Le Samouraï, is a 1967 French-Italian crime film directed by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, starring Alain Delon as Jef Costello.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s French-noir masterpiece is one of my personal favorite films and one I consider to be criminally underrated. Its influence on the modern-noir genre and, in particular, hit-man films is immense. This movie has the pitch perfect precision and perfection like that of a Swiss watch. It is beautiful, moving, exciting and astonishing; no wonder that it ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai is the cinematic personification of ‘cool cat’.
This film is often bench-marked to the kind of details that Melville had crafted and no film since has been able to work brilliantly on so many levels. Every aspect has been a meticulous detail from the occasionally sparse use of dialogue, the engrossingly tense atmosphere, to the almost monochrome color scheme, all of which results in a truly unique cinematic experience.
Le Samouraï opens with a superbly filmed 10-minute, dialogue-free sequence that introduces a pro’ hit-man Jef Costello (Alain Delon.) Living in a desolate apartment and never cracking a smile, Jef only lives for one thing, doing what he’s paid to do. Although Jef is an inherently unlikable character, as Delon’s performance exudes coolness, demanding your attention and awe. His cold and calculating demeanor is in stark contrast to his eyes, brimming with intensity and sentiment.
The story follows Jef as he prepares for his next job, discreetly entering a nightclub and killing the land lord of the club. Thou’ taking steps to ensure his inconspicuousness, using a stolen car and establishes two airtight alibis, including his sultry girlfriend Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon,) Jef soon finds himself in police custody in connection to the murder. However, due to his solid alibis and a lack of witnesses, he manages to avoid criminal charges, but not the Superintendent’s (François Périer) suspicion. The consequent cat-and-mouse game between Jef and the police provides much of the film’s alluring atmosphere and suspenseful scenes.
At first glance, it could be fairly easy to dismiss Le Samouraï’ as an unremarkable entry to the oversaturated noir genre due to its lack of kinetic action and seemingly familiar storyline. That, however, would be doing the film a grave injustice. What truly sets Melville’s work apart is its strict commitment to subtly and utterly flawless execution. With a stunning visual style, all-around strong acting performances, and intelligently written characters, it is near impossible to find any faults within the film. Even the apparently straightforward story is deceptively complex. Much of the film’s actions and emotions are purposefully downplayed, adding ambiguity and depth to some characters’ motives and roles.
Director Melville uses minimal plot to create some of the most hypnotic sequences ever achieved in the cinema. The long silences (as Delon escapes from the police tail in the Paris Metro or as he discovers that someone has intruded his private space because his caged bird seems to have disturbed) and the absorbing, almost musical rhythms of the protagonist’s and the camera’s movement together with the stylized use of color make this a piece of virtuoso cinema which is both intellectually and economically engulfing.
Mr. Melville achieved this simplicity through a sophisticated overview of the genre. His style remains haunting and elegantly spare, just right for the kind of hit man who lives in silence, in bare and colorless surroundings, with a lonely caged bird. Le Samouraï even today stands tall and an important piece of cinematic history. Although the label is tossed around a bit too often, this is one film that is absolutely deserving of being called a masterpiece. It is an unquestionable must-see for any film noir fans and a fantastic movie going experience for fans of any genre.
In an interview with Rui Nogueira, Melville indicated that he had shot an alternate version of Jef’s death scene. In the alternative ending, which is actually the original version as Melville had written in the script, Costello meets his death with a picture-perfect grin à la Delon. The scene was changed to its current form when Melville angrily discovered that Delon had already used a smiling death scene in another of his films. Still images of the smiling death exist.
This film had influenced many movies and directors and has the long list and some of them are Walter Hills’ ‘The Driver’ made in 1978, followed by ‘Drive’ which was made in 2011, John Woo’s 1989 film ‘The Killer’; Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung’s 2001 crime-and-film making comedy ‘You Shoot’; Madonna’s 2012 song “Beautiful Killer” is an homage to Alain Delon are some of them….A full circle ‘Le Samourai’
- Written & Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
- Produced by Raymond Borderie & Eugène Lépicier
- Casting: Alain Delon; François Périer; Nathalie Delon & Cathy Rosier
- Music by François de Roubaix
- Cinematography: Henri Decaë
- Editing by Monique Bonnot & Yolande Maurette
- Distributed by S.N. Prodis
- Release dates: October 25, 1967 (France)
- Running time: 105 min
- Country: France & Italy