The white gloves. The jingling keys. The singing canary. The silence. Alain Delon as ice-cold death merchant Jeff Costello. “Le Samourai,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s most fully realized and satisfying film, is such an influential work of cinema that it’s hard to know where to begin discussing it. Melville’s cool, bemused meditation on solitude and violence has influenced dozens of other films, ranging from Walter Hill’s “The Driver” to Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai,” and, more recently, 2011’s cult hit “Drive.” Everything in “Le Samourai” is simply sound, movement, and attitude, coupled with the timeless face of Alain Delon. There is no exposition. There is no need for it. The world of “Le Samourai” is one of suffocating shadows and blinding light; of swift violence and bleak, absurdist comedy. It is cinema at its most elemental.
Although Melville has directed some other unforgettable pictures, including “Le Cercle Rouge” and the criminally underrated “Un Flic,” “Le Samourai” is considered by many scholars and cinephiles to be his ultimate “work of art.” The French director carried with him for many years, thinking about it, elaborating on it, before he allowed his obsession to bloom in the full manifestation of his narrative preoccupations.
A new video essay by Edwin Adrian Nieves, fittingly entitled “Le Samourai: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Work of Art,” further explores the creation of this now-classic film. There’s some great archival footage of interviews with the charismatic and eloquent director. He talks about his lifelong obsession with cinema, how seeing other movies affects his art, his surprising love of talkies from the 1930’s, and the innumerable difficulties inherent in the moviemaking process. Unsurprisingly, he says he doesn’t think about his films too deeply, and that he prefers to operate from a place of instinct and feeling.
There’s also a neat interview with Delon, who was apparently “overjoyed” to work with Melville — who he calls “the greatest director… I have [had] the privilege of working for” — and he seems to know that the iconic role of Jeff Costello was the one that cemented his status as one of France’s most recognizable leading men. There’s also an interesting aside about a fire that supposedly destroyed one of Melville’s studios (he apparently saw the fire burning from his apartment balcony across the street) and delayed production on the film. In a piece of interview footage from the set of the burning wreckage, Melville is undeterred, almost comically casual: “We’ll build the sets at a new stage, and we’ll keep filming.” You have to admire that kind of chutzpah.
“Le Samourai”, along with several other terrific Melville titles, is currently available through the Criterion Collection. [via James Deveraux]