There are more than a few French films from the 1960's that made me wish to be the lead character, Bob Le Flambeur, Breathless, or virtually any guy staring alongside Anna Karina in a Godard film. But few chatracters and few films just oozed the icy cool that Alain Delon does as Jef Costelo in the 1967 Jean-Pierre Melville film Le Samourai.
The film starts out with a long shot on a dark room. On the screen we see a quote about how nobody lifes the life of a loner like the samourai except, perhaps the tiger in the jungle. As the camera stays still on the room we notice that Jef is on the bed lying on his back smoking a ciggerrette. Smoke spirals up towards the ceiling, the room is all different shades of grey, black, and white, all hues that will stay as primary colors in this movie even though it was filmed in color.
Jef is a hitman, or a contract killer. The job we follow him to requires him to kill a nightclub owner. The scenes in the nightclub follow the idea that we have of Paris in the 1960's from some other films. It just looks hip as hell. Well dressed patrons and there is some live jazz being played. Jef tries to gow around unnoticed and though at one point is caught in the bathroom and he pretends to wash his hands while leaving his gloves on, a small slice of humor that Melville gives us. After he commits the murder though Jef is seen leaving the room of the crime and is seen suspiciously leaving the nightclub at an akward pace.
The nightclub owner was clearly an important man because the Paris police decide to bring in 200 suspects for the murder, all matching the description of a young man in a raincoat and a hat. Jef is one of those men brought in, and though he has constructed an airtight alibi the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between him and the cops as they try to break his alibi.
Le Samourai is clearly an homage to American gangster and Film Noir pics of the 40's, 50's, and early 60's. From the raincoats/trenchcoats that many characters wear, to the jazz singer serving almost as a femme fatale, to Melville's use of the black, white, and grey color scheme, to the fact that you can't shake the feeling that somehow Jef is gonna have his ass kicked by fate.
A friend who has seen a lot more Melville films than myself commented that this film was part of an ongoing experiment by Melville to recreate the black and white film in color. If that was indeed, the experiment it should be noted that he suceeded here. The city always looks grey, the raincoats, hats, the apartments, all grey, black and white (with the exception of the woman who loves Jef). Even the black jazz singer whore a white dress. And it all looks fantastic.
But most of all the movie belongs to Alain Delon. He plays the role so perfectly. Any emotion he shows through is just quick and subtle, through his eyes, which show that he is just a kid, and he is definitely on his own. For long portions of the movie he doesn't even speak but instead we are forced to gather his emotions and thoughts through his eyes, or even his walk. There's a reason why the sleeve calls it a "career defining performance."
After watching Le Samourai I immediately wanted to by a raincoat, a hat...and a gun. But since that seemed unfeasable after midnight, I just settled for starting it over from the beginning.