Le Samourai

on March 01, 1997 by Wade Major
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   Long overshadowed by his New Wave contemporaries during the '50s and '60s, French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville has only recently received a proper reconsideration, thanks primarily to the likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom cite Melville's rugged, noirish gangster thrillers as seminal influences on their own work.
   For audiences unfamiliar with the Melville touch, the newly restored print of his 1967 masterpiece, "Le Samourai," is an excellent place to start. As the title hints, "Le Samourai" analogizes the Bushido, or warrior code of Japan's famed swordsmen, to the life of a cold contract killer named Jef (Alain Delon, recently seen in Miramax's re-release of "Plein Soleil"), who finds himself dealt a slightly more complicated hand than he planned for when he agrees to terminate a nightclub owner.
   Despite planning his alibi with immaculate precision, Jef is seen exiting the club owner¹s office by a woman pianist (Caty Rosier) who later intentionally misidentifies him during a police lineup. Though grateful, Jef considers the woman's behavior suspicious and digs deeper, unearthing details he was never meant to know and drawing himself into a deadly web of betrayal and cross-purposes.
   Anchored by Delon's chillingly icy performance, "Le Samourai" is a superbly crafted blend of intrigue and style that far outclasses the era's better-known French thrillers, most of them made by Melville's friend Claude Chabrol. (Melville appeared as an actor in Chabrol's "Landru.") Where Chabrol's once innovative approach now seems dated and mundane, Melville's remains vibrant and stirring, buoyed by a subtle and unobtrusive stylization that predates similar work in Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" films and Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America." More striking yet are the dozen or so similarities to Woo's own "The Killer," down to such minutiae as the lead character's name.
   But, even if its influence on contemporary filmmakers weren¹t so striking and acknowledged, "Le Samourai" would stand well enough on its own merits, strongly suggesting that some of the greatest films of the future may well come from the past. Starring Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon and Caty Rosier. Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville. Produced by Eugene Lepicier. An Artificial Eye re-release. Thriller. French-language; English subtitles. Unrated. Running time: 95 min.
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