Alain Delon’s Eyes Have Never Been So Blue
Minimal and breathtaking, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai features an icy and smoldering lead performance from one of the most beautiful human beings to ever grace the big screen: Alain Delon.
Much like in my recent reviews of Blade Runner 2049 and Atomic Blonde, my thoughts on Le Samourai turn quickly to style as the film’s most defining characteristic. Opening with a quiet tableau of a shot, Melville sets the tone immediately for the isolated and ice cold experience we’re about to have. Assassin Jef Costello (Delon) lives by the Bushido code. Austere, principled, thorough, Costello’s apartment as depicted in the opening shot contains little beyond a quietly chirping bird, the bed on which he lays motionless, and a slowly undulating cloud of cigarette smoke belying that this is, indeed, a motion picture. Told with a visual efficiency, this softly tweeting bird and threadbare apartment aren’t just indicators of the kind of person Jef is, but will play a major role in the journey through the coolest criminal underbelly imaginable, which we’re about to travel through.
Paris in the late 1960s is nothing if not cool as hell. Every adult and small child is smoking cigarettes, listening to jazz music in basement clubs, and conducting organized crime in back rooms whilst wearing perfect hats and coats. It’s into this environment that Jef carries out a doomed hit on a club manager that results in an eye witness (Cathy Rosier as a nameless pianist for whom Jef falls quietly in love), his employers turning on him, and a trip before a police lineup. Being stone cold as he is, Jef has lined up a two-tiered alibi which holds up under increased scrutiny from a dogged police commissioner (Francois Perier), including an instance of the nameless pianist mysteriously covering for him after witnessing the killing. The plotting is minimal, the pacing is languid, and the exposition is non-existent.
It isn’t all about style, however. Costello is a compelling-if-borderline-mute lead character whose actions are fascinating and confounding to behold. As this is a tragic tale, we see just enough of Jef to understand the code by which he lives, the lengths to which he will go to conduct his business above reproach, and then we see him go against those refined instincts as the inevitability of the conclusion looms large. All that we learn about Jef is through his actions as there’s extremely sparse dialog. We must lean in to Le Samourai to draw meaning from it, which is a function of the style of the film, yes, but also an exhibition of Melville’s mastery of the medium, and a sign of his respect for his audience.
Beyond even the fascinating character work exhibited in Jef, there are flares of surrealism injected into Le Samourai that keep you thinking. With such a grounded approach to story, it stands out when the killings actually take place in the film. Edited with quick cuts, these sequences are disorienting as compared to the rest of the film. Also intentionally anachronistic, Jef is shown to be explicitly not holding a gun when his victims pull on him. Yet through editing Jef is able to get the drop on both of his victims. I’m still not sure if this flourish is intended to amplify Jef into god-like killer status (he’s able to triumph over his targets even when they draw first), or to disorient the viewer, or to indicate something broken and missing from the soul of our protagonist? Either way, this break from reality indicates the level of control Melville has over his story and over our experience of it as a viewer.
Like the rest of the story, the ending refuses to force feed the audience any attempts at an overt meaning or takeaway. We can read into the story what we like. Did Jef sacrifice his principles to protect a woman he loves? Or did his reliance on the code of the samurai bring him to a conclusion that was otherwise inevitable? Was the modern technology and dogged determination of the Commissioner just too much for the ancient creed by which Jef lived? We’re left thinking about all of these things and more as Melville concludes his tale and sends us back into the decidedly less suave surroundings of modern America circa 2017.
A feat of aesthetic wonder, Le Samourai is one of the most muted color films you’ll ever see. Blacks, browns, greys, and austere locations display a sense of icy cool so intentional that is makes the jazz music throughout feel anachronistic. Delon’s vibrantly blue eyes are the most popping colors in the entire film. And boy does this Criterion release ensure that your heart will skip a beat at those blue eyes. Melville doesn’t display an effortless cool here, but rather a cool that clearly came as a result of hard work and intention. Le Samourai will live eternal because it sets a standard for cool that will be referenced and alluded to as long as there are assassins and criminals in our cinema. Criterion takes an absolutely gorgeous aesthetic experience and brings it new life through its HD transfer, and one hopes there will be a receptive new audience for this masterful crime tale.
- New HD Digital Restoration
- Liner notes from David Thompson (film scholar), filmmaker John Woo, and excerpts from Melville on Melville
- Interviews with Melville authors and experts Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau
- Archival Interviews with: Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, and Cathy Rosier
And I’m Out.
Le Samourai is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection