Jean-Pierre Melville’s tale of an emotionless killer is distilled to a narrative minimum. Alain Delon stars as Jef Costello, an imperturbable, ultra- slick hit man who follows a strict personal code. When a contract goes bad, he’s caught between irreconcilable compulsions. Following this Zen-like assassin through the mean streets of Paris never seems to get old.
The Criterion Collection 306
1967 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 105 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date November 14, 2017 / 39.95
Starring Alain Delon, Francois Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, Jacques Leroy.
Cinematography Henri Decaë
Production Designer Francois de Lamothe
Film Editor Monique Bonnot, Yo Maurette
Original Music Francois de Roubaix
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Pellegrin from a novel by Joan McLeod
Produced by Raymond Borderie, Eugène Lépicier
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Le samouraï has survived the Quentin Tarantino years looking better than ever and with its reputation intact, which is no minor feat for an artificial construct of hard-boiled movie memories and existential posing. Alain Delon spends the entire picture in a post-intellectual funk, where straightening one’s hat in the mirror is a meaningful personal ritual. It all works beautifully.
Writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville’s popularity has grown exponentially since Criterion began releasing discs of his movies, starting in 2002 with Bob le flambeur. The cowboy-hatted Parisian director loved American cars and was intent on putting his personal French interpretation on American noir. His most famous film may now be his ode to the resistance Army of Shadows, but Le Samouraï is still high on the list.
It’s basically a revisit of the old Alan Ladd thriller This Gun for Hire, about an ultra-efficient killer betrayed by his employers. Melville takes the notion much deeper into hardboiled style, to the point of abstraction, creating a policier with a smooth, cool surface tension. Alain Delon’s hired killer remains professionally impassive throughout, pushing the Alan Ladd notion of low-key behavior to absurd lengths. Compared to this icicle, Lee Marvin in the same year’s somewhat similar Point Blank is downright emotional.
Pro hit man Jef Costello (Alain Delon) carries out a contract in a nightclub but is seen by a jazz pianist (Cathy Rosier). Although she refuses to identify him in a lineup, the police superintendent (Francois Périer) intuits that Jef is his man and puts pressure on Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), Jef’s alibi. When Jef’s employers attempt to liquidate him, he doubles back to get revenge, and starts by investigating the pianist, to find out why she covered for him. With both the cops and opposing hit men on his back, Jef realizes he’s in a no-win situation, and seeks a way out consistent with his austere personal code.
Calling Le Samouraï formulaic misses the idea completely. Although the title suggests Samurai romanticism the show as a whole is mainly dry, ritualized cause-and-effect. It comes off as a legend, a story that might have been told for eons in different versions. The unique picture plays as credible despite being an artificial construct by a filmmaker in love with genre conventions and noir stylistics. Many pictures aped its icy surface, but this original still stands alone.
We’re told that a generation of Hong Kong crime flicks were in love with the aesthetics of Le Samouraï. Perhaps Sergio Leone started it with his stylized gunslingers carrying out solemn death missions in films like Once Upon a Time in the West. Chinese action director John Woo claims that he became enraptured by Japanese fatalism second-hand, through the movies of Jean-Pierre Melville!
In the ‘sixties the word samurai still carried an aura of mystery, so much so that Melville could invent a fake quote from “The Book of Bushido” and escape detection even by Japanese critics. Certain Japanese directors, Seijun Suzuki especially, had already taken the stylized hit man movie to farther extremes, but Melville’s picture interpreted the genre for continental audiences. This very non- New Wave movie proved immensely popular in Europe but made zero impact in the United States. American distributors waited five years to attempt a release, and spoiled that by re-titling the film The Godson. I saw the ‘Godson’ trailer once in a packed theater, and it was laughed off the screen.
This isn’t a film with laughs. Melville methodically plays out every scene with the literal cause-and-effect logic preferred by deadpan police procedural films. Melville and co-writer Georges Pelligrin also avoid all but essential dialogue. No room is left for humor, or even names for most of the characters. The stylization starts with the costuming. By 1967 hats were all but gone from the streets of Paris, but Melville brought them back for Le Samouraï.
