DVD Review: Le Samourai

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Melville | CAST: Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, Jacques Leroy
RELEASE DATE: 11/14/17 | PRICE: DVD $17.97, Blu-ray $22.97
BONUSES: interviews with film historians Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau, vintage interviews with cast members and director Melville, new documentary “Melville-Delon”
SPECS: NR | 105 min. | Foreign language crime drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Jean-Pierre Melville was one of those filmmakers who turned out a relatively small number of films — 13 films in 26 years — but, like Kubrick, Bresson and Tarkovsky, the remarkable thing is not just that the bulk of his work was superb but that it has been so influential to subsequent generations of filmmakers. The most iconic of all the images he created is that of Alain Delon (Purple Noon) as a trench-coated, fedora-sporting hit man in this low-key 1967 masterpiece that only gets better as the years go by.

Although Melville’s longer caper films (Le Cercle Rouge) are unmitigated classics, Le Samourai continues to impress because it is so subdued and masterfully controlled. The plot is merely a formality to present a series of atmospheric interludes featuring hitman Jef Costello (Delon) in his sedate, thoroughly crooked (yet extremely moral), urban landscape, punctuated by a number of meticulously crafted set-pieces that have been copied endlessly in the last-half century.

Criterion has done a splendid job keeping Melville’s work alive in the U.S., even though currently five of their releases of his greatest films (including Bob Le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Le Cercle Rouge) are no longer in print. This release of Le Samourai is nearly identical to the 2005 Criterion release of the film, with one new documentary included among the supplements (and the film’s debut on Blu-ray).

The older supplements offer some invaluable vintage film footage, and even a TV news report, as well as insights from the only authors who have written books on Melville in English. Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, talks about the “formal beauty” of Le Samourai and the fact that the film includes elements that are abstracted from American and Japanese culture.

Rui Nogueira, author of the indispensable Melville on Melville (a chunk of which appears in the booklet in this release) praises Le Samourai as “almost unbearably perfect.” His most interesting reflections are about the fire at Melville’s film studio, which burnt to the ground during the filming of Le Samourai.

A 1970 interview with Melville from the French TV show “Variances” finds him stating that, no matter how much passion and art a filmmaker puts into his work, “a film must be commercial.” While he valued the pre-production and editing periods of crafting a picture, he felt that the actual filming was “a tedious formality” by comparison. He also reminisces about his youth, when he was a cine-addict who saw several films a day. “Fewer than five and I’d get withdrawal symptoms.”

Vintage interviews with the cast reveal many sides of Melville. Delon speaks about Le Samourai as “an important step in my career” and praises the filmmaker as “a living encyclopedia of cinema.” Nathalie Delon and Cathy Rosier further praise the filmmaker in other interviews, but Francois Perier maintains that while he had much respect for the filmmaker as an artist, Melville was also “tyrannical” and “sadistic” to the cast and crew. “He was so crazy about cinema,” says Perier, “that basically he could only live in the atmosphere of a movie, like in a dark movie theater.”

The most interesting supplement carried over from the 2005 Criterion release is a TV news segment about the fire at Melville’s studio. The filmmaker is remarkably calm in the interview, given that his place of business and living quarters (his bedroom was above the studio) had just burnt to the ground.

The new inclusion in the package is the featurette Melville-Delon: Of honor and of night by Olivier Bohler. The doc is primarily concerned with the friendship between Melville and Delon, although Melville’s two nephews discuss other details of his personal life. These include the fact that Melville was friends with several older real-life gangsters.

Director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum), who was assistant director on several Melville features and was the filmmaker’s protégé, offers the most vivid images, ranging from Melville’s hour-plus shooting of Delon putting on his fedora in Le Samourai (it had to be placed on the head just so) to Melville’s expertise at loading a gun.

His nephew supplies a sad final note for the doc, as he discusses Delon’s emotionally devastated reaction to the death of Melville, at the premature age of 55.

Buy or Rent Le Samourai

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”