sommes nous les jouets du destin, souviens toi des moments divins

Le Samourai: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) isn’t quite a samurai film, and it isn’t quite a gangster film. It tells a story that touches on both – three days in the life of Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a syndicate hit man who has no life outside of the job he’s hired to do. But the characters are all ciphers, and the city, anonymous. The movie is not about the people in it.

samourai

Le Samourai is about procedure. France in 1967 was a much more bureaucratic country than American audiences might recognize, and the movie tells the tale of two warring bureaucracies. Costello has his procedure, and we follow him as he executes it: lying fully dressed on his bed until it’s time to act, then rising to steal a car outside his apartment, switch the plates at a suburban garage, acquire a gun, visit a girlfriend and some poker-playing comrades to obtain an alibi, and then slip into a nightclub (through the restroom) to assassinate the owner. The police have their procedure as well. The superintendent (François Périer) orders 20 men arrested in each of Paris’s twenty precincts (“what’s 400 men in a city of ten million?”). He files them onto a stage, four at a time, for the nightclub employees to identify. When Costello is on stage, he produces an airtight alibi: his girlfriend’s apartment, between 7:00 and 1:45. He gives the Superintendent his girlfriend’s number; the Superintendent lifts his finger just so; a subordinate dials the number at a phone on the wall. Always, the emphasis on procedure.

It’s not merely enough to know that Costello’s syndicate and the police are at odds, but how they go about waging their battle. We see a two-man detective team break into Costello’s home to bug his apartment. One man jimmies his lock (using a ring of keys identical to the one Costello uses to steal a car), while the other pads from door to door in the building, listening in on Costello’s neighbors. Inside, the older detective mounts one bug, rejects it, then plants another. The two are about to leave when a neighbor comes down the stairs; the cops withdraw and hide. Why are they hiding? They’re the police, aren’t they? Yes, but they are intruders just as much as Costello is – interlopers in foreign territory.

This parallel focus on procedure, for both Costello and the cops, sets the two on equal ground. This illustrates the second theme: Le Samourai is about war. Costello displays such care in establishing an alibi and concealing his identity, yet he does not discard his most distinguishing feature: the tan trenchcoat he wears when he leaves the nightclub. In fact he wears it fully buttoned up the entire time the police have him in custody, removing it only when he gets home. Why? Because it is his armor, as essential a part of his identity as the heavy lamellar of a Japanese samurai. The Superintendent knows, with the mythical certainty of a fictional detective, that Costello is his man. So why not just take him? Because the rules of engagement do not allow that. The Superintendent must catch Costello – nailing him in the act with evidence of his crime.

Combine these two: Le Samourai is about a war carried out by procedure. Two bureaucracies – the syndicate that employs Costello and the police – butt heads over the death of a nightclub owner. Between the two of them, they grind up several lives and leave disillusionment in their wake. Costello recognizes the futility of the war he wages – the penultimate image of the film indicates that – but he chooses to fight anyway. Possibly because the code of le samourai gives his life meaning, while the two great powers (law and crime) discard the people they’re supposed to protect. That’s speculation; the movie’s four decades old, and foreign, so my attempts at critiquing it are largely guesses. But I think the text bears it out.

One Response

  1. [...] in L.A. is about counterfeiting. Every crime film needs at least one sequence of process (except Le Samourai, which was all process): the car being hotwired, the assassin setting up in a sniper’s nest, [...]

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