Critic’s Notebook: Sharper Than Ever, French Crime Classic ‘Le Samouraï’ Might Be the Coolest Film Ever Made

Critic’s Notebook: Sharper Than Ever, French Crime Classic ‘Le Samouraï’ Might Be the Coolest Film Ever Made

SPOILER ALERT: The following essay discusses key plot points, including the ending.

Last weekend, I took in “Le Samouraï” for what must have been the sixth or seventh time, relishing the new 4K restoration of Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece (now playing at Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles). As I exited the screening, I discreetly eavesdropped on my fellow audience members. Most seemed impressed. A few were still processing what they’d seen: an existential study of a lone killer, told with radically little dialogue. “That wasn’t at all what I expected,” one woman told her friend. “I thought we were going to see some kind of samurai movie.”

It’s a reasonable assumption, given the film’s title, although the 1967 crime classic takes place half a world away, in Paris, almost exactly a century after Japan’s samurai era came to an end. I first saw “Le Samouraï” in the late ’90s, encouraged by a rerelease that touted Hong Kong director John Woo’s endorsement: “The closest thing to a perfect movie that I have ever seen.” We agree on that point (Woo credits the film with shaping both “Hard Boiled” and “The Killer,” and by extension much of Hong Kong cinema), to which I might add that it stars the most handsome actor ever to have appeared on-screen, Alain Delon.

The enigmatic title refers to the main character’s mentality more than his métier: As played by a stone-faced Delon, Jef Costello is a hit man who kills on command. His master is whoever writes his checks, and his motive is simple: because he was paid. “What kind of man are you?” asks Valérie (Caty Rosier), the nightclub pianist who sees Jef exiting her boss’s office moments after his murder. Later, when asked to identify Jef in a police lineup, she lies to the cops, swearing it couldn’t have been him. Whatever Valérie’s reason, that decision indebts Jef to the jazz musician, for he is governed by a code of honor greater than his own self-interest. Jef’s internal sense of ethics trumps his contract and paves the way for the film’s iconic ending.

“Le Samouraï” marked a new kind of role for Delon. By that point in his career, the star had worked with such titans as Luchino Visconti (“Rocco and His Brothers”), Michelangelo Antonioni (“L’Eclisse”) and René Clément (“Purple Noon”), but he clicked with Melville as with no other, and considered the tough-minded war hero (who changed his last name, Grumbach, to disguise his Jewish identity during his service) to be their superior. The pair made three films together: “Le Samouraï,” “Le Cercle Rouge” and “Un Flic.” That partnership changed the course of Delon’s career, establishing him as a worldwide action star alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo, who’d also starred in three Melville classics (of which “Le Doulos” could be seen as a rough draft for this movie).

“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps,” announces an opening quotation attributed to “Bushido (Book of the Samurai).” Come to find, Melville made up the line, much as he did Joan McLeod’s “The Ronin,” from which he claimed to have adapted the story. No such novel exists. And yet, Melville was clearly inspired by Eastern philosophy, especially the code by which samurai put others’ lives before their own. Variations on this theme echo throughout his filmography.

At the same time, Melville’s most ardent obsession was American cinema. “Obsessed” isn’t a strong enough word to describe his infatuation with Hollywood movies, as Melville — who sported a Stetson hat and sunglasses behind the wheel of his Ford Galaxy convertible — screened multiple films a day, cataloging them in his mind. Melville maintained a list of 63 prewar American directors whom he revered (to make the cut, they need only have made one film he truly adored), weaving homages to many of them into his own work. Long before Quentin Tarantino made it fashionable to make genre-movie pastiches, Melville was stealing and remixing elements that had impressed him. As such, “Le Samouraï” represents a cross between American crime films and Eastern chivalry, transposed to the streets, subways and shadier corners of Paris.

What may read as Zen-like to some could just as easily be described as Melville’s attempt to achieve what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema”: telling a story visually, without dialogue. In “Le Samouraï,” many scenes unfold wordlessly, with little more than jazz music or the chirp of the protagonist’s pet bullfinch on the soundtrack. What’s more, Melville meticulously limited the palette, describing his nearly monochromatic aesthetic as “black and white in color” (that approach extended even to the caged bird in Jef’s apartment: Melville cast a female bullfinch, since they had more muted colors than the species’ orange-breasted males).

Released the same year as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Le Samouraï” is in many ways the yin to that film’s yang. The American gangster picture represents an attempt by New Hollywood talents to follow what the directors of France’s Nouvelle Vague had introduced overseas, whereas Melville (whose independent spirit had inspired critics such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut to become filmmakers) was more of a classicist, taking his cues from American film noir. Jef Costello’s silhouette — the dark fedora and the pale gray raincoat cinched at the waist, with its sharp upturned collar — was lifted directly from Alan Ladd’s look in “This Gun for Hire.” The assassin’s white gloves were a personal addition of Melville’s (film editor’s gloves, which practically all his killers wear).

