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That Nearly Perfect Film

Dec 16, 2004 (Updated Feb 3, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Superb script, moody noir atmosphere, strong lead performance, strong direction, thematically profound, surprise twists

Cons:None

The Bottom Line: A not-to-be missed thriller that John Woo called a nearly perfect film.


Le Samourai is a masterpiece in the thriller genre that puts most other thrillers to shame. It is both visually and aurally stylish, while providing a taut story with genuine surprises and a strong performance by a charming lead actor. The director of Le Samourai had a profound influence on a couple of the current directors that you action-film buffs most cherish.

Historical Background: Despite being sometimes linked to the French New Wave auteurs, Jean-Pierre Melville had a fiercely independent nature and set his own course. Other directors might be with him soon or late but he would never be with others. Two of his early films, Les Enfants terribles (1950), and Bob le Flambeur (1955), could be viewed as precedents for the New Wave style, but that was by choice of the New Wavers, not Melville. Although Melville shot in real locations with a matter-of-factness that evoked a sense of realism, his style was always fundamentally composed and synthetic.

Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917 but took Melville as a professional name in order to honor the great novelist who had been influential in the maturation of Jean-Pierre's intellect during adolescence. He had a fascination with the American noir films of the forties and most of his thirteen feature films over a twenty-five year career consisted of atmospheric crime films in the noir tradition with a distinctly Gallic flavor. In Melville's conception, gangster films are character studies and morality plays more than action films. His protagonists are, to an extent, an embodiment of Melville himself – if not in particulars, in their essence. Melville once stated, "To be frank, I'm only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself," by which he meant "the natural authority of the creator." Melville was a distinctly private man, distanced from the world, maintaining a creative purity and rigorous professionalism, which are the very qualities manifested by the protagonist, Jef Costello, of Le Samourai.

The Story: Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a contract killer who lives alone in a sparsely furnished and dilapidated room – alone except for a caged blue finch. He is successful at his profession because he abides by a series of rituals from which he never deviates. He heads out on assignment with his gun and a set of skeleton keys. After heisting a car, he drives to a garage where an associate (André Thorent) changes the plates. Jef next stops by the apartment of his girlfriend, Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), to establish his alibi, specifying the time later that evening when he supposedly arrived and the time he departed. He then stops by a room where some friends play cards, telling them that he will be there later that night. He proceeds to the nightclub and shoots the designated man dead. While leaving, he is seen by a half-dozen or so witnesses, but most closely by the beautiful and sultry black piano player, Valérie (Cathy Rosier). He throws the murder weapon into a river and heads off to join the card game.

The Police Superintendent (François Périer) is hopeful of solving this particular murder case, given the good fortune of six witnesses having glimpsed the killer. He orders hundreds of "the usual suspects" rounded up from districts throughout the city. Among the targeted locations is the card game that Costello has joined. Since he fits the general description of the killer, Costello is taken into custody, along with dozens of others of all sizes and shapes. Two of the witnesses believe that Costello might be the man, so he his held while his alibi is checked out. To Costello's surprise, Valérie declares that he is definitely not the man, seemingly deceiving the Superintendent intentionally. Though Jane verifies his alibi, the Superintendent is dubious and makes Costello his chief suspect, despite having to release him.

Costello now has, not one, but two problems. The first is that the Superintendent has put a police tail on him. He is able to lose the tail, however, using his intimate knowledge of the subway system. The second problem is that the unknown person who hired him for the hit, through a middleman, is worried that Costello being a suspect in the crime has created a threat. When Costello meets the middleman (Jacques Leroy) to collect his payment, he collects a bullet instead, though his quick reflexes deflect the shot, limiting the damage to a forearm flesh wound. Costello reasons that he'll have to track down and kill whoever hired him before they kill him first. How to do that with the police watching his every move is a problem.

From here to the end of the story, there are several twists and turns as the various predators circle their respective prey. There is much joy to be had from this film in discovering those developments, so I won't give any more away. I'll only add that this is one of the few films in which the ending came as a total surprise to me but which nevertheless felt like a perfectly appropriate conclusion, viewed in retrospect. That combination is a rare treat.

Themes: This is a film about desperate loneliness and alienation. Costello is clearly the lone wolf on the prowl or, more precisely, a stalking tiger. The film opens with a quotation, supposedly taken from The Book of Bushido (code of the Samurai) but actually composed by Melville himself, which reads, "There is no greater solitude than the samurai's – unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle." Clearly, it is intended that we understand this bit of wisdom to apply to this lonely contract killer.

The opening scene in Costello's Spartan apartment is a masterpiece of atmosphere-establishing cinematography. The soulless room is dimly lit from a dull light pouring in through two windows that open onto a rainy day. The windows have the appearance of a pair of rectangular eyes as seen from the inside of the cranium, placing us in the interior consciousness of the story. A wisp of smoke rises from one side where Jef, barely visible, rests on his bed. The room is silent except for the chirping of a caged blue finch, Jef's only companion. There is a grim emptiness to Costello's environment and, we imagine, his existence. Costello's lifestyle very nearly matches the life of a monk, not only in austerity but also in the ascetic purity with which he practices his ritualized profession. It is precisely when and because he breaks the perfection of his discipline that his doom is sealed.

