When Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 classic begins, we watch a man light a cigarette, alone in his scantily decorated hotel room – the lights are dim, he seems to exist in the shadows. He enjoys his cigarette, gets dressed, puts on his hat and heads out onto the streets of Paris, alone, all in a very rigid and ritualistic fashion.
Loneliness is a huge part of what makes Le Samourai such a mesmerizing film. We've all felt alone before, we've all had melancholy days where we felt completely abandoned and it's these all too human traits that make Alain Delon's performance as Jef Costello so impressive – we really feel for the guy despite the fact that he's a cold blooded murderer by trade. Before Costello breaths a single word to anyone in the film, we're already pulled into his world. We want to know more about him, he's obviously a mysterious man and despite the fact that at only five minutes or so into the film we don't know very much about him or his world, the film starts off with such subtle control and such deliberate and beautifully noirish cinematography that we can't help but get pulled right in along with him.
Once the man hits the street, we watch him steal a car and drive off to a garage. The man who works there knows him, this much is obvious as he changes the plates for him without asking any questions and sends him on his way with the appropriate paperwork he'll need for the car and a loaded handgun. From here we watch him – he's the best at what he does, an obvious expert in his field as he leaves no small detail of his plan unorganized. He sets out to create an alibi so that he won't be a suspect when it's time for him to make his hit – a wealthy nightclub owner. He fires his gun, the man dies, and soon we find Jef in a police line up. He never even breaks a sweat. The woman from the nightclub who witnessed the murder, a pianist who worked at the bar named Valerie (Caty Rosier) says she's never seen Costello before – she's lying, but at this point we're not sure why. She could be scared of who he is, who he works for, maybe she hated her boss, or maybe it's something else.
Once he makes it out of the police station, he finds more danger. Those who hired him to make the hit have now decided he knows to much and is no longer of use to them. He finds himself on the receiving end of what he's normally used to doling out and to make matters worse, the cops soon realize that they might have made a mistake by letting him go and of course, they give chase. Costello is now a wanted man, and he's still never broken a a sweat.
Luckily for Costello, he has a woman who will take him in and, much like the mechanic earlier in the film, help him out without asking any questions. Her name is Jane Lagrange (Natalie Delon – Alain's wife) and although there is another man in the equation, of which Costello is definitely aware, there's some admiration for him on her part and you might even say she's in love with him. That doesn't seem to matter to Costello, he's more interested in Valerie, and he's going to go and pay her a visit… and let's just leave it at that.
Hands down one of the slickest, smoothest, suavest and out and out coolest movies of all time, Le Samourai is a completely engrossing blend of cops and robbers, mobster drama, and relationship dilemmas. Obviously influenced by the American crime noir films of the forties and fifties, Melville's film also infuses some ideas an themes from the code of the samurai into the film to give Delon's character a sense of honor and dignity. While samurai's weren't hitmen like Costello is in the film, they did abide by strict code of honor, much like Costello does here even if it differs in philosophy and morals. Costello is only looking out for number one, his professionalism and cold, calculating tactics don't allow for emotional involvement – love only gets in the way of his work, and as such, he is a very lonely man regardless of whether or not that loneliness is self inflicted or not. Despite his good looks, his charm, he debonair demeanor and despite the fact that women seem to want to be with him, Costello has no one else and there's an air of sadness underneath the cool that really makes this so much more than just another gangster movie.
In terms of technique, the film stands apart from the crowd in that the build up really sneaks up on you. Everything happens in such a clever and underhanded manner that it borders on the surreal at times. The movie also has some interesting contrasts between characters, wisely allowing us to see the difference between Costello and the man who is leading the police after him, The Superintendent (Francois Perier, who is completely over the top compared to Delon) and the differences between the two ladies in the film, Valerie and Jane.
As the film draws to a close, the cinematography becomes more constrictive and at times even a little claustrophobic. This heightens the tension, strengthens the atmosphere, and pulls us in even further as it all breaks down and falls apart for Costello. The shadows at times seem to be drowning him, the violence of his world starting to surround him, and it all makes sense. It all fits, and it's all just perfect.
This new 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition progressive transfer was culled from the original 35mm camera negative and it looks fantastic. The black levels are strong and deep, print damage is never harsher than the odd speck here and there, and the film grain, which present as it should be, is never overpowering or even close to distracting. The color reproduction is dead on, with the cool blues and blacks used in the movie looking very nice indeed. The level of fine detail in both the foreground and the background of the image is superlative and the flesh tones all look lifelike and natural from start to finish. The reds look very well defined and don't bleed overtop of the other colors, and there are no problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression save for only the most minor instances of some minor line shimmering in a couple of spots. Criterion has done an excellent job with this transfer.
No surprises here, Le Samourai is presented in its original French language in a crisp and clear Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix with optional subtitles available in English. Dialogue is clear at all times, there are no problems at all with hiss or distortion, and Francois de Roubaix's score comes through very nicely but not so strongly as to overshadow Delon and company. As far as mono tracks go, they don't come a whole lot nicer than this one and there's really not much to complain about here at all, although some might be irked that there aren't any alternate language subtitles aside from the English option.
New video interviews, all in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen, with Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville, and Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris in the Authors On Melville section of the DVD.
Rui Nogueira speaks of Melville's determination when it came to getting his vision down on film, how he was a founding father of the location shoot, and how he had a tendency to take all of the credit for his films' success. He discusses and analyzes certain powerful moments in the film, covers Delon's relationship with Melville, and the importance of Delon's eyes in the success of the film. At roughly thirteen minutes in length, complete with stills and clips from the film, this is a pretty interesting look at the movie.
Ginette Vincendeau compares his style to Godard's, and to the work of American directors like Robert Wise. She explains how he adapted the American way of telling a story but put his own take on it. She also covers aspects of Melville's relationship with Alain Delon, and how realism wasn't all that important in the film. This interview, also containing clips and stills, runs just over eighteen minutes long.
Archival interviews with Jean-Pierre Melville and actors Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier are contained in The Line Up. With a combined running time of twenty-four minutes in length, this assembly of vintage interview clips gives an interesting and well rounded look at Melville's style both in his own words and from the perspective of those who worked with him. The video quality is a little rough in spots but this is prime material and it's nice to see it included on this release. The clips are taken from various French television broadcasts made between 1967 and 1982.
Finishing off the supplements on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer, also presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Inside the keepcase packaging is a very nice twenty-nine page liner note insert booklet that features three written pieces. The first essay is from film scholar David Thomson. The second piece is an essay from famed Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, who used Le Samourai as the inspiration for his best known film, The Killer, in which the lead played by Chow Yun Fat is very obviously based on Delon's Costello. Finally, there are a few selections from Ginette Vincendeau's book, Melville on Melville.
While Criterion probably could have made a few more friends if they'd have put a bit more effort into the extra features on this release, what we do get is good stuff and the audio and video are top notch across the board. As for the film itself? Quite simply one of the finest crime drama/noirs ever made and the very embodiment of cool. Le Samourai comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.