Le Samourai (1967)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Alain Delon, Nathalie Delon, François Périer
Plot: Things suddenly go badly for a successful French assassin.
Genre: Crime / Drama / Mystery
Rating: PG for some violence.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“ I never lose. Never really.”
This is Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s favourite film. His fellow filmmaker John Woo calls it “the most perfect film” ever. To and Woo, two of Hong Kong cinema’s most proficient directors, and masters of the action and crime genres, salute the legacy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, a film that is as influential as it gets, yet remains distinctively its own.
Melville, who has made films such as Army of Shadows (1969) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), is no stranger to the crime film. With Le Samourai, he has given us a classic, to some for the ages, but for me, I must admit it is a film that I admire more than I like.
Le Samourai is less of a crime film, and more of a character study. The impossibly handsome Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a hitman with samurai instincts. He operates like a lone wolf, ruthless and deliberate in his approach, and is never one for sentimentality.
He holds a set of common utility keys, patiently trying each one until he finds the right one for a Citroen he has stolen, or a house he will eventually break into. He is cold and calculated, but above all, he is coolness personified. And that is what Le Samourai is as well, a film that sees almost nothing ever happens, yet it feels too cool to be disliked.
Le Samourai eschews genre conventions for a crime film. Instead, Melville chooses to focus on the mechanics of the crime film, its meta-approach quite refreshing, though curiously dull. There are plenty of scenes of Jef driving, stopping, parking, walking fast (he never runs), and simply standing still.
In other words, if you are looking for spectacular shootouts or tightly-paced action sequences, you have popped the wrong video into your player. Melville’s direction is assured, perhaps too assured, for it lacks spontaneity. Every move seems to be planned, and the director summons up his voracious ability for patience by seeing every action or movement from start to end.
The result is a film with as slow a pacing you will ever see in a crime picture. Delon’s central performance is devoid of emotions. His facial expressions never change, but he has a strong screen presence.
Melville explores themes of isolation, and the idea of operating in isolation. They are two different things really. Jef is in his element in the latter, but struggles to cope with the burden of being isolated from society, and perhaps feels his life is lost out on human values such as freedom, hope, and love. Still, he stubbornly follows a strict code of honour, and like a samurai, he never betrays himself.
Melville never betrays himself too, delivering a film that is the antithesis of entertainment. Ever wonder why hitmen are so cool? Perhaps this is how it started. Everything from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) to Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) owes some kind of debt to Le Samourai, an arthouse ‘hitman’ film that could have singlehandedly launched the Hong Kong new wave of crime films of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Well, I’m just sayin’.
GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)
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