Born out of Jean-Pierre Melville’s love of 1930s Hollywood crime dramas, Le Samouraï (1967) is unquestionably one of the best homages to film noir. The film itself is a cross between classic film noir and Japanese yakuza samurai films, melding the principled noir anti-hero and the honor-bound, wandering warrior samurai figure into a rumination on the loneliness of the drifter. Le Samouraï achieves a minimalist noir style and, in embracing the utter fatalism of film noir, gives audiences one of the bleakest depictions of a doomed noir anti-hero. By incorporating these elements of film noir and the narrative conventions of the samurai, Melville’s film is a brilliant depiction of film noir as contemporary tragedy.
Le Samouraï tells the story of Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a contract killer hired to assassinate a nightclub owner. The film follows Jef as he steals a car, replaces its tags, establishes his alibi with girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) and some poker players, shoots the nightclub owner, survives a police lineup, is double crossed by his employers who are patrons or otherwise involved with the nightclub, and eludes the police in a manhunt across the city of Paris. Throughout all this, the samurai-gangster-assassin Jef Costello betrays barely an emotion. He is all glacial silence, living by a samurai code of solitude with only a caged bird for company. His personal code does not allow him to pursue personal relationships. With every turn, it is clear that Jef never compromises his principles, even for the sake of his own happiness.
The character of Jef Costello is very much an alienated anti-hero in the noir tradition. His occupation as a hired gun, his trench coat and hat, and his aversion to the police all make him a visual approximation of the classic American noir gangster. Even his name, Jef, recalls American noir and Robert Mitchum’s character in the influential noir classic Out of the Past. What separates Le Samouraï from its precursors, aside from its defined minimalism and overall style, is the choice of Alain Delon as the silent, lone assassin. Unlike the noir heroes of the 1940s, Delon is undeniably attractive. His exceptional good looks lend the film and the samurai-gangster a cool, decidedly cruel exterior. Jef is a magnetic character whose charismatic looks entice and fascinate the audience as much as they do the other characters in the film. Melville is very much aware of this and alludes to Delon’s looks throughout the film, as when the police inspector puts Jef in a row of other suspects, has them exchange clothes, and the witness is still immediately drawn to Jef Costello’s face.
Despite his magnetic and exceptional looks, Jef Costello remains alone with no significant relationships in the film. No one, least of all a woman, enters his own personal world in his dingy apartment. This largely eliminates the noir archetype of the femme fatale. If Jef has no real relationships with women, he cannot be manipulated and victimized by one. The two women who appear in Le Samouraï are his “girlfriend”, Jane, and the nightclub pianist (Caty Rosier). It is interesting that both women supply Jef with an alibi and save him from the police lineup. Jane is introduced as Jef’s girlfriend – who also has another lover – but she is literally reduced to a mere alibi, just a part of his work as an assassin and an accessory to the plot. The pianist had in fact seen Jef leave after killing the nightclub owner but did not admit this to the Inspector. Because she lies to the police, Jef is intrigued by the pianist. Her actions are confusing and weigh on Jef’s mind throughout the rest of the film. Did she lie to help him? Does she know his employers? Does she love him? In a way, she serves as a Death figure in the film, drawing Jef closer and closer to his inevitable end. Ultimately, the roles of these women reflect Jef’s own principled detachment. Like the ronin or the samurai, Jef does his job and serves his function efficiently, leaving no room for real values or sentiment. The would-be femme fatales of Le Samouraï serve their functions in the plot but form no real connection to the elusive Jef.
