Criterion Blu-Ray Review: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le samourai’

The original Criterion Collection DVD of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime masterpiece Le samourai (1967) was one of the first Criterion titles I ever bought. I picked it up in 2010, while in college and quickly wrote up about it at the time. I still feel as I did back then. You can read that original review here.

Obviously, since 2010, I’ve learned much more about film and I have seen many more of Melville’s films. Le samourai is still one of Melville’s finest films. While L’armée des ombres (1969) or Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) are more plot-heavy, Le samourai is unabashedly about style over substance. Alain Delon, in one of the finest performances of his storied career, is chilling and stoic as contract killer Jef Costello.

Le samourai is a cinematic melting pot, mixing the best of American noir, Japanese samurai films and French cinema into one breathtaking and methodical crime drama.

The Blu-Ray

Le samorai received a controversial 2K restoration in France in 2011, which was the basis for a Pathe Blu-ray there. Since that restoration was so poorly received Criterion opted to use the master for their original 2005 DVD instead. It is a decent upgrade from what was already a very good looking DVD. Le samorai has a murky, muddy look on purpose, and Criterion’s Blu-ray retains that.

And now the extras:

  • Rui Nogueira – As usual for most of Criterion’s straight upgrades, they have included all of the original supplements from the DVD. This starts with a section called “Authors on Melville,” which begins with a 13-minute interview with Rui Nogueira, the editor of Melville on Melville. Nogueira explains why Le samourai is Melville’s masterpiece and gives a little background on the director’s career.
  • Ginette Vincendeau – The better interview is this 19-minute one with Vincendeau, the author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris (2003). She goes more into detail on Le samourai‘s production and style, and why Melville picked Delon instead of Jean-Paul Belmondo.
  • The Lineup – This is a 24-minute collection of archival interviews with Melville, Delon, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, and François Périer, filmed between 1967 and 1982 for various French TV shows. Criterion also provides an index of the interviews.
  • Melville-Delon: D’honneur et de nuit – The new extra is this 23-minute documentary about Melville and Delon’s relationship. This really isn’t all that great, but there are some interesting stories from Melville’s nephews. It was originally created for the Pathe Blu-ray, so you can see just how awful that restoration was.
  • Trailer
  • Booklet – Criterion reproduced the original DVD booklet, but just tweaked it enough to fit inside a Blu-ray case. Everything is here as it was back in 2005, including David Thomson’s essay “Death in White Gloves,” John Woo’s “The Melville Style” article and the excerpt from Melville on Melville required for every Criterion Melville release.

Le samourai is one of the classics of French cinema, and it’s always surprising that Criterion did not go all-out on this film with a commentary. But the original supplements created in 2005 give a surprisingly well-rounded look at the film. Sometimes less is more, especially in the case of a film that cliche was basically invented for.

This is one of my favorite films, and one you have to see to believe. It has more guts and bravado than many of today’s violence-filled crime movies could ever hope for.

Thanks to Criterion for providing this disc to review!

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