This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Rod Sedgwick’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
''There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle... Perhaps...''
— Bushido (Book of the Samurai)
So my history with this glorious piece of art goes as such: In the late 90's I was working in a video rental store and always felt drawn to the 'foreign film' section, which of course was smaller than most in my uncultured little slice of the world. Nevertheless it was a section outgrowing its space with nearly every bulky VHS title facing out from its spine, so how could I not be drawn to the one with 'Samurai' in the title?
So as I entered Melville's world of cool detachment, solitude, honour codes and trench coats, I was instantly smitten. Alain Delon’s Jef Costello proved to be one of the most appealing screen presences I had seen at that point, and the film would be one that I would hold onto like a personal treasure, telling all who would listen that they need to see it. As DVD began to evolve as the new medium, one of the first film's I sought out was Le Samouraï, and it wasn't until 2005 that I could import the Criterion version to play on my region hacked DVD player. So after multiple viewings of what I consider one of the coolest fucking films in existence, how does it stack up now in 2014?
Melville's masterpiece is timeless, and he has purposefully designed it that way, from the costumes to the location to the soundtrack, everything has a classic and elegant aesthetic that almost defies time and place. Not to say that it doesn't stylise itself in a particular way though, here we have nods to the gangster genre that ruled Hollywood in the 40's, the Japanese samurai genre that Kurosawa made a phenomenon in the 50's, and the French new wave transformation in the 60's where jazz and pop culture infused film in interesting and experimental ways.
Melville is often labelled 'The Godfather of the French new wave', and throughout his work, one can feel that there is a very special essence to his brand, and Le Samouraï just seems to exemplify that. Eschewing exposition for minimalism and economy, we are immersed in Jef Costello's world through visual storytelling. Repeated motifs help us familiarise ourselves with Jef's world and trigger a cue, whether it be the multiple use of his ring of keys (used similarly by the police that break into his apartment), the way he examines the caged bird in his apartment, the way he adjusts his hat in the mirror (much like a Japanese samurai brandishing his sword) or even significance of impending death when his white gloves are worn.
I was completely amazed at how this film was still able to captivate me after multiple viewings over the years, to the point of not even wanting to check my iPhone once throughout, because I was totally gripped by everything that was happening on screen. Procedurals and heist plots are particularly appealing to me, and some of my very favourite films tend to involve these elements (Fincher’s Zodiac, Dassin's Rififi, and even Melville's masterpiece from 1970 Le Cercle Rouge), and just watching Jef plan his alibis and the way the whole investigation in the police precinct plays out is gripping as hell, and perfectly calibrated filmmaking. Melville has also been very careful to cast someone with enough gravitas to deliver a perfect foil to Jef's plans and François Périer as the police superintendent is just that man, where Jef only says what is needed and is quietly confident, despite feeling like a caged bird (lining up metaphorically with his pet), Le Commissaire projects his confidence outwardly through mouthy gestures and is perhaps the complete opposite to Jef, providing that much needed balance to the narrative.
The characters that Jef revolves around are detached and brimming with subtext, whether it be his honourable tight-lipped girlfriend (played by his wife at the time) or the jazz bar piano player, representing the 'death' character that will seal his ultimate fate that he dutifully marches towards, laying out all the clues in the final act that he will not be coming back from this contract (The second trip to the stolen car makeover garage which ends on a hint of finality, the unspoken farewell to the girlfriend and the failure to accept his collection token for his fedora in the final scene) and the final set-piece, like many before it are mise en scène personified, as if Melville himself invented the term. How can one not be left breathless by the subway chase or the meeting on the train bridge for payment that doesn't go quite according to plan - I have goose bumps just thinking about it all.
If you cannot tell already, this is not only my favourite Melville thus far (although I don't believe any others will topple it if Le Cercle Rouge and Army of Shadows could not) but one of my personal favourite films of all time and its utter perfection just floors me every time I sit down with it. Delon was perfectly cast as the lone warrior of solitude that is accepting of his fate, and the gaze through his blue tinted eyes speaks volumes more about his persona than words ever could. I love that upon Melville pitching the story to him, he said after hearing about the first 10 minutes: “This story has no dialogue so far—I will do it.”, and then led Melville directly to his bedroom where above his bed, was mounted a samurai sword - the role he was born to play it seems.
Le Samouraï may have an air of simplicity about it, yet its themes and stylistic choices are certainly worthy of continued analysis. This was probably Melville's greatest ability as a filmmaker; timeless tales told with visual elegance and graceful economy, deceptively simple on the surface, with an intricate network of blood vessels keeping it pulsing and endlessly vital for generations to discover, admire and rip-off - Yes Quentin Tarantino and John Woo, I am looking at you!