It's a bit intimidating to be the one tasked with delivering an opinion on one the most beloved gangster fims ever made. The legendary Jean-Pierre Melville is one of French cinema's most revered filmmakers, and with good reason. Working adjacent to the agitators of the French New Wave, Melville instead provided a kind of bridge between the avant-garde and more commercial elements of the French film scene in the '50s and '60s. One of his pivotal works was this film, the iconic portrait of the solitary hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon), Le Samouraï.
Costello is a mob enforcer tasked with eliminating a night club owner, a hit with is played out to perfection, as are all of his jobs. However, Costello had no way of knowing that this job put him in the middle of a war he wanted nothing to do with. Exposed and seeking escape, Costello relies on a band of mob mercenary pals to keep himself safe, never quite knowing who he can trust, even after years of building trust in a clandestine network of accessories to the crimes on which he's made his living. Just when he thinks he's finally found a way out, that's when the complications begin.
A match made in mob movie heaven, Delon and Melville were a pair destined to create magic more than once. Le Samouraï was just the first of their collaborations, but it may be the most well remembered. The story goes that when Melville first pitched the film to Delon, the actor stopped him after a few minutes and said something to the effect that he'd already heard ten pages of the script and not a single line of dialogue and that he was sold already. When Delon asked the title of the film and Melville responded, "Le Samouraï", Delon led the director to his bedroom where a samurai sword hung over his bed. From then on, the duo was inseparable.
In the midst of the cinematic chaos of the French New Wave, Delon and Melville were astonishingly well matched cohorts. Both had great sympathy for the movement, but were more comfortable in the commercial sphere and managed to create timeless classics in their own way that melded some of the artistic flair of the wildmen around them with their own vision of populist cinema, and it worked beautifully.
Le Samouraï is an iconic story, one of the gunman who has turned his back on the world to live a spartan life of public invisibility. As with any story like this, the life of a loner is always complicated by the intrusion of the outside world, most often in the form of a dame, and Costello is not immune. Though he is on the run alone for most of the film, even Costello knows that he cannot survive this life without some help, grudgingly accepted though it may be, and eventually, it may be these outside influences that bring him down.
I've only seen a handful of Melville's films, but Le Samouraï is certainly the most unabashedly entertaining of the bunch. The way Melville and Delon's sensibilities mesh is a thing of beauty, and the film would have been a completely different animal with any one other than Delon beneath the fedora. If you've never seen Le Samouraï, there's no better time than now, and no better way than this disc.
The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray release of Le Samouraï is a thing of beauty. Melville's painfully cold color palette is reproduced beautifully in this HD transfer sourced from an interpositive and the original 35mm camera negative. The image is clean and gloriously organic looking with very few imperfections to draw ones attention away from the presentation. The uncompressed Mono audio is similarly clean and effective. A wonderful A/V presentation.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, Criterion recycles their extras from the 2005 DVD release with a few augmentations. We get a decent number of interviews with Melville's children, also filmmakers, along with Rui Nogueira, editor of Melville on Melville and a personal friend, Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. There are also a huge number of contemporaneous interviews with Delon, Cathy Rosier, Nathalie Delon, Francois Perier, and Melville that span a decade or more and in which the director and his friends talk at length about his views of current cinema and his place in that world.
New on this disc is a short doc titled Melville-Delon: D'honneur et de nuit, which explores teh unique and intimate relationship between the filmmaker and performer. It's only around half an hour, but it opens a fascinating window in a relationship that should've yielded more classics, had Melville not passed at the young age of 55 from a heart attack.
Also included is a booklet which reprints previously available material in the form of a fascianting piece by John Woo in which he discusses Melville and the influence on his work, and a less fascinating essay from David Thomson who, even in 2005, laments about films that the "medium is in ruin or chaos". I find these fatalistic looks at cinema culture boring, and it only takes one simple phrase in an essay to speed me along my journey to discrediting your perspective. Sorry David.
The Criterion Collection has another winner in Le Samouraï, consider this a glowing recommendation.