Let’s talk about Jef Costello, the lead character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, played by Alain Delon. Let’s talk about what we know, which is just the information we get from the screen. (That’s pretty much all we get, anyway: the rest is left up to interpretation.) And what we know leads to speculation, which is also part of the fun of this performance (and this film).
Jef Costello is a freelance hired killer. No information is given about his background, his childhood, his young adulthood, his parents … nothing. He appears to have emerged from nowhere.
He lives in a grey-walled apartment (dingy is an understatement, it is almost otherworldly and abstract in its grey-ness). He never eats. Or, we never see him eat. He drinks bottled water. On top of a grey dingy wardrobe near the kitchen is a line of bottles of water. He smokes. On top of that same wardrobe, are neat stacks of cigarettes.
Jef Costello’s immaculate appearance (in public and in private) is in stark contrast to the hovel in which he lives. He wears smooth trenchcoats, grey suits, and a sleek grey fedora. Before he goes out every day, he stands in front of the mirror, putting on his hat. There is a ritualistic nature to everything he does. He does the same things in the same order every day. When the fedora is finally on, he swoops his finger across the brim, a finishing theatrical touch.
His eyes are mostly vacant. Only very rarely does anything resembling normal human emotion enter into their icy blueness. Even when he is in a panic, like when he is trying to hot wire the pianists’ car while the entire Parisian police force is tracking him, his gaze is far-distant and yet somehow deeply inward at the same time. Like an animal in a trap, he endures, all while desperately trying to free himself.
He has zero self-pity. Survival is his only concern.
He is cunning enough to set up a double alibi for the night he is to do the killing. It is an impenetrable alibi, something that frustrates the police chief (François Périer), who knows there is something “off” about this guy, and knows that most killers don’t have airtight double alibis.
In his flat grey apartment sits a bird cage, in the middle of the room. Inside it is a chirping grey bird. It jumps around, peeping repeatedly. I love the detail of the bird. It is incongruous in that apartment, and it is incongruous in Jef Costello’s life. He doesn’t seem like a pet kind of guy. It’s a nod to This Gun For Hire (1942) with killer Alan Ladd feeding a stray kitten who shows up in his hovel. Ladd is tender with the kitty. There’s one quiet moment in Le Samourai when Jeff pours bird food into the little feeder. So he takes care of the thing. He actually goes out and buys bird feed (I mean, we don’t see him do this, but he must.) And in one alarming moment, when he comes home, the peeping bird somehow tips him off that everything is not right in the apartment. Someone has been in there while he was gone. The other thing that I think is interesting about the bird is its incessant chirps. It’s used as a joke during one scene, when two surveillance guys put a bug in Costello’s apartment and when they listen to the tape running from another location all they hear on the tape is “Peep! Peep! Peep! Peep!” What interests me about the bird is how annoying that incessant peeping would be to anyone who had a normal life. If you had a big house, you could put the peeping bird in another room so you wouldn’t have to hear it all the time. Jef Costello places it in the center of his one-roomed apartment. It has a ceremonial look to it, a display-case look. He lies on the bed, the bird peeps, and it doesn’t irritate him in the slightest. He is always a little bit elsewhere, although where is hard to say. He is like an animal of the predator variety. Predators lie in wait in the brush, and a bird could be jumping on their back and they wouldn’t notice, so intent are they on their larger prey. Predators have intense concentration. I imagine it’s like tunnel vision: the rest of the world and the periphery blotted out, your field of view narrowing down to the zebra standing in the field beyond. So Jef lies on his bed, and “peep peep peep” fills the air, and it doesn’t touch his interior concentration. Does Jef Costello “love” the bird? Well, I can’t imagine that, although there is some relationship between the two.
Jef Costello is capable of great and eerie stillness, not only interior but exterior. He never fidgets. There is no movement that is extraneous.
But when he does choose to move, it is always with purpose. His survival instincts are honed to knife-edged sharpness. When he attacks, he does so with no hesitation, and when he fights, it is always to the death. It’s not that just that he has a death wish, although the ending of the film, with its swan dive into the inevitable, does suggest that all along Jef Costello knew where this all would end up. It is just that death is always a factor for him. He does not value life, not in the way normal people do. Why would he? He is emotionally color-blind, which is reflected in the greyness of his private environment. He values survival, and is not fatalistic or self-destructive. He does care whether or not he survives. Someone who did not care would not work so hard to create an intertwining double alibi. But the quality of life is irrelevant to him, beyond his concern. Pleasure is not a factor. But he understands that death is the dark door at the end of every hallway, either his, or someone else’s. Unlike “the normals” of this world, Jef Costello doesn’t fool himself about mortality.
