‘Le Samourai’ isn’t the first Jean-Pierre Melville film to open with a quote – ‘Le Doulous’ sets out its stall with the grim homily “your choice … lie or die” – but it’s the first to suggest something quasi-mystical bubbling away just below the surface.
‘Le Samourai’ opens with this bit of prose, hovering above the prone figure of its anti-hero in the top right hand corner of the screen: “Il n'y a pas de plus profonde solitude que celle de samouraï si ce n'est celle d'un tigre dans la jungle ... peut-être …”, attributed to the ‘Bushido’ (the book of the samurai) but most likely of Melville’s own composition. It means “there is no more profound solitude than that of the samurai expect, perhaps, that of the tiger in the jungle”.
It’s a terrific attention-grabber, particularly as Jeff Costello (Alain Delon) spends the credit sequence lying on a grubby mattress in an equally grubby apartment, smoking with an almost existential determination. Is he the samurai or the tiger? As he straightens up, puts on his hat and overcoat and heads out, he seems to embody the formalism of the samurai. The milieu he moves through – one of clinically ruthless underworld types and coldly professional coppers – is certainly a jungle. Drab, steely-grey and coloured by nary a tinge of exoticism, but a jungle for all that.
Or maybe the title and the quote mean absolutely sod all, and it’s simply a story about a hitman setting up an alibi and a cop trying to break it. That’s the beauty of ‘Le Samourai’: it actually responds to a reductive aesthetic. Anonymous interiors, grim exteriors, characterless offices, and the claustrophobic tunnels of the Metro – all present and correct. A main character who betrays barely a trace of emotion – yup, he’s here. (Seriously, Costello is double-crossed and a hint of mild annoyance crosses his face; he painfully sluices a wound with antiseptic and he barely grunts.) A police superintendent (François Périer) who’s referred to in the credits as simply “the superintendent”. This is a film so characterless that it ought to be hollow. Empty. Bland. A bore.
What it is, however, is cool.
‘Le Samourai’ is cool the way an effortless complex jazz solo is cool. The way dirt-track rider walking away from buckled bike with a shrug and not even bothering that there’s blood on his leathers is cool. The way a snooker player pulling off a 147 is cool. The kind of cool that’s cool purely because us mere mortal know we’ll never achieve it and there’s no point trying.
And it’s cool because of Alain Delon.
Delon plays Costello as a blank canvas. He wears a suit more convincingly than any other bad mutha in any other crime movie ever made. People probably stopped wearing hats after ‘Le Samourai’ came out because they knew they’d never make them look as good as Delon. Or even put them on so iconically. This, if nothing else, is a measure of the iconography of ‘Le Samourai’: Alain Delon puts on a hat - he puts on a fucking hat – and makes it look like the coolest act ever captured by a movie camera.
At its most reductive, ‘Le Samourai’ is about Alain Delon wearing a hat and walking around looking cool for huge swathes of the running time. And, friends, I wouldn’t have it any other way.