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  • Ravi Swami

"Le Samouraï", Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967

The French New Wave's fascination for the American "Film Noir" genre found expression in a number of films by different directors and writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville's tale of a hit-man provided it's star Alain Delon with one of many career-defining roles as the fedora and trench-coat wearing "Jef Costello", and it's a role he inhabits with a degree of aplomb as if the outfit was designed specifically for him and no one else.

Costello is hired by the manager of a jazz club that he frequents to bump off a troublesome hoodlum within his ranks who threatens t0 take control of his business but in the process Costello himself becomes the police's prime suspect for the contract killing and therefore a liability to his underworld boss since he may expose wider criminal activity.

As the net begins to close on Costello and a hit man is hired in turn to kill him, he manages to outwit both the hoodlums and the police, but there is a sense that time is running out for him.

Costello's dingy apartment that he shares with a canary (?) in a cage is almost a comic-book exaggeration of a hit-man's hideout as if drawn by Will Eisner - heavily stained wallpaper, bare floorboards and the most basic amenities that hint at the general decrepitude of many such low-rent apartments in Paris in the post-war years and I felt that the inclusion of the bird in a cage was a way to insert some life into the general dreariness of his surroundings and to contrast Costello's robotic demeanour, though it actually becomes a metaphor for his life and a plot device at the same time.

The comic-book ambience is evident in the design of several scenes that rely on action over dialogue exposition, such as when Costello casually steals cars with a bunch of keys he carries around for such eventualities - usually the iconic Citroen DS but also at one point, a flashy American Cadillac "Eldorado" - scenes which reinforce through their wordlessness Delon's cold and inscrutable expression as he goes efficiently about his business.

Costello has his eye on the girl who plays piano in the jazz club, "Valérie", played by Cathy Rosier, an actress of mixed race who I had never heard of before and therefore stood out due to her significant role in the film, while also tapping his on-off girlfriend, a call-girl played by Nathalie Delon (Delon's wife at the time though they divorced soon after), to provide him with an alibi for the contract killing.

Cathy is the only person who is aware of the contract killing and, it turns out, is also the lover of the gangster boss who hired him in the first place which places Costello in an even more precarious predicament since he feels that Cathy has been instructed to lure him into danger.

He kills the gangster boss and then leaves, intent on killing Cathy while she is performing at the nightclub but by then the police have closed in on him and as he pulls out a gun to shoot Cathy, he is shot and killed by the police who discover that his gun was not loaded.

Costello conducts his business in full view of the staff at the nightclub and is feared by them for his ruthless approach to his work and it's easy to see the parallels with the Samurai of Medieval Japan in their role as hired mercenaries bound by a code of honour to whoever hired them and their status within the criminal underworld that they inhabited.

It's interesting to note the sidelining and frequent omission of Cathy Rosier in the publicity posters for the film, the most obvious being in the Italian poster where Nathalie Delon is featured prominently, even though Rosier's "Valérie" has a pivotal role in the film, but posters and the rationale behind their design aside it's credit to Melville for placing a woman of colour in a prominent role in such a film and at that time.

"Le Samouraï" is a gripping and stylish thriller that combines the narrative sophistication of graphic novels and comics with recognisable film-noir tropes and no one ever looked so good in a trench-coat and fedora as Alain Delon, and I'm saying that as someone who, for a brief time in the 80's, wore such an outfit...and I still have both items in a cupboard :)

"Le Samouraï", Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967

Criterion Channel


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