Le Samouraï

Le Samouraï ★★★★★

***One of the best 150 films I have ever seen.***

Action director John Woo once said "Jean-Pierre Melville is God to me", and this is, perhaps, one of the strongest facts that can be used with the sole purpose of enlightening the inspirational influence that the crime masterpieces of Melville had in the subsequent decades of crime filmmaking. After a unique and interesting filmography that includes films such as Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï is one of the most stylish, unforgettable and groundbreaking crime masterworks in the history of cinema. It could also be identified as the first film that had a much more solid substance behind its plot development than any other prior crime film made by the director. John Woo first paid tribute to the film with several references to it with the best action film ever made, Dip Huet Seung Hung (1989), one of the movies that belonged to the Hong Kong genre called "heroic bloodshed". The next director to make a hugely inspired magnum opus was Jim Jarmusch through Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), starring Forest Whitaker. However, the originality and unparalleled stereotypical brilliance of Le Samouraï did not go completely unnoticed and allowed the director Jean-Pierre Melville to acquire international attention and literal worshipping from both critics and followers of his remarkable work.

Jef Costello is a perfectionist and existentialist hitman who always plans his murders carefully in order to avoid getting caught. One night, however, he is seen shooting the owner of a night club by the club pianist Valerie, a beautiful Afro-American woman, and is arrested. The police make an exhausting investigation led by a highly dedicated Police Inspector and gathers witnesses who could briefly see the assassin that same night, but after he was able to be released because of an alibi that was set up to him, a very unusual and tragic series of events and resulting consequences of romance, action and betrayal await for Costello.

Defying the laws of prior crime filmmaking, we are firstly introduced to what seems to be an empty room with the constant singing of a bird inside a cage. A few seconds later it is revealed that the room is not alone. A man is comfortably and quietly lying down on his bed while smoking a cigar while what seems to be an old quote of the Book of the Samurai is displayed on the screen. Moreover, the film follows him discreetly as if the protagonist was not aware of our omniscient staring, culminating with exactly ten minutes of pure silence until the first dialogue line is spoken. This minimalist perspective towards an existentialist antihero is what makes of Le Samouraï a unique masterpiece within its genre. We are not asked to build empathy towards him. We are not asked to fully understand his motivations and the ultimate carelessness he had during the assassination of the club owner, either. Consequently, we are not asked to support his passionate personality that can love any kind of uneasy woman. Nevertheless, we are challenged to be patient for the first half of the film in order to allow the director to work through the exceptional screenplay that was based on Joan McLeod's novel titled "The Ronin". This, of course, promises a sensationally breathtaking second half, not to mention an endless chase sequence which extraordinary craftsmanship and wonderful use of editing, tension and suspense seem to have directly inspired William Friedkin's take on such sequences in the film The French Connection (1971).

Huge French star Alain Delon, who first became famous in Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962), impersonates the perfectly kickass professional assassin. This statement does not imply that a massive collection of provocative one-liners were needed. He barely speaks a word. He remains silent most of the times. There is no authority above him. He just takes jobs, obeys the only boss he has (himself) and goes away with the cash. Those are the bases of his lonely existence. No matter how surprisingly random and/or violent are some of the events that surround his job, he never feels nor shocked or surprised. His constant and completely expressionless gestures do not transform him into a flat or boring character; it just causes more layers of mysteriousness to appear. Logically, these are the attractive characteristics that may not cause an empathetic feeling towards the audience, which utterly collide with what seems to be his Achilles' heel: women. The typical line "criminals always return to the place of the crime" is used, referring to Jef Costello. The motive seems to be women, but we are not allowed to fully appreciate and understand his mentality. His decision was to lead a life of such danger.

Melville's direction is very meticulous and that seems to be the main "quality" that Costello suddenly looses one night. The screenplay is not precisely vast, but it is undeniably razor-sharp. A musical score is not needed; we just need atmospheric claustrophobia. We need a believable environment of solitude and unconventional romance for creating complete characters that seem to belong to an underground crime culture, and those elements are precisely the ones that are offered throughout. The performances by Cathy Rosier as the delicate Valerie, Nathalie Delon as the submissive lover and François Perier as the decided superintendant are remarkable and considerably precise. And all of this is deliciously decorated with a man who lives in an almost empty apartment with a little bird as his only companion while constantly stealing any car he wants with the help of a massive key collection and changing the car plates.

Jean-Pierre Melville has directed a wonderful and actually complex essay on solitude and the senselessness of meaningless existentialism. More than being one of the most nostalgic and remembered, not to mention referenced crime films in cinema history, Le Samouraï takes the concept of a cold-blooded and crafty ronin and applies it to a modern French society. The wonderful explosion of discreet sensations and prolonged silences of stillness is, perhaps, the first and most obvious consequence when making such an audacious twist, including a highly intriguing conclusion. Although Melville would try to perfect the technical elements such as the editing, the cinematography and the visual effects, Le Samouraï has the most original substance of style and cinematic talent and, naturally, it is Melville's greatest achievement.

Johnnie To acknowledges it...


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