He lies on his bed in his apartment, the smoke from the cigarette in his mouth hanging in the air like a halo. His room is spare and unadorned except for a pet bird in a cage; with the dingy monochrome lighting, this scene could practically be in black-and-white. The only sounds to be heard in the room come from the bird’s regular chirps, the rain falling outside, and the cars driving on the wet ground past his window. As the film’s opening credits appear onscreen, the man stays on the bed, moving barely an inch save for lighting his cigarette and taking a few drags. Even after the main titles end, François de Roubaix’s solemnly foreboding music begins, and the camera seems to zoom in back and forth, the man remains resolutely still until he suddenly gets up, as if obeying some command in his own mind telling him it’s time for action.
Thus the opening shot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), one of the greatest mysteries ever made. But wait: a mystery, you might be asking? The rather simple story of a hitman who successfully carries out a job, but then gets picked up by police afterward, thus becoming a target of the people who originally employed him? A story in which we know, right from the first shot, whodunit?
When it comes to the word “mystery,” many people are bound to immediately think of Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett novels, with their stories typically beginning with a crime of some sort, one that leads a protagonist to embark on a convoluted journey in trying to discover its cause, all of it building up to answers to the questions posed at the beginning. There’s something primally satisfying about works that hew closely to such a structure: a feeling that puzzles will inevitably be solved and that people’s motives can be easily discerned.
If only human beings were so easily reducible. Human nature, though, tends to be much more complex than such neat structures are prepared to admit. Even now, people still find a perverse fascination in pondering the reasons behind, say, the appalling serial murders perpetrated by the likes of John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy—perhaps because their motives are so unfathomable that it goes against our natural inclination toward tidy psychological profiles. Cinema—a medium that is, by its very nature, less given over to explanatory words than it is to tantalizingly suggestive images—is arguably most suited to tapping into this disturbing sense of irresolution. Films like Fritz Lang’s M, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood may not be mysteries in the classic plot-driven sense, but they offer deeper and more profoundly human puzzles: that of enigmatic characters who may well be beyond the realm of conventional comprehension.
Le Samouraï operates in precisely that wheelhouse in contemplating its main character, hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Here is a man who speaks few words, who never once cracks a smile, who seems to have no attachments to anyone other than his bird and the fedora he caresses whenever he puts it on. Passion seems to be a foreign concept him; the only times he becomes at all animated is when he senses he’s in mortal danger, and even then he indicates his fear only through specific actions or subtle changes in facial expression. Otherwise, his is an existence that seems to be defined by ritual and solitude. For his part, Melville doesn’t offer any specifics of Jef’s backstory; only an apocryphal quote at the beginning—“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle…perhaps…,” attributed to a Bushido from a fake Book of the Samurai—offers any clue to Jef Costello’s essence.
But it’s that aura of bottomless mystery around this character that keeps us strangely transfixed. It certainly helps that pretty-boy star Alain Delon is such a striking camera subject, making it easy for us to keep an eye on him. But it’s as if he and cinematographer Henri Decaë are engaged in tug-of-war, with Decaë capturing many close-ups of Delon’s face, probing it for something, anything, other than the stoicism Delon sticks to like the white gloves he wears throughout. Beyond Delon himself, Decaë bathes the film in a color scheme that could best be described as metallic, with grays and whites dominating, grounding the character dissection in drab reality—an approach that only makes the character seem even more impenetrable.
Though Jef Costello yields precious little in terms of inner life, he does carry out many actions in Le Samouraï—and we as viewers basically have only these actions to go on when it comes to trying to solve this enigma. Sure, he occasionally offers words to explain some of his actions; perhaps most crucial in that regard is his admission that money is the only thing that drives him to take these assassination jobs. But one doesn’t even necessarily have to hear that explanation to get a sense of his soulless precision and efficiency. It’s all there in his meticulous body movements: the way, for instance, he doesn’t seem to break a sweat even as he steals random cars off the street. (Melville even offers a point of comparison for Jef’s manner by showing us that of the cops who bug his apartment, the officers treating the operation with a similar near-robotic attention to detail, exuding all the experience of having done this many times before.) One can glean, simply by observing him move, that he’s gotten this hitman routine down to a science, that he’s a consummate professional—and that, during the course of the film’s events, he finally discovers the limits of his professionalism.
This kind of professionalism is certainly something Jean-Pierre Melville knew well, especially later in his career. After three early films—La Silence de la Mer (1947), Les Enfants Terribles (1950) and When You Read This Letter (1953)—in which he brought a distinctly lyrical sensibility to more typically dramatic subjects, his 1955 heist film Bob le Flambeur signaled a crucial turn in his body of work. With one exception (his 1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest), noir tropes—cops and robbers, loyalty and betrayal—became prominent in his films from then on. Films like Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxièeme Souffle (1966), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), his swan song Un Flic (1972), and even his World War II noir Army of Shadows (1969), featured similarly poker-faced criminals treating their heists like professional jobs, their survival dependent on them keeping emotion as close to their vests as possible, their belief systems expressed almost entirely by their actions. Le Samouraï’s Jef Costello fits squarely in that tradition; if anything, he’s Melville’s most extreme iteration. At least the characters in his other movies had each other to lean on. Jef, by contrast, is the loneliest of his lonely protagonists.
Or is he? Two women figure into Jef’s otherwise spartan universe. There’s Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), who early on in the film says to him, “I like when you come here, because you need me.” It’s suggested that, outside of her interactions with Jef, Jane is a prostitute; perhaps Jane is eager to help him because he’s one of the few men she deals with who sees in her something other than just a sex object. Certainly, he evinces no particular sexual desire for Jane, even when, towards the end, she asks him if there’s anything she can do to help him in his current situation. On the surface, at least, it’s the same story with the other woman in his life: Valérie (Cathy Rosier), the pianist at the local jazz club at which he carries out the assassination that sets all these events in motion. And yet, even though they barely know each other, Valérie lies to the police superintendent (François Périer) in order to protect him, and later he corners her outside of the club and, we deduce from the cops tailing him, spends the night with her. Is there more to Jef’s gravitating toward Valérie beyond just curiosity as to why she protected him (a question Valérie doesn’t even answer, deflecting his inquiry and turning the question back onto him)? Melville, as is his wont through the film, keeps mum, his camera fixated on Jef’s actions…
...until the very end, when the full extent to Jef’s fascination with Valérie becomes apparent. But in keeping with Melville’s overall approach, this is revealed not through explanations, but through gestures. It all comes down to a gun—the gun Jef trains on Valérie as he’s about to shoot her, a weapon that turns out to be without any bullets in it after the police shoot him dead. That unloaded gun suggests an unwillingness, for once, to go through with an assignment, as Valérie was set to be his next hit. But, in the context of a film focused so intensely on an emotionless character who is defined by his actions, this final gesture suggests despairing romantic depths to Jef Costello that, in his mania for precision and order, he may not have been ready to deal with. We’ll never know for sure. As with many things in this Jean-Pierre Melville masterpiece, it remains elusive, unfathomable, a subject for endless speculation—the way all of the best mysteries are.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice, in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.