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Haunting a nocturnal landscape of bars, bridges and backstreet garages, Jeff Costello drifts through nocturnal landscapes shot in steely blues and greys, giving the impression that Jean-Pierre Melville’s protagonist is a ghost in his own movie Le Samouraï.
In a film like Le Samouraï, never ‘means always’.
When the police inspector says that he never thinks, we know he is always thinking and when hit man Jef Costello [Alain Delon] says he never loses we know he’s already lost everything.
Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville is a study in cool
The smooth control that so many of us strive for, and which often transfers awkwardly on film, comes across here as natural and essential.
Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville
There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.
The story follows a perfectionist free-agent hitman, Costello, who religiously adheres to a strict code of duty. He lives in a Spartan apartment whose interior contains a neatly arranged line of mineral water bottles, cigarettes on a bookcase, as well as a little bird in a grey cage in the middle of the room. He is taciturn and goes about his tasks like clockwork. The film opens with a fairly long take of the protagonist lying await on his bed, smoking, during when the following text appears on-screen, attributed to an ancient samurai writing entitled The Book of Bushido.
What is a samurai? When he wears a fedora as crisp as glass and a pale trench coat that could have been sculpted by Brancusi? He is doomed. He is an icon out of his time. He is a hired killer, yet he is a last emblem of honor in a shabby world of compromise. He is a man who believes in tiny adjustments to the perfect shadow cast by the brim of his hat, who exults in the flatness with which he can utter a line, and who aspires to the last lovely funeral of brushes on a drummer’s cymbal. His essence is in timing, gesture, and glance.
The caged bird is a bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). In the book “Melville on Melville” the director stated: “I wanted the opening shots to be predominately gray, so I used a female bullfinch because it is just black and white, without the male’s orange breast.”
Cast & Credits
|Jef Costello||Alain Delon|
|Jane Lagrange||Nathalie Delon|
|Valérie, the pianist||Cathy Rosier|
|Man in the passageway||Jacques Leroy|
|Screenplay||Jean-Pierre Melville and Joan McLeod|
Le Samouraï is as efficient a piece of cinema as it is darkly romantic. Melville shows us his lone killer’s methodical precision with great flair, and the police manhunt through the Métro is as good an action sequence as any.
The film opens with a purported line from the Book of Bushido – the source of the Japanese warrior class’s knowledge: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” After the film was shown in Japan, Melville admitted he wrote the quotation himself. But Delon expresses this perfectly with his deliberately impassive performance.
Hong Kong director John Woo’s 1989 film, The Killer, was heavily influenced by Le Samouraï’s plot, the bar’s female pianist being replaced by a singer. Chow Yun-fat’s character Jeffrey Chow (international character name for Ah Jong) was obviously inspired by Alain Delon’s Jef. The inspiration, or homage, is confirmed by the similarity in the character names. Woo acknowledged his influences by writing a short essay on Le Samouraï and Melville’s techniques for the film’s Criterion Collection DVD release.
Rating: ★★★★★ by milo