We may impugn the French for their pretentiousness and smugness, but when it comes to 1950s-60s gangster, film noir thrillers, they are beyond reproach. Given our bloggers' tradition of "theme viewing," I should make it my mission to write on the numerous French 1960s crime thrillers that everyone needs to see.
Le Samourai is Melville's crowning cinematic achievement, and he is no stranger to great filmmaking (Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le Flambeur). Melville gracefully blends film noir with Japanese samurai lore to spin a compelling yarn about Jef Costello, a loner hitman with an acute sense for danger. Costello (a stellar Alain Delon, a Melville regular) is contracted to kill a nightclub owner. However, plans go awry when he is picked up by the police. The cops begrudginly release Costello because his alibi is strong (perhaps a bit too solid?). Unconvinced of his innocence, the police shadow Costello, hoping to uncover his fraudulent alibi. Costello's employers are equally concerned and attempt to have Costello permanently silenced. Mix in a couple of dames, suspicious cops, and paranoid business men and we have the necessary ingredients for taut thriller.
Although the set-up is rather common place for a generic entry, I am struck by the economy in which the story is told. No shot or line of dialogue is wasted. One can easily memorize the entire dialogue after one showing; the first utterance occurs ten minutes into the film. I am struck by the film's patience. Melville knows that suspense is created by uncertainity, and uncertainity is best served by moments that occur naturally, so no contrived score or forced plot point jolts the audience's attention away from the plight of our protagonist. Extemely long takes thoughout the film allows us to really identify with Costello. But it makes for an odd contrast. We are nervous for Costello, but his calm, samurai-like demeanor only magnifies the tension (and our pleasure in watching the film). This seems to be a hallmark of many of the great 1960s French thrillers (Rififi, Wages of Fear, and Le Trou have some of the most exciting scences ever put on film).
Watch it. I promise you will enjoy it. More reviews of great French thrillers forthcoming, unless you all beat me to it (please do, you won't be disappointed).