In Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist noir classic Le Samouraï, Alain Delon is the epitome of cool, a lone wolf determined to live and die by his own code.
Delon plays Jef Costello, a hitman hired to kill a nightclub owner. At the killing Jef is seen quite clearly by the club’s piano player (Caty Rosier) but when she doesn’t identify him at the police lineup, Jef is puzzled (though the stoic, glacial Delon hardly shows it). He soon finds he’s been doublecrossed and targeted for death by his employer, who fears Jef’s night spent at the police station makes him a risk at best and squealer at worst. Jef now has to stay alive, find his employer and elude the police, led by a Commissioner (François Périer) who feels in his gut that Jef’s alibi is fabricated and hopes that surveillance and pressure will get to the truth.
For this story Melville drew much from This Gun for Hire (1942), crossed it with the loner, honour-bound, efficient samurai (with the help of a quote from a nonexistent “Book of Bushido”), and distilled until no superfluous lines of dialogue, motions, emotions or colours remained. Jef has little in his grey Spartan flat but a generous supply of mineral water, cigarette packets and a caged bird. Besides being an obvious symbol of Jef’s “trapped life,” the bird also turns informant for two sides. When the police bug Jef’s apartment, the bird’s peeps confirm their mic is working, but the bird’s stress-induced molting alerts Jef to search for signs of some unwelcome presence while he was out. Jef finds the microphone, and later bids his feathered friend farewell when he leaves for what he decides will be his last job.
Little is said but much told through carefully chosen dialogue and visuals. When Jeff meets the payoff man there seems to be nobody in sight, yet suddenly the man appears in frame, and when he moves to pull his gun the camera pulls far away to a point where their struggle and gunfire is obscured through fence bars. It’s disorienting and a good way to show Jef’s carefully laid plans going awry, but much cooler is the scene at Jef’s second killing. His white gloved hands are relaxed by his side when his mark pulls a weapon, and yet Jef miraculously outdraws his opponent–a gun just appears in his hand.
Visual mysteries like these, and a pace which is slow but never dull, all build suspense, which is released by minimal violence for a film about a hitman. The first half is just Jef preparing, establishing his “alibi,” then coolly tolerating lineups and police questions. Later there’s a long gripping pursuit of Jef through the Metro that feels like real time, as he pops in and out of cars and halls and stations, and vanishes despite the law’s advantage in manpower and fancy equipment.
Two women figure prominently in Jef’s weekend and help him survive as long as he does: the aforementioned pianist and his girlfriend Jane (played by his then-real-life wife Nathalie) who gives Jef his alibi and admirably refuses to cave to the Commissioner’s threats. The two ladies are literally light and dark, easy symbols to read, with one representing freedom, emotion and life to which he says goodbye, and the other the inevitable end he accepts and is determined to meet on his own terms. Characters are further made into types and symbols by their professionalism and precision, with the hitman, the witness/pianist and police detective all defined by their jobs and actions, as in Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978).
It’s a timeless and surreal combination of classic Hollywood noir, modern philosophy, Euro- and silent-style filmmaking. Jef looks like he walked straight Out of the Past with that hat and popped-collar trenchcoat, so you’d think he’d be the only man in Paris in 1967 in such a throwback outfit, but dozens of men with him in the police van and station look exactly the same. It makes for an undefinable era and a dreamlike state. Not only is Delon unnaturally gorgeous with a mesmerizing gaze and presence, he repeats routines and visits, and faces setbacks and fate with total calm. Doors open to rooms that shouldn’t be there, people and guns appear as if by magic, and the movie’s not over ‘til the lounge drummer plays a Roll. “I never lose.. not really,” says Jef, who lives by habits, not rules, and never answers the question: “what kind of a man are you?”
This post has been part of The France on Film Blogathon hosted by Serendipitous Anachronisms–please click here to visit that site and read up on all the other posts celebrating French cinema and subjects.