Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Saturday May 04

Tuesday May 07

Lido Cinemas, Melbourne:

Saturday May 11

Tuesday May 14

Rating: PG
Duration: 105 minutes
Country: France, Italy
Language: French (English subtitles)
Alain Delon, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville



The closest to a perfect movie I have ever seen…I felt like I was watching a gangster film made by a gentleman.” - John Woo

Minimal and breathtaking, Le Samouraï features an icy and smouldering lead performance from Alain Delon, one of the most beautiful human beings to ever grace the big screen.” - Ed Travis

Regarded by many as Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster masterpiece, there’s a sense of existential dread about this austere and stylish film noir of a lonely Parisian contract killer (Alain Delon) living by the samurai's bushido code. Admired by many film directors, Le Samouraï’s influence can be found in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Coppola’s The Conversation, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Michael Mann’s Heat, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and almost all of Takeshi Kitano’s films. Remakes include John Woo’s The Killer, Anton Corbijn’s The American and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Long difficult to see on a cinema screen, this will be the first Australian screening of the new Ultra High Definition 4K restoration.

Introduced by Bruce Beresford at Ritz Cinemas and Alena Lodkina at Lido Cinemas.

The 4K is – frankly – perfect.” - David Hare

Fedoras and trench coats. Film Noir in cool blues and greens. Le Samouraï is the real deal.” - Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle

The impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself: all the themes from Melville’s work are gathered up in one tight ball in Le Samourai.” - Tom Milne 

Melville’s characters, often smoking, pensive, and contemplative, move through dreamy landscapes, somehow ascetic and glossy at once. They’re too cool to live, and most will die.” - Ray Pride, New City Film

By John McDonald
Jean-Pierre Melville’s real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. He was born into a Jewish family from Alsace but changed his name during World War Two while working with the French Resistance. The surname was borrowed from his favourite writer, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. It was the first symptom of an abiding fascination with American culture that would find an outlet in Melville’s movie-making and in a carefully-constructed persona. Wearing a Stetson and Ray-Bans he would drive around Paris in a huge American convertible. He had a passion for jazz and for classic Hollywood films of the 1930s.

Like French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, for whom he was an acknowledged mentor, Melville was a cinephile. In his younger days he would go to the cinema at 9 am and emerge at 3 am the following day. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of American movies which allowed him to reel off lists of favourite films and directors. He knew who was responsible for the writing, the cinematography, the music and the set design.

I’m told that in film schools today it’s hard to get students to watch anything in black-and-white, let alone from the 1930s. This may be one of the reasons for the prevailing ordinariness of so much contemporary cinema. In the Hollywood of the 1930s, audiences accepted that movies would transport us to a parallel universe: a world resembling our own, but more glamorous, more heroic, more rich in possibilities. A movie’s artificiality was part of its appeal, not a reason for complaint.

Melville embraced that sense of artifice, planning his films with painstaking care. He was the ultimate control freak – the very definition of the French auteur who concerned himself with every aspect of a project, imposing a personal style upon the final product.

Melville would demand that an actor wore a hat or a collar with exactly the right tilt. They would be forbidden from moving their eyes freely, being obliged to look at the camera or a particular spot on the wall according to his instructions. He left no room for improvisation or any deviation from the script. Such dictatorial tendencies would bring about furious arguments with stars such as Lino Ventura and Gian-Maria Volonté.

In fact Melville was so “difficult” he was said to have argued with everybody. He was, by turns, secretive and exhibitionist. Although he loved to shroud himself in mystery, he performed for the paparazzi with his American hats and cars. He was simultaneously an intellectual and a populist, making highly “literary” movies that were also box-office hits.

His first feature, The Silence of the Sea (1949), based on a respected novel of the French Resistance, by Vercors (aka Jean Bruller), took most of its dialogue directly from the book. The story of an old man and his niece who are forced to play host to a German officer during the occupation, the film is filled with high-flown rhetoric, even though the hosts never say a single word to their unwelcome guest.

The play of silence and dense, involving dialogue is a trademark of Melville’s movies. In Le samouraï (The Samurai) (1967), generally considered his greatest achievement, Alain Delon plays a hit man who never utters an unnecessary syllable. In Léon Morin, Priest (1961), Jean-Paul Belmondo is cast against type as a dynamic young priest, while Emmanuelle Riva plays a communist widow beset with conflicting desires. The duo spend much of their time engrossed in theological discussions – which sounds deadly but makes for a series of gripping scenes, as the question of God’s existence wrestles with rising sexual tensions. The movie was a huge popular success.

