Written by: John White on December 3rd, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: 1967
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Alain Delon, Nathalie Delon, François Périer, Cathy Rosier
DVD released: October 25th, 2005
Approximate running time: 105 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono French
DVD Release: Criterion Collection
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
“There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.” opening quote in Le Samourai
Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hitman for hire paid to kill a club owner. Unfortunately he is witnessed walking away from the hit by a nightclub singer (Rosier). The police pick Costello up in a trawl for suspects and despite an iron clad alibi the
Superintendent (Perier) fingers him as the killer and puts him in an identity parade. The singer doesn’t pick him out despite recognising him and the police have to let Costello go. Once free Costello finds that his employer is not happy about this brush with the cops and a game of cat and mouse begins with Costello trying to get to his employer before he gets to him.
Le Samourai is a film which wears it’s influences proudly. Film noir, 40’s Hollywood thrillers like This Gun’s For Hire, and the popular Japanese samurai flicks of the previous decade (Samurai, Harikiri etc). The chief importance of this movie though is the impact on filmmakers of today. Melville’s love of movies allows him to use a simple genre piece to say things about alienation, integrity and honour. The films that follow this path since are innumerable. I would offer only one as a prime exhibit, John Woo’s The Killer, both killers are called Jef and both are going on their last job. Both are looking for some kind of redemption.
The film itself deserves it’s post release reputation as Melville’s masterpiece. From the opening shot of a dark, featureless and lonely room which reveals Delon to the fact that it is 10 minutes until anyone speaks – this is every inch a great film. Delon is perfectly cast as the wordless otherworldly hitman who kills “because I was paid to” and whose humanity is hidden until the very end. Delon is wonderful – cold, dispassionate, lonely and very still.
Melville though is the star of the film. A proper Auteur – he writes, directs, produces, edits and set designs. The meticulous killer is mirrored in the meticulous filmmaker even down to the white editing gloves Melville makes Delon wear. Other filmmakers have tried to make this kind of film since but only Melville could make it successful without resorting to salaciousness, easy morality or happy endings – the stock-in trade of modern thrillers. Melville uses scenes that others did before and have done since but does them better. The opening scene of the lonely killer is unsurpassed in cinema as an evocation of emptiness and disconnection, and the car jacking sequences are worth a million of the likes of Gone in 60 seconds!
In short, Le Samourai is an essential purchase for anyone who likes crime thrillers, or samurai films, or Hong Kong action movies, or even the nouvelle vague. Heck, everyone should own it.
The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen according to other reviews I have read and it does look like no information is missing from the picture. The transfer is uniformly good and is a new HD transfer but not excellent – it is better than the previous Rene Chateau R2 disc but it looks awfully like the same print to me. I didn‘t see any marks, hairs or blemishes throughout but some sequences look soft to my eye – the opening especially. The sound is excellent and the English subtitles are faultless. The Criterion disc comes as expected with the option of switching the subs off.
This is Criterion so extras are plentiful. Two interviews with writers on Melville are particularly interesting as is the featurette containing footage from the films stars speaking about Melville. The stars comments on Melville range from Delon claiming that Melville is the greatest director he has worked with to Perier calling JP difficult and demanding. Also included are interviews with Melville and newsreel of when his studio burnt down where he suspects foul play. A trailer is also included on the disc. With the disc comes a 29 page booklet with a Eulogy from David Thomson and a similar piece from John Woo explaining Melville’s effect on him – “Melville is God to me”. The booklet concludes with Melvilles own assessment of a film he thought one of his best.
This is the best package available of this film and although it is possible to trump it – I’d love a Woo commentary and a sharper print – there is only one possible reaction to this disc’s existence. Buy it.