Paring down the classic genre and eliminating the femme fatale is only one aspect of Melville’s minimalist noir. In set design, dialogue, and cinematography, Melville lays the foundation for this minimalist tragedy of the lone killer. Le Samouraï opens on a bare, dark room. The only sound comes from Jef’s caged bird. It takes some time to notice Jef’s still body lying on the bed. He is only given away by the trail of his cigarette smoke. The image gives the impression of a cell. The distressed and peeling walls are more akin to a prison than a home. Melville’s treatment of color throughout the film is defined by the sparse, blue-grey palette of Jef’s apartment. This dull palette includes Jef’s grey suits, the stolen Citroën DS cars, and the interiors of both the nightclub and the police station. The result is a color film that looks more like it was shot in black and white. The duration and silence of the opening scene described above is also echoed in scenes throughout the film by the slow, building tension of elongated actions. We follow Jef’s systematic trek through Paris in what feels like real time. This approach seems understated even distanced but is in fact powerful and affecting. Minimalism in Le Samouraï even extends to Jef who endures the violent and convoluted plot while remaining mostly passive. Indeed, he is stripped of almost all emotion. With few lines in the film, Jef is an enigmatic mystery to the audience, guided only by his unspoken code rather than any perceivable, relatable emotions.
Melville’s emphatic minimalism is complemented by the ritualism depicted throughout the film, in both Jef’s actions and in shot sequencing. Jef, as a character, is a creature of habit, repeating his actions over and over again. In an important scene, one of Jef’s employers breaks into his apartment and holds a gun to his head. Jef, ever silent, is asked if he does not speak when a gun is pointed at him on principle. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s approximation of a witty Bogart line, Jef reveals that what was principle for the 1940s noir hero is “habit” for Melville’s assassin-samurai. Devoid of real values, his principles are merely habits (with the connotation of “bad habits”). This points to one of Jef’s most important characteristics: all of his actions are habitual, ritualized. He never leaves his apartment before obsessively fixing his fedora perfectly on his head; he never shoots his targets without first putting on his white gloves. Jef’s job as a contract killer is one huge ritual. He ventures out to steal a car, change the car tags, and kill his target. Otherwise, he retreats to his one-room apartment to await the next job.
Methodical to the point of absurdity, the depiction of Jef’s actions are not only essential to the plot but to Melville’s structure of the film. It would be simple enough to show Jef enter the nightclub and kill his targets without going through the preceding chain of events, but Melville prefers the ritual of showing the viewer the entire sequence of events leading up to the killing. Melville essentially inserts the camera into Jef’s rituals. As Jef indulges in his meticulous, ritual dressing, putting on his trench coat and hat, the camera becomes Jef’s mirror, watching him study himself and run his hand along the brim. Before each kill, Jef puts on his white gloves, puts his hands in his pockets, and pulls them out – without his gun. Melville’s camera emphasizes every step in this pre-killing process, focusing on Jef’s gloves and his opponent’s gun. Melville never shows Jef reach for his gun but rather promotes his mythic invulnerability in these death-defying assassinations. For each of Jef’s rituals, Melville uses the exact same shots in the exact same sequence.
Le Samouraï becomes a tragedy when Jef’s role as the doomed noir hero and the samurai is realized. The noir hero falls victim to the influence of a woman. In Jef’s case, it is the mysterious nightclub pianist who indirectly draws him toward his end. The samurai, similarly, may be a great warrior, but his story always ends in death. This is where the samurai’s intuitive understanding of the inevitability of death converges with the fatalism of film noir. Le Samouraï opens with a quote from “The Book of Bushido” (a fictional creation of Melville): “There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.” Bushido being the “way of the samurai,” Melville highlights Jef’s devotion to his personal code and sense of honor. In the life of a samurai, if he fails to uphold his honor, he must perform seppuku (a ritual suicide). Jef’s final scene is just that, a ritual suicide. Having failed his employers and fallen victim to the pianist, he enters the nightclub, removes his hat, puts on his white gloves, and levels an empty gun at the pianist. He effectively walks to his death, fully aware that the police will shoot him and he will die, honor intact.
One of the surprises of Le Samouraï is just how complicated its plot grows, despite its flat tone and slow pace. From the silent story of a grim samurai-assassin, the film devises a situation in which the police track Jef across Paris and he submits to his inevitable fate, allowing them to catch and gun him down. Jef’s bloody end is made evident from the very beginning of the film, by the mere narrative conventions of the samurai myth and the recurring image of the caged bird whose only path to freedom is through death. Melville constructs a perfect homage to the lone hero figure, to the noir gangster, and to the samurai and in doing so paints a muted picture of sheer, inevitable tragedy.