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Le Samouraï: The Criterion Collection

French director Jean-Pierre Melville knew what he liked — and what he didn't. Once, he famously compiled a list the best directors of the pre-WWII era, ending up with sixty-three names. Raoul Walsh was omitted because Melville never liked him. Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, didn't make the list because "Chaplin is a God." Great art doesn't happen in isolation, a fact borne out by the French New Wave filmmakers, many of whom began their careers as critics. For them, Melville was a hero, the sort of director who was deeply in love with the big screen, free to pick and choose his influences and reshape them into something altogether new. Melville spent his youth watching five movies a day — or feeling bad if he couldn't get to — and his life-long love affair with cinema eventually led to a career behind the camera. After the Second World War, he put together what little money he had to make his first feature, 1947's Le Silence de la Mer, which was based on a book that he didn't even have the rights to. As a maverick, he remained outside the system, craving autonomy so badly that he formed his own studio. It was there that he shot his most accessible film, 1967's Le Samouraï. It was also during that shoot that the studio was destroyed by fire. Thankfully, the picture remains, as intact as it was on its premiere night.

Le Samouraï opens with a quote (made up by the director) from the Book of Bushido, and a "trombone shot" (when the camera dollies out as the camera zooms in, used most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo and Steven Spielberg in Jaws). Within this evolving space we meet contract killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) sitting on his bed, smoking, creating movement in stillness — a perfect metaphor for what's to come. He's been assigned to take out a club owner, and he concocts the perfect alibi: His girlfriend (Nathalie Delon) will say he was at her place. And because she's a kept woman, he will make sure the other man sees him leave. The hit goes down according to his plan, after which Jef is picked up by the police — but his airtight alibi (provided by both his girlfriend and the cuckolded man) provokes entirely new suspicions. The people who hired Jef did not expect him to be picked up, causing them to renege on their payment and try to take him out — unsuccessfully. On the run like a wounded animal, Jef then tries to put together the pieces of what went wrong. He's most curious about the pianist (Cathy Rosier) who saw him leave the club after the hit but didn't turn him in to the police — he figures she must know the men who set him up. But after proving his sure and steady hand, he's contracted again for another job, even though an entire police department is following his every move.

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Jean-Pierre Melville was always attracted to film noir — after his success with Le Doulos (1962) he made a string of crime thrillers that led to the creative zenith of Le Samouraï. The film, which blends American noir, police procedurals, Japanese minimalism, and French romantic fatalism, is all about small gestures and looks. Delon said he was attracted to the role because — as he read the script — it became apparent that he was the leading character, even though he barely talked (like his director, Delon was attracted to samurai sensibilities). Few actors are so fascinating to watch sans dialogue, and he and Melville make the minutiae count. One of the most striking images of the film features Jef hiding in the bathroom, washing his hands, only to reveal — as he wipes his hands with a towel — that he's already wearing his killer's gloves (the gloves are the same type editors wear when cutting film). Thanks to the script's procedural framework, viewer are asked pay close attention, which Melville uses to his advantage. Having spent his life studying movies, he's a master at manipulation, creating tension with the simplest of inter-cutting. Filmmakers thrive on their influences, but Melville transformed his passions into something unique. Le Samouraï — which doesn't quite hide its forbears — it still very much its own thing, in addition to being a film that has influenced later generations of cineastes — most notably Walter Hill, who reworked Le Samouraï into 1978's The Driver, and John Woo, who also took much from this film for 1989's The Killer.

The Criterion Collection presents Le Samouraï in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the original French monaural audio on a DD 1.0 track with optional English subtitles. Extras include an interview with Melville on Melville author Rui Nogueira (13 min.), in French with optional English subtitles, which covers the body of Melville's career — but, more importantly, Melville's state of mind when making this picture. Nogueira describes the film as being "almost unbearably perfect." There's also a second interview with Ginette Vincendeau (19 min.), who's written extensively on Melville. "The Line Up" (24 min.) includes vintage interviews with Melville, Alain and Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, and François Perier. Also on board is the film's theatrical trailer, and (as with all Criterion releases) an insight-packed booklet, here featuring essays by David Thomson, John Woo, and excerpts from Nogueira's Melville on Melville. Keep-case.

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