I had a difficult time believing what the Criterion Collection had to say about Le Samouraï. Statements like “razor sharp” and “defines cool” immediately drew out a jaded view in me. John Woo calling Le Samouraï the closest to cinematic perfection as possible didn’t exactly help me dispel this. Paging through the booklet, I figured that Alain Delon probably had only one facial expression, and with a lack of plot description on the back panel, I came to the conclusion that one of two things had to be true: 1) the story is clichéd, sucks, and they don’t want to make that evident through an over-the-top summery; or 2) the plot is so worn and thin, that a summary on the back would make watching the movie pointless because it would reveal important, plot-twisting details. I was expecting a call back to early Bond movies (all of which I’ve seen) but with a contract killer twist. I was expecting a clichéd story with gadgets, girls, espionage and explosions – I was expecting a lot of the usual crap that I’d seen all before. I couldn’t have been more wrong and pleasantly surprised.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s directing is genius, as he keeps Le Samouraï interesting by slowly addressing the story. The first ten minutes are completely silent, and immediately we are drawn in. Jef Costello’s (Delon) life absorbs us, and small acts become indulging, such as bandaging a wound or putting on a hat. Melville does a great job complimenting this, especially when one takes a look at the barren land that is Jef’s apartment; lacking in color, with the only bit of life being a caged bird. Walls show faded paint peeling back, windows are dirty with aged drapes hanging over them. The bare essentials are all that can be found, and it all couldn’t be more indulging. Through these observations we become indulged in the bleakness of Jef and his surroundings, as the seemingly dry story becomes quickly complex right under our noses.
The realist sense of Le Samouraï is an immense triumph compared to the regular “Oh no, I’m in trouble! I’ll blow something up” routine. Instead of relying upon massive amounts of destruction and action, Le Samouraï relies upon wits. Jef is a smart character who relies mostly on his keen
observation, obvious paranoia, and brilliant tactics. At one point in the film, Jef turns a gun pointed at him through tactical words. Jef’s wits are also what bring out the tension. He keeps us guessing things like, “Is that person following us?”, and his acts, calm as they are, pump our blood, especially when he gets into a stolen car and tries to find the right key that fits it.
Le Samouraï really is a cinematic masterpiece. You may not believe it is while it spins in your DVD player, but its departure is where everything, especially the title, suddenly brings it full circle to a masterful status. I sat in total silence, mind and body, just staring at my screen as the credits began to roll. Until that point, I knew I had seen a good movie, but after that I knew I had seen a piece of brilliance that would rarely be touched elsewhere.