I’ve spoken before about my love of Alain Delon (here) and the films he made with Jean Pierre Melville (here) but now Criterion are releasing their most iconic collaboration the seminal, hugely influential, and irrepressibly cool Le Samourai.
Jef Costello (Delon) is a hitman who is methodical in his routine. Prior to every job he dons the same nondescript outfit, steals a car, (using a seemingly infinite supply of car keys he carries round in his pocket) secures an alibi and then executes the hit. On his latest job though, there’s a witness, pianist Valerie (Cathy Rosier) and Jef finds himself under close scrutiny from the police, as well as getting double-crossed by his employers.
The whole thing is very French, and unique to cinema – Jef’s preparations do not hold up to real world scrutiny, but we aren’t in the real world. This is the world of Jean Pierre Melville, where everyone is clad in fedoras and trench coats, and no-one utters a sentence when a word will do. Even the way Jef self-consciously adjusts the brim of his hat is performative, emulating gangsters of the big screen. Melville styles Delon’s character after Alan Ladd’s hitman in This Gun For Hire, and the police line up sequence is lifted directly from The Asphalt Jungle (a personal favourite of Melvilles) but the result is more enigmatic and artful than either of these films.
It’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the influence it has made on modern cinema. If there was no Le Samourai there would be no The Driver, Drive or Baby Driver for a start, let alone the countless depictions of mythic film hitmen, from Leon and The Killer to John Wick.
Melville shoots his film with a cold but vivid colour palette, beautifully rendered in this release from Criterion. He’s a master of mise-en-scène and here, every shot is meticulously constructed. The perfect silhouettes of the actors and the incredible use of light and shadow make every scene feel like a painting, and Melville still retains his penchant for neat narrative flourishes. Jef realises the police have planted a bug in his room when he notices his canary has moulted feathers after getting distressed, and the long winded chase scene on the underground is full of elegant touches, with Jef hopping on and off trains to evade his pursuers – an obvious precursor to iconic scenes in films like The French Connection, and Carlito’s Way.
The first of an informal crime trilogy Delon made with Melville, followed by Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic, he is the epitome of cool. Costello is a taciturn, clinical professional, always giving the impression of being in control. However, there are several subtle little touches Delon adds to his performance that cast doubt on this impression. As the net closes around Jef, you can see him struggle to retain his composure. Delon clearly relishes playing this character, but he isn’t content with simply making Jef cool – there’s a depth to his performance, a melancholy innocence that comes through in his scenes with Valerie. Just look at the way he dolefully gazes at her playing the piano in the films final moments – he’s both a cinematic icon and a complex character at the same time.
Le Samourai is cinema in its purest form, and Delon is simply iconic in his role. It’s a beautifully sparse, precise and strangely moving film, that simultaneously is a love letter to classic film noir and a progenitor of the hitman film as we now know it. In the special features, author Ginette Vincendeau calls it Melville’s masterpiece, and I’m inclined to agree.
There has never been a home entertainment release of Le Samourai in the UK before now, so any special features are a bonus, but Criterion have nevertheless put together an impressive selection, including interviews with Melville biographers Rui Nogueira and Gilette Vincendeau; Archival interviews with Melville and the cast; Melville-Delon: D’Honneur et de nuit (2011), a short documentary exploring the friendship between Delon and Melville; and an essay by film scholar David Thomson.