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Friday December 8th 2023

Le Samourai | 1967

Le Samourai location: Impasse Des Rigaunes, Telegraph, Paris
Le Samourai location: Jef's apartment: Impasse Des Rigaunes, Télégraphe, Paris

Jean-Pierre Melville directed a whole bunch of highly-regarded crime thrillers in the Fifties and Sixties but the minimalist Le Samourai must stand as his masterpiece – a major influence on the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.

A true cinema devotee, Melville bought up an abandoned Parisian warehouse in the 1950s and developed it into his own studio, making Bob Le Flambeur here in 1955.

When the highly successful studio mysteriously burned down during the production of Le Samourai in 1967, Melville was not shy about accusations of arson.

The Rue Jenner Studios stood at 25, bis rue Jenner, near le Boulevard de l’Hôpital (Métro: Campio-Formio) in the 13th arrondissement but were ultimately demolished in 1973 shortly after the director’s death.

Despite sequences of painstaking procedural detail, Le Samourai is not a naturalistic film but oddly dreamlike.

The seemingly motionless opening shot of a scruffy and severely monochrome apartment messes subtly with perspective by imperceptibly employing the track-and-zoom effect invented by Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo.

The anti-hero’s trademark trenchcoat and hat stick out like a sore pouce in 1967 Paris, almost a ghost from a more romantic past.

Melville had a cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and this film, also made on the streets of Paris, pays homage by using some of the same locations.

During the film, it’s established that the austere apartment of poker-faced professional hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is to the east of the city at 1 Impasse des Rigaunes, off Rue du Dr Potain, near the Télégraphe métro station.

Le Samourai location: Impasse Des Rigaunes, Telegraph, Paris
Le Samourai location: the 'hotel' opposite Jef's apartment from which he's monitored: Impasse Des Rigaunes, Télégraphe, Paris

The house directly opposite becomes the ‘Hotel’ from which Costello is later monitored by the police.

The opening scene implies that Jef steps out of his apartment and immediately steals a car. Yet this is scene is filmed on the Rue de Berri which runs northeast from the Champs-Élysées, not far from l’Étoile and the Arc de Triomphe.

It’s the first nod to A Bout de Souffle. The Berri Bar, 19 rue de Berri, which you can clearly see, is now Villa Berri and just past it stands 21 rue de Berri, which was the office of the New York Herald Tribune out of which Jean Seberg works in the Godard film.

Jef’s girlfriend, Jane (Nathalie Delon), lives in a much more luxurious modern apartment courtesy of regular gentlemen callers. This smart block where Jef establishes his alibi, is 11 Boulevard de l'Amiral Bruix, just south of Porte-Maillot to the northwest of the city.

The shabby hotel on Boulevard de Rochechouart at Boulevard Barbes near the Barbes-Rochechouart Métro station, where Jef is careful to establish a back-up to his alibi from card-playing chums, has since been absorbed by the Tati bargain clothing store you can see alongside in the film.

Jef’s mission is to shoot the owner of ‘Martey’s’ nightclub, and subsequently dispose of the gun into the River Seine from Pont Alexandre III. The nighttime scene doesn’t reveal much of this famously elaborate bridge. To get a glimpse of its flamboyant glory, see John Huston’s 1952 version of Moulin Rouge, 1956 drama Anastasia, with Ingrid Bergman, 1985 Bond movie A View To A Kill, naturally Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris and, less expectedly, in 2016 YA melodrama Me Before You.

As one of the cops’ ‘usual suspects’, Jef is quickly hauled in for questioning but eventually released without charge after witnesses suspiciously fail to recognise him.

Le Samourai location: Quai des Orfèvres, Paris
Le Samourai location: Jef leaves the police HQ: 36 Quai des Orfèvres, Paris

The police headquarters from which Jef is seen leaving is the famous 36 Quai des Orfèvres, on the south bank of the Ile de la Cité.

Often referred to simply as the ‘36’, this was the HQ of Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris – basically, Cop Central in Paris. You may recognise it from numerous Parisian crime films (Inspector Maigret was based here).

In September 2017, the department moved to new premises at 36 rue du Bastion in the Batignolles district of the 17th arrondissement.

Aware the police will be tailing him, Jef immediately hails a cab to 1 rue Lord Byron, which runs just north of the Champs Elysées – not far from the Rue de Berri. He dodges the law by sneaking out through the of 116 bis Champs-Élysées alongside the Lido, and ducking into the George V Métro station. This exactly what petty thief Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) does in the Godard film.

The film now follows Jef’s route around the city with scrupulous precision.

At Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre Métro station, Jef changes from Line 1 to Line 7 and, confident he’s shaken off the cops, exits the Métro system at Porte d'Ivry Métro station, Boulevard Masséna, way to the southeast.

He enters the old disused Gare Masséna on Boulevard du Général d’Armée Jean Simon down steps to Rue Regnault at Rue du Loiret.

You can’t do this anymore. The station, which served Orléans and Bordeaux in the southwest, closed in 2000 and the entrance from Boulevard du Général d’Armée Jean Simon is now blocked and the steps to Rue Regnault have been reconfigured. The station building, for the time being, remains – there's talk of it being developed as a restaurant.

Making his way through the empty station to the pedestrian bridge which used to run east across the railtracks, Jef meets with the contact who gave him his assignment. This raised walkway has long since been demolished.

Le Samourai location: Télégraph Métro Station, Telegraph, Paris
Le Samourai location: after getting patched up, Jef sets off to find the kingpin: Télégraphe Métro Station, Télégraphe, Paris

When the guy shoots and wounds him, Jef realises he’s facing danger from all sides and urgently needs to find out the top boss behind the hit.

He manages to make his way home for a little minor first-aid treatment before heading into the nearby Télégraphe Métro station on Rue de Belleville.

The police, never totally convinced by Jef’s alibi, are on his tail as he sets off on his new quest, tracking his journey forensically on the police station’s (what would have been) hi-tech illuminated map. The film plays fair too.

So, Métro maps at the ready.

Jef travels from Télégraphe on Line 11 toward Châtelet when an undercover policewoman gets on board at the next station, Place des Fêtes.

At Jourdain, the following stop, he loses her with a last-minute hop off the train as the doors close – a manoeuvre regularly repeated in cinematic subway chases ever since.

A police car rolls up to Jourdain Métro station in front of the imposing neo-Gothic Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Belleville as the cops attempt to re-establish contact with their mark.

Anticipating all possible moves, the police controller sends cars to Botzaris and Pré-St-Gervais on the 7 bis Line and to the strikingly recognisable Place des Fêtes.

At Jourdain, the savvy Jef changes direction and heads back to Place des Fêtes where he’s followed by a gum-chewing woman.

Le Samourai location: Châtelet-Les Halles Metro Station, Paris
Le Samourai location: Jef evades the police tail: Châtelet-Les Halles Metro Station walkway, Paris

Aware of the tail, he’s happy to let her follow all the way to Châtelet, at which point he’s able to shake her off by leaping from the moving walkway at Châtelet Métro station. Years later, (Frédéric Andréi) rides his bike along this same people carrier during the chase in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 Diva.

Emerging from Châtelet Métro, Jef crosses Avenue Victoria to Rue Adolphe Adam, where he has to maintain his cool under pressure and begin once again his painstaking ‘key’ routine in order to steal another car.

This is not a Hollywood product and Jef’s final mission back at ‘Martey’s’ nightclub ends with inevitable Gallic fatalism.