Le Samourai (1967)
There are two actors who represent the epitome of “Gallic cool” in the 1960s: one is Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the other Alain Delon. Belmondo was the French Bogart: a true tough guy (or at least one who thought he was tough), cigarette poised in the corner of his mouth, rumpled and just slightly the worse for wear. Delon was the Alan Ladd of the French New Wave: cold, calculating, beautiful, and psychotic.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai has Delon at his ice-cold best. He’s Jef Costello, a hitman who dresses (and kills) as befits a Japanese warrior. Hired by an unknown organization to kill the owner of a Parisian nightclub, the film follows Jef as he prepares for and completes his assignment. A chance encounter with pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) following the murder places Jef in danger, and the police are soon on his trail. Determined to prove Jef guilty, the investigating officer (Francois Pelier) goes to all lengths, threatening witnesses, trailing suspects, and bugging Jef’s flat.
Le Samourai is part crime thriller, part police procedural, and occupies that curious position of 1960s films with few, if any, sympathetic characters. Jef is a detached, unsmiling figure, his methodical killing abilities hinting at that edge of sociopathy that Delon played with great aplomb in Purple Noon. Yet the world that surrounds him permits no attachment, even if he was capable of one: his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) is a “kept woman” who gives him his alibi and with whom he never even manages to take off his coat. Each character fits their surroundings like pieces of furniture: Jef in his spartan apartment, Jane in her more opulent flat, Valerie in her black and white art deco apartment and night club.
The key here is style: Jef’s clothing and physicality are precise and a perfect match to the surroundings in which we first encounter him. His apartment is spartan to an almost absurd degree, the only point of color or activity occupied by the small bird in a cage that provides Jef with his most poignant relationship. As he rises and dresses to go out, fixing his hat and coat in the mirror as though fitting himself for battle, the film has established its argument without a line of dialogue. This is about style and style is about fate: each character moves along their established lines and either cannot or will not deviate from the future set out for them.
Le Samourai might almost be termed a nihilistic film; it’s certainly a cold one. Human connection does not exist, nor is the viewer asked to sympathize with Jef beyond the fact that he is our central character. No one else is even likable, least of all the investigating officer who pursues Jef with a mania bordering on obsession. This could be read as an indictment of France’s surveillance society, if the film made any move to establish a political argument. But that is not Melville’s project; the bugging of Jef’s apartment and relentless pursuit by the police is simply another form of fate.
Le Samourai is not a lovable film, but it is a great one. It offers no explanation for its events and barely any character motivation, yet it is not therefore inexplicable or dull. Delon conjures a fascinating character without making him sympathetic. As the film proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, the viewer is drawn into rooting for Jef without being allied to him. We know how this is going to end, though, because there is no other ending.