Ekspert I drab
There are not that many samurai in this Jean-Pierre Melville movie, but that is okay because we get an über-cool hitman in the shape of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello.
Jef Costello goes around in his trench coat and fedora with an expressionless face and economic movements. He rarely says anything but is focused to the exclusion of all else. His apartment is as spartan as it gets and his only concession to comfort is a birdcage with his little bird. Likely a picture on his own life. Jef is a hitman and we see him execute his job in painstaking detail. Getting a car, changing the license plates, getting a gun, securing an alibi and then, finally, go the nightclub to shoot the target.
Then the police move into action led by the superintendent (Francois Périer). Again, we follow in painstaking detail how the procedure moves along and how they are narrowing in on Jef Costello. Calling in the usual suspects, testing the alibis and keeping Jef under surveillance.
Jef Costello is betrayed by his clients as they fear he will lead the police to them and so he is fighting off both police and gangsters with him the pastrami in the sandwich.
This is a slow-moving movie. Over the 105 minutes running time not a lot is actually happening. The plot is very narrow. That is not a problem at all because this is all about style and coolness, and man, it is cool. Alain Delon, who is usually the pretty-boy in French and Italian movies, manages to be so cool that he is practically stylized. He is the epitome of a film noir character combined with a Sergio Leone quiet hero and a Kobayashi cat like elegance. This is not James Bond smooth. The Paris here is rainy and grey and the apartment is minimalistic and barren. The powers that rule are ruthless and dark and in the shadows of jazz clubs, things are happening that are only hinted at.
I watch this and think “Blade Runner”. Maybe “Blade Runner” was heavily influenced by “The Samourai” or maybe both borrowed deeply from the Film Noir heritage. When Jef is wounded and treats himself in the kitchen it is exactly like watching Harrison Ford do the same. The quietness broken by small monologues are also copied as is the soundscape and the rainy grayness.
There is a mystery in the night club pianist (Cathy Rosier). Is she actually together with the gangsters? And what is her relations to them? Is she sympathetic to Jef? And when he goes to shoot her there are no bullets in the gun, what does that signify? There is also the unexplained relationship between Jef and the girl, Valérie (Nathalie Delon), who provides him with alibi and is loyal to him in face of adversary. There are layers here that are only hinted at that makes the simple story a lot more interesting than it appears.
The police who tries diligently to uncover the mystery only sees very little of what goes on. When they take Jef in the end they realize they have uncovered nothing at all.
I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would, and a lot more than it seems to deserve. The style and the depth are tremendous assets and I cannot recommend this movie enough. It you, like me, is a long-time fan of “Blade Runner” and Film Noir then this is a must-see movie.