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Film review: Le Samourai

Published: Friday, July 11 1997 1:32 p.m. MDT

Jef Costello (Alain Delon), the title character in the classic French noir thriller "Le Samourai," shoots almost as often as he speaks.

But that's not to say the celebrated 1967 film, which inspired modern-day directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo (Woo remade the film as "The Killer" in 1989), is your typical shoot-'em-up. Quite the contrary. Writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville uses spartan dialogue to reinforce the solitary nature of his lead "anti-hero" character.

In fact, many of today's filmmakers could learn a lesson from the way Melville uses both words and violent acts so sparingly in the movie, which unwinds in a slow, methodical and spellbinding manner. Woo and Tarantino use violence for exaggerated, almost cartoony effect.

As played by Delon, Costello is a lone-wolf hitman, whose few friends and lovers are used for alibis more often than they are for emotional comfort. As a matter of fact, his most trusted friend is probably his pet parakeet, whom he uses as security for his apartment.

Hot on Costello's trail is the local police chief (Francois Perier), who suspects that he murdered a wealthy nightclub owner and brings him in for questioning. But with uncooperative or unsure witnesses — including the club's beautiful piano player (Caty Rosier) — and unshakable alibis — from Costello's "fiancee" (Nathalie Delon) and some poker-playing buddies — the inspector is forced to release him.

Of course, that doesn't stop the police from tailing Costello. But his knowledge of the city's subway system allows him to easily escape their best efforts.

At the same time, he is being pursued by a fellow hitman (Jacques Leroy), sent by his unknown former employers, who fear that he may lead the police to them.

What ultimately emerges in the film is an elaborate series of traps and double-crosses for Costello to foil, leading to a stunning and surprising conclusion. However, Melville does throw in some subtle clues (which astute viewers will pick up on) that foreshadow the ending.

As mentioned, Melville only uses dialogue when it's needed here. He also employs a plain, matter-of-fact direction style that gives things an added air of realism, as does his accurate depiction of police procedure. Also, his use of natural sounds, such as the bird's chirping, rather than an obtrusive musical score, only heightens the tension.

Alain Delon, who was attacked by some narrow-minded reviewers in his day for being stiff, is perfectly cast here, displaying a cool, calm demeanor at first, then an equally calm desperation as the chase gets more intense.

"Le Samourai" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for some violence, a couple of profanities and a scene with brief (and veiled) partial nudity.

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