Published May 1, 1997
If John Woo thinks, as the publicity material claims, that Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai is “the closest thing to a perfect movie that I have ever seen” I wonder why he does not make movies like it himself? In fact, Le Samourai, made in 1967 but only seen in this country before in the wake of The Godfather, in a badly cut and dubbed version called “The Godson,” is at the opposite extreme from a John Woo movie. Self-consciously noir it is a minimalist thriller in which the two or three moments of action are extremely brief, almost invisible, while the rest of the film is a slow paced cat-and-mouse game, shot largely without dialogue, in wide shots and long takes, between a hired killer, Jef Costello (Alain Delon) and his police pursuer (François Perier).
It is very watchable nonetheless. We see Jef setting up an elaborate alibi without knowing that that is what he is doing, and then admire how the alibi holds up when the police bring him in for questioning. But some doubts remain. Why does he seem to go out of his way to get picked up by going, after the killing, to an all-night card game? Why not just go home and to bed, since there is no reason we know of that the police would suspect him? Then, having picked him up in a trawl with a lot of other men in raincoats, why would they fasten on him as the suspect, particulary since his alibi seemed airtight? The Inspecteur says the alibi is “too perfect” , but it is hard to believe that a real life cop with (supposedly) 400 men and their stories to sift through would play a hunch like this.
It is possible to give up such cavils and grant Melville his donné, but there is still a discontinuity between the tough guy movie-making, which is often impressive, and the tough-guy criminality it supposedly represents. To expect more is a form of literalism on my part, given that tough-guy film-making, especially in France, has always been much more important than verisimilitude. You just have to sit back and enjoy the visual treat — Costello’s barely furnished, shabby room with its high ceiling and two, eye-like windows, the little bird in a cage whose insistent chirp forms a counterpoint to the borderline atonal, modernist score, the calm deliberateness with which the killer does everything, the setting of the brim on his hat as he goes out the door every time, the methodical way in which he steals a car, both times, the same model of Citroën. All these things are satisfyingly reassuring to us: we are tucked up safe inside a genre.
It is really the ending which is the most unsatisfactory thing about the film. I can’t go into detail without giving away too much, but I can tell you that it involves the tough guy hit man having to choose between a mysterious négresse to whom he is attracted but with whom he has hardly exchanged two dozen words in his life and breaking a contract, which he has never done. There is a weird kind of compromise between these two courses of action — a compromise which seems to have nothing to recommend it but its futility. C’est magnifique! C’est also, of course, absurde. Which is the point. But, were it not for John Woo’s encomium, I would have said that it was an ending which only a Frenchman could love.