Sartorial Cool: Le Samouraï (1967)

By the time Alain Delon starred in this film by Jean-Pierre Melville, he was already an established actor, having worked with two auteurs, Visconti (including Il Gattopardo) and Antonioni (L’Eclisse). But when I think of him, I always think of him as Jef Costello, in this spare, thrilling film, in the tightly-belted trenchcoat and the grey hat. It is a wonderful example of what happens when a great actor is cast perfectly and shod impeccably. The character-making of Costello’s hitman is achieved so well sartorially that he is without a gun for most of the film!

In one of my favorite scenes, a witness is asked to identify Costello in a police line-up. To test the witness’s power of observation, the police chief asks Costello to trade his hat and his trenchcoat with the other men in the line-up. The witness correctly identifies Costello, and identifies his trench coat and hat on the other men. This scene, doubtless one of the least important in the film, was nonetheless significant for me, as it illustrates my point completely: the actor, the character, and the clothing form the sign of the lone warrior, the samurai. One cannot underestimate the power of sartorial style and of intense physicality in film. Our memories of films are full of cinematic signifiers of the sartorial and physical kind: gestures, trenchcoats, Bogart’s fedora. Melville, of course, was very aware of this and allegedly designed Delon’s costumes himself, referencing the trenchcoats and fedoras of American film noir, with a French touch. That the film’s soundtrack and dialogue are limited adds to the visual power of the details.

Le Samouraï. Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. CICC et al., 1967. In French.

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