Le samouraï (1967, Review)

Directed by:
Jean-Pierre Melville

Written by:
Jean-Pierre Melville
Georges Pellegrin

Alain Delon … Jef Costello
Francois Périer … Superintendent
Nathalie Delon … Jane Lagrange
Cathy Rosier … Valérie, The Pianist
Jacques Leroy … Man in the passageway
Michel Boisrond … Wiener
Robert Favart … Bartender
Jean-Pierre Posier … Olivier Rey
Catherine Jourdan … Hatcheck Girl
Roger Fradet … First Inspector

‘There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai. Unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle. Perhaps…’
– BUSHIDO (Book of the Samuraï)

As the above quote that opens Le samouraï indicates, this film revolves around a loner. Hired killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lives in a greyish apartment with a bird as his only company. As soon as he gets up from his sofa, he engages in a dangerous mission: a contract murder in a crowded nightclub. Many patrons spot him in his conspicuous outfit: a raincoat, a hat and white gloves, much like how the gangsters in old Hollywood movies dressed.

After the murder, the police start to round up the usual suspects including Costello. He turns out to be a professional however; the beautiful Jane provides him with a watertight alibi. There is something strange at work though. The nightclub’s pianist, who clearly had a good look at Jef, lies to the police and says it wasn’t him. The cops are forced to release him, but the superintendent doesn’t trust it and has him tailed. In the meantime, we meet Jef’s employers who are unhappy with the many eyeball witnesses and plan to have him removed.

Le samouraï is a very minimalist film with also a sense of avant garde in it. It reminds a lot of John Boorman’s Point Blank that was released in the same year. The story is deceivingly simple, but leaves much room for various interpretations. Rather than on storytelling, director Melville focuses on style and he does so in a brilliant fashion. This movie is just perfectly crafted. Every image, many just showing uber-cool protagonist Jef roaming around in Paris, is shot amazingly and serves a purpose as well. The colour pallet consists of solely cold colours.

Although inspired by American gangster flicks, Le samouraï is still very distinguishable due to Melville’s master’s touch. In turn, it has inspired many modern gangster authors including John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. The films from Woo – most notably A Better Tomorrow and The Killer – feature scenes almost literally lifted from Le samouraï.

The first viewing is a bit awkward because of the cold, distant tone. But multiple viewings are bound to reveal a lot of hidden substance in the multi-layered screenplay. Both critically and commercially this is considered as one of Melville’s greatest successes.

OLIVER REY: ‘A wounded wolf. He’ll leave a trace now. No, we have to get rid of him and quick.’

This is Johnnie To’s favourite film.