It was sadly hilarious (doubly so in retrospect) that Le Samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville's sleek 1967 ode to an underworld warrior, first arrived in the U.S. in 1972, retitled The Godson in a vain attempt to cash in on the success of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Coppola recharged the American gangster movie with an inspired operatic maximalism, boldly charting the intersection of mainstream and criminal life. Melville revived the Gallic gangster film with a sharpshooter's minimalism, refining the urban outlaw-loner myth down to its essence: a self-sufficient operator navigating an urban nether world by staying true to his code and style under the gun.
Though Melville's Le Doulos was more clever and his Bob le Flambeur more beguiling, he never made another crime film as crystalline as Le Samourai, with Alain Delon as a hit man who knocks off a nightclub owner and then does a broken-field run all over Paris dodging both the flics and his own no-good employers. In this film, code, style, and function are one. After Delon dons his trench coat and smooths the brim of his fedora, you see (for once) why this gangland uniform makes sense: The coat gives him anonymity and the hat casts shadows over his pretty-boy features; the costume makes him nondescript enough to befuddle half the witnesses at a lineup. Melville masterfully exploits Delon's limited expressiveness as an actor. As this samurai of the streets Delon is like an elegant ferret, fascinating in his terse (often silent) concentration, laying calm, mundane plans for a vacuum-sealed alibi or feeling his way around his window until he fingers a police bugging device. With his calm yet tensile craftsmanship, Melville draws you deep into such minor episodes as a couple of matter-of-fact car thefts; Delon finding the right key on an enormous chain is a set piece that registers as a skeleton key to an entire pop-existential universe.
Le Samourai screens Friday through Thursday, Feb. 28 to March 6, at 12:30, 2:40, 4:50, 7, and 9:15 p.m. at the Castro, Castro & Market. Tickets are $6.50; call 621-6120.
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