Film about hitman for hire is one of cinema's existential masterpieces
By Jimmy Gillman
In French director Jean-Pierre Mellville’s “Le Samourai,” every single expressionist frame of film represents and reflects the story of its existentialist assassin in its entirety—so intricately connected are the film’s narrative, performance and cinematic elements that it is impossible to separate the individual parts from the totality of the whole. The result is a highly voyeuristic experience of a kind only the movies can provide; a total immersion into an almost otherworldly time and place; at once at home with its modern environment while also separate and distinct from its conventional moorings.
Melville has achieved this not simply by copying the techniques of Italian neo-realism, what with its improvised scripts and non-professional actors. He’s done it by undertaking the opposite—assembling an experienced, professional cast and a crew and immersing them in a finely honed parable stripped to its fundamental symbols, movements and words.
This approach is masterfully conveyed behind the film’s opening credits, a brilliant sequence in which not a single word is spoken, yet one in which the basic character and existential story are communicated through precise cinematic composition and limited movement and action—a textbook example of mise én scene.
That streamlined, minimalist approach fits Melville’s protagonist and subject matter perfectly as it tells the story of a hired assassin named Jeff Costello, who has reduced his life and surroundings to the barest of essentials that make him both a contemporary version of an ancient Samurai and a walking weapon born out of the ashes of a disoriented, post-war European culture.
With his tall, angular frame and trim physique, French superstar Alain Delon’s every movement turns Costello into a coiled and cunning predator ready to strike, but one who is also in tune with the tranquil and contemplative nature of life. Managing to combine these vastly different qualities into one believable character, Delon shows why he was frequently referred to as the epitome of cool, much in the same way as
With shades of Graham Greene’s “This Gun for Hire,” after the assassin Costello successfully completes his latest assignment, he’s targeted for elimination by those who hired him to do their killing, a plot device that unleashes the film and twists it into a cold and calculating police procedural that reflects the disintegration of primary social structures.
Melville populates this crime drama with a group of fully drawn characters that are flawed, narcissistic and motivated purely by their own survival. Their presence deepens the narrative, but does not widen the core plot, which remains narrowly focused.
Much of “Le Samourai” might appear routine if not for Melville’s expert handling and intuitive feel for this kind of material, which remains almost unequalled. Working with frequent collaborator Henri Decaé, whose cinematography uses natural and key-lighting techniques to create an obliquely colored landscape, the film literally drips with atmosphere.
Despite the film’s superficial focus on murder and betrayal, “Le Samourai” is not a depressing film even in the face of its bleak message and callous climax, nor is it overly deliberate. That’s because Melville keeps things moving at a brisk clip, slowly but surely raising the level of tension at every turn. But it’s the way he achieves the momentum that is as much the star of the film as anything or anyone else, proving again why he remains one of cinema’s most noteworthy filmmakers.