“I never lose. Not really.”
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) is the definition of cinematic precision. Each shot, each cut, each movement is a slice of redolent, provocative and sometimes even banal accuracy. Always a stylish stickler for the intricacies and subtleties of character — typically masculine — behavior, Melville’s direction has never been quite this rigorous. At the same time, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), the hired gun and titular caustic “samurai,” acts with an acute, cautiously conditioned conduct. But with this life of exactitude comes solitude. Melville begins Le Samouraï with a quotation taken from the non-existent Book of Bushido: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… Perhaps….” The affirmation attests to Costello’s loneliness, maybe elevating it a bit, suggesting the way of life is admirable and noble, and simultaneously shielding a primed power.
That does not mean it is glamorous life, though. Opening in Costello’s stolid, dingy apartment, there is, often literally, no color in this world. Costello is himself barely visible as he lies in his bed, the hues of his attire melding with that of his surroundings. He is a figure in the shadows, smoking in his unadorned room with scarcely a sound save for the chirping of his pet bullfinch. Melville’s camera makes an unsteady movement, trying to perhaps approach Costello. It shakes a bit, pushes forward then falls back. It fails to advance, retreats and remains. It is difficult to get close to a man like Jef Costello.
Unceremoniously, as if a programed automaton, Costello gets up, dons a trench coat, places his perfectly positioned fedora and exits the apartment. Inside a stolen car, he reveals a massive ring of one-size-will-eventually-fit-all keys. And sure enough, he drives the car to a partially concealed garage, there exchanging money with a mechanic who, for his part, swaps out the license plates on the vehicle. With that, Costello is off. Still not a word has been spoken, though the impression becomes solid. Costello represents a prepared professional; he is silent, smooth and efficient. Like the film itself, like Melville’s direction, Delon’s Costello embodies well-honed proficiency.
Expressionless, his coat wrapped tightly around his rigid frame, his wooden beam arms plunging hands firmly into his pockets, Costello remains contained and restrained. His interactions with others are occasionally physical — perhaps a surprisingly delicate embrace, more likely a punch — but rarely does he indulge in small talk. Melville’s script, which initially appealed to Delon because of how little Costello said, builds character from behavior. When Costello does speak, it is to the point, in short sentences with the velocity of a bullet.
By this point, the essentials of Le Samouraï are basically established. Melville’s ode to expert criminal stoicism is to be a mannered production, a smart, almost self-conscious catalog of genre standards. It’s not quite reality, but it’s a movie reality. Melville exploits the conventions of the gangster film without being cutesy. It is more devotional: the form is to be cherished and revered. He relishes in the icons of nightclubs, smoke-shrouded card tables and dusk-till-dawn police lineups; he stresses the generic sameness of the hats, the coats, and the grim expressions that inevitably define those who occupy these arenas. Shot by Henri Decaë, Melville’s resident cinematographer (Le Silence de la Mer , Bob le Flambeur , Le Cercle Rouge , among others), Le Samouraï exudes an atmospheric coldness, a damp domain of effusive grey, a fitting backdrop for a world defined by uncertain moral ambiguity.
And it is clear Melville loves this backdrop. The film’s laconic pacing, frequently following Costello as he goes from one place to the next (usually in an attempt to elude his pursuers), stays in real-time even during the down-time. The scenic survey enables Melville to make the most of Le Samouraï’s Parisian locations — locations humming with ambient noise — like the superficially innocuous footbridge where Costello is nearly killed, which takes on resounding visual and narrative significance due to Melville’s elegant presentation. “His love for the city made it sublime,” notes As Rui Nogueira.
Within this cityscape, Costello is hunted on both ends, by those who hope to dispose of him and by those who wish to arrest him. Of what viewers see in the film, Costello has a small team of collaborators (and there may be others), though he is essentially a lone wolf. After successfully pulling off a hit, he gets away on the viability of two alibis, one established and secure, the other unintended and curiously cooperative. Jane (Nathalie Delon, Alain’s wife) is the first; she is his loyal, though clearly unfulfilled, lover, if such a word even applies for someone like Costello. The second comes from pianist Valerie (Caty Rosier). She witnessed the murder, yet denies seeing Costello. But why would she do that? In any case, Costello is a liability. He is still the main suspect, which does not sit well with his employers, who renege on the deal and try to off their now volatile hire. Earnest as the police may be (led by François Périer’s inspector), they are no match for Costello’s preparation.
Through some assistance, Costello is ultimately left to his own devices. Tending to his own wounds — physically and existentially — he finds that he cannot control everything after all, particularly the betrayal of others. For the first time in the film, vulnerable cracks appear in his meticulous veneer. Shocking bursts of violence may explode from self-protected necessity (having been previously so firm, the sight of Delon’s animated physicality is jarring), but the far more inscrutable revelations emerge from his austere poker-face composure, which leaves his emotions enigmatic and his motivations indefinite. One almost expects a smile from Costello as he outwits and outruns the police who track him through the Paris Metro, like when Fernando Rey smartly waves off Gene Hackman as he is left behind in The French Connection (1971). But no, Costello is too cool for that. He is too reserved for such emotional embellishment. As Nogueira points out, “These are the eyes of a man who is completely detached from everything.”
Purposefully so. The opacity of Costello, indeed of Le Samouraï generally, was encouraged by Melville. To the very end, one is left to speculate about Costello’s final intentions, and what the film itself professes. All that can be surmised with any certainty is that Costello remains in control, that even death will come as he allows. No matter how either side views what finally transpires, he will emerge victorious, a step ahead, assured. As Costello said earlier at a poker game, “I never lose. Not really.”
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Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Vague Visages.