Film Noir UK: Le Samouraï (1967): The Criterion Collection
Updated: Jan 26
If there was going to be a choice on who would be the face of film noir in post war France then you would really have to have a really strong defence if your choice wasn’t going to be Jean-Pierre Melville. And if you wanted to pin point an image from one of his great films, it's more than likely that the image would be Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (1967).
Now some of you might know I am a big fan of Melville and while my heart is very much with some of his other films (most certainly Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) and Bob le Flambeur (1956)) it is very hard not to state how important Le Samouraï is in his work. As author Rui Nogueira mentions at the beginning of his interview on this Criterion Blu-ray release “Le Samouraï is Melville’s most perfect, purest, and noblest film. In this film he’s at the peak of his art as a creator.” Nogueira is right of course... but Le Samouraï came at a point in Melville’s career when everything began to fall away all of sudden.
Firstly, Melville had realised that he was out on his own when it came to filmmaking. The French filmmaking establishment didn’t have time for Melville and with that, Melville decided that he didn’t have time for them anymore either. He was independent and for that… isolated from everyone else. A clear example of this is just after Le Samouraï’s release in fact; with negative reviews from a number of key French critics and especially, Cahiers du Cinéma.
But independence was important to Melville. In 1950 he established himself in his own studio which would became his own personal space (he lived on the top floor) as well as his own personal church for cinema. Melville would project films every other night for himself, friends and crew. And when they weren’t watching films, he was making them using the interior and exterior features of the renovated old warehouses as back drops for such films as Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos (1962) and Le Deuxième Souffle.
It was while making Le Samouraï, that Melville would lose his church in a large fire however; forcing him to abandon any future projects there and very much wondering the streets of Paris with no known home. Very much like Costello himself.
But what is Le Samouraï for Melville none other than a story about solitude involving a figure trying to isolate himself from the world and yet, the world he lives in is hounding him on all fronts. In the case of Jef Costello’s he has the police and his employers are after him; while life imitated art when it came to Melville himself as he was hounded by filmmakers and film critics alike.
It is also well documented (and mentioned a number of times on the Blu-ray’s extras) that this world that Melville has brought us been formed out of the classic film noir titles such as Frank Tuttle’s A Gun for Hire (1942), Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and (I think anyway) Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961) all three highlight the essences of an individual who doesn’t want to be noticed (at times) and moves through the world in silence.
The first ten minutes alone is a masterstroke of silent film as we see Delon’s Costello prepare for his next job. The essence of timing, sound, music, movement and framing is just perfect to introduce us to this isolated and threating world which Melville has put together for us. And don’t forget about that single sound from the little bird in the cage; a great effect from Melville about the change in tone within the later film's scenes. A brilliant use of sound which can stand alongside the ambient noise of the windmill spinning in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The bird perished in the fire by the way!
Throw in both the wonderful Cathy Rosier, Francois Perier and Nathalie Delon (who died earlier this year), the bleak cinematography by Melville regular Henri Decaë and François de Roubaix’s impressive soundtrack (who’s work really needs to be looked into far more) and you have a fantastic Parisian neo-noir. And is there anything cooler than seeing Alain Delon in character with hat and raincoat? It’s very hard to beat. With all of this in mind, no wonder then that we are so excited to see Melville’s masterpiece now available on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection.
As always the picture and sound quality are perfect and all of the extras found in Criterion’s 2005 DVD release are included as well as Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit (2011), a short documentary exploring the friendship between the director and the actor and their iconic collaboration on Le Samouraï. We can’t recommend highly enough. This would make the perfect gift for that cinephile in your life. More Jean-Pierre Melville please Criterion… more!
Thanks to our friends at Criterion we have a brand new copy of Le Samouraï up for grabs; just send us your answer to the question below via our contact page by mid-night on Sunday 5th December 2021 to be in with a chance. Good Luck!
Question: Starring Alain Delon, what was Jean-Pierre Melville final film?