The Essential Movie Library #78: Le Samouraï (1967)

American filmgoers and critics would worry a little too much whether Le Samouraï is an American tough guy homage or parody, when the beauty of Jean-Pierre Melville’s quintessential film is that it never has to choose

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This is how it worked. In the 1940s Hollywood made a bunch of low-budget pictures scandalous in their bluntness and repellent in their violence, that began philosophically where other movies left off, or where other movies would have left off if they had taken that last deadly wrong turn. By the time World War II gave way to the revelation of the Holocaust in all its stupefying dimensions, and to the prospect of nuclear annihilation in all its mind-boggling possibilities, these movies distilled what seemed like the collapse of civilization into human interaction at its most debased, in which murder was a career move and betrayal a survival strategy. The French, unable to help themselves, fashioned a concept out of it; they even had a ready name, their word for “black,” and in the 1950s a new wave of inspired French filmmakers fell in love with, as much as anything, the glamour—the wafting cigarette smoke, the forlorn trumpet, the dance of shadow.

Around the time Americans in the 1960s, in pictures like Bonnie and Clyde (Essential Movie Library #61), were taking back what had been taken from them, the giddy obsessiveness of French flicks like Le Samouraï, made by a daft frog who called himself after the author of Moby Dick, upstaged the moral and spiritual implosion that engendered noir, and to which noir gave all that seemingly coherent expression. Alain Delon is a hired hit man by way of Marienbad, everything about him perfect, his killing an expression of precision at its most exquisite, stealing a car and laying out on the passenger seat all the keys that might work in the ignition, methodically trying one after another. If he’s inspired by American tough guys like Bogart to never lose his cool, in fact Bogart—sweating through his clothes as Philip Marlowe—never kept his cool like this. American filmgoers and critics would worry a little too much whether Le Samouraï is an homage or parody, when the beauty of Jean-Pierre Melville’s quintessential film is that it never has to choose. 

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