Le samouraï (1967)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le samouraï” is a most suspenseful neo-noir crime-thriller because it is filled to the brim with highly intelligent and intuitive characters who just so happen to excel at their jobs. We observe these experienced specimens interact and combust as variables in the equation change at a moment’s notice. It demands our complete attention in addition to our powers of deduction in order to speculate motivations and foresee endgames.
And yet the plot is straightforward. The hunter becomes the hunted after contract killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) becomes a prime suspect after having murdered a nightclub owner. Although his alibi (Nathalie Delon) is airtight and the five witnesses cannot agree unanimously that Jef is indeed the man they saw at the nightclub (four of them did not get a good look at his face), the investigator in charge of the homicide case (François Périer) remains thoroughly convinced that they have the right man in custody. Meanwhile, Jef’s employers believe that since the police may likely get the hitman to talk given enough pressure, it is paramount that they get to him first.
Clearly influenced by gangster pictures and samurai films, the work understands the importance of patience coupled with a willingness, even enthusiasm, to present details. Because it takes the time to show the audience the minutiae—how a hit is carried out, what must be done in order to minimize the possibility of being caught, the police investigation—we grow invested in the process. Take notice of the first act when our anti-hero is taken into custody. Instead of simply showing a scene involving a lineup where witnesses must attempt to pick out the correct person, as so often done in modern pictures, we do not remain behind a one-way mirror. Instead, these witnesses must come face-to-face, only a few inches away, from the possible suspects and look them in the eye.
It may be dramatic but doing so personalizes the experience. Without a wall or filter, a witness remains aware that his or her answer may change the course of a person’s life. Tension increases because there is apprehension in their eyes. In a way, we become the witnesses and we are one with what might be going through their minds. Notice how the placement of the camera changes as it focuses on a witness’ face versus a suspect’s. It takes an extra beat or two to rest on an expression and we hold our breath as we anticipate their response. The technique leaves room for empathy and doubt.
This is a masterstroke because, at the same time, we do not wish Jef to get caught even when he is in fact murderer-for-hire. Delon plays the character with a level of soft-spoken charm, perhaps even a relatable loneliness that comes with his profession. (He does, however, own a pet bird that miraculously becomes critical to the plot.) We do not learn any important information about his personal life and yet we cheer for Delon’s character to evade the authorities and those shady folks who wish to shut him up for good. The chase sequences in the subway and the like are secondary to the tricky humanity of the film.
But it is not a neo-noir without the requisite twists and turns. I was so invested in the poetry of the procedure that I found myself blindsided by such turn of events. This is a testament to the screenplay’s raw power: we know what to expect and yet we are surprised nonetheless when they are thrown onto our laps. Melville, like Hitchcock, plays the audience like a piano.