Chris Nashawaty on ”Le Samourai”
The phrase ”kick-ass French tough guy” may sound like a ridiculous oxymoron, but believe it or not there have been a couple of them over the years. My personal favorite is Alain Delon in the stylish (and criminally underseen) 1967 film noir, Le Samourai.
Joke all you want about his countrymen’s inexplicable weakness for Jerry Lewis and grown men in berets getting around on bicyclettes with baguettes stuffed under their not-so-fresh-as-a-daisy armpits, but Delon would just as soon knee you in les oeufs than take any of your guff, Jacques.
Best known to the art-house crowd here for his collaborations with Rene Clement (1960’s Purple Noon), Luchino Visconti (1963’s The Leopard), and Michaelangelo Antonioni (1962’s L’Eclisse), and to everyone else as the suave, Pepe Le Pew-like pilot in Airport ’79 (yes, the one with the Concorde and Charo), Delon was always at his best with director Jean-Pierre Melville. In addition to Le Samourai, the two also teamed up for 1970’s equally hardboiled Le Cercle Rouge. Both are available on Criterion Collection DVDs. And both should be bumped to the top of your Netflix queue, stat.
But back to Le Samourai. Delon plays Jef Costello, a lone-wolf hitman who, like Baretta, lives in a depressingly skanky, unfurnished apartment with his pet bird. Delon, who resembles a more masculine Jude Law or a less crazy Tony Curtis, mostly kills time between assignments lying on his bed in a suit chainsmoking Gauloises. But when he gets the call, he’s like a friggin’ ninja (a ninja who subscribes to GQ, but a ninja nonetheless).
The film kicks off with an onscreen quotation from The Bushido, the Book of the Samurai: ”There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle?perhaps.” I know, very pretentious. Leave it to the French to zero in on the most brooding, existential passage from The Bushido. Anyway, we first see Delon getting out of bed, stubbing out his butt, putting on his trench coat and fedora, and coolly stealing a Citroën (while eyeing a foxy jeune fille) and speeding off into the night. There isn’t a line of dialogue until 10 minutes into the film.
Delon then heads to a swank jazz club and whacks the owner in his back-room office. On the way out, the club’s beautiful pianist (Caty Rosier) locks eyes with him fleeing the scene. Later, when the cops round up the usual suspects and bring Delon in to stand in a lineup, the pianist refuses to finger him. Why? After being released, Delon heads to her apartment to find out, and they have a totally French conversation where she poses such doomed, Sartreian questions as ”What kind of man are you?” And he pretty much just mumbles like Mr. Mysterioso and blows smoke rings in reply. Did I mention she’s wearing a kimono and noodling at the piano the whole time?
I don’t want to give the impression that Le Samourai is some artsy snooze that’s light on action. It’s not. The cat-and-mouse sequences, where the cops try to tail Delon on the Metro, in cool cars, and on foot are all excellent. And he brawls with a few goons as well when the man who hired him for the initial hit decides Delon needs to be silenced for good. Mostly though, Le Samourai and Delon’s performance is a love letter to the ’40s noirs of Humphrey Bogart like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, where guys were guys and dames with blood-red lips were dangerous. It’s about mood, money, and murder. And cigarette smoke. Lots and lots of cigarette smoke. Because if living by the code of the samurai didn’t kill Delon’s hitman in the end, the cancer sticks no doubt would have.