Pure Celluloid Cool: Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï”

A man lies alone in bed. Immaculately dressed in a tight, dark suit he takes a drag of his cigarette, blowing the smoke into a thick pillow of fog above him. The room is empty save for a chair, table, bed and birdcage in which a bird tweets solemnly. A quote appears on screen. “There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle”.

As openings sequences go, Jean Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï” isn’t the most auspicious, but it is revealing. A slow, overly stylized and borderline pretentious scene that completely sets the tone for the remainder of this 1967 French minimalist crime drama. But if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like films that have words like “minimalist” and “French” in their descriptions don’t write off Le Samouraï just yet. Because even though it was made over forty-three years ago and most of time seems poised on the brink of absurdity, Le Samourai is probably the coolest film your ever likely to see. It’s influence can be seen in the films of directors like John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarrintino, Walter Hill and Luc Besson to name but a few. In fact one of the best descriptions of why it should be seen can be taken from the film’s dim-witted American distributors, who in 1973 released a re-edited version and in the process gave it a title they thought would capitalize on the success of another crime film of the time. Unbeknownst to them the new title they chose, although inaccurate, does illustrate Le Samouraï’s importance. The new name? The Godson.

Like all truly great films, the story of Le Samouraï could be described on a postage stamp: “Meticulous assassin goes about daily business” would just about do it, as would “Smartly dressed lone gunman smokes excessively whilst murdering for money”. Put plainly it is the tale of French perfectionist hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) who after ruthlessly murdering a nightclub owner is betrayed by his employers and hunted down. But where other films have substance and drama Le Samouraï has tone and style. Melville had already experimented in recreating classic American noir blended with French savior faire in his previous work Bob le flambour. But for Le Samouraï he condensed the formula to its essence. Jean Luc Goddad once said that all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl, and Melville seems to be taking this advice to heart. The film is sparse on plot and dialogue but heavy in aesthetics. Just as Costello methodically arranges his lifestyle, Melville composes the film perfectly. Not a single shot feels rushed and every movement feels flawlessly serene. 

However the film does occasionally becomes too placid, too enamored of it’s glacial protagonist. When we are introduced to Costello’s girlfriend Jane (played by Alain Delon’s real life wife Nathalie Delon), it is only so he can secure an alibi. “I like it when you come here, you need me” she simpers to Costello who responds by lighting a cigarette and leaving wordlessly. This is the first of many scenes that are too coolly artificial. For transportation Costello steals cars, but only a certain type of car, a Citroën DS that he both finds and steals effortlessly.

The way Melville dresses his hero also contributes to the overall aesthetic. Costello is always dressed to kill (sorry) in dark overcoats, crisp shirts, thin black ties, razor brimmed hats and spotless white gloves. The scenes where he walks the streets of Paris, highlight how radically he stands out. Amongst the normal plebs schlepping their groceries home, Costello sticks out like a stylish thumb. But this isn’t something that goes unnoticed, as the film contains many scenes that emphasise vanity; every time Costello leaves his apartment he lingers on his own reflection, drawing his fingers off his hat in an obvious homage to Humphrey Bogart. Later when he is shot by a fellow hit-man he seems more upset at the hole in his trench coat than the hole in his arm. Even the police description of him is fixated on his style: “ tall, young, well dressed in a hat and a rain coat”.

But the vanity isn’t the only thing that borders on the ridiculous here. There are many sequences that simply don’t make any sense. The first assassination we see Costello carry out is unperturbedly ludicrous. After marching though a crowded room, where everybody notices him, Costello walks through a door marked private and announces to his target “I’m here to kill you” before drawing his pistol impossibly fast.

The film’s sets also maintain this constant overt narcissism. While it’s understandable that a trendy piano bar would be decked out in blue glass and metallic art deco fixtures, it’s unlikely a police station would be. At times the film feels like a parody. As if the people behind the films “Scary Movie”, “Disaster Movie” and “Superhero Movie” had decided to make “Cool Movie”. But every time the film is about to fall off its precipice and into caricature, Melville just about manages to pull it back. As cool as the film is in tone, it cannot escape its sobering central premise: the inevitable death of its protagonist. Much like his dress sense, Costello is old-fashioned. His religious adherence to his code of honor has no place amongst the cutthroat French underworld. Although brimming with panache, the film is a blunt chronicle of a slow and inevitable march to death.

The film cannot be faulted for it’s acting however. Alain Delon is fascinating in the title role. Playing a man fully aware of his doom but whose overriding professionalism prevents him turning back is no easy task, but Delon’s underplays the part to perfection. Barely talking and never smiling Delon oozes icy gravitas and makes you believe in a wholly unbelievable character. It is more a presence than a performance. Elsewhere the rest of cast also perform the roles perfectly, but due to the film concentrating solely on Costello are understandably underwritten. 

The film exists in another world, or as Melville himself put it “a film is first and foremost a dream”.  To fault it for its excessive style is pointless as it’s central characteristic is style. It is a film with familiar elements-a killer, the cops, the femme fatale, a code of honor- but one that blends them into something boldly original. Despite its preoccupation with atmosphere, there are no crass shootouts, no overblown chases and even the grand finale is more enigmatic than conclusive. Melville’s lingering, elegant tale of a hit-man who lives a bare, silent life in a colorless, cool world is breathtaking and deserves to be seen. 

Watch the trailer here

You can order the Le Samouraï DVD online on amazon. (Region 1 only).