Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/13/10 w/ Extensive Revisions.
One of the key figures of French cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the first film directors to create films outside of studios and through his own means. A major influence to the French New Wave movement, Melville's idea to shoot on real locations was something different to his work in comparison to the French films being made during the 1950s. In the 1960s, he was revered by many as making acclaimed films throughout the decade. One of them would be considered one of his finest which featured of France's best actors of that time in Alain Delon entitled Le Samourai (The Samurai).
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and based on the novel The Ronin by Joan McLeod. Le Samourai tells the story of a hitman who lives by a strict code of rules and maintains a certain form of perfection in his job. During an assignment where something goes wrong as he finds himself in trouble. Adapted into script by Melville and Georges Pellegrin, the film is a mixture of 1940s American crime films with 1960s French New Wave style along with the mythology of the Japanese samurai as Alain Delon plays the title character. Also starring Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier. Le Samourai is a smart, hypnotic, and stylish thriller from Jean-Pierre Melville.
Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hitman that lives in an apartment with a little caged bird that's based on a strict lifestyle from the ideas of the samurai. For one particular assignment, Costello steals a car with his set of keys to find which one to start the car as he goes to a secret place to get a gun, money, and a new license plate for the job. After visiting his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) to create an alibi of where he was at between 7PM and 2AM as he goes to a nightclub to kill its owner. He succeeds only to be seen by the nightclub's pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) as he is suddenly pursued by the police and caught. Despite having no criminal record, the police superintendent (Francois Perier) believes that Costello fits the description of the assassin.
During a line-up description where Valerie attends, the bartender (Robert Favart) and a couple of witnesses claim it's Costello as Jane is asked to come to the police station. Yet, Jane's former lover Weiner (Michel Boisron) claims to have seen someone fitting Costello's description at an apartment at around 1:45 AM as Costello was let go due to lack of evidence. While the superintendent decides to have Costello followed, Costello decides to meet his employer (Jacques Leroy) at a bridge where things go wrong as he is aware that he's followed. Costello hopes to meet Valerie into why she didn't say anything as an attraction ensues.
With the superintendent hoping to catch Costello by placing a bug in his apartment, Costello goes on the search for the man his employer is working for as paranoia starts to happen. Based on evidence found at Costello's apartment, the superintendent and his men question Jane who realizes that something is wrong. With the cops tailing him and a man wants him for a new contract to kill someone, Costello makes a move where he would get himself in the clear.
The film is a tribute of sorts to 1940s gangster films where the character of Jef Costello has a look that is very 1940s with a Fedora hat, a suit, and trench coat. Yet, with its French New Wave aesthetics and a tone that is similar to Japanese cinema. It's a film that definitely transcends various styles while taking a genre and turning into something that is very different from what audiences would expect in a thriller. It doesn't have a lot of action nor does it have any fast-building moments of suspense. It's a film that takes it time like the character of Jef Costello does in planning things out.
The screenplay that Jean-Pierre Melville and Georges Pellegrin create is definitely inspired by the works of Japanese cinema. Notably the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa where the film begins with a fictional quote that is attributed from The Book of Bushido. It is in that quote where audiences get to know who Jef Costello is for the first 10 minutes which almost has no dialogue at all. A man who lives a certain lifestyle. Not with a lot in his apartment and by a strict code of rules. A perfectionist who does his job and that is it. He creates alibis, steal cars with set of keys that where he needs to find the right one. Go somewhere far away from the city of Paris to get a gun, a bit of money, and the license plate removed.
Then when a mistake happens when he is suddenly seen, everything goes to hell and tries to get himself out of trouble only to realize he's in a whole lot of trouble from both the cops and the people who hired him to kill a man. At the same time, there's a police superintendent who is an antagonist of sorts but is one with morals and lives by his own set of rules. Knowing that he Jef Costello could be the killer of the nightclub owner, he does what he has to do to get the truth. Even if he has to harass a young woman with threats and a chance to have her name cleared up. The script is about what men will do for their own means as it's really a battle of wits between two very disciplined men.
Melville's direction is definitely full of stylish shots and striking compositions to give the film a tone that is quiet and hypnotic. The first ten minutes is nearly dialogue free until Jef comes to Jane's apartment where she only says his name near the 10 minute mark. A lot of what happens is just Jef Costello doing what he's doing in preparation for what he's going to do. Yet, there's not much dialogue that Jef Costello says throughout as he remains this stoic persona who maintains his cool unless he gets into some trouble where he makes some moves of his own. Melville's camera is always on something from the shot of objects to establishing shots that would prove to be crucial to the story and what is going to happen. Even in scenes where there's great tracking shots that move slowly to what Costello is doing or what is going on around him. The result is Melville maintaining a sense of style and wit into his direction that works to the fullest.