Jef Costello has a girlfriend (sort of). Her name is Jane, and she is played by Nathalie Delon, Alain Delon’s real-life wife. Jane has other men, coming and going from her apartment, so it is clear she is a working-girl of some kind. But there is something emotional going on with Jef. She may love him, she may not, but what she does feel for him is apparent loyalty and fondness. When he needs her, and he does, he shows up and makes a request. She loves to be needed by him. And yet, this is not a typical woman role: the breathless open-hearted naive woman who loves the cold killer. She’s on the same side of the coin as Jef is. He probably recognizes that. She understands his need to survive. When he asks her to help set up one part of his alibi, telling her what she needs to say when the cops come around, as he knows they will, she nods. She’s got it. Even with the pressure put on her by the cops, the harassment as well as the blackmail, she doesn’t cave. She’s as tough and unbreakable as Jef. Jef chooses his woman well. She is a survivor, too. She does not overwhelm him with emotion. She keeps her distance from him. It’s a fascinating relationship, the glimpses we get of it. She has the same interior stillness. You understand why he values her. I also imagine that he trusts her because she seems to understand that he is not like other men, other people, really, and will not make demands or smother him or expect anything remotely normal from him.
Jef Costello, I am sure, knows he’s “off”. He has probably been this way from birth. This is the way he is made. In circulating amongst “the English”, he wouldn’t be able to help but notice that other people’s behavior (laughter, hugging, casual chit-chat) was foreign to him, inaccessible. This difference would have shown up early. Jef Costello, unlike, say, Travis Bickle, doesn’t seem to ache to join the world of the Normals. He knows what he is. He does the best he can to walk about in the world without being detected, not just as a killer, but as the strange Being that he is. Love and sex are, obviously, the ultimately revealing experiences. I imagine Jef would avoid love like the plague, because obviously he couldn’t do it. He’s not a sadist, ironically. He is too solitary for that, and his interest in other people is dim, at best. He has no desire to pretend he is anything other than what he is, because that would take too much emotional and physical energy. His entire life is designed to conserve energy: how he moves, how he speaks, everything is in service to keeping things to the lowest possible boiling point. Otherwise, he would give himself away. Clearly, on some level, he “gives himself away” to Jane. They have slept together. Things are understood between them. She knows he’s not a normal man. He would vanish if she started to get attached. You don’t sense that this is a great sacrifice for her, though. She is not sitting on her hands, aching to treat him like her “boyfriend”. She completely understands that he is outside the normal course of life, to expect too much would be suicide for their special bond, and she provides a quiet space of feminine non-judgment that is very very important for Jef Costello, although he would never put it in those words. What is he like in bed? Sex reveals. It can also conceal, but I think for Jef it reveals. And he trusts Jane with that sexual information. She will not use it against him. His vulnerability, purely physical in nature, is safe with her. In their final scene together, as the vise is tightening around Jef Costello, he asks if she has been harassed. She says yes, but in a tone of, “Of course. No worries. It’s no big deal.” And for Jane, it isn’t a big deal. He turns back to her and says, “Because of me?” It’s an eloquent line. You could read a lot into it, and while his face remains a mask, there is a glimmer of something else underneath. I wouldn’t call it “pain”, but he is disturbed that this woman would have been harassed “because of him”. So he is not incapable of attachment to another human being. He feels attached enough to her to have feelings of some kind that she would be willing to put up with harassment on his behalf.
In that final scene with her, there is a sense of everything falling apart. She has been pulled into the police station. She has been blackmailed and threatened. His alibi is shattering. He has nowhere left to hide. He goes to her, and they talk, briefly. They stand over by the window. She reaches up to touch his hair. It is their only moment of physical contact. He takes her in his arms, and kisses her, deeply, on the side of her face. A breathtaking moment of tenderness and gentleness. The gentleness the character is capable of is implied in his practical caring for that annoying peeping bird. He does not torture the bird for kicks. He does not starve it. He maintains its diet, and places it in a ceremonial spot in the middle of his room. But here, holding this woman for what is probably the last time, we suddenly see a whole other layer, a whole other possibility for him that is now, of course, lost. I don’t mean to suggest that he is so damaged and if only he had the love of a good woman he wouldn’t be an assassin. That is not what I mean. It’s that whatever agreement the two of them have (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours) has opened up in him a small very private space of trust and gratitude (accessible only to her) that can translate here into great tenderness. The moment still surprises every time it comes.
