Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 crime movie Le Samouraï takes us in a different direction, presenting us with a character with none of these things. He has no greater purpose in the world beyond a singular function; one thing that he does exceptionally well. There is a detachment, a strict and all-encompassing discipline, required to be the best of the best at something. Le Samouraï shows us the life of a man who has dedicated his entire being to this ideal, and the existential struggle of maintain such a lifestyle.
Jef Costello kills people. He is paid to do it and paid well. When we first encounter Costello we are completely unaware of his line of work and the meticulous control he exerts in completing a task. The film opens with a simple wide shot of a bedroom, unremarkable in every way, and eerily silent, save for the incessant tweeting of a caged bird in the room. The scene lingers for some time, you may not even realise that Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is in the room at first but he is there; lying on a bed. There is a stillness to him, an unnerving rigidity to his posture, despite the commonly relaxing nature of his position.
He is waiting. Primed for some unknowable purpose. Something switches in his head, no indication is given for what inspired this, but he raises from the bed and begins to prepare. Dressing himself in the finest clothes he owns, inspecting his appearance in the mirror, adjusting the brim of his hat. His attention to even the smallest details is already apparent. He leaves his home and steals a nearby car. He takes it to a garage, where an associate replaces his plates. Neither man exchanges so much as a word.
Costello pays a visit to Jane (Nathalie Delon, Alain’s wife), telling her that he stayed with her until 2:00am. She is expecting her lover to visit at 2, so compromises are made and he says he will now leave at 1:45am.
He visits a group of friends in a hotel, playing a high stakes poker game, he requests they count him in at 2am and he will be back shortly to resume play. Costello now makes his way to an upmarket piano bar, where he efficiently and ruthlessly assassinates a man. He quickly makes his getaway on foot and by car, arriving back at Jane’s apartment to loiter in the lobby, waiting for the arrival of his accomplice’s lover, creating the impression that he left at 1:45am. He returns to the hotel poker game at 2am precisely and continues with an assured air, until the police inevitably come looking for him.
He has constructed his alibi that is almost mechanical in its precision, the only flaw in his otherwise perfect plan is a witness; the bar's resident pianist (Cathy Rosier) who saw him leaving the scene of the crime.
From here, Le Samouraï follows Costello as he tries to evade the scrutiny of the police and the crosshairs of his former employers while wrestling with the decision of whether to clean up his final loose ends.
Costello operates with the discipline of a samurai. The samurai is governed by a code of honour, only taking a life if honour were at stake, whereas the ninja is more commonly known to kill for coin. Costello has the business model of a ninja but the rigid code of conduct of a samurai warrior.
Costello has a meticulous focus in how he conducts himself, in business, action and appearance. Details are vital to Costello, and Melville reflects this in the way he tells the story; the film is sparse on action and when used it is brief and positively sedate by even the standards of the 1960s. Instead Melville focuses on the little things, the minor pieces of behaviour that inform the entirety of Costello’s life.
He lives and dies in preparation - the film spends a lengthy run of time on the preparation of a kill, whilst the payoff itself is brief, unceremonious and almost unnecessary. It is a plot point, ultimately slight in the grand scheme of Le Samouraï, but the build-up is steeped in character and the core themes of the film.
Process over result: Even in the hunt for his treacherous former employers while evading the police manhunt, it is the detail of the procedure that holds more weight than the results. Costello could kill everyone, he could be killed, he could be apprehended and brought to justice; it is ultimately of little importance. It is the discipline, the sly tactical behaviour that he exhibits in the process that matters.
The way he slips through the police net in the Parisian metro system, a classic method copied through the ages, slipping in and out of cars, confusing the pursuers is handled like a carefully played game of chess. The way he calmly, quietly stares down the barrel of a gun, disarmingly at ease, but wound tight and ready to strike when his opponent's defence drops. There are no kinetic Bourne-esque theatrics, just an limited but effective series of sharp blows to incapacitate his targets. To do too much with the pay off would render the method's significance worthless.
In many ways Costello compares to Vanishing Point's Kowalski, both characters seem to have an existential void, something they fill with a singular purpose; for Kowalski it was driving, for Costello it is killing. We gain no personal insights into his life, he has no discernible reasons for needing the money, but his exacting nature in carrying out the job shows that this is his entire reason for being. Whatever circumstances lead him to become an assassin have long since faded and being an assassin is all that is left of him.
Melville's technique is as calculated and measured as his subject; very little by way of spectacle favouring rigid, precise compositions. A stillness to the frame, all motion is limited, much like Costello himself.
A great deal of shots surround Costello with a lot of empty space, he rarely fills a frame alone (other than to highlight that cold, blank face in close-up), the space around him communicates the self-imposed solitude of a professional killer. The opening scene, mentioned earlier in the article, is a single long take. A dolly zoom creates the disorienting sensation of pushing in and pulling out simultaneously, leaving an even wider frame than previously established, with a greater impression of personal isolation.
Actor Alain Delon is as classically handsome as any man could be, almost too handsome, but it’s all hidden behind a intentionally dead stare. He gives nothing away with a constant veneer of deception and cool in the grand tradition of the French New Wave with a sharp, icy undercurrent. He delivers his words with control, slow and thoughtful, but with an urgent and confident tone. He gives nothing away to those he meets or even the audience and to deceive an "all-knowing" movie audience is an achievement of Delon’s performance and carefully constructed image.
Melville's Le Samouraï is a film that grips you with control, rather than the chaos of many hitman movies of recent time. A film with the patience of Kurosawa and the effortless cool of '60s French cinema.