In 1967, a hit man that behaves like a well-oiled automaton was not yet a tired cliché. Delon’s stylized hired killer arises, feeds the bird (echoes of Graham Greene) steals a car, establishes an alibi and assassinates a designated victim, all with few words and zero emotional display. This allows us to read almost anything we want into our hero’s mask-like face. Reviewers fixate on a shot where Jef’s eyes move a little bit and leap to theorize that he is a functioning schizophrenic, or perhaps a murderous Zen master. Some of today’s audience may decide that both Jef and the movie are a tongue-in-cheek joke, a riff on movie conventions as perfected by cultural interpreters like Quentin Tarantino. Jean-Pierre Melville almost certainly wanted Le Samouraï to be taken as straight storytelling. He even eliminated a final shot in which Jef, as he turned defeat into an ‘occupational’ victory, would laugh in triumph.
The narrative is broken down into a series of dry episodes. The killings are few and far apart, with more significance given to elaborate set pieces: a lineup, the superintendent’s attempt to break Jef’s alibi and Jef’s use of the metro to shake dozens of detectives off his tail. None of the action is extraordinary but it’s all very credible. Jef’s most effective weapon is his dogged refusal to be diverted from his chosen path. A confrontation with an enemy hit man becomes an exercise in professional etiquette. They exchange notes on each other’s working philosophy. When Jef realizes he’s caught in a bind between cops and crooks, his efforts go toward staying true to his personal code. Even when no longer trying to win, he remains in control of his destiny.
Alain Delon’s personal magnetism keeps Jef Costello from becoming a cipher. Star quality must be the determining factor – Alain Delon is so handsome that he’s almost pretty, something that was often said about Alan Ladd as well. Delon’s soon-to-be ex-wife Nathalie Delon is a sullen, loyal woman he uses for an alibi, and Cathy Rosier charms as his mysterious ‘jazz pianist of destiny,’ that some critics pinpoint as a symbol of death. Francois Périer’s sober policeman lends respect to the side of law and order.
Jean-Pierre Melville prefers to make his camera as appropriately ‘blank’ as his leading character, avoiding photographic tricks. He performs a tracking-zoom on his first shot and transitions between crooks and cops with a Fritz Lang matched cut, and that’s about it. There is no middle ground in Le Samouraï; audiences will find it either the height of genre profundity or a crashing bore. Genre critics agree that it’s a key title in the gangster genre.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Le samouraï makes a huge difference in our appreciation of what now seems a masterpiece. The extras tell us that Melville was looking for a ‘black and white in color’ feel, and the design of the nightclub — grays and light blues — bears this out. The dank, overcast streets cooperate with the visual theme as well.
The added detail and contrast allow us to see just how beautiful the picture is, from the dank and stained hallways of Jef’s boarding house, to the sleek showcase apartment of the man who hired him to kill. We can now see the falling raindrops in the overcast Paris streets. Although many of Melville’s interiors were reportedly constructed in his studio, what we remember most are the formal compositions and the stark beauty of Alain Delon against the sidewalks and Metro stations.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten’s extras come mostly from the older (2005) DVD. Melville exponents Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau sit for lengthy analytical interview featurettes, and another piece pulls together French television interviews spread over the years, from Melville, Delon, Nathalie Delon, Francois Périer and Cathy Rosier. Melville is seen talking to a TV news camera outside the ruins of his film studio, which burned down during the making of Le Samouraï. The business conspiracy he blames sounds like a good subject for a Melville movie. A long trailer is also included.
A new extra is a 2011 featurette about the long friendship between director Melville and actor Alain Delon. The fat insert booklet contains perceptive essays by David Thomson and Melville fan John Woo, and interview excerpts with Melville.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Le samouraï Blu-ray
Supplements: Interviews from 2005 with authors Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau; Archival interviews with Melville and actors Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier; Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit (2011), a short documentary exploring the friendship between the director and the actor; Trailer. Plus an illustrated pamphlet with an essay by David Thomson, an appreciation by filmmaker John Woo, and excerpts from Noguiera’s interview book Melville on Melville,
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson