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Le Samouraï – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

In having the opportunity to review new releases from The Criterion Collection, there are certain films I have been waiting to see make their way to Blu-ray. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is one of the ultimate examples of this. Here’s the film that brought a modern sense of cool to practically all the movies about contract killers, hitmen, assassins that proceeded it. Thanks to a blend of elegance, straightforward storytelling, well-handled tension and a pitch-perfect lead performance, Le Samouraï is a true masterpiece that skillfully blends 40s gangster/noir sensibilities and the evolving nature of 60s new wave cinema. Now the film has arrived on Blu-ray with a new HD digital restoration and some worthwhile extras.

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Film:

The film’s introduction lets the audience in on what they need to know and the kind of person they’ll be following. Alain Delon stars as Jef Costello, a minimalist individual living in a single-room apartment in Paris. Some text alerts us to the way of the Samurai, which is the sort of figure the film purports Jef to be. Some more time is spent setting the film up, as Jef travels to a lover’s apartment to establish an alibi. Sometime later, he carries out a hit; murdering a man in a jazz club and nearly getting away clean.

Compared to other films about assassins where the body count piles up, Le Samouraï only concerns one job and the ramifications of it. Lengthy sequences are carried out showing the process of determining the next moves on all sides. We see interrogations, reactions from the mob, the status of a piano playing witness, and the further actions of Jef. It makes for a relatively simple plot overall, but this film is so much more than its story.

I mentioned how cool this all is. That may seem reductive to a point, but it is the best word to describe this film. Thanks to Jef’s persona, the look of the film, the use of music, the editing rhythms and more, Melville has found the perfect balance required for a movie to epitomize such a simple description. Le Samouraï is the sort of film that is not about the glamour of gangster culture but still has a striking look to it. The lead character is a cold-blooded killer, but dresses and moves like a model.

The setting is key. Le Samouraï moves to different Parisian locations, often overcrowded, and yet Jef finds the perfect way of blending in, while standing out for the audience. These are interesting locations for all the ways we learn about them. Only one, the jazz club, relies on its chic qualities. The rest of the sites are made interesting by way of process.

There are some extended scenes that portray characters going through the chores, assignments or tasks they need to complete. Melville shoots most of these scenes with meticulous detail. We see everything Jef does to prepare as well as fix himself. A couple of characters set up an elaborate ambush that is full of little pieces to keep track of. The lineup and interrogation scenes have police officers running through a variety of different duties to extend the tension and make it all believable.

Le Samouraï is a film that operates in the real world. However, it also can’t help but feel stylized. Much like a samurai film or a western, this movie features showdowns that require specific character placements and idyllic settings that can have the required audience and even set-dressing. The film also makes sure to operate by way of the code Jef has set up for himself. As a result, it allows for lack of conventionality when it comes to winding down the story.

Through all of this, you have Delon, who is excellent here. The way the actor holds onto his chameleon-like identity makes you want to go out and buy a fedora and trench coat to be just like him. Given the many films ranging from John Woo’s The Killer to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (please put this on Criterion too, by the way!) that have all shown their admiration for Melville and Delon’s character, it’s easy to see I’m not the only one impressed by this cool assassin.

I have plenty of admiration for Le Samouraï. The methodical nature of Jef, the meticulous detail captured by Melville, and the overall style of the film as a whole makes it terrific from start to finish. If you’re a fan of gangster films, stories about assassins, or just very cool cinema in general, this is not one to miss.


Video:

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail: According to the information provided with this release, Le Samouraï’s HD transfer was created from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm interpositive. As you’d expect, an older film such as this has been cleaned off a lot of the dirt, debris, scratches and other elements disrupting the look. As a result, Le Samouraï looks great on Blu-ray, but now without some shortcomings. Yes, there is a clear presentation that finds plenty of details in the close-ups we see and elements such as the clothing presented. However, wider shots and an issue I’ll address in a bit show the limits of this transfer. There’s still a great film to look at here and the best we’ll see for likely a long time, which should be plenty satisfying to fans that have been waiting for this release.

Depth: Depth never feels like an issue. There is no flatness to this film in the way spacing is portrayed. The interrogation scenes, for example, feature a group of individuals and the depth of field always properly handles their presence.

Black Levels: Black levels suffer a bit. A 4K remaster would likely help Le Samouraï not have this problem, but darker and nighttime scenes show the issue regarding crush and a lack of sharpness in this presentation. While not entirely problematic, it’s apparent enough to hold the film back from a perfect score.

Color Reproduction: Colors, on the other hand, are well-balanced. Le Samouraï has a sort of saturated look to it, given the inherent grittiness, but it doesn’t stop the nature of the colors presented to us from looking as good as they do.

Flesh Tones: Similarly, facial textures register quite strongly here. You get a good look at the cast, and the film’s presentation supports this level of clarity nicely.

Noise/Artifacts: Despite other issues and some signs of crush, there is a lot to compliment Criterion on when it comes to the lack of any problems regarding noise, stains or other types of damage.


Audio:
 

Audio Format(s): French LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The lossless track is excellent. Le Samouraï does a lot with silence, making sure to incorporate the little noises that come from small actions, as opposed to big moments involving score. As a result, the blends of different sounds all come across stable throughout.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard clearly.

 

Extras:

Le Samouraï arrives with extras found on the previous Criterion DVD release, along with a more recent documentary about Melville and Delon. A film historian commentary would have been welcome, but there is a good selection of interviews present.

Features Include:

  • Authors on Melville:
    • Rui Nogueira (SD, 13:00) – A film critic who discusses the interesting aspects of Le Samouraï and Melville’s life. Presented in French with subtitles.
    • Ginette Vincendeau (SD, 18:42) – A film historian who discusses Melville’s directorial style and the impact of his work. Presented in English.
  • The Lineup (SD, 25:00) – A series of archival interviews with Melville, Delon and other actors involved with Le Samouraï. Presented in French with subtitles.
  • Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit (Of Honor and of Night) (SD, 24:00) – A 2011 French documentary focusing on the collaborations and friendship between the director and actor.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4:00)
  • PLUS – An essay by film scholar David Thomson, an appreciation by filmmaker John Woo, and excerpts from Melville on Melville.

 

Summary:

If I haven’t said it enough, Le Samouraï is a cool movie that deserves the attention of anyone who has been enjoying slick action flicks about hitmen. It all starts somewhere, and this film certainly garnered the attention of many filmmakers working today. The Criterion Collection has done an excellent job bringing this film to Blu-ray, as the technical presentation is as great as you’d typically expect. The extras offer little that anyone with the DVD did not already possess, but they are certainly worthwhile to look into. This film, as a whole, is a great addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.

Order Your Copy Here:

 

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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