Jean-Pierre Melville's classic explores a contract killer in Paris and the visual art of cinema...
I'm usually very open to watching new and exciting films, but it's only recently that I've delved into the world of foreign-language cinema. Being mesmerised by the aesthetics of film-noirs for a good while and having a soft spot for films from the late sixties meant that it was compulsive to watch Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai.
I first came into contact with Le Samourai through an interview with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, discussing his inspirations for the setting of their last record. Indeed, this film, along with two other Melville pieces (Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic), came up in conversation.
As a result of the Parisian jazz club settings that Turner spoke of in the interview with Radio X's John Kennedy, I was drawn to see what Le Samourai had to offer.
Alain Delon, as Jef Costello the contract killer, makes fabulous usage of the city of Paris, utilising the sounds, sights and overall feeling to power the story forwards, emanating this prevailing coldness and distance that Melville would cultivate over the course of the film. We're first greeted by a static shot lasting some four minutes, establishing a scene that first exhibits an empty room with smoke circling upwards. It's eventually evident that the room in inhabited by our protagonist, readying himself for the day's work from his bed. This exposition is somewhat surreal, pushing the boundaries of the expectations of modern cinema, even down to Jef Costello's outfit giving a slight tinge to Rene Magritte's 1964 work The Son Of Man.
Melville utilises this surreal aura throughout the film. Following his first hit on the nightclub owner, the Parisian police bring all suspects to the station, including Costello himself. Instead of questioning them one by one, the officers choose to examine them all in plain sight of everyone. It's here that we see dozens of gangsters, in similar get-ups to Costello, that gives off the rather humorous suggestion that Paris is swarming with a myriad of men in trench coats and fedoras, all seeing each other at secret card games and gatherings similar to this one.
His alibi is strong during the questioning, despite being seen by the piano player on his way out. Rather mysteriously, the piano player states that the killer was wearing "un chapeau différent" and so Costello gets off. Still, the other witnesses involved in the questioning to-and-fro between whether it was Costello or not, and another patron of the club claims that he is culpable for the murder. As an audience, we know it's definitely Costello and it's from this questioning and uncertainty that the plot evolves - the Superintendent in the police force believes it's Costello and so they spend every waking moment monitoring his every move; even the men who employed him to carry out the hit will betray him and track Costello down too.
Le Samourai is not an action-packed film like many might expect given its basic premise. Then again, it doesn't need to be. With its cold-blooded sentiments and lack of emotion overall, Melville plays on this and it only leads to heightened tension. The film's infamous chase scene involving the Metro epitomises this; it's by far and away one of the slowest chase scenes in film history, but develops into this tense and enthralling masterpiece. In reality, it's Costello knowing that he's always one step ahead of the police and that ultimately, he can't be caught due to his meticulous character. However, the pace of the film goes a long way in developing the theme of solitude and loneliness, capturing the essence of life's drudgery in Costello's every action.
By way of scoring, I'd rate Le Samourai very highly. The edge-of-the-seat tension that Melville cultivates combines perfectly with the minimalistic action to create something worthy of such high praise. It's a film all about subtlety, even down to some of its more comedic elements, and will leave any audience wondering why they hadn't seen it sooner.