Horribly miscast in “The Godfather” mold for its original Stateside bow, “Le Samourai” gained a following for its East meets West noir minimalism, but has been MIA on DVD in America until now. The Criterion Collection rectifies that sorry state of affairs with a disc sure to further burnish the reputation of a film now considered Jean-Pierre Melville’s finest and inspiration for John Woo’s finest Hong Kong action pics.
In bonus video interviews, French critics call Melville the father of the New Wave, citing his minimalism and work outside the studio system. Woo is even more passionate.
“Melville is a god to me,” he writes in an essay reprinted from Cahier du Cinema. He later calls “The Killer” a tribute to “Le Samourai.”
The scholars trace Melville’s American noir influences and his career, firmly placing him in the film canon. But the archival TV interviews with cast and crew provide the most fascinating, if conflicted, portrait of the helmer.
During one interview, conducted on the site of Melville’s burnt-out studios, the helmer chafes at the “tedious formality” of filming compared with writing and editing.
“I hate shooting,” he says, then later mentions his voracious appetite for movies, American fare included, when he was younger. “I used to see five films a day. If I’d see less than five films a day, I’d go into withdrawal.”
He also claims to be hardest on those working behind the cameras, not actors — a view thesp Francois Perier did not share. “He was a tyrant, almost sadistic. Hard on his actors,” Perier said in a 1982 TV interview. “He was a very difficult man. But he was crazy about cinema.”
However, Alain Delon, who plays the contract killer with sangfroid to spare, only sang Melville’s praises during his interview, calling him the best director he had worked with. Then again, the bonus features make it clear the very minimalism of the script appealed to Delon, who appeared in “Le Samourai” with his wife on the eve of their separation.
Whatever his relationship to actors, the helmer was not above playing around with his aud: In an interview reprinted in the accompanying booklet, Melville admits he made up the opening quote attributed to “The Book of Bushido,” the samurai code, and marvels that it appeared onscreen in Japan that way.
“What they don’t know is I made up that ‘quotation,’ ” he says.
Also included: a thoughtful essay by David Thomson.