Cinematographer Henri Decae does an amazing job with the film's colorful look with the dark look of Jef's apartment to the bright colors of the apartments where Valerie and Jane stays in. The exterior look of Paris is often filled with low lights depending on its mood which plays up to what Melville needed while the scenes in the police station are shot with a sense of claustrophobia and lights that conveys a far chilling mood. Decae's work is truly superb in its lighting schemes and camera movements for what Melville needed. The editing by Monique Bonnot and Yolande Maurette is great in its slow yet methodical pacing for the first act of the film to more fast-paced cuts in some of the film's action sequences. With the use of rhythmic jump-cuts to keep some of the momentum going, one of the film's striking moments in the editing is the use of side-wipe transitions which is definitely a tribute to the work of Akira Kurosawa, who is famous for those transitions as the editing works in maintaining its sense of style.
The production design/set decoration work of Francois de Lamothe is brilliant for its mood and personalities of where the characters live in. From the dark yet open-space look of Jef's apartment to the stark yet clean look of the police station and office. The art direction and set design is truly fascinating while the look of the club in its clean, glamour look is the epitome of cool but also something that isn't entirely accessible. The sound editing of Robert Pouret is excellent for its sense of atmosphere from the tense feel of the police station to the chaotic work that is Paris in its trains and the city itself. The nightclub scenes are presented in an intimate fashion with jazz music playing in the background throughout. The music score of Francois de Roubaix is wonderful for its jazzy feel with its sense of melancholia and nightclub rhythms that keeps the momentum going in some places while it is mostly played for a calm, suspenseful feel.
The casting is superb with some memorable small roles from Andre Salgues as a garage keeper, Michel Boisrond as Jane's other lover Weiner, Robert Favart as the nightclub's barkeeper, Catherine Jourdan as a hatcheck counter at the club, Jacques Leroy as an employer of Jef, and Jean-Pierre Rossier as the man who ordered the hit on the nightclub owner. Cathy Rosier is very good as Valerie, a jazz-pianist who is smitten by Jef while being the only real witness to see what had happened as she is very understated throughout the film. Nathalie Delon is also good as Jane, Jef's secret lover who maintains his alibi while being very cool when she is being confronted by the police superintendent.
Francois Perier is great as the superintendent who suspects Jef Costello while trying to do all the he can with some rules to catch the guy. Perier is often very calm and at times, plays it cool a bit in his scene with Nathalie Delon as it is definitely remarkable role for the late, great actor. Finally, there's Alain Delon in what is definitely one of his most iconic performances as Jef Costello. Though restrained for the most part and not with a lot of dialogue to speak. Delon's stoic performance is nothing short of cool as he maintains a sense of discipline and charisma to his character. It is definitely one of Delon's finest work of his career.
Released in 1967, the film was considered to be one of Jean-Pierre Melville's finest work. The film would have such an influence on young filmmakers that several paid tribute to the film in various ways. John Woo payed tribute to it with his 1989 film The Killer while he would end up writing an essay for the film's 2005 Criterion release. In 1999, Jim Jarmusch paid tribute to Melville and the film with his own samurai-style hitman story called Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker's character maintaining the same code of rules and a set of keys just like the Jef Costello character.
Le Samourai is a cool, stylish masterpiece from Jean-Pierre Melville featuring a phenomenal performance from Alain Delon. Fans of hitman stories and stylish thrillers will no doubt enjoy this film while it also serves as a worthy introduction to the works of both Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon. It's a film that kind of gets to a slow start at first but once the audience gets into it, it become a whole, worthwhile experience. In the end, Le Samourai is a fantastic, unconventional film from Jean-Pierre Melville.
Jean-Pierre Melville Films: (24 Hours in the Life of a Clown) - Le silence de la mer - Les Enfants Terribles - (When You Read This Letter) - Bob le Flambeur - (Two Men in Manhattan) - (Leon Morin, pretre) - (Le Doulos) - (Magnet of Doom) - (Second Breath) - (Army of Shadows) - (Le Cercle rouge) - (Un flic)
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