Combustible Celluloid
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With: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Michel Boisrond, Robert Favart, Jean-Pierre Posier
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Pellegrin, based on a novel by Joan McLeod
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 105
Date: 10/25/1967

Le Samourai (1967)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Killer Cool

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How cool was Jean-Pierre Melville? He was cool enough to steal his last name from the greatest fiction writer of the 19th century and get away with it. He was cool enough that Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to him by casting him as a visiting filmmaker in Breathless (1959). He was cool enough that, to this day, Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Neil Jordan, and Jim Jarmusch all worship at his altar. (Woo is currently planning a remake of Melville's Le Cercle Rouge.)

Like Welles, Bresson and Kubrick, Melville only completed 13 feature films (plus one short) before his death in 1973. Of those, by far the coolest is Le Samourai (1967).

The strikingly handsome Alain Delon is the "samourai" of the title; he plays Jef Costello, a hired killer who spends the first chunk of the film cooking up a great alibi for a killing. A beautiful jazz pianist (Caty Rosier) accidentally sees him but does not pick him out of a lineup. His employers refuse to pay him, so he begins following the pianist while the cops continue to close in on him.

The police characters tend to chatter a bit, but the movie has astonishingly little dialogue overall; Delon probably speaks about a dozen words. Melville is especially attuned to sound and silence. Costello has a caged bird in his apartment that twitters like an alarm when something is wrong. Additionally, Melville blankets his full-color movie in hard grays, blues and ugly greens, underscoring the steely loneliness of this existence. John Woo borrowed part of this plot for his great 1989 film The Killer.

Le Samourai was restored in 1997, and the Criterion Collection's 2005 DVD release is long overdue and most welcome. It beautifully preserves the film's specific color scheme and widescreen framing. Extras include the theatrical trailer, new video interviews with Melville scholars, as well as vintage interviews with the cast and crew. The liner notes feature essays by David Thomson and John Woo.

In 2017, Criterion released a Blu-ray edition that carries over all the extras from the DVD and adds a 24-minute documentary on the relationship between Melville and Delon. To my eyes image quality is excellent, given that Melville favored greens, blues, and grays, and this particular movie isn't particularly going to pop; this transfer is finely balanced. The uncompressed monaural audio track is extremely clean and solid. This is a great film, and well worth checking out.

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