The fount from which all stoic male criminal films flow, Jean-Pierre Melville’s deeply influential Le Samouraï (1967) introduces familiar elements of genre films like The Driver (1978), Drive (2011), and Leon: The Professional (1994) into the film lexicon, but stands well enough on its own as a nobly-intended if bloated meditation on criminal ethos.
Le Samouraï opens with an epigraph on bushido, the code of the samurai. This is immediately followed by a beautiful Cézanne-inspired shot of a repose Jef Costello (Alain Delon) in his austere apartment, the high ceilings and dour wallpaper framing him while his pet bird chirps unhurriedly from its cage. As the credits roll over, we get the measure of our protagonist from this single tableau. Costello’s sparse livelihood, his meditative demeanor, his determined resistance to personal attachment – and of course the loaded imagery of the caged bird with clipped wings – all point to stoicism and a muted sense of detachment. Jef does not speak until almost twenty minutes into the film, when he arrives at the apartment of his lover Jane (Nathalie Delon), and even then his speech is clipped and deliberate. Le Samouraï distinguishes itself from the usual crime-thriller by devoting so many of its opening minutes to fleshing out the character behind the criminal.
The first mention of a ‘plot’ comes when Jef mysteriously tells Jane that he “will be here from 7:00 to 2:00,” although the reveal of this as Jef’s request for an alibi is not made explicitly clear until later on. Le Samouraï deserves credit for putting the most visceral ‘action’ scene in the first act of the film and choosing to explore the consequences of that violence rather than anticipate them. Even when the plot settles on Jef’s latest hit and the ensuing fallout, however, it strays and winds through low-emoted ruminations on the criminal in isolation and Jef’s enigmatic ‘code.’
Blame for the romanticization of disaffected men who just can’t stop breaking the law can probably be squared partly on the shoulders of this movie. Le Samouraï occasionally approaches Jef’s badass-cool attitude with a postmodern sense of irony, as if the ludicrous cheekbones framing Delon’s perfect face stand only to be mocked by the judgemental gaze of the audience. This is most apparent in Jef’s Bogart-esque interactions with the women in the film, reminiscent of how Jean-Paul Belmondo’s childish obsession with Bogart spoke to his deep-seeded obsession with facile masculinity in Breathless (1960). Unlike Godard’s, however, this is not a film overly concerned with chastising the male ‘lone wolf’ for archaic notions of chauvinistic nobility and codified honor-violence. There are hints of layered condemnation here, but for the most part, Delon’s mid-century samurai is to be taken at face value.
Jef is portrayed as classic cool from start to finish. His movements are examined lovingly by cinematographer Henri Decae’s slow-roving camera, even during the banal moments when he patches up a wound or methodically steals a car with a prefab ring of dummy keys. There is a sense of nature documentary in everything Melville and Decae do with Delon’s Jef – close-ups reveal a thousand-yard stare above tightly wound lips, and wide-shots capture every nuance of his measured gait. One fight sequence between Costello and a rival hitman is filmed from a moving vehicle on a nearby overpass, like a Nat Geo photographer capturing a battle between savannah dogs from an open-air Jeep. Melville embraces the lone wolf metaphor wholeheartedly (a detective even says it aloud at one point), glorifying the elemental mystique of Jef’s lonely hitman. This shameless romanticism leaves a sour taste in the mouth in 2018, when malcontent white male shooters are encouraged to commit heinous acts of violence by our media.
Alain Delon plays Jef Costello with the steady ease that made him an icon, while the supporting cast fuel the narrative with the haughty-yet-vulnerable affectation that enshrines post-New Wave French films. François Périer is virtually interchangeable with any older chief inspector in a crime film, but he’s serviceable. Nathalie Delon and Cathy Rosier deliver particularly excellent turns as Jef’s loyal lover and the mysterious nightclub pianist, respectively, despite an unsurprising lack of meaningful development for the women in the script. The villains (Jean-Pierre Posier, Georges Casati) are as forgettable as they come. After Jef is named as suspect in the murder investigation, the criminals decide he is a liability and must be eliminated, aka the most overused crime-boss motivation in these sorts of films. Yet Le Samouraï mercifully does not treat its A-plot villains as the principal antagonists. As with all the best character-driven crime thrillers, the most dangerous obstacles for the protagonist are their own morals, or in Jef’s case, his own obsession with abiding by his personal brand of bushido.
Jef never has a Ryan Gosling “I don’t carry a gun, I drive” moment, although his final line in the film comes as close to a summation of his bushido as the film ever delivers. Most of Jef’s internal struggle is visual, shown through his repeated silent interactions with his caged bird, his intense contemplation of the jazzclub pianist’s decision to protect his identity during the police line-up, and his clumsy unspoken apology to Jane for his manipulative behavior. All of these scenes build to a gradual thematic understanding of Jef as a relic of another time (yet another romantic notion); a killer with a code, out of place in ‘modern’ corrupt and bureaucratic France. The deliberate similarities between the police hunting Costello and the criminals gunning for him evoke Fritz Lang’s M (1931), in which the law and the mob are two sides of a morally bankrupt coin. This reading too puts Costello on a pedestal. His code-driven style of violence is demonstrated as preferable to the dehumanizing methods of the police – who use new technology to track his movements through the Paris metro – and the sadistic betrayals of the criminal empire he begrudgingly works for. At the end of the film Costello goes out like any good ronin, middle finger raised at the system that has extinguished his simpler, nobler ideals.
The main problem with Le Samouraï, which I suppose can be forgiven for proto-MRA theming because it predates the horrible deeds done in the name of lone-wolf romanticism, is that it’s too damn long. Too much time is spent languishing on Costello’s mundane routine, and the climax explodes in a jumbled frenzy without nearly enough lead-up to impose meaningful stakes on the result. Overall, Melville demonstrates his mastery of visual storytelling throughout, but the film could have done with twenty fewer minutes and a dozen fewer sex-servicing shots of Delon’s biceps in a white t-shirt. Nevertheless, this film is utterly indispensable if you’re a fan of Walter Hill and Refn’s one-hit wonder Drive, or if you’ve ever been curious about the roots of film bros’ obsession with cool gun-toting loners in iconic jackets.