Le Samouraï (1967), from director Jean-Pierre Melville, is considered one of the classic hitman movies, the model for all that came after. So I really expected to enjoy it. I thought, “Here’s a French movie that I can really get behind.” Then I watched the movie and found it a bit dull. It isn’t just that very little happens, or even that it happens very quietly, but even the little there is is unrevealing and uninteresting. It’s as though it’s trying to out-Ronin Ronin (1998). Le Samouraï is so restrained and understated that it barely moves. If I were reading this review, I’d probably think, “Ooh, that’s a recommendation if ever I saw one” and I’d be right. That is, if the movie were made five years ago instead of fifty. What was sleek and sexy at the time, like the bugs and the technological chase sequence, is so clunky, that it would be funny if I wasn’t watching the movie on my own. I’d look over at my fellow viewer and he to me and we’d quietly, slowly shake our heads in unison.
A young, vulpine man, Jef Costello (Alain Delon) smokes his cigarette to the incessant chirping of his caged bird. Jef has a job to do and at 6pm on a Saturday, he begins. He steals a car, collects papers and a gun, establishes his alibi (Nathalie Delon)—which the French pronounce hilariously—does the job for which he requires an alibi, gets picked up by the police (François Périer), and when the alibi checks out he is released. This sounds like the first ten minutes of the movie, twenty at the most, and yet constitutes almost forty minutes of a 105 minute film. If I continued for two more sentences of the movie I would have summarized the film instead of teased out the premise (which is my normal object).
“Now,” you say, “that sounds like a pretty full forty minutes.” Inaccurate, mostly. The story described, as I suggested, is merely the premise of the conflict which the rest of the film seeks to resolve. I love the IMDb description for Le Samouraï: “Things suddenly go badly for a successful French assassin.” It is not suddenly and it isn’t clearly “bad” for a considerable time. Not until he is released, where I was under the complete misapprehension that Jef was free as a lark in the sky, did the worm turn. And turn as it did, I was given a further misapprehension that things would be quite gritty from now on rather than methodical and unsympathetic. No, things were mostly just methodical and unsympathetic.
It’s rather like Shadow Dancer (2012) in a way. Since you’ve almost certainly not seen this and I didn’t feel any compulsion to review the film, this may not elucidate much, but I mention it because serious fans of the espionage/hitman/crime thrilling action films may learn something about their tastes from these movies. Both movies breathe a great deal. How often do you see a movie of the sneaky genre and bemoan their going too quickly? For me, it is very often. I want there to be thought, investigation, discovery, character and these things take time. Le Samouraï and Shadow Dancer do certainly take their time, but where Shadow Dancer does put in as much character and drama as it possibly can (in as few words as possible and with as little result as possible), Le Samouraï doesn’t even really do that. Jef’s motives and plans are mysterious and the film’s resolution doubly so.
No one in Le Samouraï is a hero of any sort. Nor is anyone so wicked as to be enjoyable to watch. Le Commissaire (the detective) is almost interesting because he’s half pragmatist, half rogue and played as a mildly put-upon old man. Ken Stott would play him in the English language version. Jef is possibly an inquisitive person, but he has no data to compute. He disappoints no one, he makes no one proud. Why his lady alibi is enamored of him, I cannot say other than his foxy features. And the bulk of the plot involves Jef running around like a hunted fox except no one really has any cause against him. The police have witnesses saying it was positively not Jef, the people who ordered the hit find his case is solid, and yet there is conflict. Many films will incorporate elements of this movie but to far greater effect, placing their characters’ psychologies on the map of this man.
If Le Samouraï were made today, it would be a great film. First, the acting would be better filmed. There is nothing Delon gives us that Ryan Gosling did not in Drive (2011). But the camera used Gosling’s face to let us project thoughts on the character. Melville does not do the same either because it isn’t in the language at the time or because the camera is not as malleable as they are today. Melville does move with the camera, but only on the horizontal plane (give or take a tilt or two). The colors are also drab which dulls the mood. But drabness is not necessarily something that I oppose, but there needs to be something else as a counterweight—the complicated plot and interesting characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) or the dark internal workings in Drive. Melville and co-writer Georges Pellegrin conspicuously remove these kernels, like Jef’s response to the new contract or the policeman’s true feelings about his job and his methods. Too much time is spent saying nothing.
It’s irritatingly expensive for being only available on DVD.