Classic Movie Spotlight: “Le Samourai”

Classic Movie Spotlight

SAMUROI PosterLe Samourai” begins with a perfect tone-setting scene. As the opening credits flash by we are treated to a wide still shot of an old meager apartment saturated in dark and gloomy grays. At the center of the shot is a bird hopping around in its cage. And almost unnoticeable is a man laying on his bed blowing gentle bursts of smoke from his cigarette. He blends in perfectly with his shadowy, unassuming abode. This scene, like the entire movie, could be descibed as spellbinding. It captures our attention and keeps us absorbed through its quiet and meticulous artistry. It’s the perfect opening.

After the final opening credit the man rises from his bed fully clothed. He walks to the door of his apartment stopping only to put on his khaki overcoat and to carefully place and adjust his gray fedora on his nicely combed black hair. We immediately sense that he was waiting for a specific time and that he has something important to attend to. His name is Jef Costello (Alain Delon) and he’s a pretty tough cookie. We quickly learn that he is a hired killer and he’s very good at his job. There’s a precise and proven procedure that he follows and he takes us through it step by step.

He leaves his apartment building and moves through the streets of Paris before furtively stealing a car. He gets the plates changed, new papers, and a weapon. After that he gets his alibi in order by visiting the beautiful Jane (played by Alain’s real life wife Nathalie Delon). After that he’s ready for what should be a quick and clean contract. He heads to Marty’s nightclub where his target is located but this turns out to be a tougher job than he anticipated. A police roundup, double-crossing, and a ton of heat tests Jef like never before.

“Le Samourai” was directed by the great Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville, who would only make three more films after “Le Samourai” due to his untimely death at age 55, was a lover of 1930’s and 1940’s American crime pictures and you can see those influences in much of his work. But Melville would add his own stylistic twist to his storytelling which would go on to influence new generations of filmmakers. Melville was also a fan of Alain Delon and he used him in his films whenever the opportunity presented itself.


Delon is perfectly cast as Jef Costello. Delon was a handsome and popular actor whose stone-faced expression and scarred chin gave him the look the part needed. In fact he never smiles throughout the entire film. He’s all business. Delon was born in a suburb of Paris and was an unruly fellow through his childhood and even into his French military service. That changed when he was finally discovered by a talent scout while on a trip to Cannes. I can’t help but think that his past may have contributed to his sleek and tempered performance.

There are so many great touches and techniques in Melville’s direction and he gives us several unforgettable scenes. For me none are better than a fascinating sequence on the Paris Metro. The police decide to tighten the screws on Jef by monitoring his every movement. Jef who knows the Metro like the back of his hand heads underneath the city in an attempt to lose his tail. But undercover officers are everywhere relaying his movements from train to train. Jef struggles between awareness and paranoia as he tries to decipher who is tailing him as he skips from one Metro stop to another. It’s a brilliantly conceived and constructed sequence.

It was hard for me not to be enthralled with “Le Samourai”. The sparse dialogue is carefully reserved for specific scenes and the camera tells a lot of the story. I can see where that approach may lose some people but for me it was clever and effective. It took me a while to get around to seeing this film and that’s a shame. It’s a stylish yet classic cinema piece that has had it’s share of imitators since its 1967 release. If you haven’t seen it, don’t wait as long as I did.


23 thoughts on “Classic Movie Spotlight: “Le Samourai”

  1. Nice review. I’ve had this on my Hulu queue for quite a while but for some reason haven’t seen it yet. It sounds like something I’d really enjoy so I’ll have to check it out.

    • I think you would really enjoy it. It’s so well crafted and I was engaged from the first moment. There’s an artistry about it that is hard to explain. It’s just a great movie.

      • Yeah, comments seem to have taken a hit this Summer for me too, kinda bummed I didn’t get as many response on my monthly series Five for the Fifth as it usually does 😦 In any case, I think it’s great you’re highlighting classic films as well as contemporary ones!

  2. I skipped the post a few times because I was unfamiliar with the film. I have heard of it but like many French language films it remains on my want to see list. When subtitles are involved you have to be focused. I have so many distractions in my life, such focus is hard to come by. Your first paragraph was such a vivid description that my imagination put it together very quickly. After that opening I had to keep reading, great hook. If I find some time in the near future, where I don’t have ten other things happening in the next five hours, I hope to be able to sit and enjoy this, based entirely on your write up here. Thanks.

    • Oh man that’s great to hear. It’s one of the reasons I still write about these types of films. Normally they get the fewest amount of comments of any I do but I’m so impressed with them that I want others to see them. Hope you get a chance to soon. Would love to hear your thoughts on it. It’s a great one.

  3. Excellent review. Am a great fan of Delon. I agree I’ve rarely seen him in a happy-go-lucky atmosphere on screen. He’s done quite a few brooding serious character roles. Am yet to see this neo-noir film. Sounds really good.

  4. Pingback: Not writing easily now, I find myself watching old movies and trying to stay focused for the work at hand | Greenfae's Leaves

  5. Man, so many similarities in our views here. Great minds my man.
    That being said, it’s one of those films where everything is right there in from of you and it’s quite a challenge to mention something that someone wouldn’t have covered already. It tends to be this way with classic movies, I find.

    That pursuit through the French metro is quite something isn’t it? So well handled and Carlito’s Way really sprung to mind there.

    • Oh we definitely see this movie in the same light. Brilliant through and through. It’s another one that I gave 4.5 stars but I can’t really explain why I didn’t give it a perfect score. Maybe after revisiting it that will change.

      • D’you know I feel the exact same way. Much like The Hunt, as we recently discussed, I have no valid explanation as to why I didn’t give it top marks either. It’s certainly deserving. I think I’m trying more and more to save that rating for the ones that truly strike something in me. Not that this didn’t, of course. Man, I don’t know myself anymore! 😉 LOL

      • No, I know exactly what you’re saying. I’m the same way. I don’t want 5 star ratings to be normal. I want them to be for films that stir something up in me every time I see them. 4.5 star films can still be tremendous.

  6. Love this movie. I just read Mark’s review and I missed yours, apparently. I hold this film in such high regard. My film Prof had me watch it and I was unimpressed at first and he thought I was off my rocker.

    Over the years, though, the film has made such an impression on not only me but some fine and reputable movie directors. De Palma included, obviously.

    Great job, Keith! Glad you and Mark gave this one some love, bro.

    • Thanks man. It’s fabulous, isn’t it? It’s one of those movies that I gave a 4.5 stars but I really don’t know why it doesn’t deserve 5 stars. I really think it’s that good.

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