The opening scene of Le Samouraï immediately establishes a bleak Parisian setting. The opening credits fade in and out, superimposed on the scene of a dim, grey apartment. It’s only after a puff of smoke dissipates into the air that we recognize a man lying on the bed to the right.
The beginning scene of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film foreshadows the unraveling of the plot. We learn that the smoking man is a hitman named Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Quiet and unassuming, Costello fulfills his contracts, invisible to all. The beginning of the film follows Costello’s meticulous behaviour before his hit, from changing his plates to arranging an airtight alibi. He is unseen in a crowd, sliding in and out of scenes in a casual trench coat and fedora. That is, until his puff of smoke becomes a signal that ribbons into the air.
The film continues to follow Costello as he gets picked up, then eventually released by the police. However, the head detective, Le Commissaire (François Périer), is still suspicious of Costello. The film weaves through Paris and its outskirts, including underground in the iconic and frequently referenced Métro chase scene. Costello’s criminal bosses parallel the authorities, as they also attempt to take him out and resolve loose ends.
Delon plays Costello with a haunting detachment, depicting one of the most suave hitmen in cinematic history. Delon’s icy presence brings Costello’s character to life. For instance, he changes his car plates and double checks his alibi with his implied lover, Jane Legrange (Nathalie Delon), in the same flourish as one checks off tasks on a to-do list. This stoicism endures, even when he stands in a police lineup and when another hitman is hired to kill him.
Costello is an unplaceable man: his wardrobe, his apartment, and his face betray nothing. It is in this vast negative space that Melville’s Le Samouraï invites a passive viewer into unraveling the enigma of Costello.