Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.
After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.
Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.
Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).
So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!
Final Score: 1 Bird