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January 24, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | January 24, 2008 |

Forget Tarantino. Forget Woo. Forget Jim Jarmusch and Walter Hill. Forget everything you think you know about “cool,” because without Le Samouraï, without Jef Costello, none of these guys (and by extension, none of us) would know a damn thing.

Jean-Pierre Melville had already announced his cinematic intention of marrying American noir with European savoir faire in Bob le flambeur, but in 1967, he boiled coolness down to its essence; noir was no longer just a style, now it was an aesthetic. Le Samouraï contains almost no dialogue, little sound, and spare action. It’s not quite minimalism; rather, it revels in the elegance of sparseness. Every frame is timed, every movement measured, making anything that jumps out of the silence, the stillness, jolt you with its profundity. I’m not going to spell out the plot here, simply because it probably wouldn’t fill a paragraph. The importance of this film isn’t what, but how and why.

Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a hitman to beat all hitmen, a guy who makes glaciers look cozy. Le Samouraï tracks Jef through the standard noir tropes: the job, the femme fatale (though a very different femme fatale), the setup, the revenge, and that final gasp of fatalism. But this is a journey which delves deeper than the style that spawned it; Melville distills his neo-noir into something as pure as spiritualism, an appropriate metaphor for a character who appears to have renounced everything save his occupation; his principle is merely habit. Costello is all the more alluring for this detachment. He deals death with the same icy gravitas it takes to tip his fedora; his every being is of the code of conduct suggested by the title.

And both that title and a preface from the fictional “Code of Bushido” give reference to the crisp power of Japanese ritual. Jef isn’t so much a person as an idea, the sheer apotheosis of adherence to ceremony, with American style as its vehicle. But taken as the masterpiece of form and chic it certainly is, Le Samouraï is still a very French version of existentialism - Melville isn’t using spare formality as a means of finding realism, but quite the opposite. As cool as they are, neither Jef Costello nor Melville himself can resist the temptation of a bleak, romantic fate. If Jef is an idea, he’s also a doomed idea. He’s a murderer, sure, but one bound by the rites and honor of an iconic age. Could someone like that last in the modern world? Pshaw.

No, Jef Costello is doomed, and he marches inexorably toward his destiny with the same frosty nonchalance he uses to carry out his tasks. Yet as stark and understated as his final act is (the last scene will still break your heart), Melville’s fatalism shouldn’t evoke a pessimist’s sneer. Sartre said that Man is condemned to Free Will, and Melville echoes him through Costello’s dutiful embrace of a grim end, showing us that we can still master that fate which we cannot control.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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