Jean-Pierre Melville’s French-noir masterpiece is one of my personal favorite films and one I consider to be criminally underrated. Its influence on the modern-noir genre and, in particular, hit-man films is immense. Oft copied, no film since has been able to work brilliantly on so many levels. Every aspect has been meticulously crafted by Melville; from the occasionally sparse use of dialogue, the engrossingly tense atmosphere, to the almost monochrome color scheme, all of which results in a truly unique cinematic experience.
Le Samouraï opens with a superbly filmed 10-minute, dialogue-free sequence that introduces professional hit-man Jef Costello (Alain Delon.) Residing in a barren apartment and never cracking a smile, Jef only lives for one thing, doing what he’s paid to do. Although Jef is an intrinsically unlikable character (murderer,) Delon’s performance exudes coolness, demanding your attention and reverence. His cold and calculating demeanor is in stark contrast to his eyes, brimming with intensity and sentiment.
The story follows Jef as he prepares for his next job, discreetly entering a nightclub and killing the owner. Although taking steps to ensure his anonymity, using a stolen car and establishes two airtight alibis, including his sultry girlfriend Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon,) Jef soon finds himself in police custody in connection to the murder. However, due to his solid alibis and a lack of witnesses, he manages to avoid criminal charges, but not the Superintendent’s (François Périer) suspicion. The subsequent cat-and-mouse game between Jef and the police provides much of the film’s alluring atmosphere and suspenseful scenes.
At first glance, it could be fairly easy to dismiss Le Samouraï as an unremarkable entry to the oversaturated noir genre due to its lack of kinetic action and seemingly familiar storyline. That, however, would be doing the film a grave injustice. What truly sets Melville’s work apart is its strict commitment to subtly and utterly flawless execution. With a stunning visual style, all-around strong acting performances, and intelligently written characters, it is near impossible to find any faults within the film. Even the apparently straightforward story is deceptively complex. Much of the film’s actions and emotions are purposefully downplayed, adding ambiguity and depth to some characters’ motives and roles.
Le Samouraï is a wonderfully crafted film and an important piece of cinematic history. Although the label is tossed around a bit too often, this is one film that is absolutely deserving of being called a masterpiece. It is an unquestionable must-see for any film noir fans and a fantastic movie going experience for fans of any genre.