Le samouraï

France, Italy, 1967

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Alain Delon (Jef Costello), François Périer (the police lieutenant), Nathalie Delon (Jane Lagrange), Cathy Rosier (the jazz pianist), Jean-Pierre Posier (Olivier Rey)

The inaugural sequence is a long take lasting some four minutes. The camera, using an extreme long shot, captures a huge, sparsely decorated and furnished room in the dark. A barely visible man is lying on the bed, which stands against the right side of the frame; he is smoking a cigarette. The white titles appear over this still image, without a score playing, and end with a quote from the Bushido, the moral code of honor of the Japanese samurai (actually, this is a fabrication by director Jean-Pierre Melville).

The ultimate cool and cruel operator: Alain Delon

This is a quiet, solemn and somehow eerie start that hints at the peculiar character of Jef Costello, the title role. He is definitely lonesome (who however has a pet, a bullfinch) and not at all a talkative – this is a film where dialogues are brief and rare; not a word is said over the first ten minutes. He is smart and stolid: his cold stare and blank face seem impossible to upset and look like a stunning mask standing erect above sleek and nice suits and below elegant hats; he is a distant but distinguished fellow – the cool allure and self-controlled demeanor of Alain Delon are simply awesome, a groundbreaking performance. He is a tightly focused operator who never wastes his energy and time; he is a hired killer just waiting for contracts and then acting with the utmost efficiency, carrying out the task with an amazingly cold determination and detached attitude.

These traits are powerfully depicted and emphasized over the movie’s first part as the camera tracks Costello in each of the moves that he has reckoned to make and performed calmly and effortlessly to achieve his newest mission, shooting a Parisian nightclub’s boss dead. Takes are far shorter and editing is complex, although it is made in a strikingly fluid fashion – now the film is, like the character, on the move, in a stark contrast with the beginning; actually, it has taken up a dynamics and a velocity that it would never ditch till the end. The story of this modern-day, underworld-savvy samurai is a matter of pure kinetics: characters and cameras are ceaselessly, pacing, walking, running, driving away; this is a drama defined by motion and the end of the motion does mean the end of the character and the film.

Costello has no other choice than to move: his contract killing has run into trouble as a witness did see him doing the job and as he was nabbed in a police dragnet. Luckily enough, he can walk free from the police station, as the witness, the nightclub’s jazz pianist, bravely claims he is not the guy she saw and as evidence to the contrary was impossible to gather by the commissaire, the police lieutenant in charge of the case. Then, when Costello comes to an appointment to get paid, the guy instead tries to kill him. He scrapes through the brawl and he knows he is in jeopardy. He needs to know who has ordered his previous job to avoid being killed and stays on the lookout for the police, aware that they are sure Costello is guilty and dangerous and, as a consequence, should be tailed.

He is, indeed– the film morphs into the detailed and suspenseful narration of the police efforts to keep watch of Costello and his own clever, cheeky efforts to get them lost; the cat and mouse game climaxes in a run from one subway car to another. But even this chase is marked by lulls, moments when nothing occurs, not even in the soundtrack, as Costello, and sometimes the occasional undercover police officer, stands idle, keenly observing people and movements to guess where danger is lurking. The film keeps an eerie quietness tinged with anxiety throughout the gigantic chase the story has become; this is an odd rhythm, nervy and yet with a suspended animation that brilliantly rises the tension. “Le samouraï” turns the city, and even some buildings, into an extended, unnerving maze: whether it is the police station, where people endlessly pace up and down the corridors, or the subway corridors where the bad guy feverishly tries to escape, the character is desperately groping for an exit – and the camera is just a roving movement, keeping the record of his travails while making them even more thrilling, intriguing and disquieting – how could the story end? What could befall on this fascinating tough guy?

That story gets a twist as he is lured to get another contract as a reconciliation gesture. He refuses to be hoodwinked and finds a way to settle scores with the man who has been scheming the deaths, Oliver Rey. But he still operates as if he would do the second job, which brings him back to the fateful jazz joint and also to his death. This is a most dramatic and surprising end. Well, not fully surprising: a clever use of the same tracking out shot inside a white corridor festooned with modern art paintings has already suggested to the audience that the jazz pianist has closer ties to Rey than Costello could think, which may explain, or not, why she is supposed to be his next victim; the repeated image bolsters her status as a walking enigma that would never be deciphered; till the end, her sentiments are barely understandable; but so are his.

Costello is a man living alone and on his own, who is not engaged, even if he has a notional girlfriend helping him inventing alibis (her name is Jane Lagrange and she does feel something for him). But he owes a lot to the jazz pianist and seems ready to have a relationship with her. A final twist reveals he was not really bent on shooting her, even if the job was clearly risky – and proves to be fatal, as policemen were on the watch. There is something definitely preposterous to a death that is dramatically, outrageously shot. Costello’s narrative arc is too bluntly broken off after so much energy and suspense; his mesmerizing mask suddenly gives way to an all too human face wrecked by pain and stupor; the tragedy proves he was not invincible and untouchable, after all, but that does leave his persona indecipherable. A self-contained raging force has stumbled and then senselessly scrambles to annihilation; it seems that there is nothing else to show but this is shot with a visual flair shaped by a fresh and stunning sense of pace, action, and angst.

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