The Silence of the Sea and Léon Morin, Priest form a rough trilogy of films about the Second World War and the Resistance, along with Army of Shadows (1969), a movie that received mixed reviews at first appearance but is now an accepted masterpiece. Although shot in colour, it must be one of the gloomiest features ever made. Not only does most of the action take place in darkness or shadow, it paints a bleak, deeply fatalistic portrait of the times. The film technique exemplifies the “minimalism” of Melville’s late work, which employs an absolute economy of means.

Although Army of Shadows is a war story, it has stylistic affinities with the genre for which Melville is most famous: his gangster movies. If the first of these, Bob le flambeur (aka Bob the Gambler) (1956), has the flamboyant style of a hard-boiled police story, by the time of Le doulos (the title refers to a hat, but is also a slang term for a police informer) (1963) and Le deuxième souffle (aka Second Wind) (1966), Melville’s approach had become grittier and more brutal. The later crime movies, Le samouraï, The Red Circle (1970) and Un flic (aka A Cop) (1972), are as finely designed as a Swiss watch.

Melville’s reputation waned following his premature death from a heart attack in 1973, but he has re-emerged as a major influence on directors such as Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, John Woo and Walter Hill.

In the hyper-masculine world of Melville’s films, a killer may have a stronger sentimental attachment to a police inspector than to a woman. The few women who appear in his movies, with the exception of Riva in Léon Morin, are mostly instruments to be manipulated by men, or weak-willed beings who can’t be trusted. It’s easy to call out the misogyny of these movies but this is so much a part of the director’s pessimistic world view one can hardly imagine a different state of affairs. Ultimately the male characters in Melville’s stories do no better than their female counterparts. We are led to sympathise with, and even admire, these thieves, gangsters and casual killers, but implacable fate always has the last say.
‘The truth,’ said Melville, in discussing Army of Shadows, ‘is that man is always defeated.’ This textbook existentialism threads its way through his meticulous depictions of Parisian nightlife, sordid hide-outs, elaborate heists, car rides, gun fights, fear and sudden death. It’s a spectacularly dark vision that exerts a mesmeric power on the viewer. When the lights come up we know we have been in the presence of a master.

Adapted from an article published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 October, 2020.
By Rod Bishop
In 2020, Cinema Reborn presented a six-film retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville restorations at The Ritz in Randwick.

Bruce Beresford introduced Le doulos (1963) wearing a trench coat and a fedora hat. His advice to those attending the retrospective:

‘Tell nobody what you are doing. Even your loved ones – especially your loved ones – should be kept in the dark.

If it comes to a choice between smoking or talking, smoke.

Dress well, but without ostentation. Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless of whether there is rain.

Any revolver should be kept, until you need it, in the pocket of the coat.

Finally, before you leave home, put your hat on. If you don’t have a hat, you can’t go.’

His advice applies to many male characters in Melville’s gangster films. In Le samouraï, described once as ‘the peak of his romantic and ritualistic gangster movies’, it certainly applies to the lonely and austere contract killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon).

For the Le doulos screening in 2020, Bruce Beresford also brought his 9-year-old grandson who approached Cinema Reborn’s Top Banana, Geoff Gardner, after the screening to plaintively ask: ‘But where is Le samouraï?’

Four years ago, no suitable restored version of the film was available, but late last year Pathé produced an Ultra High Definition 4K restoration.

From its opening sequence in a dingy Parisian apartment, drained of colour and leaving only a palette of grey and blue, we watch as Jef Costello lies silently on a bed, smoking. The only sounds are rain, cars on wet roads, and the chirp of his pet caged bird (a female bullfinch chosen by Melville for its predominantly black and white feathers). It turns out even a small caged bird in film noir can serve as an early warning system of impending danger.

Multiple packets of Gitanes cigarettes and bottles of Evian water crowd the top of Jef’s cupboard; his trench coat and fedora patiently wait on a stand by the door and there’s the sense of spiritual devotion within this lonely man, bound by his personal code of honour and by the vision of his fate.

Melville wrote the film for Alain Delon. They spent time juggling schedules and there were periods of will-I-or-won’t-I indecision from the actor. Melville finally sat in Delon’s apartment and started reading him the script:

‘Suddenly, [Delon] looked at his watch and stopped me: “You’ve been reading the script for seven-and-a-half minutes and there hasn’t been a word of dialogue … that’s good enough for me. I’ll do the film. What’s the title?” Le samouraï I told him … and he then led me to his bedroom: all it contained was a leather couch and a samurai lance, his sword and dagger.’

Many writers have debated the veracity of Jef Costello’s samurai, pointing out that the lines from The Book of Bushido quoted by Melville at the start of the film were, in fact, not from the Bushido at all, but entirely invented by the director.

