Le Samourai (1967) – The Death of Deathlessness


There is no greater solitude than that of a Samurai’s unless it is that of a Tiger in the jungle… Perhaps – Bushido, the Book of the Samurai

Arid, soulless, without luster, and a piercing silence: all these peculiarities sound familiar to one man, one personality, Jef Costello (Alain Delon)—the brooding Samurai, without any traces, any form of life, or any indication of existence except his actions. Cruel as he may be, Costello carries a striking silence around him wherever he goes, whatever he does. There is something about the Samurai in Jef Costello—mysterious in many ways, yet devastatingly deadly and unnatural. Surrounded by the murmurs of bereavement, the Lone Samurai treads his path with a serene calamity in his expression, as if the Tiger does not exist; only the hunted and the hunting do. The hunting conundrum keeps this Tiger alive, whilst alarming the city of the silent stampings of this paradoxical man. Words fall short in transcribing the clandestine neighboring this paradox—precisely why, the man of paradoxes, Jef Costello, rarely has words for anybody.


The movie starts with a psychological construction of a room, perhaps revealing the psychic of the silent assassin. With two windows throwing in light into what seemed a noir environment, Costello’s romance with life is only apparent due to the smoke his lungs pump out in form of a deep breathing pattern initiated by the smoky ashes of nicotine. Every other activity or lack thereof signifies silence and nothingness—except, perhaps, the caged bird that could serve as a symbolic metaphor of Jef’s own life and the way of his life. Lying on the bed of death, with nothing but hazardous smoke—his companion chirping—Costello rests awaiting the moment when everything ceases, comes to a halt and what is left is zero; the only presence of existence, no witnesses and no activities. The life of this mysterious assassin is as perplexing as it sounds and his ambition in life seems purely to do things the way they are meant to be done, based on his principles and ideologies—the Jef Costello way.


Primarily, Le Samourai is a crime thriller with cryptic usages of psychology and philosophy. The movie is a biographical revealing of one incident in the life of an assassin, and how that incident—despite his geniuses—drags him to breaking point, and the beauty lies in the smooth and subtle breakage the assassin passes through, without remorse, guilt, or any second thoughts arising in his serene mind. Almost meditative and calm, the assassin lays one alibi after the other, but as destiny has it—his own alibis end up defining his sweet fate. The weaving forces into his knit come in the form of his employers (the side of his functioning), the Police (his romance with the immovable forces), his lover and friend (the pillar of recreation in his life), his sole companion (the bird, Costello himself), and eventually the dark Princess that brings him to his destiny (saving him, liberating him). Le Samourai tracks on as a movie, a story about a murky person amidst the consistencies of the world and the inconsistencies of fate.


The startling power of Le Samourai lies in its undercurrent intermingles with death. The movie stands on the firm foundation of death, with every scene highlighting the vulnerability of life and the impending power of the inevitable event known as death. Continuously, Costello eliminates people from their bodies, and works on such assignments—without entertaining any other thoughts in his razor sharp mind. As the movie progresses, and as Costello pulls off the master plan—the events of fate bring him closer to his death. Perhaps he was awaiting his impending reaction and that is why the irony, Costello is prepared for his death—almost in passionate embrace only for fate to pull the trigger. No resistance, sheer acceptance—deep and profound akin to Costello. The thoughtless killer in Costello works extracted away from his soul—for the sake of work—and the inner pull of Costello is detached from all the actions, in perfect communion with his self and his status as a person already dying because death starts right from ones birth and everything since is, then, a countdown…


The inclusion of the two female leads—one who is Costello’s home and the other that is Costello’s path to redemption; both have two distinct levels of conscious existence. Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon) is Jef’s only contingence, his friend and lover, and the bright side of his life. She is the protective force he finds himself behind—the touch of Mother Nature’s sustenance, something he is not exclusively subject to. Valerie (Cathy Rosier) is the dark side of Jef’s reality, his work comes in tune with her morality and she finds him nakedly helpless—the touch of Mother Nature’s transformation, something that would sound music before the silence. The two polar sides of one Mother Nature act in favor of pulling Jef towards a path—rightful in their eyes, pathless in the eyes of the pathless warrior, Jef Costello. Drowned in such a predicament, with sense gushing out for the one glimpse of eternal reality; at the end, the great assassin listens to his inner consciousness and reveals the human emotion present in the emotionless Tiger, the Samurai. As has been the story of Costello’s life, his actions yet again determine the immediate reality.


The director and co-writer of Le Samourai, Jean Pierre Melville, who has to his credit some classic European cinemas in the names of Le Deuxieme Souffle (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) among many classic movies that mixed French Wine with the American Dream, creates a union of American crime and French art. Showcasing the beauty of this blend and including the powerful ingredient of minimalist cinema, Melville stands tall as the man behind the perfect movie, with a perfect story, perfect performances, and perfect execution. The repetition of scenes in the movie adds to the grandeur of the situation and the insurgency going on in the mind of the assassin. With the Police behind him—wanted dead or alive—and the men behind the schemes wanting him dead or alive, Costello has only himself and his genius stroke to rescue his body from this awful junction. Each scene repeats, each set repeats, and each lane appears repeatedly—only with a different impact—screening how human lives are such repetitive, with the only change of change itself.

In every possible way, Le Samourai is a showcase movie, a benchmark in the history of Cinema. Under the genre of crime thriller, Melville creates a psychological disclosure of human lives. The character of Costello is just a metaphor in the grand scheme of this ludicrous world. The bird served as a symbol of Costello’s life, while Costello serves as a symbol of our lives—trapped in the body of evidence and surrounded by forces beyond our imagination, with few elements to fall back into, yet insufficient in this race towards death. For it is not deathlessness that is immortal; it is those actions that withstand the depths of time—some tales that surpass immortality.


The performance of Alain Delon is indescribable because what he shows through his expressions alone would call for a unanimous expression to do justice to the landmark performance from the eyes of the great film hero. Accepting himself as Jef Costello himself and cloning into that persona, Delon comes off as an assassin himself with only blankness on his face, calmness in his mind, and archaic focus on his eyes—the idiosyncrasies of the assassin has no differentiation to the intensity of Delon. Without any doubt, not a hair or the tiniest particle, Delon assumes his role as a hit man as good as any actor in the history of cinema and it would not be off the mark at all to call it the zenith of characterization. Not in any other manner, it would be an understatement to call this great piece of visual literature—as an excellent movie. In fact, it is a perfect, flawless—arguably the benchmark for psychological crime thrillers in cinema’s glorious history.

Unmatchable, unmistakable…

Image Credit – Listal, Cashier de Cinema, Toutle Cine, General Thinker


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