The samurai figure is usually reserved for feudal Japan. Sometimes, there is obvious inspiration that appears in American cinema in the form of a cowboy or some other lone wolf, strong, silent killer-type. Of all the countries to expect this to pop up, France is probably toward the bottom of most peoples’ list. It turns out, French filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melville was actually an early proponent for this archetype, with his film ‘Le Samourai.’
Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hitman who is paid to kill a nightclub owner. He does this after creating an alibi with his girlfriend. Many people see him at the nightclub, including a piano player Valerie (Cathy Rosier). The police round up the usual suspects along with Jef, but he gets off because of insufficient evidence.
When he seeks his payment, the man who hired him shoots him in the arm and flees. If this isn’t bad enough, Jef is being tailed by police who aren’t convinced that he is innocent.
With two groups of people after our anti-hero, has Jef found himself cornered with no way out?
For all of the samurai qualities that are implied, including a quote at the start and the title itself, this doesn’t seem to all that inspired by the subject. If anything, Jef seems to be like a ronin (a masterless samurai) but just because a hitman is observant, disciplined and soft-spoken doesn’t necessarily mean that he is to be compared to an ancient Japanese warrior. For such a smart guy, why does Jef always wear such a distinct coat and hat? There is a telling decision made late in the game regarding this, but before that, it seems like a silly choice done for superficial reasons.
A more practical aspect of Jef is his spartan living conditions. He has few furnishings and a bird, theoretically for companionship. This feathered friend plays an important role in one or two instances which is evidence of Jef’s attention to detail.
It is sort of shocking to watch the film now because of how far technology and detective-work has come. Still, the limitations create a fascinating set of circumstances which the police use to try to keep track of Jef. There is a great image which repeats where a map of the city lights up when one of the officers sees and then loses sight of their target. The climax is memorable because it really amounts to a half-hour chase scene. The actual conclusion is a tad abrupt though it is memorable. It is a good way to contrast the gradual building of tension that takes places over the course of the entire film. You’ll notice the feeling that two opposing forces are closing in on Jef by the minute. A concise run time further adds to the sense of urgency.
Speaking of our main character, his relationship with the female characters of the story are worth mentioning. He is seeing a woman who is involved with someone else, though she is willing to be his alibi and to vouch for him despite police threats. He seems very distant and cold toward her. His relationship with Valerie is also mystifying because conventional wisdom would say that she should turn him in, yet she doesn’t. Is she simply smitten with him or does she have a larger role to play in all of this?
Look for the film’s influence in John Woo’s ‘The Killer’ (a personal favorite), and Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai’ which is more directly indebted to a traditional samurai. There is a whole host of other stories with solitary killers at the center that acknowledge this as important. You didn’t expect me to do all of the work listing them, did you? These modern films are much more violent, but the central characters have some similarities.
Special features include: many interviews plus author Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau talk about director Jean-Pierre Melville’s work.
Though the action is sporadic and violence is used sparingly, ‘Le Samourai’ manages to be a very watchable film, especially considering the historical context of it. This might not displace some of your favorite assassin-based films, but it might give you a new perspective on them.
Rated PG 101 minutes 1967