FILM (1967)


Rewind film: 'Le Samourai' directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 3:51pm

Le Samourai
Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Perfectionism was the antithesis of the French New Wave: tired of standard Hollywood trappings but nonetheless inspired by film noir, directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut took long-established cinematic standards and tore them apart, breaking their carefully constructed conventions down into creative movies that were by and large celebrated.

But within this world also existed the anomaly that was Jean-Pierre Melville. Classified as a "New Wave filmmaker" even though he was anything but, Melville was equally inspired by the post-war genre of guns and girls - but rather than caricaturing noir, the director instead sought to perfect it.

Le Samourai is his most celebrated effort and with good reason, the film coming off almost pseudo-biographical in its efforts to portray a perfectionist assassin. Skip this section if you've heard it before: a killer bound by his samurai-inspired code of ethics takes on an assignment through passion rather than logic, and later falls prey to both the police and his employers.

Think John Woo's honorable triads, Quentin Tarantino's intelligent and chatty delinquents, and such recent Hollywood efforts as Drive or The American, or any film where a strong, silent, passionate criminal seems more heroic than those on the right side of the law. Le Samourai might have been all but remade a hundred times since its release, but few placed attention to detail so prominently in its protagonist's mind.

Whether it's carefully preparing each facet of an assassination, calmly eluding the police with a planned route through the Paris subway, or simply selecting the ideal key for a daylight car robbery, our man's life is defined by system and technique.

That sense of purpose, of reason and importance, is reflected just as much behind the screen as it is on it, with Melville beholden to the past while simultaneously far ahead of it. Here it follows the formula of classic film noir. Here it plays up the ennui of 1960s European cinema. Here it borrows the standards of Akira Kurosawa-inspired samurai cinema. And at each point, Melville's minimalist direction is deliberate, focused more on its characters' minute physical movements than any ideas of feeling or emotion.

Through his tales of honour among thieves, he pushed a philosophical ideal of perfectionism, where it's not so much what we do in life but how we do it. And for that alone, modern cinema is indebted.

Pavan Shamdasani