“He’s a wounded wolf; now there will be a trail. He must be disposed of quickly.”
‘Le Samouraï’, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1967, is a sparse, minimalist French thriller. Jef Costello, played by Alain Delon, is an assassin who is hired to kill a night club owner. He does so and escapes but leaves a trail of eye-witnesses and he is arrested. Unable to pin the murder on him, the police let him go, but subject him to surveillance and try to unpick his alibi. In the meantime, having discovered he is being sought by the police, Costello’s employers, try to have him killed which leads to the assassin turning against them. It’s a chilly, clinical movie with an enigmatic central performance and a sharp delineation between the tight and professional underworld of the assassins and the authoritative but and sleazy corruption of the police. The dialogue is minimal and Melville tells much of his story through inference, gesture, movement and sly visual jokes. The title of the movie both mythologises the central character, but also points towards the end when Costello effectively sacrifices himself for the honour of his occupation. It’s full of memorable moments and images, not least the final scene when Costello returns to the night club and slowly, and very visibly, prepares to kill. There is also a very tense subway chase that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne movies. Alongside all of these action sequences, there are nods towards the American surveillance thriller, and small incongruous additions that round the character of Costello. The assassin, for example, has a pet bird who’s tweeting punctuates the time his spends alone in his flat, but who also acts as an important plot device.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s pacey, taught and exciting. It has a noirish feel but interlaced with the philosophising of French and Italian cinema. I’d watch with something like ‘Bande à Part’ for the contrast between Melville’s economical style and Goddard’s manipulation of the image.