The devil is in the details.
Jef Costello is a killer for hire. He is hired to kill a night club owner. Costello has never met the man, but that doesn't matter to him. He has a job to do and he does it as coldly and as methodically as he does everything else. One shot and the man is dead and Costello is on his way. Jef is strictly a no-frills assassin who likes to keep things as simple as possible. Even his hotel room is a model of Spartan living; a bed, an end table, cigarettes, bottles of water. The only "luxury" he affords himself is a caged songbird which never stops chirping. In several scenes, the bird's chirping is the only sound we hear. "Le Samourai" (1967) is a film of long silences, and Jef Costello is the quintessential man of few words. He isn't really a samurai, as the title suggests, but is he a man who operates alone and by his own code of honor. Played ultra-cool by poker-faced French icon Alain Delon, Jef is defined only by his actions.
"Le Samourai" has all the trappings of the crime genre: a job gone wrong, the big double-cross, a police manhunt, and, of course, beautiful women who either save the hero or lure him to his doom. But director Jean-Pierre Melville has something else in mind here. There are action scenes, but Melville glosses over them as quickly and efficiently as possible: Jef shows up, fires his gun, on to the next scene. Alain Delon plays it all at maximum deadpan; his expression remains unchanged whether he's being shot at or he's cozying up to his girlfriend. Jef is so ice-cold his breath couldn't even fog a mirror.
Melville instead reserves the bulk of the screen time for the in-between moments; the waiting; the longueurs. When the police nab Jef as a suspect early on, the film follows Jef's every step from the interview to the lineup to the moment when his girlfriend Jane finally verifies his alibi. Melville is far more interested in process than in action. What does an assassin do to prepare for his crime? What does he do in between jobs? How does he get to "work" each day?
Every task is presented in meticulous detail. When Jef steals a car, he uses a massive key ring, and tries one key after another until he finds one that works. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, two police officers break into Jef's apartment in order to plant a bug. The scene takes at least five minutes as they search for the right place to hide it. One officer sticks the bug behind a curtain but it's too big; he has to try a smaller one. And the only sound the whole time is the "chirp chirp chirp" of that incongruous little songbird.
Why spend so long on such a simple scene? The screenwriting textbooks always teach you to get into a scene as late as possible and get out as quickly as you can, don't they? The microscopic attention to detail enables Melville to present standard crime movie tropes in a fresh and exciting manner. Even familiar sights look different when you look closely enough. If you've ever looked at a piece of cheese under a microscope, you know what I mean.
"Le Samourai" and Jean-Pierre Melville cast a long shadow over contemporary cinema. Quentin Tarantino has often named Melville as one of his primary influences. Jim Jarmusch based the main character in "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999) on Delon's solitary killer. Nobody, however, is more deeply indebted to Melville than action master John Woo who does not mince words when describing his idol: "Melville is God to me." Many of Woo's films have been strongly influenced by Melville's gangster flick but none more so than "The Killer" (1989) which IMDB even lists as a "remake" of "Le Samourai." That might be an exaggeration, but the opening scene in Woo's film is nearly a direct lift from "Le Samourai", and Woo's repeated use of jazz in his noir-ish thrillers can be traced directly back to Melville.
Considering the film's extraordinary influence, I feel I should enjoy "Le Samourai" more than I do. I admire the patient, confident pace at which the film proceeds, never hurried, always carefully modulated. Delon's performance is suave and cool without suffering from an excess of attitude or smugness. I have always been fascinated by movies which focus on process ("2001: A Space Odyssey" is perhaps the ultimate example), and "Le Samourai" certainly delivers on that front. Yet the film remains strangely uninvolving to me.
Jef is not so much a character as he is an icon. He is made up entirely of gestures, poses and wardrobe. A slight adjustment of his omnipresent fedora is the closest is the closest we will ever get to any psychological insight. He is more memorable for the thin white gloves (film editor's gloves) he slips on before he shoots his victims than for any personality trait. Jef's cold, impassive face does not mask any hidden depths; it only reflects the emptiness inside this mannequin masquerading as a man. Similarly, the women he encounters (Jane and the mysterious piano player at the night club) are complete ciphers, and there is no more heat in their respective relationships than there is in Jef's blank stare. The surface of "Le Samourai" is alluring, but the center is hollow
Still, if all the film offers is style then it must be said that the style is certainly worth the price of admission. Melville's film oozes more seductive atmosphere than any dozen other pretenders. "Le Samourai" is an essential touchstone of contemporary cinema, and any fan of Tarantino, Woo or a host of other modern action directors will want to watch Melville's genre-transforming classic.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The digitally restored transfer is crisp and clean. Melville paints Jef's drab, lonely world in shades of gray and blue, and this transfer captures the subtlety's of the director's color scheme. This copy is free of all but the slightest blemishes. A top notch effort.
This DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound track is sparse but complex; silence isn't as easy as it sounds. The dialogue is clearly mixed and the sharp, isolated sound effects (e.g. the bird's chirping) stand out well. Optional English language subtitles support the French audio.
The extras on this disc are fairly modest by Criterion standards. There are two interviews with film critics, each of whom has written a book on Melville: one with Rui Nogueira (13 min) and one with Ginette Vincendeau (17 min.)
"The Lineup" (24 min.) features several short archival interviews with Melville, Delon and other cast members; these were all originally aired on French television. The disc also includes a trailer.
The 29-page insert booklet has some attractive graphics and includes an essay by critic David Thomson and a love poem of sorts by John Woo.
I might be branded a heretic for saying this, but I believe some of the imitators of "Le Samourai" have actually outstripped the original. "Ghost Dog" isn't a perfect film, but Jarmusch's deadpan sense of humor takes the edge off of a potentially ponderous setup. I think "The Killer" drags in parts, but Woo's kinetic mastery lends a vitality to his film that never quite manifests in Melville's effort.