Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier. (1967, NR, 104 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 30, 1997
Fedoras and trench coats. Film noir in cool blues and greens. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samourai is the real deal. Movie icon Alain Delon, enigmatic as ever, stars as the story's central character, Jef Costello, a lone-wolf hit man. A solitary operator, Melville likens Costello to a Japanese samurai, a professional killer self-governed by a strict code of conduct. Costello is fearless; he performs hits without regard for who sees them. His flimsy alibi is backed only by a girlfriend's lies, but it can withstand the grilling of a police lineup. His steely exterior cloaks a pattern of transparencies. Before cinema's recent advent of “hit man chic,” there existed Jef Costello. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and John Woo have always been quick to credit the influence of Le Samourai on their work. You can see it in the narrative details and in the existentialist dilemmas their heroes face. (The elaborate final shoot-out sequence will be familiar to any fan of Woo's films, Costello's caged pet bird bears a narrative resemblance to hit man Jean Reno's potted plant in The Professional, and the impudent police line-up seems to foreshadow The Usual Suspects.) Yet Melville's indomitable indie spirit is also reflected in these later films. One of the most influential post-war directors in France, Melville (who adopted the name of one of his favorite American authors) created his own production company when denied access to France's tightly controlled studio system after the war. With their specialty in gangster pictures, Melville's entire body of work can be seen as a tribute to the American films of the 1930s. Le Samourai is often regarded as Melville's masterpiece (although Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos) are strong contenders) and this release is the first time the original uncut 35mm version has been shown in the United States. From its silent opening moments to its breathtaking double-cross conclusion, Le Samourai is the work of one of the film world's great directors working at his expressive peak.