The first shot of Jean Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samourai is of an impossibly sterile apartment room, a cold and impersonal place so drained of color that the film begins to echo the black and white film noirs from which it gets its inspiration. But Le Samourai is saturated not with color but with an indefinable cool, and the mixture of film noir visuals, samurai ethos, and French existentialism creates a self contained world that is not so much Humphrey Bogart as it is Humphrey Bogart's fever dream. Welcome to a world where fedoras are perfectly straight and trench coats are perfectly belted, where a hired assassin operates on a strictly regimented code of honor, and where such a code of honor is not only acceptable but, indeed, almost rational.
The titular "samurai" is Jef Costello, a hired killer who says little and emotes even less. He has no past and no future, and he moves through the film like a ghost lurking in the shadows, surveying his prey with the detached eye of an observer. He is invariably methodical about his job, but one day he is seen leaving the scene of a crime by a night club singer and his carefully constructed world begins to unravel. He is questioned by the police, who have no proof of his guilt and to the very last can find no proof of it. Thus begins the essential dilemma of the film: there is a man, a detective, searching for a concrete answer to a crime when the perpetrator of that very crime is an enigma, a character who has no reply to the question "What sort of man are you?" If that question was posed to the anti-hero in an American film noir, it would be met with a pithy quip and perhaps a lingering shot on an inscrutable close-up. In Le Samourai, however, the question is answered by silence and an abrupt cut to a new scene, a fact that makes sense in this film, where dialogue is replaced by wordless overtures and where extended sequences are uninterrupted by speech.
In this mostly silent world of unanswered questions, the only way to answer the all-important "what sort of man are you?" conundrum is with a meticulous devotion to order. The only way out of a world devoid of order and meaning is to impose order upon it, and that is exactly what Jef does. In his world, this existential problem is solved by the perfectly straight row of mineral water on his bedside table and by his perfectly anachronistic Humphrey Bogart attire. The problem is, as soon as he dons his genre-defining outfit, his fate is essentially sealed. Because not only does Jef Costello operate on a code of ethics, the film itself does as well, and in its adherence to the generic precepts of both noir and samurai films, Jef is essentially left with a pre-ordained future. And this future comes when he inevitably violates his own code of honor: when he establishes a personal connection with an intended victim, and when he steps out of the shadows and into the line of sight, his fate is as sealed as it is self-inflicted.
At the end of The Maltese Falcon, when Humphrey Bogart is asked by a detective what the falcon is, he replies: "The stuff that dreams are made of." Jef Costello has no such emblem of wasted effort and unreachable goals, but he too has a bird: a sad, molting thing that sits in the corner of his apartment and chirps. It is grey, just like the rest of the room, but it is strangely anomalous, this tiny bird living in the midst of Jef's sterile orderliness. And yet it is details like this that make the film so potent and that come to define the strange world that Melville has so fastidiously created. And at the end of the film, when no platitudes or definitive answers are offered (in fact, the last spoken word is translated into English as "wrong"), one can't help but wonder what happened to Jef's sad little bird, left alone in his cage in that sad grey room. But in this minimalist dream world of taut suspense and hired killers with a code, this is perhaps the least of the unanswered questions.