and melodramas, and taught himself to use a camera. From the outset, he was writing, financing, and filming his own short films, sometimes starting a production before any finance was even in place. In this way he made his debut feature, Le Silence de la Mer (1949), procuring funds as the production progressed piecemeal. The drama, set in Nazi-occupied France, attracted the attention of artist-director Jean Cocteau, who cast Melville for a bit part in Orpheus (1950) and led to their collaboration on the psychological drama Les Enfants Terribles (1950).
Le Samourai is the tenth of his 13 features and considered to be the purest example of his style, made at the height of his directorial powers. It was written with his friend, Alain Delon, in mind for the lead. Reputedly, Delon read the script and accepted the role because of the sparse dialogue leaving plenty of screen time for a more subtle yet potentially challenging performance. This was to be a career-defining role for Delon and established him as a new icon of cinéma chic and unreconstructed masculinity. Yes, before we knew about his far-right leanings and support for the French National Front, many thought Delon might actually be as cool as he looked.
The film tracks the latter days of Jef Costello (Alain Delon) a freelance assassin known as ‘the samurai’ for his stealth and efficiency. His apartment is a spartan as his attire, almost ‘zen’ in its simplicity: a chair, a lamp, a bed, a songbird in a cage, but also very French with packs and packs of Gitanes and just as many bottles of Evian. He dresses in a dark generic suit, narrow tie, pale khaki trench coat and crisp-brimmed fedora. All appropriately bland. He could pass as an average man on the street, yet he wears the ensemble with such aplomb that he could equally saunter into any high-class jazz joint in the trendier regions of 1960s Paris. The look was both suave and sinister, a disguise and uniform. It seems the debate about the brand of the long double-breasted, belted overcoat is still ongoing to this day. So, my guess is that it wasn’t ‘off-the-peg’. After all, films have costumiers on-hand and stars can have alteration made, so it was probably unique.
The opening 20-minutes or so follow his methodical preparations for a kill. This we share in detail. It begins with the calm theft of a Citroen DS—Jef has a set of keys for the model, so always steals one of these super-stylish vehicles. He drives it to his specialist mechanic to have the plates changed and picks up a gun along with, presumably forged, papers. Then he sets up a series of alibis with his ‘girlfriend’ (Nathalie Delon, Alain’s real-life wife at the time) and a bunch of gambling buddies, ensuing there are witnesses for his comings and goings, before driving on.
He parks-up outside Martey’s nightclub but leaves the engine running, strolls blatantly in, past the jazz band and to the private backstage area where he confronts the club owner. The kill is shockingly quick and clean after the long build and couldn’t have gone smoother for Jef. Except that as he’s leaving, he must pass the jazz band’s pianist (fashion model, Cathy Rosier in her debut role) in the narrow passageway and she gets a very good look at his face…
We’ve been shown how perfectly practised the set-up for murder has been and I, for one, was half expecting Columbo to turn up on the case at this point. How wonderful it would be to have Peter Falk’s shambolic detective in his crumbled Cortefiel raincoat opposite Delon’s sharply tailored equivalent! Alas, nothing quite so entertaining ensues as the plot now falls into a familiar police procedural format with Le Commissaire (François Périer) taking on the case. In many ways, that’s not too far from the Columbo idea as Périer was well known as a comedian and is cast against type here as the unscrupulous, world-weary investigator. He had already worked with Melville, appearing together in Cocteau’s Orpheus. Things get complicated when Jef is taken in by the police for questioning and his gangland clients then see him as a potential lead back to them that would be better removed.
One thing that stands out is meticulous continuity, as if shot chronologically, in real time, over consecutive days and then edited down. It certainly wasn’t, but it’s Melville’s rigorous attention to detail that provides this classic’s central strength—from the stubble density on Alain Delon’s jaw, to the size of blood stains seeping through his shirt sleeve, later on. Likewise, it’s this level of observance that Alain Delon’s stoic hitman brings to bear throughout. His expression barely changes at all, yet his eyes are flicking here and there, taking in every detail of his surroundings, reading the body language of others. This includes his pet bird which tells him that intruders have been wire-tapping his apartment whilst he was out. How does a bird tall him this? By the few feathers it has shed due to the additional stress during the day.
