Director Melville, one of the stalwarts of the new wave genre, films Le Samourai as a thriller with a cinema-verite approach, creating an atmosphere through pauses and an eye for detail. His style here, is for the lack of a better term, “pure filmmaking”, writes Aniruddha Basu
“There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s,” “Unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle..”-The Book of Bushido.
The film opens with the aforementioned passage, and begins with a long shot of a man smoking in the centre of the room. The man is Jef Costello, the title character of Le Samourai. He is lying with his eyes on the ceiling, the cigarette smoke and the long shot preventing us from gauging his expression. His room is spare, except for the incongruous presence of two caged birds and the silence is broken by their occasional chirping.
It is not immediately revealed that this man is a killer-for-hire. That fact is revealed gradually and later in the film. Costello gets up, dresses, wears his hat (a fedora, fashionable during the late 60s when the film was made) and proceeds to steal a car. He drives down to a deserted garage where an older man changes the number plate on the car and gives him a gun.
Not a word is spoken in the film through these opening scenes. And it is these recurring phases of silence that give Le Samourai a meditative, almost philosophical quality. Director Jean Pierre Melville films everything in cold, muted tones, thus giving the impression of a world devoid of any real feeling. In that sense, and in its female protagonist, a pianist who witnesses Costello’s murder, but conceals the information for reasons of her own, the film is a tribute to film noir. But it is, at the same time, an existential meditation on the themes of code, honor and solitude.
It is ironical to call Costello a “Samurai” for he is, in fact, a killer-for-hire. The traditional Samurai killed not for money but for honor, to protect a code and his way of living. Costello’s scheme of things is nowhere as grand. He kills for money, and does so in cold, meticulous fashion. He is a professional to the extreme, and the one similarity he has with the ancient Samurai is the stark, almost ascetic lifestyle that he leads. He is guided by logic and the basic instinct of survival, and Le Samourai is partly about the one mistake he makes at the end, when he lets emotions cloud cold judgment.
Costello is played by Alain Delon , an actor who was considered one of the most handsome stars of the 1960’s. And here, Delon plays Costello much like an angel of death, his inscrutable expression giving the viewer no clue as to what is running in his mind. He does not flinch when he point blank shoots a night club owner and walks out coolly. And he remains unperturbed and produces a solid alibi when the police nab him and question him later.
Hot on his trail is a police inspector, who despite Costello’s alibi, is convinced that he is the killer. He is determined to nab Costello at any cost, even though some of the means he employs in proving Costello’s guilt is not purely ethical. Like for instance when he questions and subtly threatens Costello’s alibi, (a woman ostensibly in love with him, though details of their relationship are never revealed), to reveal his actual whereabouts on the night of the murder. But the inspector is finally a man with a strict sense of right and wrong. “ I am all for individual freedom, live and let live, provided the way one lives doesn’t cause harm to others” he says. Even as he appears almost manipulative while threatening the woman.
What follows is a game of elaborate cat & mouse through which the cops hunt for Costello through the subways of Paris. This scene has served as inspiration to countless movies, not just French, but Hollywood as well. Costello is in fact wanted both by the authorities and by his employers, who want him dead as they are concerned that he may spill the beans to the police.
The movie ends with a twist which I will not reveal except to say that it is the Samurai’s final mission, and the only one he bungles up by allowing feelings to dominate. And as we learnt through many of the best in film noir, feelings can be fatal. Costello too pays with his life. A man who lived in solitude dies alone. Except for the tears of one woman who probably caused his death.
As a character Delon’s killer was austere and mostly emotionless. As an icon he became a style symbol, an epitome of cool, with his classy Fedora, and immaculate dressing. The film too was equally influential with one great sequence following another. Director Melville, one of the stalwarts of the new wave genre, films Le Samourai as a thriller with a cinema-verite approach, creating an atmosphere through pauses and an eye for detail. His style here, is for the lack of a better term, “pure filmmaking”.