Cool World

Le Samourai
Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday

IN THE MOVIES, to translate is to transform. Italians redefined Westerns, Woody Allen took on Bergman, and right now a bunch of foreigners (Germans, English, Chinese, and at least one Finn) have been blowing up the "all-American" action film (The Fugitive, Face/Off, Air Force One) into a pulse-jolting multinational machine. Taken individually, these translations may falter, but the global transformation process is inevitable and basically healthy: American audiences think we know one thing cold, then the world shows us otherwise.

Whatever the demerits of its worst examples, we learned to appreciate "Spaghetti Western" as a category because it recast the mythology of both the West and the Western. At this present moment, we could extend the same courtesy to a French movie with a Japanese-derived title, paying abstract homage to an American genre, the gangster film: Jean-Pierre Melville's long-unseen 1967masterwork, Le Samourai.

While one might believe that samurai were historically noted for their loyalty to a feudal lord, Melville's movie goes instead for the "solitude" of a samurai's life. Its (anti-) hero is Jef Costello (chisel-cheeked Alain Delon, a big box-office name in France), a hit man who's as lone a wolf as they come. A book on my shelf describes the Japanese tea ceremony as "an intense, satisfying, spiritual and esthetic experience," and that pretty much sums up Le Samourai's tone--even though there's no tea in it and nobody talks about swords. For much as the tea ceremony's content consists of physical actions with metaphorical import, Jef's time is spent less in shooting than in adjusting his trench coat, caressing the brim of his fedora, and squinting wordlessly. He's not so much an "action hero" as he is a predatory existentialist. To be is to kill.

Jef barely talks. His apartment is dark gray, and there's only a small caged bird for company. He plays poker and apparently doesn't bother to bring cash since he knows he'll win; Jef always wears his poker face anyway. But his world, and especially the way he moves through it, is like some fanciful and extremely stylized form of modern dance: He's always in the right place, his aim is true, and even when he fails it's perfectly timed and spiritually motivated.

Following a Bond-based trend toward tech-fetish realism that was already in place by the 1960s, Le Samourai follows a dateline narrative ("Sunday, 6 p.m.") and builds suspense through the use of gadgets. There's a final chase through the Paris Metro system, famous in its day but a little sluggish now, that's based on small radio transmitters wielded by Jef's pursuers. In another scene, nifty editing makes a wordless comparison between a determined cadre of cops, and the equally dark-suited clones who originally hired Jef. For the most part, though, the movie is more a meditation on the coolness of being Jef Costello.

And yet any deeper cosmology of Costello goes almost entirely unrevealed: "Noble" may not be the best word to describe this man, but "principled" feels adequate; as with Eastwood, words won't reveal what's going on inside, but there is clearly something behind the steely eyes. Compared to the wider reputation of French films, which forgo action for character, Le Samourai leaves even character in the background to explore an idea or a mood through motion and setting.

The reductive stylization of Le Samourai makes its few accents stand out as significant. Since the quirky Melville (born Grumbach) took up an American name and fancied a Stetson most of his working life, other titles here hint at opaque clues. Is "Costello" a tribute to Abbott's partner? Why does Jef hide out at 1, Rue Lord Byron? Is a character named "Olivier Rey" because the French love jazz, and King Oliver was one of its prime movers? It's all a kind of poem of cryptic gestures that beg interpretation. And so like many movies made by film lovers, Le Samourai is two experiences at the same time: a translation and a transformation, both of them magical.

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