Perhaps more important as a template for neo-noirs to come than on its own merits, Jean-Pierre Melville’s elegantly spare and sparely elegant Le Samouraï (1967) still has much to be said for it in its own right—and it’s a film that makes a fascinating companion piece to John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). (The two films so complement each other that it’s hard to believe they were made independently; but they were.) The story is a simple one. Hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a consummate professional who never gets caught—at least up till the hit that’s central to the film, the one where he spares a jazz-pianist witness (Cathy Rosier). Melville’s interest is in the details of Costello’s world and in the path he is on. The film is never rushed and never melodramatic, but somehow its very methodical nature—and its inexpressive star—make it compelling.
Alain Delon is a curious performer. He’s not just handsome, he’s downright pretty—something he tries to downplay by using his face like an impenetrable mask. And yet that’s the very reason that he works in the film. His inscrutable visage adds to the film’s density, and those rare moments—rare seconds, really—where we see something beneath it are powerfully evocative. Plus, there’s something more than a little disturbing about Delon’s looks and the character he plays. The tough-guy demeanor—right down to the trench coat and the fedora-shaded face—is almost comical (and it has certainly been parodied elsewhere, e.g. Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975)). It feels a bit like a kid dressing up like Bogart (though Alan Ladd might be a closer approximation). And yet the film takes him completely seriously, forcing us to do so, as well. What appears comedic is actually slightly chilling.
The look of the film itself is also compelling. It, too, might be said to be virtually expressionless, with all the color nearly drained from many of its images, so that—apart from two locations—it takes place in a drab, gray world. (In much the same way Boorman’s Point Blank takes place in a world made up of sharp angles.) And yet, the world of Le Samouraï doesn’t appear so much gray as it appears bleached-out. Costello’s apartment and the hallways of the building almost appear like driftwood, not like gray paint at all. There’s a timelessness to the film’s look—while Costello’s 1940s affectations suggest another time altogether. The notable exceptions to this are the nightclub and the pianist’s apartment (the latter wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of that emblematic 1960s TV series The Avengers). It’s as if the film recognizes the existence of its own era, but deals with a character who can never be a part of it—nor can the film.