Le Samouraï is an engaging thriller, a fascinating character study, and a genuine work of art. It opens with a scene that embodies the minimalist characteristics that resonate throughout the course of its narrative. The scene captures the emptiness of a bare Parisian apartment, while the high-pitched sounds of a caged bird and the traffic of the city filter into the room. A young man lies flat on his back, fully dressed and smoking a cigarette. Over the image a quotation reads: “There is no greater solitude than that of a samurai…” And as the samurai rises and coolly secures his fedora, it is clear that the calm detachment from his surroundings suggests a confidence that is unflappable. The existential anti-hero is born. A setup this striking is hard to ignore, especially considering the idea of mythic solitude has been copied so many times it threatens to paint the original as an exercise in quaint romanticism. Yet, the film and the power of its images transcend the story’s conventional elements and its claustrophobic mise en scènes. The story concerns Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a lone killer, who murders a nightclub manager and – regardless of the care taken in covering his tracks – is hounded by the local detective, known simply as The Superintendant (François Périer), who believes Jef is the prime suspect. While the story has all the elements of a conventional thriller, the methodical process in which Melville sets up the action forces the viewer to think about the images, the situations and the philosophical underpinnings surrounding Jef’s situation. Before Jef’s assignment to take out the nightclub manager, he carefully plots his strategy: He steals a car (in a scene as clever as it is straightforward), he gets the car plates changed, establishes an alibi with a girlfriend and friends at a poker game – all the while doing it without barely uttering a single line of dialogue. In fact, the first words of dialogue don’t occur until the ten minute mark. Melville constructs Le Samouraï’s first half as a long setup that establishes Jef as a modern day ronin – a lonely soul who treats what he does with the utmost care and dedication. Alain Delon as the titular character can sometimes be misconstrued as passive and uninvolved, but one only need look in Alain’s eyes to understand the steely resolve and confidence that he projects, lending the character a menace and gravitas that is utterly engaging and threatening. Jef is so aware of his environment that, in one bravura sequence, he locates a transmitter planted into his apartment simply by the high-pitched chirping of his pet bird. In the scenes before, Melville goes to great lengths to show the care the police take in planting the bug while constantly cutting to reaction shots of the bird’s obvious distress. In a way, Melville’s command of the film and its environment mirrors Jef’s. In the end, the people who hired him betray Jef, and as the police close in, Melville ratchets up the suspense without resorting to mere contrivances. Instead, the narrative in the third act follows the logical evolution of the samurai code: self-sacrifice.
© Cinephile Magazine, 2006