Alain Delon, Jean-Pierre Melville and the sensation that was ‘Le Samourai’

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“There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.”

A man lies stretched out on his bed smoking a cigarette, its smoke filling the air of the small and empty studio apartment he is currently residing in. It is raining incessantly outside and the gray and gloomy looking exterior is perfectly matched by the drab interiors of his apartment. The walls remain unpainted, the bed looks old and the only thing that appears to be elegant is a long curtain that lies on either side of the large window. There is a pet canary chirping in a cage nearby. The man waits patiently for… something. He finally gets up, takes a glance at the bird, and puts on his beige Burberry trench coat and fedora. He checks himself in the mirror, adjusts his hat and walks out.

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Director Jean-Pierre Melville introduces one of the most iconic characters in cinema with this long and tranquil opening shot. It was this single image that prompted him to make Le Samourai, a stylish gangster film that was to become one of Melville’s highly acclaimed films. It’s evident from Melville’s films that he had an obsession with solitary characters and the most predominant theme in his films is loyalty. Be it Le Doulos, L’armee des Ombres, Bob le flambeur or even his much earlier films like Les enfants terribles, these characteristics are strongly evident in each one of them. His protagonists appear cold and distant, live in the shadows, and strictly adhere to a moral code. They put their trust in select individuals and expect full-fledged loyalty from them. They remain detached from the outside world and see this as a necessary and sensible way to live. Le Samourai is no different.

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Alain Delon was already a major star in his native France but his stardom attained new heights when he played the character of Jeff Costello, the cool and elusive hit man. The film does not have a substantial plot unlike some of Melville’s other films but its minimalist style, tone and of course, Delon’s portrayal of the solitary hero was enough to compensate for its absence. The dialogue is kept to a bare minimum and is used only when necessary. In that respect, it almost resembles a silent film. Note the scenes in the garage when he goes to change the plates of his car and collect his weapon before every mission. There is no dialogue exchanged between him and the mechanic. It’s not necessary because by now, the mechanic knows his routine and habit. Just like the other Melville characters, Costello has a strict moral code too. He values honor and loyalty above everything else.

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He seems to have no interest in the ladies either, except for a prostitute that he occasionally visits. For her, he is not like her other clients. He trusts her and uses her to construct a nice alibi in case the police question her. We see him preparing for his new assignment with a methodical approach. He operates with a razor-sharp precision and Melville directs the film in the same way. This assignment, which involves eliminating the manager of a club, goes wrong when the piano player spots him. We can tell that such a mistake has never happened to him before. The shrewd Inspector investigating the case orders the apprehension of all possible suspects and organizes a line-up. Costello is brought in as well. Some of the witnesses are not sure if it’s really him. But two of them who got a very good look at him, claim to not recognize him. Why? He gets off scot-free. Later, he falls prey to an unexpected act of betrayal which leaves him with a small injury. After he settles this matter, he is entrusted with a new assignment which he remains conflicted about.

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Meanwhile, the suspicious Inspector has decided to trust his instincts and instructs his men to follow Costello wherever he goes. The fun and beauty of a good French police procedural lie in its details and there was no one making better police procedurals in French cinema at the time than Melville. One of the highlights of the film is a long sequence where Costello tries to evade the police. He gets in and out of cars, platforms and trains, thereby frustrating the cops. I’m quite certain that this sequence (and several others in the film) influenced Paul Greengrass while making the Jason Bourne films, especially The Bourne Ultimatum. The film also influenced Walter Hill’s The Driver (with Ryan O’Neal playing a similar character), Michael Mann’s Thief and last but not the least, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Melville lets his inimitable style take over and revels in it. So does the viewer.

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Costello is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen in cinema. We are given absolutely no information on the character’s background and this lends a sense of enigma to him. He keeps surprising us at every turn and we are more drawn to him because of this. The character radiates an unusual aura and the reason for that is none other than Delon. As Costello, Delon is the epitome of cool. One of the peculiarities of this character is his delicate and feminine features which do a good job of obscuring his underlying ruthlessness. This also makes him a hit with the ladies. Every woman who has seen this film blushes when they talk about Delon. I’m sure deep down they wish to enjoy a tryst with a mysterious character like him. But that’s not to say he hasn’t inspired the men either. Ever since I saw this film, I’ve been harboring a desire to buy a trench coat and hat just like his. Of course, you would have to go to Paris to achieve the full “Jeff Costello” effect.

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