The samurai in feudal Japan worked as a loyal vassal to a lord, but Jef in modern-day Paris works only for himself as a contract killer, loyal only to his own death. In this respect, he is unlike both the samurai whose death might be the result of his loyalty to a lord, and a modern-day yakuza gangster, who is more likely to die from other revenging gangsters or “suicide by police.”

This suggests Jef Costello is closer to the feudal-era ronin: the lapsed samurai whose master has died or who has lost all social and cultural favour. These samurai were expected to commit harakiri and those that didn’t were called ronin. They were cut off from relationships with family and clan and became “drifters” or “wanderers” alone in the world.

Written credits for Le samouraï often suggest the screenplay was based on an uncredited novel called The Ronin, by Joan McLeod.  Despite extensive work by diligent researchers, it appears that Melville never claimed this, or any other novel, as a source and no-one has found any novels written by a Joan McLeod or any physical copy of The Ronin. Another Melville invention, perhaps?

Betrayal runs deep in film noir and in the wonderful Army of Shadows (1969), Melville’s film made after Le samouraï, he drew inspiration from his experiences in the French Resistance. The wartime characters in that film also inhabit shadow worlds, unspoken codes, danger in every step, and fear of betrayers in their own ranks who must be eliminated. The gangster world in Melville’s previous films resonates with the underworld practices adopted by the Resistance in wartime France.

In some ways, a similar fusion exists in Jef Costello’s bushido-driven samurai or ronin. Reaching back into the past of feudal Japan, Jef finds a coda and a ritual to consume his contract killer life. It purposefully drives all aspects of his actions: his loneliness from the society around him; his fear of betrayal; and his fear of failure – falling into the arms of the French police.

There’s fusion, also, in the roots of the film. Melville is often referred to as the father of the French New Wave, a film movement that venerated the previous film movement of German Expressionism; and the film movement it gave birth to, Film Noir. In the USA, it also fused with homegrown gangster and crime films. And in France, Melville fused it with Japanese gangster and samurai films.

The austere, poetic and minimalist beauty of the images in Le samouraï, accompanied by its languorous, serpentine jazz score, are often at counterpoint with the subtle intricacies of the plot. There’s a cat-and-mouse game between Jef and the police, but also a chess game of tangled relationships and motivations that asks question after question. Who is double-crossing whom? Why doesn’t she identify Jef to the police? Is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-femme-fatale? Isn’t that the barman from Martey’s nightclub and why is he collaborating with the gangsters?

And in a film that is almost entirely comprised of set-pieces, there’s an exquisitely elaborate set-piece in the Paris Metro with Jef running to change lines, avoiding the male and female undercover police who seem to be on all the platforms and in every train carriage: a set-piece that inspired many thrillers made in its wake.

Le samouraï has been admired by many film directors and parts of this Melville film can be found in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Coppola’s The Conversation, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Michael Mann’s Heat, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and almost all of Takeshi Kitano films. Remakes include John Woo’s The Killer, Anton Corbijn’s The American and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Adulation for the film seems universal. Some examples:

‘The film is unbearably perfect.’ (Rui Nogueira)

‘One of the most tense and absorbing thrillers ever made.’ (James Berardinelli)

‘Unmissable masterpiece.’ (Victor Piñeyro)

‘The closest to a perfect movie I have ever seen.’ (John Woo)

‘No-one, not even Huston or Hawks ever handled the mechanics of the thriller better than Melville.’ (Tom Milne)

And my personal favourite:

‘Le samouraï looks as abstract, yet as beautiful and as endlessly worthy of study, as the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi.’ (David Thomson)

A French film noir about a ritualistic contract killer compared with a 14th Century Florentine master painter?

Even Jef Costello might have smiled.

But I doubt it.

Restored in 4K by Pathé and The Criterion Collection at L’Image Retrouvée laboratory Paris, from the original 35mm negative.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville; Production Companies: Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinématographique, Fida Cinematrografica, Filmel, T.C. Productions (all uncredited); Producer: Raymond Borderie, Eugène Lépicier; Script: Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Pellegrin; Photography: Henri Decaë; Editor: Monique Bonnot, Yolande Maurette; Art Direction: François De Lamothe; Sound: Alex Pront; Music: François De Roubaix.

Cast: Alain Delon (Jef Costello), François Périer (Le Commissaire), Natalie Delon (Jane Lagrange), Cathy Rosier (The Pianist), Jacques Leroy (The Man on the Bridge), Michel Boisrond (Wiener).

France | 1967 | 101 mins | 4K DCP | Colour | French with English subtitles| PG

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