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.
-- Michael Sragow
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.