Jean-Pierre Melville | 1hr 45min
It is no mistake that we find it so easy to confuse the police officers and gangsters of Le Samouraï at times. Men on both sides covertly meet in rooms hidden away from the outside world, wearing neatly pressed suits and icy, penetrating expressions. They move in packs, resorting to deception, brute force, and stealth tactics to accomplish remarkably similar objectives. Their latest target is dead-eyed hitman Jef Costello, who after being spotted at the scene of his most recent assassination, inadvertently makes enemies of both sides of the law and finds the tables drastically turning on him.
Perhaps the biggest difference that sets Jef apart from the two factions of equally hostile men coming after him is his crushing isolation, illustrated in the faded grey wallpaper, spartan furniture, and minimalist décor of his single-room Paris apartment. It might almost be the most depressing home one could imagine, if it weren’t for the tiny bullfinch which ceaselessly tweets inside its cage. The personal significance this bird holds for him is never clearly defined – maybe it is a companion of some sort, or a merely an alarm whose ruffled feathers helpfully indicate recent disturbances. Either way, it is the sole shred of life in the flat besides Jef himself, though given the static, 3-minute opening shot of him lying motionless in bed, we can accurately surmise that even he is barely hanging on.
By necessity of his dangerous profession, meaningful relationships are out of the question. Even more punishing still is the resulting disconnect from his own humanity. Jef’s entire identity seemingly consists of a single, unyielding code, likened to that of the titular Japanese warrior in the fictional quote which opens the film.
“There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.”
Right from this introductory text, Jean-Pierre Melville’s character study promises to be one of exceptionally intensive focus, matching Jef’s pragmatic efficiency with an equivalently methodical narrative and austere visual style. Even outside his drab apartment, this vision of 1960s Paris persists in perpetual gloom, carving out rigid lines from its modernist architecture and lighting its urban scenery with a melancholy blue wash. Such incredible location shooting effectively continues the lineage of Italy’s neorealist cinema, turning the city’s dingy alleys and underground stations into extensions of Jef’s bare bones existence.
With such little dialogue guiding us through Le Samouraï‘s meticulously winding plot, Melville strips away the innuendos and poetic seductions of his American film noir influences, and frees himself up to advance his narrative through largely visual cues and action. In fact, there is not a single spoken word until about ten minutes into the film, by which time we have already witnessed Jef steal a car, change its number plates, and drive to his lover’s place to set up an alibi for the murder he is about to commit.
As he continues to traverse these streets of muted colour palettes, he cuts a sharp profile in his beige trench coat and grey fedora, composing himself with stoicism behind rain-glazed windows that conceal any stray hint of emotion. Throughout these stretches of suspenseful silence, François de Roubaix electric organ riffs blend with the acoustic sounds of saxophones, strings, and piano, their propulsive rhythms perfectly complementing Melville’s long takes and riveting narrative pace.
Once Jef enters the club which his target owns, his lethal intentions are evident. To get to Martey’s office he must first cross the luxurious lounge, which looks almost futuristic in its polished surfaces and swanky, monochrome designs. Here, wealthy patrons mingle to the sound of a jazz band led by Valérie, who is also the first to spot Jef suspiciously leaving the scene of the crime immediately after the hit. As it turns out, her role in this conspiracy runs much deeper than we suspect, instigating new mysteries when she flat-out denies that he is the culprit during a line-up and saves him from prison. When he later drops by her pristine, white apartment adorned with fine art and posh furniture, we are only left with more questions – how could a bar pianist afford such extravagant living?
Many answers are delivered in due course, painstakingly drawn out through Jef’s investigative attempts to ascertain the identity of his boss who ordered the hit, yet even these solutions contain gaping holes within them. Melville’s rigorous focus and camera zooms do their best to pick out details which might bear some significance, but even those are frequently confined to Jef’s limited perspective. Though he notices some shady figures on his tail as he boards a metro train, it remains unclear as to whether they are undercover cops or gangsters looking to take him out. If he is panicking, Delon does not let it show in his calm and steely resolve, seeking to outsmart his foes in the subsequent cat-and-mouse chase which marks one of Le Samouraï‘s most thrilling set pieces.
In fact, there is only one time that we witness a break in Delon’s cool, self-assured demeanour, and he times it for the perfect moment in the film’s final scene. After dispatching the man who originally gave the orders to kill Martey and discovering that he lives in the same apartment as Valérie, Jef approaches the club where she works one last time. He has orders for a new hit, and given the manner in which he puts on his white gloves as per his modus operandi, as well as his sorrowful eye contact with Valérie, his target is clear. This is a man who lives with the honour, pragmatism, and routine of a samurai, unwavering in his discipline, and yet not even that can hold back the mix of emotions that come through in this pained, mournful expression as he raises his gun.
It is a shock then that the following gunshots come not from Jef, but rather from elsewhere in the bar, killing him on the spot. Even more surprising is the subsequent reveal of his empty gun barrel. Critics have had no shortage of theories over the decades considering the assassin’s motivations here. Did he realise that the police were closing in, and choose to commit an honourable suicide akin to a samurai’s seppuku? Could it be a romantic gesture, choosing to end his own life rather than go through with Valérie’s murder?
Melville’s ambiguity is purposeful and thought-provoking, but there are at least two certainties we can draw from it – that Jef had accepted that he was going to die, and that he was never going to carry out his final orders. Both mark huge shifts in this character who prides himself on stoic consistency, and yet at the same time the motivations which drive them remain cloaked in complex mystery. Jef may never find total redemption, nor is his death likely to leave much of an impact on the world around him. But in this modern Paris of Le Samouraï which strips its citizens of individuality and assigns them arbitrary loyalties to either side of the law, perhaps this shred of humanity he summons up from deep within his calloused soul is the closest he was ever going to get.
Le Samouraï is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.