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Hitman Jef Costello is a perfectionist who always carefully plans his murders and who never gets caught. One night however, after killing a night-club owner, he's seen by witnesses. His efforts to provide himself with an alibi fail and more and more he gets driven into a corner. Written by
Leon Wolters <wolters@strw.LeidenUniv.nl>
Il N'y a pas De Plus Profonde Solitude Que Celle Du Samourai.
Le Samourai (1967) ****
The film opens to the semi-annoying sound of a small birds chirp in a dull, grey room that appears to be empty. After a moment we realize the room is not empty - a man lights a cigarette lying on his bed. Meet Jef Costello, played by french pretty boy Alain Delon. The opening shot sets the pace for the rest of movie. There are no high speed chases or wild action sequences, and the star barely speaks a word. Costello is one of the coolest characters in film history. Delon plays his character to perfection. If one did not know anything about him it was likely you would not realize he was a pretty boy. His face is expressionless throughout almost the entire movie - it is a tribute to Delon that he can express emotion on only a couple occasions while still remaining facially expressionless.
Costello is a hit-man, loyal to his boss: himself. The title of the film, Le Samourai, suggests of course that Costello is a student of the Samourai code. But is he really? The movie also opens with a quote "There is no solitude greater than the Samurai's, except for that of a tiger in the jungle. Unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle." This supposedly comes from the Book of the Samurai, which as it turns out was an invention of director Jean-Pierre Melville.
The story plays out as Jef completes a hit on night club owner, after setting up an almost too perfect alibi, but on his way out the door is seen by a the beautiful piano player. The police round up a number of people who look fit the description; Costello happens to be rounded up while at a card game. His alibi is strong, and mysteriously the piano player claims that this is definitely not the man she saw; another man who watched Costello walk out of the club also said with certainty that this is not the man. Another club patron claims that he saw this man at the club at the time of the murder and claims this is the culprit. The remaining two witnesses aren't sure, but don't think this was the killer. We know its Costello, the third man believes it is him, but why do the two who had the best look claim that this is not the man they saw? The plot evolves from here: The police believe Costello is lying and follow him everywhere; the men who gave Jef the hit will betray him and come after him as well.
Melville is meticulous in his direction, just as Costello is in his actions. There is great detail paid to the actions of Costello leading up to the hit, from stealing a car while trying a number of keys, placing those that do not work in a perfect line on the seat beside him, to his alibi with a woman (played by Delon's real life wife) who says she does not love him to the police, but we get the feeling she does indeed. There are moments of silent comedy that you could almost miss: The men riding with Costello on the way to the police station, none of whom look anything like the description, some old and decrepit; there is a scene in which Jef opens his cupboard and we see on the top of it bottles of water and packs of cigarettes lined up perfectly. None of this is laugh out loud funny, but incredibly clever and lets you know that Melville knows exactly how Costello should be.
As stated, the film is not full of action. It is a film where almost nothing happens. But no other film in which nothing happens has ever been so riveting. There is a famous metro chase scene that moves at probably the slowest pace of any chase scene in cinematic history, but it is enthralling. The pace sets up more importantly the themes of the movie. What are they? Its been debated widely. Searching for home? Mental Breakdowns? Morality, and loneliness? I would argue that it is not one, but likely all of these. The title reflects Jef's solitude and loneliness more than his code of honor. The final scene reflects many things about what we just witnessed, and has left some confused about what happens. Costello does a number of things in the latter half of the movie we do not understand, and that Melville gives us no answers to. Costello returns to the night club for example, buys a whiskey, pays for it, and then promptly leaves without drinking it. Why? Who knows.
Le Samourai is a classic, filled with pitch perfect performances and is the inspiration for a number of modern day films. John Woo has called it an absolutely perfect film, and he is likely right. It is a meticulously developed project, with virtually no flaws. It's probably the best film about hit men ever made, which is a narrow classification of this film, because it is more than just the story of a hit-man. Il N'y a pas De Plus Profonde Solitude Que Celle Du Samourai.
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