Which makes it all the more disconcerting when the narrative integrity breaks down toward the finale, mimicking Jef’s progressive dissociation. It seems that as he begins to engage with what he’s doing on an emotional level, his intellectual rigor is disrupted, and he begins to slip into a fugue state. In isolation here, Delon’s subtle yet amazingly precise performance can’t be praised enough. He really does exemplify the minimalist ethos of ‘less is more’. When he does finally show the merest signs of exasperation, it fills the screen with angst. And, when he does utter just a handful of words to convey his feelings, their lack of eloquence speaks volumes. A definitive moment of cinematic poignancy evoking empathy in the viewer.
At that point we may sit back for a moment and question that feeling of empathy. Throughout the film, we identify with Jef Costello as if he were the hero of the piece. Wait a minute, have we been rooting for a coldly calculating, highly efficient executioner, motivated solely by money? This guy would be the villain in any traditional crime thriller.
What’s more, we actively dislike the cops, for the most part. They do seem prepared to bend the law to catch those who break it, but that’s a tradition in French crime thrillers. Jef is exonerated, to some extent. because we assume he only assassinates corrupt businessmen and gangsters, who are also villains. Plus he comes late to a long heritage of anti-heroes in French culture that can be traced back to the popular character, Fantômas, a sadistic evil genius co-created by novelists Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911, and Les Vampires (1915–16), a classic French film series from the silent era, created by Louis Feuillade about a secret society of super-criminals who control the Parisian underworld.
Le Samourai opens with a Bushido quote: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… perhaps.” This hints at the film’s cinematic antecedents in the samurai genre, particularly resonating with Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom (1966), which, precedes Le Samourai by more than a year. Both films follow the downward spiral of cold-blooded killers adhering to a strict personal code. The major difference being that Delon’s pistol toting Costello does appear to be vying for some form of redemption, whereas Tatsuya Nakadai’s deadlier sword-wielder doesn’t lose his psychotic focus until beyond the final frame!
In addition the deliberate noir stylings, the stylistic purity of Japanese cinema is something that Melville obviously aspires to. Just as Jef checks himself in the mirror each time he leaves his spartan apartment, so Melville is obsessed with the look of things. Which, when one thinks about it, is highly appropriate for a predominantly visual medium. Melville considers the precise composition of each shot as seriously as any great painter or modernist graphic designer. There’s also an awareness of the regular intrusion of other graphic elements within the frame—such as billboards, metro posters, signage. Some of these even appear to make clever visual comments on the action. For example, Jef walks past a huge image of someone using a telephone as the police report on his whereabouts via their car phones.
Which brings us to the other important element of film: sound. François de Roubaix’s score picks up on the lounge jazz of the nightclub band and lends a cool Parisian mood when it seeps in exactly when needed. He was an in-demand composer through the fifties and sixties with around a hundred credits to his name and, although he died in 1975, his music is still being used in new productions. However, it’s not so much the score, but the sound design that really drives Le Samourai, often more so than the staunchly reductionist visuals.
The opening scenes are underpinned with a series of rhythmic sounds. The screen even seems to breath along with them as Melville subtly plays with zoom and focus in what’s ostensibly a still image. Jef lays on his bed blowing cigarette smoke toward the high ceiling of his drab room. It’s a notable cinematic response to the kind of interwar aesthetics typified by the German design school, the Bauhaus, who favoured different shades of battleship grey for their interior décor. His caged finch chirps tunelessly, the sound of rain and the intermittent passing of cars outside conjure the sea at night as well as the breath that the smoke makes visible. It’s more than 10-minutes before the soundscape is interrupted by dialogue.
