Le Samouraï (1967)

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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.

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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.

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18 thoughts on “Le Samouraï (1967)”

  1. Glad you got to see this one. It’s classic French neo-noir with Delon at his best and Melville effortlessly creating stylish suspense.

    1. It is SO cool and stylish, I can see rewatching this one very soon. Delon is beyond photogenic and hardly needs to do anything, which isn’t to say he’s not acting. Now I see where a lot of subsequent movies drew from.

  2. Whoa! This sounds like a crazy, incredible film. I like your description of “classic Hollywood noir, modern philosophy, Euro- and silent-style filmmaking”. Sounds like a perfect arthouse film see with savvy film enthusiasts.

    Here’s what I think: If you and I lived in the same city, we could start an awesome and utterly cool classic film festival featuring films like this.

    1. It’s a cool noir in every way. Moves slow but never boring, check it out sometime. Running a fest like that would be a dream job! We have to find a way to do one online/virtually 🙂

  3. Kristina- This is such a great film, I am so glad you brought it to the France On Film Blogathon. Thank you for such engaging coverage, I really enjoyed your observations on the visual aspects of this film.

    And that bird is a no-good stool-pigeon.

    PS If you ladies are throwing a film festival, I am buying tickets.

    1. Thanks for hosting, I’d been looking forward to watching this soon (along with a long list of other Delon movies!) and this was the perfect opportunity to make this discovery. and yes we have to plan this fest! 🙂

  4. So glad you covered this for the blogathon, it’s one of my all-time favourite film noirs. It’s so cool, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be something (perhaps the secret to French style generally!). I’ve always thought that watching this is a bit like being under a spell – it’s so compelling but it’s hard exactly to say why.

    1. Yes, a spell is a good way to put it, it has that dreamlike feel, I kept thinking he’d died somewhere along the way. But like you say it’s not a tryhard movie, it just works, unfolds smoothly and feels classic. Thanks!

  5. Recently got this one in with a bumper crop of Criterion titles at a local library booksale. Thanks to your review here it’s just been bumped to the head of the line for viewing!

    1. Hope you enjoy– you’re pretty sure to if you like noir, and you can see a lot of influences this had on the next few decades of movies. Thanks for reading

  6. Delon has such a great presence on camera. If we didn’t already dub Steve McQueen The King of Cool ( though I argue Mitchum for that award) Delon could easily fit the bill.

  7. I remember that when my friends and I all found out (in the 90s) that this movie was a major influence on John Woo, we all wanted to see it for years. When it finally became available, it was like a rite of passage, leading to “Shoot the Piano Player,” “Rimini,” and any number of other French New Wave films. Le Samourai remains one of the best.

    1. Yes, I sure see that influence now, and this totally lived up to the hype. I want to see Shoot the Piano Player too, Just got Rififi for myself this Christmas so that’ll be soon. I’m a bit “behind” on French New Wave so this is all lots of fun to get into. Thanks!

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