Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Le Samouraï - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Classic crime picture (on 35mm no less) at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in summer 2017 series "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and, of course available on a gorgeous DVD via the Criterion Collection

Contract killer played by oh-so cool Alain Delon.

Le Samouraï (1967)
Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Scr. Melville & Georges Pellegrin
Starring: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Jef Costello is a contract killer. He's clearly good at his job, but he's also inordinately, almost ferociously cool. Oh yeah, he's cool as a cucumber - when you kill for money, you've gotta be, but the "cool" I'm really talking about here is more than his solitary reserve; Jef Costello is cool, as in: he's out of sight, man!

How can he not be?

In Jean-Pierre Melville's awesome 1967 crime thriller Le Samouraï, he's played by the epitome of cool, Alain Delon. When we first meet him, the dude is relaxing in his grungy, spartan Montmartre bachelor suite, smoking a butt on his bed while his tiny pet bird tweets in its cage. Titles appear over this strangely unsettling scene of repose:

"There is no solitude greater than a samurai's,
unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle."

The quotation is attributed to the "The Book of Bushido". As it turns out, this book is non-existent. It's Melville's invention - no doubt inspired by similar tomes - but that the great auteur chooses to open his film with a manufactured quotation is telling. We're about to enter a world in which the filmmaker is going to steep us in style of the highest order - the film's mise-en-scène proves to be copiously luxuriant in Melville's mastery of technique and appearance. We're going to feel his mitts all over this picture.

Astonishingly though, this will be no mere exercise in style for its own sake. Melville also infuses the work with oddly Neo-realist properties. We know we're watching a movie, but good goddamn, at times it feels like life itself.

And so it is that Jef Costello, attired in a grey trench coat and impossibly sexy fedora, eventually enters a nightclub and guns a man down in cold blood.

Jef's made some mistakes, or so it seems. He's not only been noticed, but at one point he comes face-to-face with a witness, Valérie (Cathy Rosier) the club's gorgeous, exotic piano player. But Costello is too steely and handsome. Valérie refuses to identify him in a police lineup.

This frustrates the Superintendent (François Périer) of the investigating homicide division because his gut is telling him Jef's his killer, in spite of the fact that our icy hitman appears to have crafted a reasonably iron-clad alibi, provided in part by the gorgeous ('natch) Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon) his "fiancé", a beautiful hooker with a heart of gold.

The Superintendent is not going to let go. He clamps his vice-like jaws upon Jef like a pit bull. using every available resource at his disposal. To make matters worse, our sleek hero is double-crossed by the men who hired him. They're welching on payment and want to take him out.

What French crime picture doesn't have babes?

What we get is 105 relentless minutes of cat and mouse - double your pleasure, of course, since the Superintendent is stalking his quarry whilst the quarry has his own quarry to stalk.

All of this is stylishly played out upon the grey streets of "Gay Paree". La Ville-Lumière has seldom looked as bleak as it does in Le Samouraï.

In one of the greatest set-pieces in movie history, Jef wends his way through the Knossos-like labyrinth within the bowels of the ancient Paris Metro. We're on the edge of our seat and then some.

Melville dazzles - yes, with sheer cinematic aplomb, but also with a meticulous attention to detail. Every step of the way, he makes us feel like what we're watching is real; whether we wait with Jef through the tedium of having his licence plates swapped in a clandestine garage or when two detectives painstakingly enter Jef's apartment, scour it and eventually plant a bug for audio surveillance.

And for all the cool, the tough-mindedness, the violence, Melville never lets go of his characters' humanity. The film is steeped in romance, star-crossed fate and ultimately, a kind of sad, desperate sense of doom. Damned if he doesn't move us to tears with the same fervour he manages to tantalize our eyes and thrill us to bits.


Le Samouraï is playing in 35mm during the TIFF Bell Lightbox series entitled "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and is available on the Criterion Collection in a DVD that includes video interviews with Rui Nogueira, author of "Melville on Melville" and Ginette Vincendeau, author of "Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris" plus archival interviews with Melville, Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier.