Le Samourai (1967)


France; Jean-Pierre Melville 


All Audiences 


Jeff Costello, a solitary and reclusive hitman, devised and executed his latest contract with his characteristic calm and cold-bloodiness, forging an outwardly ironclad alibi and then retiring to his Spartan way of life. Only this time a gritty policeman cracks the shield of his inexpugnability and sets out to prove for good he is a killer. Just as the trap is closing in, Costello has to face the brutal backlash of his employers, angered and worried he could drag them down in his downfall. He will meet the menace with his daunting calmness, and then, as the race gets more heated and hopeless, with an equally quiet desperation and determination.


It is hardly surprising that Le Samourai gave birth to such an enduring mythology, which still soaks most of today’s film noir entries, more than 40 years later. What is more surprising, though - and more disorientating - is the way this mythos progressively sidelined what is effectively the kernel of Melville’s sophisticated, existentialist gangster drama. Little is known about Le Samourai itself, but Delon’s phlegmatic romanticism, his tough, silent glamour-boy persona and almost alien impassibility violently springs to mind whenever the name is mentioned. Le Samourai is actually very far from the classic noir canon, but his ominous antihero became almost instantly the epitome of a certain heightened, eerie underworld aestheticism.


The film unfolds elegantly like a gorgeous tapestry, each single shot being a miniature cinematic jewelry. Before any meaningful sequences, there is a split-second lull, a sudden stillness, to let the atmosphere permeate the viewer. Each scene is set out, and then played out. The result is a cinematic morsel of an unrivalled refinement, alien to any visual and tonal excess; an absolute, impeccable classic – almost an unaware parody of classicism. But is that what we really want, after all?


Despite its brooding, dark sophistication, the ensemble comes across as cold, arid and impersonal. What seems to lack is not so much epic élan to drive the narrative forward as the dynamics between its characters. The film occasionally drags, and it is hurting for more fluid dialogues, but Melville also knows how to orchestrate masterfully his set-pieces, with a steely hand and a remarkable sense of order. From the memorable police line-up sequence to a tense, brisk, but never chaotic chase in the underground, Le Samourai is fraught with moments that are at once of epic grandeur and of nervous realism. The main problem, actually, is about characters: Delon’s presence is certainly daunting, but it is hard to truly care.


Le Samourai is the ultimate treat for Delon’s aficionados, as literally every frame builds on his iconic power. For the others, it is still an essential viewing, soaked in movie mythology, of an unparalleled visual beauty. But if Melville’s effort is consistently good, but only too occasionally great, it is because not enough humanity and warmth is syringed into this impeccable beast of a movie. It works like clockwork, every bit directed and acted with an unfaillible mastery; but it lacks a heart…



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