Genre: Film Noir and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.
Release Date: October 25th, 1967 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville Actors: Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Michel Boisrond, Robert Favart, Jean-Pierre Posier, Catherine Jourdan
bserving the solitude of an assassin’s life, the film opens with Jef Costello (Alain Delon) – looking more like an iteration of James Bond than a gun for hire – reclining alone in his Paris apartment, accompanied only by a tweeting bird. Upon exiting the building, the music chimes in – a sensationally atmospheric, nerve-wracking syncopation of instruments (predominantly a piano) as orchestrated by François de Roubaix (hinting at the unforgettable score for “The Silence of the Lambs”). The rain falls, a car parks in a secreted garage, a license plate is changed, and a gun is handed over for the next assignment – all while dialogue remains absent and cigarette smoke calmly wafts about.
Exclusive nightclub Martey’s turns out to be the spot for the killing, though Jef isn’t able to elude a notable witness to the crime – a sexy pianist (Caty Rosier). The coat check girl, the bartender, and a handful of patrons are also brought in to potentially identify the perpetrator. The police round up 400 or so usual suspects, including Jef, hoping that the culprit is a regular rapscallion without an honest profession. Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), Jef’s girlfriend and standard alibi, is similarly questioned, though the commissary is unable to shatter her lies.
Part of the film follows the formula of a police procedural, chronicling the investigation’s start, the interrogations, the lineups, and eyewitness reports – which are not only undependable, but also grossly manipulated by the detectives. The chief Homicide inspector (François Périer) is certain Jef is guilty, despite a lack of evidence and a seemingly airtight alibi; most of the cop’s methods are basic strong-arm tactics and illegal surveillance (with a grittiness like “The French Connection,” but without the sympathies of tracking genuinely evil antagonists). A tail is arranged, but he loses the subject, and the girl is deemed a target for additional scrutiny.
The second part of the storyline involves Jef’s employers, who, after learning of his momentary arrest, decide to tie up the loose end. A cat-and-mouse game unfolds doubly, as both the law and the unnamed criminal organization hunt down the slippery assassin. Additionally, in order to prevent an untimely demise, Jef must figure out who ordered the hit (his only contact was a go-between), to get at the top-level villains pulling the strings.
The audience isn’t privy to any of Jef’s past, which normally wouldn’t have any bearing on a tale of a loner hitman carrying out superficial attacks. But the police’s suspicions about Costello must have been inspired by some sort of prior conflict and the men Jef works for surely contracted him based on specific skills and training. They prove to be a dangerous lot to oppose, but remain devoid of detailed origins and purposes. Without specifics on Jef, the only things that define him are his sharp looks and consistent coolness in the face of danger. Although “Le Samourai” attempts to build anticipation and suspense as the cops close in on their prey, forcing the killer to outsmart and flee his pursuers throughout the subways, the interference by law enforcement proves largely dissatisfying, especially as the resolution of the mystery raises more questions than answers. Certainly, subtlety is a strong point, but the many ambiguities lead to a steady diminishing of entertainment value – despite escalating style, awe, impending doom, and an inextricable connection to the cinematic modus operandi (duty and ritualistic sacrifice) of a samurai, as suggested by the title.
– Mike Massie