“Le 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.