There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…
It would be easy for some to call Le Samourai flat and pedestrian due to its visual style and even the workings of its plot. All very straightforward with cool tones and characters who barely crack a smile. Emotions are even less common. But that’s disregarding how exquisitely confident it is in its execution. Jean-Pierre Melville is a director who evolved into one of the great forgers of crime films for the very reasons mentioned above.
His hero played so iconically by Alain Delon is one of those great film characters who does not need to fill every moment of silence with a witty comeback. In fact, Jef Costello is not one to spitfire witty repartee at all. Instead, he’s calculating, steely-eyed and ridiculously phlegmatic. He fits the corridors of this film like a glove, perfectly suited for the cold exteriors and drab interiors.
We meet him not in some moment of dramatic action, but while he reclines silently on his bed, veiled in shadow, cigarette smoke clouding over him and the chirps of his caged canary piercing through the traffic sounds murmuring outside his window. Although we linger there for a time as the credits role, it takes a moment to acclimate. If you’re not paying attention, the contours of his body are almost lost to us — an extraordinarily ordinary man. But that’s precisely what he wants you to think.
Meanwhile, he highjacks cars, puts an airtight alibi in place, takes on a hit at a local nightclub with ease and disposes of all evidence without even a hiccup. Veins of ice and nerves of steel give him the perfect physique for a hitman. Top it off with his uniform — a trenchcoat, fedora, and cigarette, bolstered by Delon’s imperious stare and it’s difficult not to be mesmerized by his every movement.
It’s the kind of self-assuredness that allows another character to ask him, What kind of man are you? and no answer is needed — at least not with words — because with every action, every look, he tells us precisely what he is. An aloof assassin of the highest order. Yes, if you want to make the comparison, a samurai.
And though he does call on his lovely girlfriend (Nathalie Delon), who is absolutely devoted to him, as well as making eyes at the nightclub pianist who is the main eyewitness to his hit, Jef for all intent and purposes, is alone. It’s a kind of forced solitude, a self-made exile created by his trade. After he goes through with the hit, he must shut himself off more and more. That is his job.
So he goes to the police station to be questioned. Goes through the lineup. Stairs down the witnesses and goes home. Not to his girl but the dismal flat with his mournful canary. His contractors are out to get him, the cops are looking to catch him in his fabricated alibi and still, Costello maintains his composure as is his habit. He’s unphased by bugs or tails and when he has a gun to his face he never blubbers, only proceeds with beating up his assailant when the opportunity arises.
And although there is never much of overt romance in Le Samourai — Jef never shows any kind of passion — there are still glimpses that he cares about people. Perhaps he holds onto chivalry as part of his moral code. Even after staying away from his girlfriend for many days he comes back to her not expectant of anything but asking her if she’s alright. Pragmatic but concerned. Distant but still invested.
The same can be said for the film’s tremendous finale. Le Samourai is not a film of gratuitous killing but pointed moments of violence that are careful acts of deliberation. Costello kills two people and the film ends with his third and final hit. But it is in these tense moments that we gain yet another insight into the moral makeup of a world-class hitman.
Melville was obviously an admirer of American gangster films but what makes his vision of the genre so fantastic is the demeanor of his characters. Again, some might say boring, but that is probably a predilection of those raised on Hollywood action. There is no aura left. No shred of intrigue or tension left to be examined. Le Samourai is a crime thriller that performs differently, its pacing is entrancing and far from being tepid, it elevates the hitman to enduringly riveting heights to the last bullet fired. It doesn’t hurt that Jef Costello just might be the coolest action hero of all time.