The elusive hitman story is one that we have seen many times portrayed on the big screen over the years from around the world, but Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï is a story that has influenced other filmmakers and films across the crime, neo-noir genres. It's the silhouette we know so well, the coat and hat we usually associate with a detective that now is synonymous with the hitman too.
Jef Costello is a hitman for hire who always has an air tight alibi for any job he takes on. But when he is seen by several witnesses after killing a club owner, he is suspected by the police, hunted down by his nefarious employer and left with nowhere to hide as he's pursued across the city. But Costello isn't one to let something like a murder charge get in the way of him finding out the truth about his latest job and who's behind his hire.
If anyone was to expect a high paced thriller, they would be disappointed since speed and immediacy are sometimes to be expected in a crime story involving a man on the run or being hunted down at all angles. Melville's story is brilliantly structured, the long shots that may appear unnecessary but in fact build up the tension that literally hangs in the atmosphere of the entire film. Costello might just be bandaging himself up or the police is planting a bug in the hitman's home, every moment feels as if everyone is on edge. There is excitement in the suspense created and ample time to drink in the shot choices and in particular, Costello's studio flat with its greys and blacks, one small caged bird, as if it were an extension of Costello himself. Despite it being in colour, the film's tone is near completely saturated so we are forced to follow the little brightness there is on screen, namely that trench coat from the first part of the film. With cars, clothes, interiors, the metro, there is barely any brightness, seeping into the neo-noir genre like a glove.
Le Samouraï has been cited as being one of the pinnacle films in the neo-noir genre, giving the lone wolf, gun for hire that edge of charm, logical thinking and ultimately leaving us with the question whether they were really a villainous criminal or just the strong silent type. The character of Jef Costello, played by Alain Delon, is iconic in his creation and how he has evolved in later cinematic incarnations. Melville's masterpiece will continue to influence filmmakers as it is a timeless story that can be told anytime and anywhere, but there will always be the original.
Le Samouraï is released on Blu ray from The Criterion Collection 6th December 2021