Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Pellegrin
Starring: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier
Year: 1967
Country: France
Language: French
Subtitles: English
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 105 mins

Official Summary: In a career-defining performance, Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a contract killer with samurai instincts. After carrying out a flawlessly planned hit, Jef finds himself caught between a persistent police investigator and a ruthless employer, and not even his armor of fedora and trench coat can protect him. An elegantly stylized masterpiece of cool by maverick director Jean‑Pierre Melville, Le samouraï is a razor-sharp cocktail of 1940s American gangster cinema and 1960s French pop culture —with a liberal dose of Japanese lone-warrior mythology.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is widely considered an absolute classic of the genre. You can see it’s influence throughout the years on films like Walter Hill’s The Driver, John Woo’s The Killer, Michael Mann’s Heat and Kim Ji-woo’s A Bitter Sweet Life. in some ways an exercise in pure Style that anticipates the cinema du look of the 80s (Melville having already influenced the Nouvelle Vague), it is also a cinematic meditation on myth, masculinity and murder. If you don’t know who this great French director was, then one could argue this is the best place to start with his works. Equally, it might be argued that it is actually something of a summation of his works, coming very late in his career. Something like Army of Shadows or Le Deuxieme Souffle would not only be a better way in, it would help make clear just how and why Le Samouraï stands out within his own short oeuvre, still towering across the years.

A former resistance fighter in World War 2, Melville’s obsession with American cinema and fictions led him to adopt his nom-de-plume taken from the Great American author of Moby Dick. Growing up with silent cinema, which he regarded as the finest era of the medium, his own works make great use of silence in space and the visual composition over narratives that could instead very easily be adapted as radio plays or listened to from the other room. Melville’s work instead is highly visual, properly cinematic, aware of everything that goes on in front of the camera as well as what he wants to happen behind the camera in your head through your eyes. Thus Le Samouraï begins with a screen fully taken up with the single room visible, our lead actor Alain Delon as the mysterious assassin poised to the right of the screen on his bed, casually relaxed, smoking a cigarette. Across the rest of his one bedroom studio, we see the sparseness of his living conditions, a single bird in a cage in the middle of the room on top of a table chirping away, providing the only noise on the sound on the soundtrack not unlike the following years opening to Once Upon a Time in the West (whose director Sergio Leone was as much a doyen of populist cinema as Melville, with not dissimilar obsessions, and similar visual techniques). Suddenly, the focus of the camera is adjusted; one could be forgiven for thinking this is a fault in the original production, and yes, it is an integral part of the entire process that Melville has engaged with in creating this Fable: he wants you the audience to be fully aware of the artificiality of this cinematic narrative. Having adjusted the lens, we start to take in the full detail of the room, and while it might seem reasonable to American audiences for a one-bedroomer in an old building such as a warehouse district, once the last character leaves and steps out into the streets of Paris any French audience, or more importantly any Parisian audience, would recognize the district and realise the the utterly fictional construction of the part of the the apartment – it is far too large to be real. Thus we the audience are now forewarned of how this is going to play out, switching between realistic exteriors and fantastical interiors, in front of which are human faces writ large on the screen conveying emotions and thought restrained behind style until it suddenly boils out.

The tale is incredibly simple: an assassin of skill and renown, paid to eliminate a nightclub owner, finds himself double-crossed by his employers, and his elaborate alibi being viciously dismantled by a dedicated police detective. Complicating matters is the beautiful club pianist, who during the police line-up chooses deliberately to protect him, for her own reasons. Those reasons of course are immensely simple; Delon cuts simply the finest of figures in this film, although admittedly much paler than the man himself, as can be perceived from the TV clip included in the extras, as even in black and white his unshaven face is clearly tanned. Nevertheless, his crisp white shirt, dark suit and tie, trench coat, American hat, precise hand gestures and steady pace stamp the hallmark of cool across the screen. Add to this simplicity of story and wardrobe and sets a soundtrack that shifts between club jazz and François de Roubaix’s Morricone-esque score, all punctuated by extremely sudden and short outbursts of violence, and you have pretty much cinematic perfection.

There has already been vast amounts of academic and non-academic writing on Melville and his films (this author can strongly recommend both books whose editor and author are interviewed in the extras), so we do not need to dig into the themes and ideas here. Suffice it to say if this is your first time seeing this film, and you have seen any of those I mentioned earlier that were influenced by it, then the themes are obvious, the connections are clear, and the pared-back perfection of Melville’s work will be self-evident. Some today may see it as slightly drawn out and boring, but I hope a whole new audience will love this in its new format as much as those of us who discovered it through pan-and-scan videos or full screen television screenings before we could get to revival prints in film festivals.

Le Samouraï is released on a BD-100 UHD Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection UK as of this last week (commencing 01/07/2024). The 2160p/HEVC / H.265 HDR video and uncompressed monaural soundtrack audio are sublime; side-by-side comparison with the Pathé blu-ray reveals a darker but substantially more film-like appearance. Some may feel there is a loss of detail in darker areas, but now the earlier disc looks more like the typically brightened look of television transfers and VHS releases, rather than the deep inky blacks and more balanced lighter shades we find here. Frankly, I cannot wait to watch this transfer again!
Criterion have provided no extras on the UHD itself. While they did not send us the check disc for the accompanying Blu-ray in the set, their press release says that this includes pretty much the same extras as their original DVD and Blu-ray releases in other territories:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack;
  • One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features;
  • Interviews with Melville and actors Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier;
  • Interviews with Rui Nogueira, editor of Melville on Melville, and Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris;
  • Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit (2011), a short documentary exploring the friendship between the director and the actor and their iconic collaboration on Le samouraï;
  • Trailer;
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar David Thomson, an appreciation by filmmaker John Woo, and excerpts from Melville on Melville

These are all familiar to owners of previous editions from either Criterion or Studiocanal. The black and white French TV clips collected together are a great reminder of what we fans used to stay up at night to catch on television in an era before purposefully produced extras existed, but with perhaps more honesty given the live nature of the shows. The expert interviews are fantastic, and both their books well worth buying; however, it is a great shame that after her superb work on earlier DVDs of Melville films Professor Vincendeau is not given a chance to provide a full commentary here (still missing in action in the UK on HD releases are the ones she did for L’Armee des ombres and Le Cercle Rouge). The short French documentary on the famous working relationship between director Melville and actor Delon is good, and the same one that appears on the French Melville box set release. However a full DVD’s worth of documentaries and interviews from the most recent French UHD edition is missing in action here.

Where to watch Le Samouraï (1967)
Le Samouraï (1967) - Criterion Collection UK
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.