Cigarette smoke hovers above him like the morning fog after an early battle. A light grey fedora rests atop a stone gaze that pierces the air around him, searching for warriors that aren’t there. A tan trench coat is the armor, protecting an exterior exuding the particular cool that has befallen the French New Wave for almost a decade, cutting through celluloid with samurai precision. It’s the kind of cool that Akira Kurosawa encapsulated since Drunken Angel (1948) had shown the world that he wasn’t just katana’s and kimono’s, or the cool that Seijun Suzuki fires with a single jazz-note using a loaded gun in Tokyo Drifter (1966) just one year earlier. Genre is not necessarily the common ground where these films meet, but the roles portrayed by the gangsters that disappear amidst the urban battlegrounds. These aren’t men imitating gangsters, but gangsters becoming samurais, their one hand resting on the hilt of a gun that slices through the night with a piercing definitude.
Where Toshiro Mifune carried with him the wildfire of a thousand suns, our samurai Jef Costello (Alain Delon) holsters the isolation of a sheltered man; a single jazz note that has left the cool of the club in search of harmony. Yet in the city streets, the only type of peace comes in the form of constant running, from the men who hired Jef to make a hit, and the police officer (Francois Perier) who believes his alibi (Natalie Delon) to be a false cover. Similarly to Delon, Mifune was never without his loneliness, an alibi in and of itself, realized through heavy drinking (Drunken Angel) and manic behavior (Rashomon), a frequenter to the outcast warrior. Delon portrays Jef with a cold exterior that deeply yearns to break away from his life, symbolized through a lone bird that flutters between the barred confines of a cage, resting in the center of his minimalist apartment.
Opening the film is an epigraph ascribed to the bushido, a moralistic code of conduct the samurai adhered to, that states “There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle…. perhaps.” There’s a hesitant sense of confidence in this, the “perhaps” lingering long after the words fade to black. Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows) operates off this wavering confidence, infusing it into Jef’s rigid presence. Before leaving a dimly lit apartment, its occupying gangsters eyeing the poker chips that rest stacked in front of them, Jef declares that he “never loses. Not really.” If we were to take this brazen declaration at face value, it wouldn’t be difficult to see the fault in the armor that carries with it the bushido epigraph, our hitman a mirror image of a caged bird rather than a mighty tiger.
Despite Jef living alone, acting alone, and ultimately feeling alone, there is a looming sense of feminine company throughout Le Samourai, a presence that is linked more to seppuku, the ritualistic act of suicide, than any alibi. Early on our hitman, commandeering a stolen vehicle, makes eye contact with a strange woman in an adjacent car, Jef’s emotionless exterior clinging to our eyes like rain on glass. Though nothing is said, it becomes abundantly clear that the female gaze plays an intrinsically crucial role in Jef’s life.
The only alibi against his investigated hit on a nightclub owner is Jane (Nathalie Delon), a woman whom he may or may not love, though we know that he needs her. The only clear witness to the murder is jazz pianist Caty Rosier (played with a shy observance by Cathy Rosier), who denies that it was Jef that she saw exit the scene of the crime. These acts of denial force Jef to run hopelessly through the streets and subways of his own prison, realizing, too late, that even birdcages have corners.
There’s a moment towards the end of the film that defines Jef’s ultimate decision towards self-sacrifice, where his winged companion malts its feathers due to the stress of plain clothed officers infiltrating his apartment in an attempt to tap it. We become aware, through a man who hides under a hardboiled uniform, that even when emerging anew, you’re still the same caged bird, isolated from those around you. Realizing that no matter how far he shakes the gangsters that want him dead, or the officer that wants him detained, Jef will always lead a solitary life of crime, living through a moralistic code that has become engrained in his very essence.
As Jef approaches the stage of the same nightclub he made his ill-fated hit, his calculated blue-steel inspection turned to exhausted acceptance, we waver between the point of view of our hitman and his target, the jazz pianist turned accomplice Caty Rosier. It’s Melville’s use of perspective that sheds light on who Jef is and what he has been driven to. Jef’s hard, confirmative expression bounces off Caty’s soft, assured look of denial the same way a bird hits a window; with a stunned belief of what’s standing between him and freedom. Pulling an unloaded gun on a target he’s told to kill is Jef denying the code of the samurai, committing a type of seppuku. It’s a sacrifice that flings open the door to a caged and isolated existence, one that flutters between the acceptance of the samurai code, and the unbearable desire to be free from a life estranged from the accepting hand of a woman.