Posted November 14, 2017 by D. K. Holm
The Criterion Collection has been expanding at both ends simultaneously. While new editions such as Election (No. 904), Certain Women (No. 893), Personal Shopper (No. 899), and Desert Hearts (No. 902) appear monthly, the company at the same time is re-releasing earlier numbers in the Blu-Ray format, wth better transfers and sometimes with new features. This include the forthcoming The Silence of the Lambs (No. 13), Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (No. 335), and Young Mr. Lincoln (No. 320). But don’t turn in those old regular DVDs, or even the original laser discs, as there is always a chance that a supplement on an earlier disc won’t make it to the new set. In short, collect everything – and don’t sell them off, or lend any to friends.
One of the latest films to receive Blu-Ray refashioning is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï. This is one of nine Melville films that the CC has issued so far, the bulk of the 13 features he directed before his death in 1973, and Le samouraï is one of three that Melville made with Alain Delon. Criterion has one of the three, Le cercle rouge (1970, No. 218), but not yet the third, Melville’s last movie Un flic. Le samouraï is also widely considered Melville’s masterpiece, though the director has had his detractors.
I recall seeing Le samouraï for the first time in the early 1970s when it was called The Godson, to cash in on Godfather-mania. It played on a triple bill with Elvira Madigan and a third title I can’t remember in a theater in Portland, Oregon, then called the Fine Arts, but now labeled CineMania. If I remember correctly, the audience was moved more by Elvira‘s lovers’ reunion amid the fields of mums and wolf’s-foot clubmoss then the mannered seriousness of Melville’s chronicle of the last few days in the life of a professional hit man. I imagine that throughout film history the filmmakers who take a genre seriously, or rather too seriously, are the ones whose films suffer upon initial release but which gain prestige with time. Obvious examples include almost anything by Kubrick, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and titles by Fuller, Mann, Siegel, and Boetticher, all of whom Pauline Kael used to laugh at – or at least laugh at the unwashed youngsters who raved about them long after the fact. Anyway, the early ’70s audience may have been misled by the “godson” title to expect something as classically Hollywood and “realistic” as Coppola’s adaptation, and instead got a spare, almost Bressonian character study a man, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), whose principles have kept him alive so far, until his colleagues in crime cease to play by the rules.
Now, with the span of time and research, one can see Le samouraï as a fantasia with little to do with that genre we elect to call “realism.” It’s a study of ideas, drenched in emotions buried beneath the grim surfaces. From Jef Costello’s roughly painted gray room, bereft of personality aside from a budgie in a cage, which anyway is used more as a canary in a mineshaft than a companion, to the stylized nightclub where the specter of death, a nameless jazz keyboardist (Cathy Rosier), ends up being an unexpected witness, the decor comments on the characters when the dialogue remains quiet .
Two scenes that capture the subtlety that Melville brings to the narrative both focus on Jef as he attempts to hijack a getaway car. The first sequence, early in the narrative, finds Jef on the street scoping out a likely vehicle. Inside, he removes a large ring of car keys and methodically goes through them until the Peugeot ignites. Later, however, when the cops, crooks, and dames circling him draw closer, he is on the run again, and once more enters a car to steal it, but this time there are subtle changes to Delon’s face, a sly nervousness absent the first time around. There are also a couple of sequences in which suspicious cops form an elaborate tail on Jef, which he manages to shake, that show his determination to live through action and cunning.
But why was Melville so obsessed with stoicism, betrayal, and procedure, in the first place? Aside from some form of childhood inclination, the answer may reside in his experiences during World War II, when he was a member of the Resistance, in France, then in Britain. He made one film about that time in his life, Army of Shadows, and it is more like a film noir than a war film, while his crime films are more like war movies, in their ethos and concentration on procedure. Melville took the tensions of secret living, of a form of “dual citizenship” and internal exile, of moving with something aways behind your right shoulder, and burned them into the DNA of his crime films as if they were a way of life. The criminal more or less does the same things that a resistance fighter does, and must live as one: ever alert, evaluating the limits of trust, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner (to paraphrase Neil McCauley from Heat), and fight the dominant social model at its roots. Like Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, Melville’s characters live every week like it’s Shark Week.
Supplements on Le samouraï are sparse but, include: 1) two interviews from the 2005 disc with the authors of the only two books in English so far on Melville, first Rui Nogueira, editor of Melville on Melville, part of the old BFI monograph series under different names, and then Ginette Vincendeau, one of the best current film writers, and author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. They support each other, indirectly. When Mlle. Vincendeau does not know why Melville cut a shot of Delon smiling at the end, M. Nogueira has the answer, and when he concentrates on his personal encounters with the director, she focuses on context, mood, and influence;
2) five brief archival interviews with Melville and actors Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon (Delon’s wife at the time, who broke up with him during the shooting), and Cathy Rosier, an ex-model, all done around the same time, and for French television (24 minutes all-together and all in black and white);
3) a new addition, Oliver Bohler’s Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit (2011), a 20-minute profile of Melville’s off-screen friendship with Delon, as recounted by Melville’s nephews Laurent Grousset and Remy Grumbach, M. Nogueira again, and filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, who was an AD on the film; 4) the film’s less than inspiring trailer; and finally a 32-page booklet reprinted from 2005 with cast, crew, and transfer information and credits, along with an essay by a film writer who has previously not shown extravagant interest in Melville, David Thomson, then an appreciation by Hong Kong action king John Woo, which originally appeared in a Melville issue of Cahiers du cinema in 1996, a testimonial to Melville’s influence, which can include Neil Jordan, Walter Hill, and Paul Schrader, among several others, and finally the Le samouraï chapter from M. Nogueira’s Melville on Melville, where among many other things, we learn that the bird in the cage from the film was burned in the fire that destroyed Melville’s private studio in the middle of shooting Le samouraï.
Le samouraï (France, 1967, 105 minutes, Color, 1.85:1, in French with optional subtitles, spine No. 306, single disc, $39.95, street date 14 November 2017) is a restrained, beautiful masterpiece, and well-worth adding to a noir library.