Alain Delon claimed his most melancholy role, and a brutal one, as hitman Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s electrifying Le samouraï. Jef doesn’t make mistakes; his careful arrangement of details, including alibis, makes him arrest-proof. But his murder of a nightclub owner generates unaccustomed eyewitnesses, one of whom, the club singer, got a good look. After the police take him in, and let him go because the woman insists he is not the killer, he becomes a target for both the police and the one who had hired him.
Jef has little life apart from work. He lives in a spare, small apartment with one companion: a caged bird. This pet possesses a joyless, one-note chirp, but he or she is the essence of loyalty. When Jef returns after his place has been bugged, the animal’s agitation alerts him that something is amiss. The bird, at first little more than his or her sound, initially seems a projection of Jef’s solitude and forlorn, vampire-like existence; as the film progresses we wonder whether this companion, along with Jef’s loyal girlfriend, is all that keeps Jef sane; and at the end, when Jef meets a heart-piercing end that reveals his capacity for loyalty, we worry about the bird, who has now lost his or her one friend.
Delon is superb; but equally brilliant is François Périer, who plays the police inspector determined to bring Jef down. Both fatalistic and sadistic, as remorseless as Jef, and fleetingly human, compassionate, this cop believes that the end justifies the means.
“What sort of man are you?” the singer asks Jef when he tells her that he killed the club owner, whom he didn’t know, for money.
”Why, Jef?” she asks when he turns his gun on her.
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