‘Le Samourai’ and the Birth of Cool

Melville is God to me.

John Woo

The above quote tells you just about all you need to know about Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. Even if you haven’t seen it—and outside of certain, nerdier film circles, there’s a fair chance you haven’t—to hear a director of Woo’s immense talent, with Woo’s eye for detail and frenetic storytelling sensibilities, heap such praises on the mastermind behind one of the most definitive works of noir ever made, is as attention grabbing as it comes.

Woo wrote those words in 1996, for his essay, “The Melville Style,” in the French film publication, Cahiers du Cinema, some 30 years after the release of Melville’s seminal work of noir fiction. Its storytelling influence can be seen in much of Woo’s work up to that point, notably in 1986’s A Better Tomorrow and 1989’s The Killer. Those movies featured anti-hero protagonists, big shots in the criminal underworld trying to make do with the lives they made for themselves. There’s a hip detachment to his subjects here; his criminal anti-heroes exuding the essence of cool, even as they commit the most heinous of acts.

Coolness and criminality have often been conflated in the cinematic realm. Quentin Tarantino brought it to the consciousness of modern film with Reservoir Dogs, with its cast of slick suited gangsters who talked pop culture and spoke in a language of hep almost entirely their own. Before him, Martin Scorsese explored the stylized world of violence and crime in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. These films, and Woo’s, are, rightfully, considered classics; they each hold an incomparable place in the annals of film history, standing proud as influences on both style and theme.

They also all owe a debt of gratitude to Melville and Le Samourai.

So much of the modern cinematic aesthetic can be traced back to Melville’s stark exploration of crime (and to French New Wave in general) which defined cool before cool was a metric by which movies were judged. Taking its narrative cues from many of the American noir classics (indeed, in another world, it isn’t hard to see this film working as a vehicle for Cagney or Bogart) Le Samourai upped the ante by infusing its noir story with a healthy dose of 1960’s French hipness, creating an altogether new way for crime to be explored within the medium of film.

Le Samourai tells a story that should be familiar to lovers of crime and noir fiction. Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a solitary hitman, hired to murder the owner of a Parisian night club. Following the hit, he’s picked up as a suspect and taken to the police where the commissioner (Francois Parker) isn’t convinced of his innocence. After being let go by the cops, Costello finds himself betrayed by his employers and must fight to get what’s his while avoiding both death and the police.

Melville fashions his criminal protagonist with a sense of style and panache. Throughout Le Samourai, Costello wears nothing but the finest fitted suits, a sleek raincoat, and a dapper fedora. Despite his flashy sense of style, our hero blends in well in both the glamourous world of Parisian night life as well as the grimy underbelly of the criminal world.

These dichotomous worlds are presented in a keen cinematic style. Witness the smooth, clean world of the nightlife, with its beautiful décor surrounding its beautiful people; here is the image we all want of Paris. Clean, bright, vibrant. Costello, with the unfairly photogenic face of Delon and his hepcat style, seems an intrinsic and indelible piece of the upscale puzzle, even with his murderous criminality guiding his every move. It’s tempting to think that his dapper façade speaks to his personality, that his utter coolness is just a fact of his existence. In reality, that’s little more than his armor.

Costello wears his clean cut image like the mask of a samurai, hiding his true face behind a well-groomed veneer. Melville reveals his true face through his scenery. The apartment in which our hero dwells is famously spartan, containing little more than a bed, some basic furniture, and a caged bird (whose presence is baffling, at first, though his purpose is later revealed). We’re meant to connect the sparse furnishing with the image of the samurai and the bushido code, but on a deeper level we can see how that emptiness is a reflection of what’s truly inside the mind and soul of our hero.

The walls of his apartment are filthy and waterlogged. It’s a building rife with rot and mildew. It’s almost as if Costello’s rotten soul, contained by his well-dressed mannerisms, has made itself known by his most intimate surroundings. As much as we want to like him, or even want to be him, the reality of his existence is expressed by where he chooses to make himself most comfortable. His rotten core is uncontainable, and taints his life in subtle, almost unseen ways.

Roger Deakins, who might be the greatest living cinematographer, once called Le Samourai one of his favorite films of all time, listing it among films by Kubrick, Fellini, and Peckinpah. His praise doesn’t come lightly, and a close watch of the film reveals how beautiful Le Samourai is, cinematically. Melville spoke about his goals for the film with Rui Nogueira for the book, Melville on Melville, detailing a bit about what he hoped to accomplish. “My dream is to make a color film in black and white, in which there is only one tiny detail to remind us that we are really watching a film in color.”

It’s not hard to see how cinematographer Henri Decae played with this idea filming Le Samourai. His imagery does invoke the feeling of classic noir, playing with light and shadow, with a color scheme that’s largely based around black, white, and gray. Used best when Costello is within his element—at home or working with one of his nameless partners—it serves as a stunning contrast to the larger world of the Parisian nightlife.

There’s a vibrance to world outside Costello. The nightclub where we’re first introduced to Costello’s murderous tendencies is alive with color and light. So, too, with the home of The Pianist (Cathy Rosier), which offers an intense opposition to the starkness of Costello’s inner world. Though he tries—even seems—to fit in in these places, his darkness is made all the more apparent in comparison to the vivid color that punctuates these scenes.

This use of color and contrast is seemingly the only bit of kineticism to be found in Le Samourai. This is a film known for its quietude, its stillness a reflection of the bushido code Costello is meant to embody. Even the tense scenes, the climactic chase, for example, is a calm, almost solitary affair. Melville builds his tension deliberately, so slowly that you barely register it’s even happening. The chase itself barely happens; The Commissioner watches from afar, guided by lights on a map that represent the tracking devices of his officers. On the surface, the stakes feel low, but bubbling beneath is a cauldron of paranoia and fear, which threatens to break through Costello’s cool exterior to reveal the true madness that lies within his soul.

These are all themes that have been played with countless times in the five decades since Le Samourai was first released. While certainly Melville wasn’t the first filmmaker to play around in this sandbox, his is a distillation of and improvement on the ways that cinema can portray these unspoken elements of criminality, bringing to life that inner reality of murder that belies the cool façade of its typical cinematic display.

That’s also why Le Samourai still resonates as a film all these years later. The Criterion Collection’s gorgeous Blu-ray remaster offers the perfect presentation of Melville’s flawless classic, whether you’re coming to it for the first time or experiencing it again. High definition certainly does wonders for the palette, bringing to life Melville’s imagery beautifully.

Above all, however, it showcases how timeless Le Samourai is. Its unique coolness feels just as fresh today, using today’s standards of cool, as it did in 1967. There’s a reason it’s been a touchstone for the great crime and noir storytellers for the last 50 years, and there’s reason to believe it will remain so for the next. Like a great jazz melody or rock and roll riff, true cool is eternal. Its inclusion in the Criterion Collection certainly ensures longevity, but its soul is what keeps it alive. New generations of filmmakers will always be able to come back to Le Samourai and use it to inspire their own techniques and narratives. That is the mark of timelessness, and the very essence of cool.

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