February 8, 2006
Le Samourai (1967) begins with no dialogue for several minutes as director Jean-Pierre Melville expertly conveys everything we need to know visually. He shows professional hitman Jef Costello (Delon) getting ready for a job. It is the kind of introduction that is similar to the way Michael Mann begins his movies, showing his protagonists hard at work, no dialogue is needed because it is obvious what they are doing. Jef is a professional hitman who lives his life according to the Bushido, the Samurai code. He dresses in a neatly tailored suit, brown trenchcoat and fedora, like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946). Jef lives in Spartan-like conditions with only a small pet bird as a companion.
As the film opens, Jef kills a man and the police bring him in for questioning, convinced that he did it but unable to prove anything as witnesses refuse to identify him. He’s let go but the police put him under surveillance. Jef loses them with ease but the people who hired him aren’t too thrilled that he was brought in for questioning and try to kill him.
Alain Delon is the epitome of an expressionless killer. He is a melancholic loner who kills without remorse. It is an excellent, minimalist performance that has influenced countless films and actors alike. For example, Ryan O’Neal’s no-nonsense criminal in The Driver (1978) is a direct descendant of Delon’s Jef. His cool, efficient attitude and well-dressed attire would go on to inspire the protagonists in John Woo’s action films, A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992) with The Killer being the closest in spirit to Le Samourai. But nobody has been able to copy Delon’s icy, intense stare and the ability to keep his cool even during an intense police line-up and subsequent questioning for a homicide he committed.
The style of Le Samourai mirrors that of its protagonist in that it is very formal and self-contained. It’s a stylish film but not obvious about it. There is a stillness to the movie—an influence of Japanese cinema—with a formal colour scheme consisting predominantly of gray, white and black – cold colours.
Ultimately, Jef is a doomed figure, someone who’s dead inside but just doesn’t know it yet and as the police tighten the net and apply more pressure it only reinforces that Le Samourai is not going to have a happy ending. As the end draws near it is almost as if Jef knows he will die as he says goodbye to those closest to him – the mechanic who always gets him an untraceable car and his girlfriend (Natalie Delon), like he’s tying up all the loose ends in his life. Melville’s film remains one of the finest examples of French New Wave cinema and Criterion’s edition is a fitting tribute to its enduring legacy.
“Authors on Melville” features Melville biographers Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau talking about Le Samourai. Nogueira discusses Melville’s attention to detail: the director had the final word on set design, colour scheme and even the way his actors looked. He also talks about how Melville cast Delon in the movie. Vicendeau discusses the contrasting acting styles of the verbal Francois Perier versus the minimal Delon. No one knows the exact origins of the film but she believes it might be traced back to a U.S. noir called This Gun for Hire (1942).
“The Lineup” features a collection of clips from French television where Melville, Alain and Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier and Perier talk about the movie. Melville speaks about his love of cinema while Alain Delon talks admiringly of the director, describing him as a true auteur. Rosier briefly discusses the differences between modeling and acting.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.