Both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Le Samouraï” end with their (anti)heroes perforated by gunfire, even if the two films are otherwise quite different. As Clyde Barrow, Warren Beatty could hardly be more seductive, disarming audiences with his brown eyes and brilliant grin (it’s always struck me as ironic, and more than a little unconvincing, that this Hollywood stud played the character as impotent). Arthur Penn’s film is warm and sunny, jumping with life. In “Le Samouraï,” by contrast, Delon actively suppresses his natural charisma. He embodies Jef as inexpressively as possible, which suits Melville’s cool, methodical style.

Apart from the piercing stare of his icy blue eyes, Delon appears almost passive through much of the picture, to the extent that French critics dismissed “Delon’s vacant face” (Le Nouvel Observateur”) as being “as boring as a piece of wood” (Positif). In fact, there’s an alertness to his gaze that conveys the character’s coiled-spring potential. He’s an intensely focused professional whose every move seems to be in service of the job at hand. In the opening scene, we see him lying in bed in a dingy gray apartment, so still he might go unnoticed if not for the puffs of smoke from his cigarette. (A disorienting camera move, in which Melville tracks and zooms in opposite directions, suggests a certain schizophrenia in the character.)

Melville had courted Delon on two previous projects, but the star had declined both roles. Now, as the director told film critic Rui Nogueira, “The reading took place at his apartment. With his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands, Alain listened without moving until suddenly, looking up to glance at his watch, he stopped me: ‘You’ve been reading the script for seven and a half minutes now and there hasn’t been a word of dialogue. That’s good enough for me. I’ll do the film. What’s the title?’ ‘Le Samourai,’ I told him. Without a word he signed to me to follow him. He led me to his bedroom: all it contained was a leather couch and a samurai’s lance, sword and dagger.”

In writing the role for Delon, the filmmaker had intuited something fundamental about the actor’s persona. For his part, Delon stripped back what audiences were accustomed to seeing from a star to a bare minimum: no backstory, no psychology, composing his performance of deliberate, efficient gestures (drawing his gun, straightening the brim of his Borsalino) and the subtlest of micro-expressions. That choice, along with the character of Jef Costello, has since proven unquantifiably influential — even if the film itself wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1972. It shaped the way James Caan played the title role in Michael Mann’s “Thief,” and explains Ryan Gosling’s poker-faced turns in the Nicolas Winding Refn thrillers “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” David Fincher’s ”The Killer” amounts to a satirical spin on that same archetype, as Michael Fassbender fills the silences with his character’s inane interior monologue.

More than 10 minutes go by before the first word is spoken in “Le Samouraï,” and it is Delon’s then-wife, Nathalie, who breaks the silence. She plays Jane, a woman who’d sooner die than betray her lover to the police. “Jef?” she asks when he appears at her door. Jef has been preparing an airtight alibi, and he needs her to say he was there at the time of the anticipated murder. Their exchange is terse. Jef speaks in an emotionless monotone, which may be lost on readers of subtitles, but would become Delon’s signature going forward.

After the shooting, Jane is called into police headquarters by the inspector (François Périer), and she sticks to the story Jef gave her. In most of Melville’s movies — nearly all of which explore complex homosocial dynamics — female characters are incidental to the unspoken codes between men, whether it be partners in crime or adversaries on opposing sides of the law. Not so in “Le Samouraï.” Apart from the shady garage operator who supplies Jef with fresh plates and a firearm, the only people loyal to Jef are women. Later, in a distinctly Melvillian twist, the cops confront Jane at home, aiming to pressure her into changing her testimony. “In other words, you want me to perjure myself, in return for which I’ll be left alone. But if I stick to the truth and get in your way, then I won’t hear the end of it. Is that it?” she challenges the inspector. (Just as telling, when two officers break in and bug Jef’s apartment, Melville depicts another way in which the police bend the law.)

The blurring of the lines between right and wrong, crime and justice, run throughout Melville’s oeuvre. In his next film, 1969’s “Army of Shadows” — which did not receive a proper American release until 2006, at which point it topped The Village Voice’s annual critics’ poll — French Resistance fighters are constantly making tough moral choices. And in his next collaboration with Delon, 1970’s “Le Cercle Rouge,” the inspector blackmails a tight-lipped source by falsely arresting his son, only to have the young man kill himself in jail. Summarizing Melville’s own philosophy, the police chief in that film says, “All men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last.”

Coming out of the Resistance himself, Melville had comrades in both law enforcement and the criminal underworld. He understood the complexity of both milieus, and didn’t hold people to the same standards that the justice system might. A man’s worth was defined by his actions, and even hoodlums ought to behave with honor. That explains the choice Jef makes in the film’s inevitable yet surprising finale, a twist that proves every bit as calculated in its construction as his earlier double alibi. As Melville revealed to Nogueira, “The moment a man tells you ‘I was wrong,’ I think he is completely, absolutely pardoned for his wrongs.” And so, his climactic act should be read as a symbolic form of seppuku, a poetic self-sacrifice through which this coldblooded killer ultimately redeems himself.

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