Le Samourai (France/Italy, 1967)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There can be many reasons for re-releasing a motion picture. In some cases, like Star Wars, the motive is as much for profit as it is for artistic reasons. The same claim cannot be made of Le Samourai, a 1967 thriller that has been cited by no less an authority than internationally-acclaimed director John Woo as a nearly perfect movie. Le Samourai will not rake in money at the box office during this, its thirtieth anniversary re-release, but it will give a small legion of North American movie-goers an opportunity to see this landmark film uncut and in its full glory.

Woo is right -- Le Samourai is close to perfection. It combines stylish direction, an intelligent script, first-rate performances, and overpowering atmosphere into one of the most tense and absorbing thrillers ever to reach the screen. In trying to identify a film with a similar impact, I'm left grasping at thin air -- nothing quite like it exists in the annals of motion picture history, even when considering the work of Alfred Hitchcock. However, watching Le Samourai makes it obvious that directors like Quentin Tarantino and Brian DePalma are familiar with this particular entry on Jean-Pierre Melville's resume. Its influence upon their work is evident.

Le Samourai is developed like a chess game between two equally-intelligent, determined opponents. One, Jeff Costello (Alain Delon, of Purple Noon), is an expert hit-man whose deeds are untraceable and whose alibis are unbreakable. The other is a police superintendent (Francois Perier) who is sure that Costello is responsible for a recent murder. He believes that, with dogged persistence, he can catch someone in a lie or uncover some discrepancy in his suspect's story. As the movie progresses and an apparent checkmate draws closer, the level of tension in Le Samourai reaches an almost-unbearable level. One standout sequence has Costello attempting to evade an intricate trap that the superintendant has set for him in the Paris Metro.

Le Samourai opens with a quote from "The Book of Bushido" (a fictional creation of writer/director Melville): "There is no solitude greater than a samurai's, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle." The film then proceeds to illustrate how this truth applies to the protagonist. Alain Delon's performance is subtle and mesmerizing. His expression never changes, but his eyes, his bearing, and the occasional trickle of sweat speak volumes. Delon has an undeniable screen presence -- when the camera focuses on him, we cannot help but look.

The first thing that strikes the viewer about Le Samourai is likely to be the aspect of the film that leaves the most lasting impression: its incredible sense of style. This is a black-and-white noir film photographed in color, with gloomy exteriors and dim interiors. It's always raining or cloudy, and the most prominent color is gray. Even when a room is brightly lit, the source of illumination is inevitably harsh fluorescents that leech the color from everything. Visually, Le Samourai is arresting, but the movie's stylistic preeminence doesn't stop there. Melville draws us into the cold, cruel world of his protagonist by presenting lengthy stretches in which there is no dialogue. The film opens with ten minutes of speech-free scenes, followed by a short verbal interchange, then two more minutes without dialogue, another brief conversation, three additional minutes without talking, and so forth... Melville does not clutter up his film with needless chatter, and, as a result, when someone speaks in Le Samourai, we listen.

Delon is supported by a fine cast. Francois Perier plays the superintendent as a canny policeman who will do whatever it takes to get his man -- he can be charming or nasty, as circumstances demand. Delon's real life wife (at the time), Nathalie, who plays Costello's lover and alibi, is every bit as sexy as Catherine Deneuve. And Cathie Rosier portrays Valerie as the perfect mix of the enigmatic and the alluring. She's one of the mysteries that Costello must solve if he's going to outfox the cops.

If you're a fan of film noir in particular or thrillers in general, you owe it to yourself to seek out a copy of Le Samourai (it should be released on video after its limited theatrical run). Despite its absence on many critics "best of" lists, this motion picture deserves a place at the pinnacle of the genre. As John Woo indicated, it's difficult to imagine a much more accomplished film.

Le Samourai (France/Italy, 1967)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1