And this is just speculative: Jef Costello is clearly handsome, because he is played by Alain Delon. Alain Delon is up there with Greta Gabro in terms of unforgettable enigmatic cinematic beauty. So there’s that, it is an undeniable fact of Jef Costello’s existence. It’s genetic. He can’t help it. I imagine that many women do a double take when they first lay eyes on Jef Costello. The double-take would then turn into a triple take, of that I am sure. She glances at him casually, she looks away. Then, something ignites inside her (Wait … is that man as … beautiful as I think he is?) So she looks back to check. Yup. Damn fine-looking man. She looks away again, not wanting to be busted for staring. But then … The third take would be inevitable, and the most interesting. Despite his beauty (and it’s more beauty than handsomeness), there would be something about his face that registers as … off. Eerily “other”. Perhaps it is the “uncanny valley” effect in operation. You can sense, just by looking at him that something is not quite right, although you may not be able to put your finger on what that might be.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, bounty hunter Rick Deckard gives an “empathy test” to those suspected of being androids. Empathy is the key to being human, the only thing that separates us from the animals. And time and time again, Deckard gets that prickly weird feeling at the back of his neck while giving the test, knowing that he is in the presence of something that LOOKS human, but ISN’T. (This, by the way, is a known effect described by social workers/prison counsellors and others who have regular contact with psycho/sociopaths. It is one of the “tells”, a primal fight-or-flight response telling you: “Get the hell away from this person.”)
John Steinbeck describes it best in his character description of Cathy in East of Eden – he could be talking about the uncanny valley:
Even as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again. She moved quietly and talked little, but she could enter no room without causing everyone to turn toward her.
She made people uneasy but not so that they wanted to go away from her. Men and women wanted to inspect her, to be close to her, to try and find what caused the disturbance she distributed so subtly. And since this had always been so, Cathy did not find it strange.
Historically, people have gotten very annoyed when I write about psychopaths. It seems to be a “thing”. I am not sure why. There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered, but people seem annoyed by the asking. Perhaps it cuts too close to the heart of who we are, our identities, what it means to be human. People are attached to the environmental explanation, and for understandable reasons. We don’t want to believe that androids (so to speak) can be born to human parents. To suggest that there are those who are born without the essential elements that make up human beings (empathy, compassion) is controversial, and threatening. There has been a knee-jerk rejection to even discussing it, and it happens so regularly I could set my watch by it. Clearly, this hasn’t stopped me, but it is something interesting I wanted to point out.
All of this is not to reduce Jef Costello to a psych diagnosis (one of the least interesting ways to approach the character). The human mind is a mysterious thing, and one of Delon’s strengths is that his performances are always highly intelligent, and yet coiled up in silent un-giving intrigue. His beauty has a forbidding quality to it, as well as a beckoning quality. It’s a camouflage, a brilliant one. In Kim Morgan’s wonderful piece on Delon, she quotes Delon as saying, “I had a physique in contradiction with what I carried inside. I’ve fought it all my life.” So interesting and relevant to the kinds of roles he played, and how honestly he utilized himself.
I have a fascination with actors (it is mainly actors, although there are some actresses who move into this field as well) who can capture a certain sort of blank-ness, who can empty themselves out, so to speak, of normal motivations and recognizable psychology, who can turn themselves opaque. This is not for amateurs. If simplistically done, then you merely become a cipher, a shallow mask. But true blank-ness is more challenging, and when done right is one of the most frightening attributes an actor can portray. Robert Montgomery was excellent at it. Robert Walker, in Strangers On a Train, is superb in this regard. Peter Lorre wrote the book on cinematic blank-ness. On the female side, Barbara Stanwyck was able to empty herself out like that. Sissy Spacek in Badlands is a Master Class in it. (Here’s a long post I wrote about that performance, and many other things.) Isabelle Huppert has given a couple of extremely frightening performances which have that void at the center of them. It’s a difficult quality to describe, because it is somewhat outside the realm of normal human behavior, and I did my best in a couple of different essays, on Fandor about Jeremy Renner, whose performance in The Hurt Locker is really a perfect example of what I am talking about, although there were many examples early in his career of what he seemed to be “about” as an actor (I go into those as well). And this long essay about Johnny Depp’s “opacity” in his playing of John Dillinger, something I found compelling and unique.
