After professional hitman Jef Costello is seen by witnesses his efforts to provide himself an alibi drive him further into a corner.After professional hitman Jef Costello is seen by witnesses his efforts to provide himself an alibi drive him further into a corner.After professional hitman Jef Costello is seen by witnesses his efforts to provide himself an alibi drive him further into a corner.
Simply put, *Le Samourai* justifies -- beyond argument -- the auteur theory in cinema, which states, more or less, that the most artistically rich movies are "authored" by their directors. And how much more enjoyable it is for the viewer that the author in this case, Melville, is mostly concerned with entertaining you! Those who dread the prospect of a French film from the Sixties can rest assured: no Godardian slap-dash cross-cutting, here; no lolling around in bed with a girl, smoking cigarettes and spouting tough-guy Marxism; no confusing back-and-forth displacement of narrative time, a la Resnais. Oh, Melville was a New Wave director, to be sure, but he was NEVER an experimentalist in terms of narrative. Take a film by Godard, even his most famous film, *Breathless*: you have to meet Godard on his own terms, or get left behind (your loss!) But Melville pours his stories into your glass neat, no ice, no intellectual mixer. *Le Samourai* is about a gun-for-hire named Jef Costello (Alain Delon). His job is to eliminate a nightclub owner. He does so, but is witnessed leaving the scene of the crime by the club's piano player (Cathy Rosier). Later that night, during the police round-up, he's taken in as one of 400 or more potential suspects. The cops can't make it stick to Costello, but the superintendent (Francois Perier) isn't fooled by Costello or his airtight alibi. And thus Costello finds himself under police surveillance, and meanwhile, his criminal bosses want to rub him out in case he squeals to "le flics". In other words, the actual story is simplicity itself, and is frankly ripped off from all the B-movie American noirs that Melville loved so much.
But none of this explains the stark originality of the movie. Of course, Melville gets some help. Let it be said that Delon is so good as the hunted hit-man that it almost defies description, let alone praise. Reportedly, he took the part after Melville had read to him the first 7 or 8 pages of the script. "I have no dialog for the first 10 minutes. I love it -- when can we start?" Delon is supposed to have said. Luckily for Melville, he found a kindred spirit in Delon, who, in any case, must have recognized the potentially iconic performance he could pull off if sympathetically directed. And boy, did he pull it off: NO ONE, in ANY movie, has ever been cooler than Delon's Costello. The movie was released in 1967 -- the Summer of Love -- but here's Delon anachronistically dressed in a single-breasted suit and a fedora, and getting away with it. (Well, okay, everyone else is wearing a hat, too, but this IS a Melville picture.) As for the performance itself, it bears comparison to Dirk Bogarde's Aschenbach in Visconti's *Death in Venice*: both roles are virtually silent yet must convey multitudes in a glance, in a movement, in a slight widening of the eyes. This is acting at its most meticulous, most physical, and most compact. Costello hardly ever says anything, but we're totally compelled by him, thanks to Delon's tight control. The influence of this character and Delon's performance has been nothing less than torrential: Pacino's Michael in *The Godfather* may serve as an obvious example.
But much of this owes to Melville's original conception, as well. If Shakespeare needs good actors to carry his plays over, then good actors need Shakespearean-level material to reach their best performances. Melville, as always, flavors his pulpy stews with his own fevered artistic ingredients, the foremost of which is own idea of masculinity taken to the insane extreme. Tainted with Japanese samurai films, American gangster films, and westerns as well, Melville concocts a character whose every act is an expression of pure existentialism. The ultimate result is that frisson of sublime strangeness we as an audience encounter whenever we come face-to-face with a deeply considered and unique artistic vision. The best art is really weird, yet recognizable and unforgettable. *Le Samourai* is among the best art.
10 stars out of 10.
- Oct 31, 2005