A sleek, elegantly composed crime film, Le Samouraï‘s classic status is well-deserved. Its success hinges on a spectacular performance by Alain Delon as Jef Costello, a hitman who keeps himself and his life under rigorous control until, of course, he can’t anymore. Delon plays Jef in accordance with the film’s fictional epigraph, imbuing him with a sense of solitude that rivals “that of the tiger in the jungle.” Director Jean-Pierre Melville understands that that solitude is sometimes compelling–Jef is magnetically compelling to women, and it’s only partly because he looks like Alain Delon–and sometimes off-putting. His otherness is at times almost alien, as if he neither knows nor cares about the chill he brings with him into a room or the way his utter seriousness places him out of his time.
Melville finds the point where this character would fracture and takes him to it. Jef fulfills his contract by murdering a nightclub owner. The Parisian police sweep him up in a net with four hundred other semi-suspects, and while Jef has a convincing–and carefully secured–alibi and no criminal record, the Police Superintendent (François Périer) suspects him nonetheless. This is partly because of an eyewitness identification, but not entirely. Another extremely plausible witness places Jef somewhere consistent with his alibi, and the witness who saw the killer face-to-face immediately after the murder, the club’s ethereally lovely piano player (Caty Rosier), lies about Jef’s identity for reasons of her own. Mostly, the Superintendent has a hunch, and though it’s an accurate one, he pushes it to uncomfortable places. He zealously begins to draw a snare around Jef: tailing him, bugging his apartment, and harassing the lover who supplied his alibi (Nathalie Delon). Meanwhile, Jef’s employer has been spooked by the police attention and decided to kill Jef for the sake of a cover up. And gradually, the man who once seemed like he could never sweat is losing his cool; a particular auto theft scene plays out twice in the film, once with Jef cool and collected and once with him beginning to fall apart.
How much Jef feels about all this is deliberately ambiguous. But it’s possible that the mounting pressure tells on him partly because he’s not entirely stripped down to essentials. He has a pet bird, one he diligently feeds even when he comes home bleeding; he doesn’t love Nathalie Delon’s Jane, but he still feels a distant sense of duty towards her, enough to be troubled that she’s being harassed on his account. And he’s drawn to the piano player who covered for him. He has practical reasons to want to know her motives, but Delon’s intensity in their scenes–and the fact that Jef refrained from killing her at the start–implies a little more. She’s beautiful, and it’s tempting to read a little doomed romance in their interactions. But above all, it feels like her lie elevates her to Jef’s notice and disturbs his world. His airtight plans didn’t include her, and in the aftermath, he can’t understand her.
He needs very little, and he has very little, but he’s on the path of losing even that. The cinematography and costuming lean toward grays and blues and tans, as if Jef exists in a world made up only of gunmetal and handsome suits. Into all that comes blood and sweat and uncertainty: collision rather than solitude.