1967 was the year of the Summer of Love, but during that year, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73) put together and released a movie that couldn’t have been more removed from the splashy colors and free-love mood of the swinging moment in cultural time. Le Samourai is a stark, moody, decidedly un-psychedelic crime film that Melville directed based on his own original story. It stars Alain Delon, who became an important collaborator of Melville's as well as a personal friend. Criterion has just released a new version of the film with their usual stash of bonus materials, which offers a prompt for a fresh examination.
Arthouse sex symbol Delon plays the lead character, Jef Costello, a 30-year old lone wolf who sometimes takes on work as a contract killer. Costello doesn’t talk more than he has to, and he doesn’t exhibit much emotion. He spends a lot of time looking handsome and soberly removed from it all as he smokes fat French cigarettes and wears fedoras.
On a weekend evening in April, Costello enters a Paris nightclub, marches into a private office there, and shoots the room’s resident—the club’s owner—to death. Costello exits the establishment without any police bother or any witnesses to the deed. But the house pianist sees him leave the victim’s office and several club-goers take notice of his suspicion-inducing departure from the premises.
Costello is rounded up with about 400 others in a general sweep executed by the police after they learn of the murder. Although he has no criminal record and is not carrying a weapon (he disposed of the gun before getting yanked to the precinct), he becomes the prime suspect because (1) he fits the description of the mystery man seen leaving the club immediately after the murder, (2) one man who was on hand identifies him as such, and (3) the police don’t have any other good leads.
But the cops aren’t going to have an easy case here because the pianist—for mysterious reasons—lies and swears that Costello is not the man she saw leaving the deceased’s office. Also, Costello has an alibi, one he orchestrated ahead of time: a ladyfriend of his (who happens to be played by Delon’s then-wife, Nathalie) avows that he was with her at the time of the murder.
The head police inspector is a persistent kind of guy, though, and he feels they have their man in the laconic Costello. He becomes determined to break the loner’s alibi by working to get his friend to admit she was telling an untruth about him being with her at the critical hour.
Meanwhile, the group of well-dressed men who hired Costello to make the hit aren’t thrilled that he’s been identified as the prime suspect, and they might have to take some action to keep their paid gunman from leading the fuzz to them. So the samurai is getting it from all sides. Somebody light the fellow up a Gauloises and pour him a drink.
Ok, enough plot rundown. I’m going to commit sacrilege in the minds of many film noir heads, Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville fans, and classic cinema buffs and state that I think this movie is not deserving of the critical accolades it so often gets. It’s thin stuff. I get that Melville made a point of having it be a stripped-down, minimalistic film, and I get that Delon’s character is meant to be emotionally remote and not someone with whom the audience is intended to sympathize. But there’s not much to make one care anything about Costello, the other characters, or the occurrences in the story in one way or another.
We know nothing about Costello’s life outside of the handful or so of days over which the tale takes place. We don’t know why the group who hired him to murder the nightclub owner wanted the man dead. We don’t know anything about the relationship between Costello and the woman who provides him with his false alibi—there’s just not much story there.
I understand that Melville had his artistic reasons for not providing plot background or character development (some of those reasons are discussed via the Criterion bonus materials), but that doesn’t change the fact that, well, there’s very little story and no interesting characters. I can think of countless crime films that are equally free of melodrama and are told in a similarly sparse, no-frills manner yet have storylines and characters that are compelling.
Also, the acting in the film is not exactly stellar. Nathalie Delon and Cathy Rosier (the pianist) are wooden in their roles. Perhaps that’s how Melville wanted them to act for the purpose of sustaining the movie’s icy tone. But their performances are boring, their characters bland. Alain Delon and the two women are all beautiful, photogenic people who look great on the screen, but none of them play particularly memorable dramatis personae here. Okay, I’ll give in and state the overused string of words that I’ve been resisting but that perfectly describes my overall reaction to the movie: it’s all style and no substance.
Melville made two other crime films with Alain Delon in acting roles: Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972). But while their collaborations are considered iconic by many—and while Melville is revered by a lot of film noir buffs as a master of gangster cinema—I’d rather watch his 1950 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles than Le Samourai or any of his other crime film titles.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.