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Synopsis: Pro hit man Jef Costello (Alain Delon) carries out a contract in a nightclub but is seen by a jazz pianist (Caty Rosier). She refuses to identify him in a lineup but the police superintendent (Francois Périer) intuits that Jef is his man and puts pressure on his alibi, Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon). Jef's employers think he's a security risk. He thwarts their attempt to liquidate him but realizes he's in a no-win situation. With both the cops and opposing hit men on his back, Jef seeks a way out consistent with his austere personal code.
If Le Samouraï seems a bit formulaic in 2005, it's only because of thirty years' worth of movies influenced by Japanese cinema - one no longer has to be a student of bushido to appreciate the sometimes absurd ways that Yakuza killers and Ronin swordsmen seek honorable destinies. The romantic rituals of samurai films are now firmly established in action films world-wide. Perhaps Sergio Leone started it with the solemn death missions of his stylized gunslingers in films like Once Upon a Time in the West; Chinese action director John Woo claims that he became enraptured by Japanese fatalism second-hand, through the movies of Jean-Pierre Melville!
In 1967 the word samurai still carried an aura of mystery, so much so that Melville could invent a fake quote from "The Book of Bushido" for Le Samouraï and escape detection even by Japanese critics. Certain Japanese directors, Seijun Suzuki especially, had already taken the stylized hit man movie to artistic extremes, but Melville's picture interpreted the genre for continental audiences. This very non-New Wave movie split European critics while proving immensely popular. American distributors waited five years to attempt a release, and spoiled that by re-titling the film The Godson. The trailer was laughed off the screen.
This isn't a film with laughs. Melville methodically plays out every scene with the literal cause-and-effect logic preferred by deadpan police procedural films. No room is left for humor, or even names for most of the characters. Melville and co-writer Georges Pelligrin also avoid all but essential dialogue. The stylization carries over into the costuming: Hats were all but gone from the streets of Paris but they're back for Le Samouraï.
In 1967 hit men who behaved like well-oiled automatons were much less of a cliché. Delon's stylized hired killer arises, feeds the bird (echoes of Graham Greene), steals a car, establishes an alibi and assassinates a designated victim with few words and a total lack of emotional display. This allows us to read almost anything we want into our hero's mask-like face; reviewers fixate on a shot where his eyes move a little bit and leap to theorize that Jef is a functioning schizophrenic, or perhaps a murderous Zen master. Chances are that today's audiences will decide that both Jef and the movie are a tongue-in-cheek joke, a riff on movie conventions as perfected by cultural interpreters like Quentin Tarantino. Jean-Pierre Melville almost certainly wanted Le Samouraï to be taken as straight storytelling. He even eliminated a final shot in which Jef, as he turned defeat into an intellectual victory, would laugh in triumph.
Le Samouraï is broken down into a series of dry episodes. The killings are few and far apart, with more significance given to elaborate stagings of a lineup, the superintendent's attempt to break Jef's alibi, and Jef's use of the metro to shake dozens of detectives off his tail. None of the action is extraordinary and Jef's most effective weapon is his dogged refusal to be shaken from his chosen path. When he realizes he's caught in a bind between cops and crooks, his efforts go toward staying true to his personal code. Even when Jef is no longer trying to win, he remains in control of his destiny.
Alain Delon's personal magnetism keeps Jef Costello from becoming a cipher; star quality has to be the determining factor because we certainly don't see him interacting with people in a normal way or doing much emoting. His soon-to-be ex-wife Nathalie Delon is sullen as his loyal alibi, and Caty Rosier charms as a mysterious figure of destiny, the woman that critics pinpoint as a symbol of death. Francois Périer's sober policeman lends respect to the side of law and order. Jean-Pierre Melville prefers to make his camera as appropriately 'blank' as his leading character -- he does a tracking-zoom on his first shot and transitions between crooks and cops with a Fritz Lang matched cut, and that's about it for tricks. There is no middle ground in Le Samouraï; audiences will find it either the height of genre profundity or a crashing bore. Genre critics agree that it's a key title in the gangster genre.
Criterion's DVD of Le Samouraï will help steer the undecided in favor of Melville's gangster tale. Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten lines up Melville exponents Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau for lengthy analytical interview featurettes, and pulls together a spread of French television interviews from Melville, Delon, Nathalie Delon, Francois Périer and Caty (Cathy) Rosier. Melville is seen talking to a TV news camera outside the ruins of his film studio, which burned down during the making of Le Samouraï. He blames a business conspiracy that sounds like a good subject for a Melville movie.
A long trailer is also included; the fat insert booklet contains perceptive essays by David Thomson and Melville fan John Woo, and interview excerpts with Melville.
For more information about Le Samourai, visit the Criterion Collection. To order Le Samourai, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson