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"There is no solitude greater than a samurai's, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle."
The Book of Bushido (fictional quote by Jean-Pierre Melville)

Samourai, Le: Criterion Collection

Feature


Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a Parisian gun for hire. He is silent, careful and methodical. When he is hired to kill someone at a nightclub, he sets up an alibi to cover his tracks but is spotted by the club’s piano player. The inspector who takes on the case suspects Jef is the killer but struggles to pin the murder on him. At the same time, Costello’s employer takes exception to the complications that have arisen.

The characters and plot of Le Samourai are straight out of Hollywood film noir but director Jean-Pierre Melville’s style is very different. Just like Jef Costello, the film is quiet and thoughtful, with no dialogue until the ten minute mark. We watch our antihero steal a car, change the plates and pick up a gun in silence. Even when the characters talk, dialogue is used sparingly.

Samourai, Le: Criterion Collection
The structure of Le Samourai is almost episodic. Long scenes track every activity of the characters on screen, with Costello missing for long periods in the film. These long sequences and the slow pace could have resulted in a mundane film that plods along and leaves the audience waiting for something to happen. The reality is quite the opposite. The main characters in Le Samourai spend the whole film on the verge of being ‘found out’. The inspector is hot on the heels of Jef, whose girlfriend is struggling to maintain his alibi and in a tense scene, Jef’s employer sends two men round to bug his apartment. This level of tension is constant throughout Le Samourai and every scene is compelling, even if we are just watching Jef take the subway or order a drink in the nightclub.

Alain Delon’s performance is very cold. He never smiles, speaks only when he needs to and remains unemotional throughout. His relationship with his girlfriend is one of convenience and his only real companion in life is his pet bird. I’ve never met a hitman, but if I do I’d expect them to be just as distant and aloof as Jef Costello. The rest of the cast all complement Delon, especially Delon’s wife as his girlfriend who is torn between self-preservation and her loyalty to Jef.

Samourai, Le: Criterion Collection
Like the other directors of the French New Wave, Melville was a film scholar, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of American cinema to draw influence from. Le Samourai is also a film that has been just as influential for contemporary filmmakers as the classic noir was for Melville. Most of all, this film gave gangsters and hitmen their uniform. Delon dressed in a trench coat with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth is an iconic image that has been used time and again, most notably by John Woo for Chow Yun-fat’s character in A Better Tomorrow.

Le Samourai isn’t a film for everyone. The pace is slow and the minimal dialogue is a stark contrast to the fast-talking guns-blazing gangsters we’re used to in Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas. However, forty years ago Le Samourai set standards that are still relevant to this day and it is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in crime drama or the history of film.

Samourai, Le: Criterion Collection

Video


The case of this Criterion Collection DVD promises a new, restored high definition transfer of the film and I’m pleased to say that the picture quality doesn’t disappoint. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is crisp and the restoration team have done a great job of removing the majority of the dirt and scratches from the print, which suffers from minor graininess, but not as much as you might expect given the age of the film. There is occasional flickering but this is only a minor complaint. The trailer included on the disc has not been restored in the same way and provides a neat comparison piece to show just how much better the picture quality of the film is.

Audio


Just a Mono track here but this is one of the best mono tracks I’ve heard. The sound quality is as clean as the picture. You might expect crackling in the background of such an old film but the silent moments sound just like they should, which is particularly important in a film that uses silence to such great effect. As with the video quality, I have a minor complaint about the audio. During the nightclub scenes, the bass of the music the band are playing sounds harsh but this is only for brief moments in the film.

Samourai, Le: Criterion Collection

Extras


In addition to the trailer I mentioned above, the disc contains two featurettes. ‘The Lineup’ is a compilation of archival interviews focusing on different areas of interest. Melville comments on his love of film at the beginning and in a separate interview he talks of the fire that hit his studio while making Le Samourai. The second featurette, ‘Authors on Melville’, is another compilation of interviews, this time with authors Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau. They talk about Melville’s personality, his influences and reveal interesting details about the making of the film. These interviews contain the kind of information I would have expected from a commentary track, which is sadly missing from this DVD. The disc also comes with a twenty-nine page booklet that contains stills from the film, behind-the-scenes shots and excerpts from articles about Melville and Le Samourai, including one by John Woo.

Samourai, Le: Criterion Collection

Overall


Le Samourai is a classic blend of French New Wave and American gangster cinema that continues to be an inspiration to filmmakers all over the world. This DVD is not quite up to the usual feature-packed Criterion standard but they have done a very good job of cleaning the video and audio so it’s worth picking up just for the film itself.


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