In terms of literature, you can’t really find a better example of that frightening blank quality than Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant creation of Tom Ripley, although Charles Willeford’s novels also stand out. James M. Cain, too. But that sort of “flat affect” is, again, difficult to describe, especially from the inside (which is why Highsmith’s work is such a towering accomplishment: it’s from Ripley’s point of view).
I have strayed far from the topic of Jef Costello, but that’s one of my favorite things about Delon’s work. As tight and spare and abstract as it is, it is also vast and open-ended. As I said before: amateurs should not attempt.
Let’s get back to the flat affect for a moment.
“He was 32 when this movie was made, an actor so improbably handsome that his best strategy for dealing with his looks was to use a poker face. He seems utterly unaware here of his appearance; at times he seems to be playing himself in a dream.”
Jef Costello circulates, operates, connives, schemes, runs, hides, and then, for long stretches of time, lies still on his bed, so still that we can barely perceive that a human being is even in the room in the famous opening shot. It is hard to say what it is like for Jef Costello from the inside, but that question is irrelevant in many ways (albeit interesting) because Delon is so riveting to watch. The performance has such authority, such confidence, that it is impossible to imagine it being played any other way by any other man. The character is not “on the page”. The script is very spare (most of the lines belong to the police chief), and Melville himself described Delon’s hesitation in taking the role because … where the hell WAS the role? The guy never says anything! But Melville got his man, and Delon took to the format and structure beautifully. It suited him. Melville didn’t believe in giving a lot of direction. Like most great directors, he believed in casting well, first and foremost. Rare is the director who wants to spend a ton of time drawing an actor out, and crafting the performance FOR the actor. He wouldn’t have had to tell Delon a lot, because Delon had his finger on the pulse of the piece, as did Melville.
The flat affect (ie: poker face) works on a couple of different levels. It tells us who the character is, and immediately highlights him as a human oddity. Most people, even when they are unhappy, have a variety of expressions. Secondly, what happens (and this is my favorite part about it, and part of my fascination with actors who can do this) is that the face becomes a blank screen on which I am free to project stuff. There is no ego in such work, in other words. Ego means you, the actor, want us, the audience, to know where you are coming from. You the actor want to be known and seen, and your emotions are invested in that part of the acting career. And sometimes that is very important for a role. But when it’s not, as here, (and as a matter of fact knowing where Jef Costello is “coming from” would ruin the whole thing), the performance is cloaked in mystery as well as eloquence. It becomes iconic as well as singular. There is a nothing-ness at the heart of what is going on, and nothing-ness is one of the most unnatural states for human beings to confront. Nature itself races in to fill in the blanks, wherever blanks show up. That’s what I am present to when I hang out with characters like Jef Costello. I race around trying to fill in the blanks (Delon’s face demands that kind of engagement, as well as a certain level of alienation: that’s the thing about beauty like that), and at the same time, I am forced to sit with the nothing-ness, to accept the blanks. It’s unnerving.
While there are many unforgettable closeups in Le Samourai there is one that stands out. Jef Costello returns to the nightclub on the evening after the murder. He had been spotted in the downstairs hallway post-murder by the beautiful pianist at the nightclub (Cathy Rosier). She is an eyewitness. Obviously he is going to have to “deal” with her in some way. But the confrontation is delayed. Jef Costello himself delays it. He befriends her, in a way. Incredibly, and yet Delon makes it unsurprising, he confides in her.
She, like Jane, does not give him up when the opportunity arises. I would imagine that Jef Costello, from a very young age, could suss out those he could trust with his essential nature, and those he could not. He is walking around in enemy territory, not just because of his job, but because of what he is. But his first time back at the nightclub, you are not sure how it will go. The pianist plays onstage. Jef Costello enters and sits at the bar. He orders a drink, and sits, facing the stage. The look on his face could turn my blood to ice.
He approaches her. She looks up. They make eye contact. This is what she sees.
