Eight years after theatrical re-release, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 masterpiece has finally, mercifully, been released on DVD. If that sounds reverential, it's because this movie, and the watching of it, feel like a kind of ritual one returns to time and again. Devotees need their own copies.
Donning the fedoras and fatalism of American noir, Le Samouraï follows a long cinematic tradition of portraying iconoclastic lone-wolf hit men and femmes fatales. Alain Delon plays contract killer Jef Costello, who is hired to kill a Paris nightclub owner and winds up being tailed by both police and client. Despite Jef's dismissal of moral principle as mere "habit," he lives by a strict code defined by honor and exactitude—which, in a mythology-echoing denouement, will ultimately be his undoing.
What's most fascinating about this film, however, is its style and pacing, with a hypnotic stillness punctuated by flashes of humor and violence. Delon hardly speaks more than 50 words in the entire movie, and his character leads a monastic existence in a drab apartment populated only by a tiny caged bird. Instead we learn about Costello from the meticulous white gloves he dons prior to a kill, or the gigantic ring of keys he uses to steal cars. (Watch for some chic Citroëns.) Style is so distinct in this movie as to transcend Le Samouraï's noir trappings and achieve a more otherworldly atmosphere. Yet artifice doesn't rule Melville's film, the title of which denotes an Eastern-oriented spirituality: the nobility of the warrior. Or, more accurately, as the opening quote says, "There is no solitude greater than a samurai's, except that of the tiger in the jungle...perhaps."
Though there's no audio commentary, the DVD does include archival interviews with Melville, Delon and other cast members. A 39-page booklet includes a David Thompson essay, as well as interviews with Melville and also one of his biggest directorial admirers, John Woo, who once called Le Samouraï "the closest thing to a perfect movie that I have ever seen." No wonder the poster's been hanging on my wall for eight years.