The excellently edited chase through the streets and metro stations of Paris is stitched together by the constant rhythm of Jef’s footfalls, their acoustics altering to, literally, echo the filmed environment. So, a shout out has to go to the sound team headed by Alex Pront, who would go on to work with Louis Bunuel, among many other notable, avant-garde filmmakers. Of course, it’s the tight editing of Melville that makes it all work so perfectly.
Interestingly, this sequence channels the sonically similar yet even more tightly edited sequence in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), when Lee Marvin walks resolutely down the corridor of an airport terminal and on to a potentially pivotal confrontation. Due to Melville’s independent studios burning down, in the July of 1967, production on Le Samourai was delayed. Melville shifted some of the action to Paris locations and was editing in parallel when Point Blank was released a couple of months ahead of Le Samourai. We know he loved American crime dramas and noir movies, so it’s highly likely he saw, or at least heard of, Boorman’s iconic sequence whilst he was editing his own homage to it.
He has said that his favourite parts of the filmmaking process are the writing and adding the finishing touches at the editing bench. These are both parts where he could work in solitude, enjoying writing in the early hours and editing into the nights. So maybe that’s why Delon’s performance rings so true? Because, at its core lies a treatise on solitude and habitual loneliness.
It all seems to break down in the third act and what had presented itself as a something almost akin to cinéma verité in its clinical detachment takes a turn for the absurd. Le Commissaire suddenly seems to have all the resources he could possibly want, with hundreds of operatives deployed at the drop of a hat. He has gadgets and radio cars a-go-go, undercover agents on every metro station, each with a button-sized, state of the ark signalling device. Unexpectedly, we find ourselves surrounded by cold war espionage tropes. There’s a resemblance to the Harry Palmer spy thriller, The Ipcress File (1965), with which it shares aspects of its slick sixties visual design.
I assume this is meant to be a form of political satire or perhaps to reflect Jef’s slip into a paranoid state. It’s hard to believe a scenario where so much police presence could converge on a single criminal who, as far as we know, assassinates other criminals. So, this hints at a broader plot that we can only guess at. Perhaps club boss Martey was about to turn evidence in some important investigation. Maybe Le Commissaire has been after Jef for a long time prior and finally reaches the end of his tether, and now it’s a personal vendetta—similar sentiments to Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in Léon (1994) yelling, “bring me everyone… everyone!” Or perhaps it falls apart just a little due to re-scripting around the loss of the studios? Whatever the reason, the enigma only adds extra interest and increases the considerable impact of the last few seconds.
Melville is known to uphold the Aristotelian dramatic theory which speaks of ‘opsis’, or ‘spectacle’. He explained that he approached film as a kind of ‘flat circus’—an art-form in which colour, forms, and movement combine with sound to create something that is, quite literally, sensational. He believed that a director should engage emotionally and creatively with these aspects, rather than with the translation of a text-based script through the lens of intellect. This approach upheld film as an expressive medium rather than simply a method of documenting what was happening on set or location.
With Le Samourai, Melville reinvented the language of noir for La Nouvelle Vague, for which he was the vanguard. His stylistic fingerprints are evident in the films of this French New Wave movement including those of Jean-Luc Goddard, Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, and the influence of Le Samourai survives in more recent French post-modern, offerings. The work of directors like Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson spring readily to mind, particularly their movies, Diva (1981) and Léon, respectively. Innovative Hong Kong action director, John Woo cites Le Samourai as one of his favourite films, openly recognising its influence on his breakthrough crime thrillers, A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989).
Whether one manages to emotionally engage with the characters or not, Le Samourai remains a slow-burn, mesmeric experience that will engross the viewer from the first shot to the last. The slight, but inevitably tragic, narrative fills-out every moment of screen time with nothing superfluous.
FRANCE • ITALY | 1967 | 103 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH
writer & director: Jean-Pierre Melville.
starring: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon & Cathy Rosier.