Production Values: The script for Le Samourai is reasonably close to perfection. On the surface level, we are presented with a mesmerizing cat-and-mouse game between two shrewd individuals, Jef Costello and the Police Superintendent. Jef is the expert contract killer, attentive in every detail, while constructing near perfect crimes. The Superintendent is the Columbo-like detective who believes he can solve every crime by dogged determination. This surface story is then buoyed by a classy stylization and existential underpinnings. The style is a kind of Clint Eastwood "cool", complete with methodical, unflappable machismo. When Jef says to his pals at the poker game, "I never lose, not ever," we think of such Dirty Harry lines as "Go ahead, punk, make my day" or "Well, are you feeling lucky, punk?" Philosophically, Costello can just as well be seen as everyman being stalked by fate, in the form of the Superintendent. Unlike Hollywood films, of this genre or in general, Le Samourai uses both violence and words sparingly so that, when either does occur, we know it is important. Melville doesn't bother with back-stories to explain how we've gotten to the story at hand. We never learn why the contract was put out on the nightclub owner. We never learn how Costello came to be a hitman. Nothing extra is offered that might distract us from the tension of the story at hand. There are subtle touches of humor, such as the lineup of suspects that includes many not remotely similar to the description of a tall man of about thirty.

Though Le Samourai is in color, it has the look of the black-and-white noir films of the forties. Shadows and gloom predominate throughout. The sun never shines during the outdoor shots and the interior lighting is dim as well. The colors are poorly saturated. The palette is build around cool grays, murky browns, mossy greens, and steely blues. The trench coats and fedoras are almost campy in their magnificent. Melville is a genius when it comes to selection of visual perspectives, shifting between subjective and objective lens positions, ensuring that we observe the story with a genuine mix of detachment and interiority. Sometimes we look at the surroundings from the visual position of the central character. Other times, the camera is set some distance from the protagonist (inviting detachment), but even then the story unfolds in the calm, ritualized manner that is the method of thought of the protagonist.

Melville has uncommon command of sound as a vehicle for developing meaning and tension. Melville developed his love of cinema during the early days of sound cinema and learned to appreciate the value of interspersing sound and silence. Instead of cluttering up the soundtrack with a musical score, Melville isolates environmental sounds against a background of pregnant silence. Le Samourai opens with a long take in Costello's darkened and sparse apartment, silent except for the highly evident chirping of the finch. Costello finally arises and departs, but by the time the first conversation takes place at Jane's apartment, we're about eight minutes into the film. As Jef walks the streets, we hear ambient sounds, but it's another few minutes before the next brief bit of dialog. These long periods of silence heighten our awareness of the aural environment.

Alain Delon strikes me as one of the most gorgeous men I've seen. I have no idea if he also has that effect on female viewers, though I suspect he does. At one time, some critics dismissed Delon as too "stiff" and "inexpressive." That was before the tough guy persona was perfected and glamorized by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro. I thought Delon's icy performance was spot on for this role as the methodical and alienated anti-hero hitman. Delon's other work includes Rocco and His Brothers (1960), L'Eclisse (1962), The Leopard (1963), and Is Paris Burning? (1966).

François Périer gave a workmanlike performance as the Superintendent, neither especially excellent nor deficient. His resume includes Orphée (1949), Nights of Cabiria (1957), Testament of Orpheus (1959), The Organizer (1964), Z (1969), and Stavisky (1974). I thought both of the female leads lovely and talented. Jane was played by Delon's wife, Nathalie Delon, who is otherwise best known for an appearance in The Romantic Englishwoman (1975). Cathy Rosier was superb as Valérie.

Bottom-Line: Both critic Roger Ebert and director John Woo have referred to Le Samourai as a practically perfect film. I'm not inclined to dispute those assertions. It has a strong script, artful direction, an excellent lead performance and fine supporting performances, thematic depth, atmospheric cinematography, an intelligent soundtrack, and a provocative ending. All of that adds up to a fully engaging and entertaining movie. Quentin Tarantino is another director who has sung Melville's praises and cited him as a major influence. Luc Besson has also obviously seen Le Samourai, judging from his fine film The Professional (1994), in which Léon's potted plant plays something akin to the same role as the blue finch in Melville's film. I found this film riveting and satisfying and highly recommend it. Le Samourai is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 101 minutes.


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You might want to check out these other excellent films from France:

Alphaville
Amélie
The Battle of Algiers
La Belle et la Bête
Bob le Flambeur
Le Boucher
Boudu Saved from Drowning
A Bout de Souffle
La Cage aux Folles
Céline and Julie Go Boating
La Cérémonie
La Chèvre
Children of Paradise
Cléo from 5 to 7
Un Coeur en Hiver
Contempt
Cyrano de Bergerac
Delicatessen
The Dinner Game
Diva
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Entre Nous
Eyes Without a Face
La Femme Nikita
Forbidden Games
French Cancan
Grand Illusion
Harvest
Hate
The Horseman on the Roof
Jean de Florette/Manon
The King of Hearts
Last Year at Marienbad
Life and Nothing But
Madame Rosa
A Man Escaped
Le Million
Monsieur Hire
The Mother and the Whore
La Nuit de Varennes
Pépé le Moko
Peppermint Soda
Playtime
Providence
Rififi
La Ronde
Round Midnight
The Rules of the Game
Summer
A Sunday in the Country
The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe
Three Colors
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Vagabond
Wages of Fear


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