Robert Hare, the world expert in psychopathy, who started as a prison counsellor, is well versed in hanging around the criminal element, listening to murderers talk about their innocence when it is clear they are guilty. Those people do not frighten him. He describes in his book Without Conscience his encounter with a different sort of criminal entirely, a man who killed some people, and then, during his counselling session, proceeded to charm the pants off of Hare, laughing off his horrible actions, and justifying it all with a shrug. Hare, as I said, is not unaccustomed to hanging around with violent people. But this one particular guy frightened him so much that he felt he should no longer be alone in the room with him. And yet he could not point to one specific reason why. It was the overall affect that was terrifying.
Most people would take one look at that gorgeous face staring at them in that flat way and run screaming into the night.
A closeup like that requires enormous skill and talent. Just because Delon makes it look easy shouldn’t fool you. It is rare to be that transparent. In that moment, more so than any other in the film, Jef Costello reveals who he is. He reveals what it is like for him.
“Swallowed by an anachronistic trench coat and fedora, which nevertheless blends into Melville’s un-’60s-ish timelessness, Delon became here that rare thing: a movie totem, not an actor or character but a temple-god in our communal consciousness.”
One could posit that trusting the pianist, or: being drawn to the pianist’s mysterious act of benevolence in not fingering him in the lineup, is Jef Costello’s fatal flaw. Or, seen in another light, perhaps he senses that in her he can finally find the relief from having to pretend to be human. Through her, he will finally reach his true destiny, which is death. The final moment in the film certainly points in that direction.
An equally revealing scene is when Jef Costello, nicked by a bullet on the overpass in the train yard, gets back to his apartment, huddled over the wound in his arm. He is exhausted and freaked out. As I mentioned, survival is his concern. And he is clearly an actual human being, who bleeds real blood. And feels physical pain. His collapse once he is inside is devastating to our conception of him, and is also part of the destabilizing act that is the film. The guy is a badass. He is a cold-hearted killer-for-hire. There is no way on earth that society can function if we don’t chase down and imprison or kill guys like him. (He, by the way, understands this implicitly. Nothing that happens to him he sees as “unfair”. Again: no self-pity.) And yet because he is played by Delon, and because we are rarely given a break from his company throughout the film, we root for him in a sense. We are psyched when he makes a break for it out of the Metro car, sensing that the little old lady is an informer (he’s right). We think he’s awesome when he dodges yet another tail on the moving walkway. It’s a race to the finish, and he’s our guy, he’s our lead. It’s not a sympathetic performance, and yet it plays on our sympathies. Like all great antiheroes do.
The following sequence is riveting. He calmly, and yet clearly in great physical distress, goes to his kitchen and dresses the wound. He is meticulous and no-nonsense about it, and yet without his trenchcoat and fedora, clad only in a white-T-shirt, he looks almost boyish. Lean and young. His body is touchingly vulnerable. And when he pours what I assume is iodine on the wound, he barely flinches, and yet his fist clenches up. It’s a gorgeous moment, a carefully crafted and perfectly executed bit of stage business, which is physical, emotional, and psychological, all at the same time. That’s how you do it, folks. And you don’t have to do too much. But you do, however, have to know exactly what the hell you are doing.
When Jef Costello returns to the nightclub for the third and final time, he turns the car off. With his other visits, he left the car running. He knew he wasn’t going to be long. But finally, with the pincers of the entire Parisian police force, as well as every volunteer in what seems to be a 10-mile radius, closing in on him, Jef Costello knows his time is up. It’s time for him to go. He won’t be needing the car again. It will be okay to turn it off. His acceptance of his own death is existential in nature, and almost requires a leaning-in-towards it: a giving posture of accessibility. It’s reminiscent of James Cagney going out in a blaze of glory at the end of White Heat, of many many other films featuring a killer’s final stand. Peggy Cummins standing up at the end of Gun Crazy, shouting into the fog at the waiting police force that she will kill them ALL. Thelma and Louise grasping hands before driving off into the abyss. The swoony slow-mo swan dive of Bonnie and Clyde. The final standoff in Hawks’ Scarface. But so many more. It’s the only way for these people to go out.
For those who have not seen the film, I will not reveal the final twist, the final eloquent detail about who Jef Costello is.
But even in his last moment, Jef Costello conceals as much as he reveals.
Or maybe it would be best to say it the other way around. He reveals as much as he conceals.
And because of that he will be talked about long after we all pass through that dark door at the end of every hallway.