The movies are filled with beautiful killers and brooding, haunted men struggling with their past and present. But Alain Delon in Le Samourai puts practically all of them to shame. His performance is a master class in underplaying everything; he barely registers an emotion, keeping his cool poker face throughout the various twists and turns of the film.
His character, Jef Costello, is a hired killer, and bares very little resemblance to the true nature of a samurai, but around the edges and on the fringes of the concept his character does seem to overlap with samurai methodology. Honor and ethics have little to no value or place in Costello’s world. He serves himself, and seems eternally at an existential crossroads with his work and lifestyle. The faux-samurai ethos that opens the film lays bare the ideas of self-isolation at the core of the character.
This theme of self-isolation extends itself to numerous dialog free passages throughout the film. Delon barely says anything, but through various prolonged scenes where we see how he goes about his business we get a true sense of the character. Most of his acting is done through body movements and posture, and while his face may barely register any emotion, his body gives him away. Take the ending, in which Costello registers his upcoming death with no facial expression, but a relaxed and resigned body. He is not fighting his ultimate fate, and, hell, he may have been looking forward to this eventuality for a long time.
One of the other great things about Le Samourai’s very 60's European chic and coolness is the cinematography by Henri Decaë which offers up a dreamlike, almost poetic vision of France. This isn’t a remotely truthful vision or expression of French life in 1967, but the distilled and incredibly potent version of lone hired guns carried over from American films and given a European makeover. Decaë’s color palette is fixated on cold tones like grays or blues. But much of this cold exterior only works to bring up the heat going on beneath the surface.
The (justly) famous scene in which Delon tries to flee the cops using the underground metro looks as sterile as can be. But as the situation gets more and more intense, and as Delon constantly switches trains and plays with his pursuers, a real spark is being generated. And since the “action” payoffs are so minimal, almost incidental, the tension never truly gets a release. He just keeps switching trains, changing directions and leading the police to dead ends and misdirected locations. His escape comes with no large shootouts or anything grand happening. It’s the tension, the possibility of violence breaking out at any moment beneath the still, placid surfaces that gives the movie its edge.
The twisty, turny plot is like an exercise in practically every noir convention and clichéd story truism rolled into one. This doesn’t matter in the long run, because while Le Samourai may not tell an original story, it tells its story in an original way. The attention to tiny details truly broadens and strengthens not just the narrative, or development of characters through actions and scenery instead of conversations, but our appreciation of its craft.
I may still be confused over the specifics of who hired him, betrayed him, and what the piano player really has to do with it all – I feel like on a second viewing all of these disparate strands will come together to form a more cohesive whole, as it was more than likely intended to be. And even if further viewings don’t clear up some of my confusion, it doesn’t matter. The Big Sleep features an unresolved murder, an a nearly incomprehensible narrative, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes an actor’s charisma, the style and look, the poetry (in this case) of a film is more interesting and important than narrative cohesion.
A scene that immediately springs to mind, a small touch really that explains so much yet is still slightly elusive, is a sequence involving a wiretap and a bird owned by Delon’s killer-for-hire. The specific’s involved are inconsequential to what I want to discuss, but the police end-up breaking into his apartment, and planting a wire. The bird, normally so calm and passive when Delon is around, flails about wildly in the cage. When Delon comes home, he sees the extra feathers and the calmed bird. He knows that something has occurred in the apartment, despite the fact that nothing else looks out of place.
His character’s keen eye is impeccable. And does he own the bird specifically to warn him of threats or changes that have occurred in his home? It seems to be that way. Why else would such an emotionally passive person own a pet? It’s a unique detail without a definitive answer, maybe it’s just a symbol. It’s the mystique that keeps Le Samourai so interesting, so ready for analysis and repeat viewings. To borrow a description that Alfred Hitchcock used for Grace Kelly, it’s a snow covered volcano of a film.