What makes Melville’s Le Samourai cool?

Helen De Cruz
6 min readSep 5, 2022

“I like to take risks. My films never follow the current trend.”

“All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact recreation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me.”

Jean-Pierre Melville

Jean-Pierre Melville’s neo-noir French crime movie Le Samourai (1967) (watchable for free on archive.org) is hugely influential. The cult classic is a direct ancestor to, among others, No Country for Old Men, Road to Perdition and many others.

It is famous for its aesthetic of cool.

You get a sense of the uncompromising look and feel in the opening. It is wordless for the first ten minutes, and begins with the protagonist, Jef Costello (played by an impassive Alain Delon), who lies on his bed in a spartan apartment blowing smoke rings (excerpt here). Though in color, the colors are so muted as to make it almost a black-and-white film. The caged bird, mysterious (though its function in the story will become apparent) sets a metronome-like swing with its incessant tweeting.

Opening scene for Le Samourai

As Aaron Hunter asks “Can a movie get by on cool alone?” Also, “What is it about a movie that makes it cool? Is a desire to be cool enough?”

The answer is decidedly no. You can’t be cool by desiring to be cool. As Tom Cochrane argues in The Aesthetic Value of the World cool is a kind of aristocratic aesthetic property, associated with nobility and courts. He sees as an important predecessor the concept of sprezzatura in Castiglione’s The Courtier, a 16th-century handbook for courtiers. It is notably difficult to achieve the cool, a combination of apparent effortlessness and grace. Most things and people, no matter how hard they try, are not cool. As Cochrane writes:

Two major aesthetic values can be discerned as blended within the cool. First, the cool involves an ideal of grace, as Castiglione pinpoints in his analysis of sprezzatura. I take grace to be a variety of beauty, since it is a way that actions fit neatly together. Error or failure is ruled out. The cool is compatible with a degree of messiness (e.g. messy hair, an impure trumpet note), but only to the extent that the messiness does not matter, never actual ugliness. Second, the cool contains elements of aesthetic power or sublimity, specifically an elevation above the passions and indifference to danger.

Tom Cochrane, Aesthetic Value of The World

So how does Le Samourai achieve this aesthetic of cool? As I think Cochrane is right to trace cool as originating in a kind of virtue in people, it is worth looking at the characters and how they exemplify the cool [spoilers].

Alain Delon (Costello) dominates the screen as the hitman. He kills a nightclub owner, but unfortunately, he is spotted by a witness (a black pianist, Valérie who is played by Caty Rosier), which is the point at which things slowly begin to unravel for him.

Fiction writers in MFAs and workshops are taught to make characters relatable, to give them backstory, motivation, moral stakes. You’d think this movie needs this, especially as Jef Costello will die rather dramatically in a suicide-by-police, threatening to shoot the pianist with what turns out to be an unloaded gun. To make that scene pay off, one might think we would need lots of background on his inner motives and inner life.

However, we get no backstory on Jef Costello, and we only see him from the outside in a kind of objective point-of-view. His slow, methodical, ritualistic preparation for the kill (he puts on the gloves, adjusts his fedora etc) indicates he has done this before. A key scene is where he steals a car at some point and has an enormous ring with maybe 100 keys and tries them out one by one on the stolen car. The fifth key fits, but the viewer realizes that he would’ve gone on to try key after key until one finally fits.

Car theft scene from Le Samourai

Through his gestures and actions, we learn something about this character but we get no insight into his motivations. Any moral stakes are only very slowly, and mutedly, revealed. Notably, there is the bird. You see him feeding the bird, and notices when the bird is upset. Being attuned to the bird clues him to the fact that the police have put a bug in his apartment, which he methodically looks for and finds. The scenes with the bird and a few other moments is where you can the slightest glimpse of humanity behind the impassive appearances, which I believe is important to achieve the aesthetic of cool. A character who literally never fails or never has any kind of emotional engagement with his surroundings, such as the Roadrunner (outsmarting his eternal enemy the Coyote) is perhaps cool but also somewhat annoying. The aesthetic of cool succeeds better if there are obstacles, and stakes for the characters to deal with and be thwarted by.

The physical appearance of the actors further enhances the aesthetic of cool: both Delon and Rosier are very beautiful people, who in the movie seem oblivious of this fact. The fedora and trench coat both enhance the cool, though hats for men were not in fashion at this point in Paris anymore (but Melville was not interested in realism).

Rosier only has a few scenes but her performance dominates the screen in those few instances. A interesting example of cool occurs right at the end of the movie, where Delon (for motives that are much debated and remain obscure) points the gun at Rosier. She keeps on playing the organ and asks “Why, Jef”, whereupon he replies “They paid me for this”.

As you’ll see in the fragment, she doesn’t miss a beat, and when she sees the gun she doesn’t even seem afraid, more sad or perhaps disappointed. Melville here uses a devious cinematic trick because we saw a fully loaded gun earlier in the car (as the clips shows) but the chambers are revealed to be empty (we never saw him unload the gun). Hence, the final scene is interpreted as a kind of seppuku on the part of Jef Costello, perhaps to protect the pianist, which wraps the final words “They paid me for this” in an enduring mystery.

But crucially, we never quite get enough earlier information to warrant that he would do such a thing for her–not in terms of a (romantic or other connection) on their part, and certainly not in terms of character. We see him (earlier) in the movie kill without a problem, but he derives no pleasure from it. We see him beat up someone in a methodical and ruthless fashion to extract information out of him. But he never relishes in those actions, and seems to go about them as if they are some sort of duty to be performed. It still seems a stretch to assume he would give up his life for this woman he barely knows (or seems to know).

Final scene of Le Samourai

In the final scene, we can witness two elements that Cochrane alerts us to for a successful achievement of the aesthetic of cool: an indifference to danger, and an elevation above the passions. Both Valerie and Costello show indifference to danger, though the very subtle showing of emotions (when they establish eye contact) indicates they are not robots. The elevation above the passions is shown by way of contrast: their muted reactions (even to being deadly wounded) contrast starkly with those of the bartender and the shocked patrons.

In terms of character development, Le Samourai reminds you that there isn’t a single recipe for making successful characters your audience cares about. You don’t necessarily need a deep insight into inner lives, motivations, even moral stakes, without having significant payoffs at the end. With the aesthetic of cool one can get away with minimal characterization because the cool demands that we do not know too much of what goes on inside. As Cochrane remarks, there is a tension in the aesthetic because the aristocratic grace that cool people exhibit really is the result of significant prior effort through training, but the training is hidden in the fluency of expertise.

But to make the aesthetic succeed you also need some imperfections, how it can go wrong (such as the key scene, also the scene where Costello dresses his gunshot wound in a methodical, but rather messy and not entirely successful fashion). Different overall aesthetics require different characterizations. Bringing it all together makes the difference between a sublime movie of enduring artistic value such as Le Samourai and distant imitations that reduce the noir characters to stereotypes.