Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a meticulous, immaculately groomed assassin, driving through an idealized Paris. Speaking little, he shows almost no emotion as he carries out his assignments. The poker face is useful when he’s arrested and put in a lineup full of French criminal “types.” With a little help from a sympathetic witness, a nightclub pianist named Valerie (Cathy Rosier), the cops can’t make the charge stick.
Le Samouraï (1967) begins Jean Pierre Melville’s trilogy starring Alain Delon. Co-written with Georges Pellegrin, the film was partly inspired by the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake vehicle This Gun for Hire (1942). Tailored suits and elegantly furnished apartments bely the murderous intentions of the Melville anti-hero.The opening credit sequence, a variation on the opening of This Gun for Hire, has Jef smoking a cigarette while lying on the bed of his sparsely furnished room. He’s deathly still as the smoke rings billow above his head. The sequence ends with a quotation: “There is no deeper solitude than the samurai’s . . . unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.”
Jef is a fiercely beautiful, lone tiger, a maverick samurai not pledged to one lord. Unlike the honor bound killers of Melville’s Le deuxième soufflé (1966), he’s a ronin, masterless and serving the highest bidder (the uncredited source novel is Joan McLeod’s The Ronin). Gliding through the darkened Paris streets in a trench coat and fedora, Jef’s name is also likely an homage to Jeff Bailey, Robert Mitchum’s character in Out of the Past (1947). Although Bertrand Tavernier complained the film was not French enough, Jef drives a sleek, blue Citroën DS, not an American car. In contrast to his dreary flat, his car, like the exterior spaces he moves through, seems to sparkle and even today appears futuristic. With cinematographer Henri Decaë and production designer François de Lamothe, Melville creates a “cool” world of blue and grey. “Melville cast Delon . . . allegedly because there was something Japanese about him,” writes biographer Ginette Vincendeau “and he matched the film’s blue-grey color scheme to the star’s eyes.”
In the journal Senses of Cinema, Temenuga Trifonova compares Jef to the doomed gangsters in the films of Japanese directors such as Seijin Suzuki and argues:
Far from being a cardboard figure artificially transplanted into 1967 Paris, Jef can be situated within the tradition of social rebellion constitutive of the Japanese yakuza film: “The traditional yakuza hero… was a critic of a kind, a critic of modern society, a rebel who preferred the ancient warrior code as adopted by gangsters to the cynicism of modern Progress. But he had to pay for his rebellion by dying.
Melville is primarily a visual artist, using color, set design, costuming and well-timed bursts of action to get his story across.
Jane (Nathalie Delon) is Jef’s estranged yet still loyal girlfriend. Her performance is delicate in a tough milieu. While not a “good girl” in the traditional sense, she’s loyal to Jef. Cathy Rosier plays Valérie, a nightclub pianist who witnesses a shooting involving Jef. Unlike the clearly virtuous Jane, Valérie is an intrigante, a woman of mystery. She and Jef become intimate mainly with their eyes since for most of the film, they never appear to touch. The score by veteran film composer François de Roubaix sets the mood in the stylishly mod jazz club.
Both Valerie and Jane get caught between the crooks now after Jef and the corrupt cop (François Périer) who simply wants to close the case. In his 1997 review, Roger Ebert writes: “The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense–how action releases tension, instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen than to sit through a film where things we don’t care about are happening constantly.”