Actors playing lonesome and laconic hitmen who glide from one assignment to the next can learn a thing or two about rectitude and repose from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. Made in 1967 and starring the peerless Alain Delon, this study of an ascetic assassin who has a caged bird and his perfectionism for company is the final word in cerebral cool. Melville’s homage to American noir and the Japanese samurai genre is pulp elevated to art, and has influenced several films, ranging from Taxi Driver (1976) to The Killer (1989).
The opening shot of Delon’s Jef Costello lying in bed sending up blue plumes of smoke quickly establishes his inner world: a drab apartment in need of a coat of paint, functional furniture, and a metaphorical bird in a cage. The opening credits that roll over Jef’s supine form conclude with a quote from the Bushido code, which extols the way of the lone samurai warrior and compares him to a tiger in the jungle. Delon’s feline grace over the course of the next 105 minutes certainly matches the description.
Jef is a man of neat and precise movements, whether he is wearing his hat at just the right angle or placing his duplicate keys on the seat of the vehicle he is going to steal, or calmly comforting his girlfriend. He is a creature of habit who is wedded to his headgear, raincoat and wristwatch – time and timing are everything in this movie. Melville’s film is similarly fastidious, letting the action methodically unfold in defiance of the fast-cutting conventions of the crime thriller. The film’s meditative pace and minimal use of dialogue allow us to take in Jef’s solitude, the glassy interiors of the night club where he carries out his assignment, and the chic apartments where allies and adversaries lounge about. Even the police station, where Francois Perier’s investigator tries to nail Jeff for the crime, is perfectly symmetrical. The extended line-up and subsequent interrogation have all the ritualistic flavor of a Japanese tea ceremony.
Perier’s police officer is the busiest creature in a movie of unhurried movements. Melville’s crime movies, including Bob the Gambler (1956) and La Circle Rogue (1970), are minor essays in process and method, but he is also a master at creating a mood. An attempt to bug Jef’s apartment is suffused with suspense, and once again, it’s the caged bird, Jef’s greatest ally in a world out to get him, that proves to be his saviour.
Few films have used Delon’s face to greater effect. He was already a movie star by the time of Le Samourai, with the success of Plain Soleil (1960), Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963) behind him. Henri Decaë’s camera rests ever so often on Delon’s perfectly aligned features, capturing his icy demeanour as well as his silent despair when the cards begin to stack up against him. Witnesses to the murder at the night club fail to pick out Jef during the police line-up. Some of them are on the side of his criminal bosses, but the others are probably just too smitten to react in a logical fashion.