A master of hyperbolic criminal coolness beloved by the nouvelle vague, Jean-Pierre Melville made 13 features in a 27-year career, but only a handful of his iconic, pretzel-twisted, Heideggerian gangster films are familiar here—and none are as knowingly immersed in the genre’s legendary codes as Le Samouraï (1967). Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A lone-wolf assassin-for-hire (Alain Delon) performs a hit, but due to his latent romanticism—or is it just his ordinary need for love the genre won’t allow him to have?—he becomes vulnerable to the police, and therefore to the underworlders that hired him. The procedural spiral of fate and moral emptiness uncoils in magnificent, slow, almost banal ways, evoking every film of its type while it silently declares them inadequate to the task of exploring humanity. Le Samouraï has, in effect, been remade a thousand times—every impassive, hollowed-out, urban-man-of-violence movie made in the last 30 years owes it a drink. Swallowed by an anachronistic trench coat and fedora, which nevertheless blends into Melville’s un-’60s-ish timelessness, Delon became here that rare thing: a movie totem, not an actor or character but a temple-god in our communal consciousness. The supplements are thick on the ground: new video interviews with Melville scholars, French TV interviews with, among others, Melville, Delon, and unforgettable nightclub chanteuse Cathy Rosier, and essays from critic David Thomson and die-hard Melville-iste John Woo.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 22, 2005