In the cannibalistic world of modern film, people often forget
the roots, influences and direct ancestors of what they see on
screen. Remakes, homages and simple rip-offs happen so often that
few viewers even realize what they are actually watching. I know
people who are surprised to learn that The Seven Samurai and
The Magnificent Seven are essentially the same movie. To
really understand film, you must understand its history. Jean-Pierre
Melville's 1967 film Le Samourai has been listed as a primary
influence by just about every modern crime film maker from Martin
Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino to John Woo. Lucky for us, the Southwest
Film Center will show a brand new print of the original uncut
35 millimeter version. This is a brilliant chance to see a film
that few people probably know, but nearly all will recognize for
what it has influenced.
Le Samourai follows several days in the life of a professional
hit man whose carefully maintained professional life is about
to crumble to dust. Alain Delon (the Frenchy version of Alan Ladd)
plays Jef Costello, our icy antihero. With his high-collar trenchcoat,
gray felt hat and stolen Citroen tooling about the backstreets
of Paris, Jef is the ultimate portrait of cool. He is also the
"Samurai" of the title--the lonely, friendless warrior
forced to walk alone in a world with no allegiances. Hired to
bump off a nightclub owner, Jef is nabbed by the police, but his
carefully constructed alibi holds, and they are forced to let
him go. The intrepid Chief Inspector (Francois Perier) isn't willing
to give up on Jef as a suspect, though, and has the man trailed.
Suddenly, whoever hired Jef gets very nervous. Instead of getting
paid off for his work, Jef barely survives an assassination attempt.
Now he must find out who was behind the original hit in order
Sound familiar? It should. John Woo's The Killer lifts
huge chunks of plot and scenery and grafts them into modern-day
Hong Kong. Quentin Tarantino's black suit and razor tie-wearing
hoods in Reservoir Dogs certainly owe a wardrobe nod to
Alain Delon. And Jean Reno's unemotional killer in The Professional?
You can guarantee that film's director, Luc Besson, saw Le
Samourai about a dozen times.
With this and two other films (Le Doulos and Le Deuxieme
Souffle), Melville reinvigorated the conventions of American
film noir. No matter how much they say they hate us, the French
have a long tradition of worshipping certain aspects of American
culture. Often that culture comes back to us in strangely bastardized
versions. Melville, of course, grew up watching the morally ambiguous
film noir thrillers that American studios like Warner Brothers
cranked out in the 1930s. When it came time to make his own, Melville
mutated the genre's standardized mythology and blended it with
the beat poetry, modern art and postwar ennui of 1967 France.
Instead of the moody black and white of The Maltese Falcon,
we are thrust into a jazzy Paris landscape filled with pop art
colors. Instead of the brooding psychological depth of Touch
of Evil, we are treated to a frosty world of blank surfaces
and emotional emptiness.
More than any other film of its genre, Le Samourai is concerned
with creating an attitude. Plot and character are background
noise. The idealized figures, their stylized appearance and their
ritualized behavior are what marks Le Samourai so indelibly
in the minds of its viewers.