A small-time thief steals a car and impulsively murders a motorcycle policeman. Wanted by the authorities, he reunites with a hip American journalism student and attempts to persuade her to run away with him to Italy.
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>
Melville's masterpiece about a contract killer, a modern day samuraï. He makes brilliant use of the city he loved so much, Paris. The feel, the sounds, the streets, the noise, it's all hauntingly cold and distant but at the same time he makes Paris seem like the coolest city in the world.
In the beginning of the film Melville uses a beautiful static shot of over 4 minutes to establish the audience with a seemingly empty room, then we see smoke circling upwards. There must be someone in the room but it's practically impossible to determine where the smoke is coming from. Finally Jeff Costello gets up from his bed, which wasn't recognizable as such in the first place, and appears on screen. The whole set-up is more reminiscent of a moving replica of a painting by the surrealist Paul Delvaux than anything else in modern cinema. Another surreal set piece is when after his first hit, all possible suspects are brought in at a police station, including Delon himself. Not one by one but all of 'em at the same time. In the next scene we see at least a hundred "gangsters", all wearing trench coats and hats, in a large hall, where they will be interrogated "en plein public". Genuinely strange procedures but handled with such care and stylishness that it becomes completely believable. It gives the somewhat humorous suggestion that the streets of Paris are populated by hundreds, even thousands, of trenchcoat-wearing gangsters, all loners, only seeing each other at card games and occasions like this.
Alain Delon is the perfect embodiment of gangster coolness in this career-defining role as a hit-man in Paris, a modern-day samuraï. "Le Gangster", as the French lovingly call them. Off course, these gangsters don't exist anymore and they probably never existed at all. French Gangsters must have been redefining their look after seeing Delon in this film. His association in real life with French criminal circles, in particular the Marseille underworld, has always given his performances a very strange aura.
As a kid, I regularly visited my grandmother who lived near the city of Marseille and on French television I saw lots of French gangster movies (well, my parents let me watch with them). Alain Delon was in quite a few of them. When I grew older and could identify most of the French screen legends, Delon as no other came to represent the ultimate gangster. An stylized icon of urban cool. I'm also convinced that his character Jef Costello in Le Samouraï was the inspiration for the hissing and whispering fellow in the trench coat in Sesame Street (did he have a name?), something like a gangster, a criminal. A mysterious strange man you should avoid as a kid. I'll be damned if I'm wrong, but I still see Alain Delon in Sesame Street!
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