in Criterion Month

Le Samouraï (1967)

Who, when, and how is it decided whether or not to translate the title of a film? Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru means “To Live,” and I think knowing that helps a viewer understand its message, even if it’s not particularly hard to figure out. But then there are movies like Le Samouraï, where leaving the title untranslated gives you an additional insight into the movie ahead of time, namely that this is a French film. Maybe it’s simply a copyright thing, as there are probably a dozen movies called “The Samurai,” but there’s only one of this. And it deserves to be memorable and easy to talk about.

One night in Paris, a hitman named Jef Costello (Alain Delon) murders a nightclub owner. The entire act was meticulously planned, with Jef building two, completely separate alibis. The first is with his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon, his real life wife) and the second is a late night card game, which I bet might be a nod to Rififi since director Jean-Pierre Melville loved that film. Unfortunately for Jef, he’s spotted leaving the crime scene by the club’s pianist, Valérie (Cathy Rosier) and he gets rounded up by the police who are looking for anyone shady and vaguely matching his appearance.

The police try a series of techniques to find the killer amongst the suspects, and the investigating officer (François Périer) quickly makes up his mind that Jef is his man. However, the police can’t poke holes in Jef’s alibi and Valérie says definitely that Jef wasn’t the person she saw, so they are forced to release him. But Jef’s bad night isn’t over just because the sun has come up, as when he goes to meet his employers to get paid he instead ends up getting shot. It turns out that the type of people who hire hitmen don’t like it when said hitmen get arrested and would rather be rid of Jef. That means our hero must now continue to avoid the still suspicious police while finding out who his employer is so he can get revenge, how exciting!

Even though this is 12 years after Rififi, the technology of professional criminals still hasn’t gotten a lot more complicated. One of Jef’s signature moves is to break into a specific model of car for which he has every single possible ignition key. Like, literally, he has a giant keychain with all the keys on it, and he tries them one at a time. Jef’s whole thing is based on the idea that he can get away with murder just by leaving before the police arrive. There aren’t any gunshot residue tests or fingerprints to check in regard to the murder, this was a time when literally all the police could go on was witness testimony, meaning they end up playing silly identification games and have to be just a suspicious of witnesses as they are of suspects. And wiretapping? That’s done by nailing a radio into the wall in a place you have to hope the person you’re spying on won’t look.

It sounds ludicrous by modern standards, but, like Rififi, its simplicity kind of enhances engagement. Furthermore, it goes on to show just how insanely cool Alain Delon is. Le Samouraï opens with a Bushido quote about the solitude of samurai, and Jef definitely embodies that. He doesn’t talk a lot, reveals almost no information about himself, and never loses. He is just a cool dude in a suit, raincoat, and a hat, going around outsmarting everyone in Paris. What more do you need to know?

I’d been hoping on catching up with Jean-Pierre Melville for a long time, and I’m glad this marathon finally gave me a chance to see one of his movies. That said, I’m struggling to think of anything interesting to say about the technical aspects of Le Samouraï. It’s paced and edited well Violence is quick but impactful? It was nice to see a movie in color finally? In line with its main character, Le Samouraï is a minimalist film without a lot of edits, effects, or even score. Which gives it a cool atmosphere and brings focus to every scene, each of which is important. Maybe I’ll have to check out Le Cercle Rouge to determine if that’s the Melville method.