Le Samourai (1967)

D: Jean-Pierre Melville
S: Alain Delon

Stylish minimalist thriller from French avant-garde director Jean-Pierre Melville featuring Alain Delon as a laconic assassin whose notions of duty are suggested to have much in common with the traditional Japanese warriors of the title. Pared down, lit for atmosphere rather than fidelity to reality, superbly paced and predicated almost entirely upon action, Le Samourai is a wonderful cinematic treatise on the psychology of death. It is a film so deliberately empty of artificial characterisation and empathy that it preys upon the mind long after it has finished. It is because actions are so meaningless that they are all the more affecting. It has had obvious influence on subsequent American films from Bullitt and The Day of the Jackal to The Terminator, on French cinema's own Luc Besson (Subway, Leon/The Professional), and even John Woo's The Killer.

The plot follows the last days in the life of a hired gun who, having disposed of a night club owner, finds himself subject of both a police manhunt and an attempt by his employers to get rid of him. He also finds himself drawn to a female pianist who for reasons of her own refuses to identify him in a line up. But the film is not really concerned with the machinations of its script. It is rather built upon a series of carefully orchestrated sequences which emphasise physical details. It builds suspense through editing, adding up small observations to larger ones and repeating images and actions when appropriate to suggest the construction of the killer's internal world.

Delon gives a suitably understated performance which depends as much on how he appears (wearing a trenchcoat and hat clearly modelled on the 1940s Hollywood noirs) as what he actually does. It is as if the man becomes less than the sum of his parts; defined only by his work, which raises moral questions of its own which the character himself chooses not to address. The decoration of his apartment with bare furnishing and a small, colourful bird acting less as a pet than a burglar alarm, he is seen to be concerned only with function, and with carrying out the job assigned to him as effectively and diligently as possible. That he is a murderer is incidental.

It also suggests correlations and equalities between the criminal underworld and the police through moments such as cross cutting between scenes of the police inspector pacing his office and the villains who have hired Delon doing the same, and through drawing constant attention to the fact that Delon himself owes loyalty to none other than the task. It is clearly influenced by American films of the 1940s, but its setting in a moral and psychological wasteland is in sharp contrast to the often melodramatic tone of its predecessors. Instead of long and meaningful speeches where characters lay out the themes of the film, Melville concentrates on images and montages. Instead of using dramatic shadows and lighting effects, he deliberately bleeds the film of colour and contrast. It reinvents the genre through style and technique while maintaining continuity with its predecessors on several levels.

To contemporary audiences, many elements of the film will seem excessively familiar, and it may hold less appeal than either the English language classics which preceded it or the English language modern classics which followed (though there is not all that much dialogue in the film anyway). But it works well within its own frames of reference and maintains a sombre, effective tone throughout. It is well worth seeing even if its pleasures are best appreciated by curious film buffs, and it offers rewards for the attuned which depend upon placing it relative to the evolution of the genre. It is not among the greatest films ever made or anything, but it is worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.