Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï has had a profound effect on everything about American culture from Michael Jackson’s look in the 1980s to the Jim Jarmusch remake in 1999, but is it a good movie?
As a technical exercise in film making, to answer “yes” would be a ridiculous understatement. Jean-Pierre Melville is such a master of lighting, pacing, and visual composition that Le Samouraï easily ranks with some of the greatest films ever made. The chase scenes through the Paris Metro make even good American films like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 or The French Connection look amateurish by comparison. The use of technology like car phones, pagers, wireless microphones, and reel to reel tape recorders is integrated so seamlessly into the plot that nothing looks remotely obsolete, even 47 years later. What filmmaker in 2014, French or American, could make something that looks this good?
As storytelling, Le Samouraï is a bit more difficult to judge. Is Jeff Costello, Melville’s contract killer played by Alain Delon, more style than substance? Do we care what happens to him? If Melville has a lighter, more assured touch in Le Samouraï than he does in Army of Shadows, then it’s partly because he has so much less to work with. The stakes are much lower. Army of Shadows asks whether or not it’s moral to kill a man, or a woman in cold blood, even if it means helping to protect the French Resistance against the Gestapo. In Le Samouraï, we either suspend our moral judgment or we don’t. Jeff Costello doesn’t kill a Nazi or a Vichy traitor. He shoots a nightclub owner, and a crime boss. We either accept that a murderer for hire can be a sympathetic human being, or we turn the movie off, and walk out of the theater.
Or maybe we don’t. Perhaps the whole point about Le Samouraï is that style is substance and substance style. Until the very last from of the movie, we have no idea if Jeff Costello is an honorable man or not. But Alain Delon is beautiful to look at. Brian De Palma’s clumsy knockoff of Costello as Frank Nitti in his film The Untouchables captures nothing of his style or existential cool. For that, turn to the classic song by Sade, Smooth Operator. I have no idea if Sade was thinking of Melville’s film when she wrote her ode to her heartless, yet elegant lover, but I do suspect that for a lot of black women Alain Delon was, at one time, an ideal “fancy man,” to use the label the film’s brutal yet intelligent police inspector pins on him.
Le Samouraï opens in the apartment of Jeff Costello, the samurai, a 30-year-old contract killer living in Paris. That it’s a dilapidated hole with nothing but an unmade bed, a case of mineral water, and a pet bird is testament to Melville’s cinematography. It doesn’t matter. The lighting is so beautiful, it’s hard to imagine not wanting to be his roommate. Costello puts on a tan raincoat and a hat, walks down onto the street, steals a car, a Citroen, the only kind of car he seems to steal, and takes it to a chop shop. There he gets a new set of license plates and a gun before going to work. First he visits Jane La Grange, his mistress. She’s a blonde, Julie Christie lookalike who lives in a luxurious apartment bankrolled by her older lover. Jeff knows all about the older man and the older man knows all about Jeff. Neither of them care, but that, as we’ll see later, is the point. Having established one part of his alibi, Costello drops in on a card game, establishing the second.
Then he does the job. He walks into a nightclub, makes brief eye contact with a black woman who sings and plays the piano, goes to the office, and shoots the owner dead. Why Jeff Costello’s employers wanted the man dead is never explained. Maybe he owed them money. Many he wanted to cut in on their turf, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the piano player has witnessed the murder. While, normally, a careful, methodical hit man like Jeff Costello would just shoot a witness as a matter of course, here he doesn’t. Is it sexual attraction? Is it a sense of honor. The pianist is obviously an innocent woman. Or is it something different? Earlier in the day Costello had made brief eye contact with a woman who looks very much like a white version of the pianist — that there are critics who mistakenly believe they’re the same woman is testament to Melville’s skill as a filmmaker — who was, quite possibly, a real woman, and also, quite possibly, the angel of death.
Jeff Costello, whatever his profession, still has a code of honor. If this code of honor is embodied in his personal style, then so is his behaviour. Why wear a getup that makes him so recognizable, a tan raincoat and a hat that gives him the appearance of a model out of a men’s fashion magazine? Why not just disguise himself as a deliveryman? Perhaps it would make him something that he’s not.
After the police round up the “usual suspects,” a lot of “usual suspects,” everybody in their corner of the Parisian underworld wearing a hat and a trench coat, Jeff Costello is a hunted man. Jane La Grange and her older, sugar daddy provide the alibi, and the cops let him go, but there’s no question that from the moment he arrives at the police station, he’s not the primary, but the only suspect. To make matters even worse, the gangsters who hired him to kill the nightclub owner now want to kill him. Why didn’t he shoot the witness? Why did he get arrested? He escapes an assassination attempt, but knows they’ll be back.
Costello is now alone, on the wrong side of both the police and the underworld. The police know he did it. It’s now only a matter of proving that he did. Why are they so sure? It’s never explained. Maybe it was the older man. Was he tipping off the cops by making the alibi just a bit too good? He’s no competition for the handsome Costello, and he knows it. I suspect he was. What better way to get rid of his rival. But it doesn’t work. The beautiful Jane La Grange, who occupies an uncertain land somewhere between high-class prostitute and kept woman, has no intention of betraying Jeff Costello. However hard the police lean on her, they can’t break her loyalty. So they transfer their efforts to the pianist, who, like Jane La Grange, covered for Costello, even though she knows very well that he was the man who murdered her employer.
Jeff Costello, in other words, owes his life to both a black woman and a white woman.
If some people were surprised when Jean-Pierre Melville turned his attention from gangster films to make Army of Shadows, they should have watched Le Samouraï more closely. Jeff Costello may be a mere killer for hire who killed a corrupt night club owner, but the police mobilize a dragnet and a sophisticated surveillance net as surely as if he were Jean Moulin himself. Indeed, the mass roundup of men with hats and trench coats, the attempt to bully Jane La Grange, the wireless microphones, and pursuit through the Paris Metro are, perhaps, a more vivid depiction of a totalitarian state closing in on a doomed man then anything in Army of Shadows. If Melville hinted at the connection between the Resistance and the underworld in Army of Shadows, it’s difficult to miss it here. Criminals, like members of a terrorist group or a resistance cell, are the only people who can resist tyrany. After the gangsters hire Jeff Costello for a second job, to kill the pianist, we realize they no longer want him dead. If he does the job, he’s off the hook. But how can he? Would Jean-Pierre Melville, a Jew and a hero in an anti-fascist resistance movement, write a film where the hero escapes with a blond, blue-eyed mistress at the expense of murdering an innocent black woman, and one who covered for him, in cold blood? Costello is doomed, A Samurai, the Code of Bushido tells us, has only one purpose in life, to die. Costello knows his time has come. The only thing left is to check out in style, like a gentleman.