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Le Samouraï
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville & Georges Pellegrin
Stars: Alain Delon (Jef Costello), François Périer (The Superintendent), Nathalie Delon (Jane Lagrange), Caty Rosier (Valérie, la pianiste), Jacques Leroy (Gunman), Michel Boisrond (Wiener), Robert Favart (Barkeeper), Jean-Pierre Posier (Olivier Rey), Catherine Jourdan (Hatcheck Girl)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: France
 Le Samouraï Criterion Collection DVD
 Le Samouraï Le Samouraï was the second of Jean-Pierre Melville’s color films, but it very well could have been shot in black and white. The desaturated colors of the Parisian streets and the grayish walls of the interiors suggests a moral gray zone, a place in which the characters drift and occasionally crash into each other. Like most of Melville’s well-known works, the film’s soul is deeply rooted in the élan of American film noir and its constricted universe of morality gravity and fateful interludes. As a child, Melville had absorbed everything Hollywood could offer and gave it his own spin when he came into his own as a film director in the 1950s, working independently out of his own studio and recasting American genre films with a decidedly continental flair.

Melville’s hero in Le Samouraï is Jef Costello (Alain Delon), the “samurai” of the title, albeit not in the sense that we typically think. Jef is not defined by nobility of purpose or even consistency of vision, but rather by his loneliness. A made-up quote at the beginning of the film informs us of the loneliness of the samurai’s life, something Melville invokes immediately with Jef’s drab-gray one-room apartment. Like most iconic tough guys, Jef is a man of little words, but he is also a man of little action. A hired assassin, he takes out a night-club owner early in the film, an act that kicks of a domino effect of events that will eventually lead to his undoing. Yet, Jef is so resigned to the ying and yang of life that he hardly seems to care. In a sense, he is the epitome of “ultra cool” (hence why both John Woo and Quentin Tarantino are such fervent admirers of the film), but at the same time he seems like a ghost in his own life.

A Parisian police investigator (François Périer) is sure that Jef was behind the hit, and he even manages to haul him into the police station for a line-up. However, Jef has a perfect alibi concocted with his girlfriend, Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), and a pianist at the club (Caty Rosier) who saw him walk out of the owner’s office, but refuses to identify him for reasons that are made clear only later. However, even though Jef seems to get away with murder, he continues to be trailed by the police and then becomes a target himself when his employers decide that his being brought in by the police puts them at risk.

This makes Le Samouraï sound plot-heavy, but it really isn’t. As in his other crime films, Melville takes his time drawing out the events, focusing more on the characters and the atmosphere than the who, what, when, or why. A more plot- and tempo-focused director would have moved through the police station sequence in about half the time Melville allots to it, but Melville likes to linger, taking in the details of what’s happening and how his various characters interact. Some elements are left intentionally vague, including the character of Jef, whose lack of a backstory and motive turn him into a fantasy projection of male stoicism.

The role not surprisingly made Alain Delon a star. Despite his limited range of expressions, Delon conveys a great deal through his piercing blue eyes and the smallest bits of body language. The coolness so often attributed to him is a product of his complete self-assurance, which leads him to make a crucial decision in the last act that finally imbues him with a sense of nobility in addition to all that loneliness.

Le Samouraï Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video interview with Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville
  • Video interview with Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris
  • Archival interviews with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actors Alain Delon, François Périer, Natalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet with new essays by film scholar David Thomson and filmmaker John Woo and selections from Melville on Melville
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$29.95
    Release DateOctober 25, 2005

    VIDEO
    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Le Samouraï was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and a 35mm interpositive. It beautifully renders the film’s cool palette of grays, black, and whites, with the occasional splashes of more saturated color. The film’s darker scenes seem to suffer a bit of graininess, obviously the result of the original film stock used. The image is nicely detailed without being excessively sharp, and the MTI Digital Restoration System has removed the most glaring instances of dirt and scratches.

    AUDIO
    The original monaural soundtrack, mastered from the 35mm magnetic audio tracks, sounds fine throughout. There is some mild ambient hiss at times, but it is in no way distracting.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    The main supplements on this disc are comprised of a number of interviews. First up there are two lengthy and deeply informative new video interviews with Jean-Pierre Melville experts Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville (which for a long time was the only English-language book available on the director) and Ginette Vincendeau, author of 2003’s Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. In addition to these interviews, there are roughly 25 minutes of archival interviews with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actors Alain Delon, François Périer, Natalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier. Along with the original theatrical trailer, the disc also includes a 29-page insert booklet with a new essay by film scholar David Thomson, an appreciation by filmmaker John Woo, and several pages of selections from Melville on Melville.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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