Le Samouraï Movie Review
Jeff (Alain Delon) is the main character in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, a nuanced, surprising crime film from the days of the French New Wave. The film takes a minimalist look at a hitman's doomed existence, following Jeff through a hit and the unexpected outcomes of that action. He is picked up and questioned by an uncompromising police inspector (Francois Périer) and is let go after exasperating tests and questioning. The only witness to his crime is the piano player, Valerie (Caty Rosier), who denies seeing him at the club at all. Jeff doesn't squeal, but his employer sets a price on his head which is almost carried out, but not to full expectations. He offers Jeff another hit worth $2 million. Carrying out this hit ignites a strange but enthralling chase scene and ultimately leads him to his doom.
The doomed anti-hero is a famous device in many of the French New Wave films, but this is hardly run-of-the-mill noir. Costello wears the American garb of the noir detective, denoting a certain amount of control in the films context. To be honest, the film has the pacing and calculated nuance of a John Ford western, just using a story that has more relation to film noir and French New Wave. Much like Bob le Flambeur, the central character is a criminal, but we see him as so much more than that. Delon's carved-stone face masks all emotions, leaving us to ponder what he's thinking. Some might call the performance stiff, but Delon looks, feels, and talks with the grizzled history of a real criminal. With Bob the Gambler, we saw a criminal with a paternal instinct, while Jeff Costello is a criminal more alone than any I've witnessed. All he wants is to be home with his birds, which comprises the haunting opening shot that lasts a solid three minutes. The atmosphere of the film has tightness that neither Godard nor Truffaut showcased or cared about.
Melville, helped endlessly by cinematographer Henri Decae, takes his time with fluid steady shots and has no problem staying on subjects for awhile. The shots should be taken like good scotch; drink them in slow, noticing the layering, the depth of the image and that solemn, dizzying ambiance. The use of color distinguishes it from Melville's earlier films and releases it into new areas of visual intrigue. While Bob le Flambeur used the beautiful shadows and deep landscapes of black and white photography, Le Samouraï has the melancholic, cold veneer of blues and grays, showing a tone of loneliness that his earlier films only hinted at.
It's hard to say for sure, having only seen three of his films, but my impression is that Le Samouraï defines what Melville wanted as a director, and therefore is his shining hour as a filmmaker. It calls on so many different ideas as far as story goes and the way he shot it makes him stick out as a master of craft, structure and composition when off-the-cuff, hand held style was all the rage. Making films this good wasn't a principle for Melville, it was a habit.
The stellar Criterion DVD adds a number of interviews, new and old, with cast and crew.
Aka The Samurai, The Godson.