Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï concerns the perfection of form and of etiquette that embodies a pragmatism that might occasionally yield conventional morality. For Melville, perfection means the absence of extraneousness, especially in terms of professionalism and art. Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lives in a bare and gray apartment that’s so comically Dickensian in its austerity that he can almost immediately discern where an enemy has bugged the place. When Jef isn’t killing people for money, he lies in bed and smokes and listens to the melancholy chatter of his caged bird, informing loneliness with the sort of grandeur that we project onto ourselves when we’re convinced that we’re the saddest people alive. Jef embraces the solitude of the Japanese samurai as technically established by the Bushido, but, more likely, as defined by the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
Melville’s films celebrate code of conduct as a self-justifying reward—a notion that enjoys less currency in our self-absorbed present day. And so Le Samouraï is driven by the subterranean merger between Jef and Melville’s working credos. Jef derives satisfaction from his sense of style, which fuses dandy poetry with a working man’s enjoyment of the quotidian. As played, or more accurately inhabited, by one of the most beautiful men in cinema, Jef wears his fedora, trench coat, and white gloves with the precision of a model, adjusting his hat with a dancer’s grace, its brim seemingly ready to slice through metal. But Jef also steals cars and barters with middlemen of the criminal underworld, revealing the grit and the teeth that reside underneath his neat and nearly androgynous presence. Jef fingers a ring of keys, used for stealing cars, with a grace that weds white- and blue-collar modes of sexuality. He’s dancer, mechanic, killer, and high-stakes thief all in one, an antihero for people of all classes, who’re governed by all erotic hungers.
Le Samouraï’s aesthetic walks a similar tight rope between the rarefied and the everyday. Moony, blue, utterly gorgeous images of Paris at night are counterpointed by drab yet pristine shots of a police precinct that’s working overtime to hang a murder on Jef. A modernist club, probably the height of French chic in 1967, with white orbs and mirrors and plastic-looking chairs, is counterpointed by the rigorous montages set in and around France’s metro system. Melville’s images are faultlessly pared down and governed by bold strokes of black, white, and gray, yet documentarian details emerge, contrasting behavioral modes that vary depending on social caste.
Melville downplays the violence that’s since taken over the crime film, devoting his attention to moments that ordinary filmmakers would deem perfunctory. Melville transforms the scene in which police assemble “the usual suspects” for a lineup, fashioning an intricately absorbing analysis of procedure. Le Commissaire (François Périer) paces between witnesses scattered throughout a variety of interview offices, seeking to detonate Jef’s alibi for a murder, though the sequence’s punchline hinges on an exquisite irony: In order to be exonerated, Jef must be fingered rather than overlooked by a witness. When Jef’s apartment is bugged, Melville emphasizes the precision of the interlopers as they find a key for the door, which they produce from a ring similar to the one Jef uses to lift cars. The men navigate the apartment with similar fastidiousness, staking out the windows and hammering a nail into place for the recording device, all while Jef’s bird, the loneliest character in the film, chirps its plaintive chirp.
With its hyper-articulate mixture of the exotic and the proletariat, Le Samouraï has proven enormously influential, refining a sex appeal for the modern crime film which can fascinate even the most self-consciously macho of bros. The cinema of Michael Mann, particularly the emotionally purplish yet elaborately observational set pieces of Heat, is unimaginable without this film, as is much of the work of Walter Hill and John Woo, respectively, to name two of Melville’s most famous disciples. In Le Samouraï, Melville merged the self-pity of the postwar American crime film with the doomy existentialism of modern French pop culture, proving two disparate worlds to have more in common than one might’ve otherwise expected. Within Melville’s aestheticism lurks a democracy of consumption and reconfiguration.
The image has plenty of stable and attractive grain, with clarity and color vibrancy that are improved over Criterion’s prior 2005 edition. Whites, grays, and blues are luscious, and the interplay of these colors is subtly prismatic—note how the light refracts off the white orbs in the club that serves as a pivotal setting for the narrative—though the blacks occasionally appear dimmer than one would like. Flesh tones are painterly, and image depth is extraordinary, as evinced by the multi-planed geometry of the aforementioned club. Though this film is famous for its silence, that’s misleading, referring only to the script’s lack of dialogue. There’s plenty of minute noises in this soundscape, which create a diegetic jazz that complements the film’s visual celebration of work as a kind of religion. These notes are presented here with visceral pristineness, and François de Roubaix’s romantic score resounds with velvety decadence.
These supplements are most valuable for offering contemporary viewers a glimpse at the art of Jean-Pierre Melville’s personal style, particularly the footage of him that’s featured in archival interviews. Melville favors sunglasses and a cowboy hat, striking the sort of cool pose that’s familiar to that of many of his characters, with a deep and suave voice that suggests a person in total command of his public impression. Unsurprisingly, Melville mentions the challenge of presenting oneself, which mirrors the difficulty of creating art that resonates with a massive audience. Other elements of Melville’s working life and aesthetic are documented, too briefly, by the interviews with Rui Nogueira, editor of Melville on Melville, and Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, which were recorded in 2005. Meanwhile, "Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de Nuit" explores the friendship between Melville and Delon, interviewing their friends and family, though this 2011 documentary is also too short and glancing, gliding from sound bite to sound bite. The theatrical trailer rounds out this evocative but slim package, with a booklet featuring a characteristically ecstatic essay by David Thomson, as well as an appreciation by John Woo and an excerpt of Melville on Melville that whets one’s appetite for the entire book.
Criterion has colorfully refurbished Jean-Pierre Melville's nearly abstract masterpiece of cool loneliness. But those supplements are in dire need of a contemporary update.