Jef Costello (Alain Delon), an observant, somewhat taciturn, man, conducts his business with cool, brisk efficiency. His mission is clearly defined, all contingencies are considered, and nothing is left to chance. As a contract killer, this method of working is central to his success—and his survival. However, as Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 masterpiece Le Samouraï reveals, a meticulously crafted plan doesn’t always prevent unexpected complications.
As the film opens, Jef is in the final stages of preparing for his latest contract killing. The target is a nightclub owner named Martey, and Jef relies on his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) for his alibi. While Martey’s murder goes according to plan, Jef’s exit is witnessed by several people, including Valerie (Cathy Rosier), the pianist at the club. The local police conduct a sweeping dragnet in their search for Martey’s killer, and Jef is brought in for questioning. He doesn’t remain in police custody for long; the uncertainty of the eyewitnesses coupled with Jef’s seemingly airtight alibi prompt police to release him. However, the police superintendent (François Périer) believes he is a viable suspect and begins extensive surveillance of Jef’s movements. Meanwhile, Jef faces an additional complication when the man who ordered the hit on Martey learns of the investigation and has him followed as well. Then there is the question of Valerie; she had a clear view of Jef, yet she failed to identify him in the police lineup. Could she have a secret agenda?
Le Samouraï is a well-crafted film whose chief strengths are its tone and pacing. It is a somber and contemplative film, and the setting and color palette of the opening sequence establish this tone. At the beginning of the film, Jef, clad in his trademark dark suit, is in his apartment: an austere space with thick grey walls. He is silently watching a lone bird fly around in a similarly spartan cage. The pacing is slow in comparison to today’s films, but I think that heightens the tension as Jef slowly begins to realize he has become like a caged bird. The performances are strong, with Delon’s stylish and coolly calculating Jef Costello meeting his foil in François Périer’s exuberant and obsessive police superintendent. Le Samouraï is in French, but the subtitles are formatted so they are easy to follow.
Since its release in 1967, Le Samouraï has inspired a number of filmmakers, including John Woo and Jim Jarmusch. Fans of Woo and Jarmusch, as well as those who like crime dramas, may want to check out this sleek and stylish classic.
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