Even though I’ve gone on record as being unimpressed with the French New Wave, I still feel totally justified in my rental of Le Samourai. Movies with the word “Samurai” title have rarely let me down.
And listen to the Netflix description (with most intriguing words highlighted by me):
A little bit gangster film, a little bit samurai flick, this 1960s French masterpiece from Jean-Pierre Melville introduces the memorable anti-hero Jef Costello (Alain Delon), a contract killer with the instincts of a Japanese warrior and the features of Adonis. After offing a nightclub owner, Costello has two big problems: his double-crossing employer, who now wants him dead, and the dogged police investigator who’s determined to rein him in.
Now listen to my description:
Ninety-five minutes of attractive but vacuous people opening and closing doors and walking into rooms. Our expressionless hero spends great stretches of time lounging on a bed smoking and occasionally feeding his pet bird. The action begins with a 45-minute long police lineup, continues with a barrage of shots of the hero parking tiny French cars on Paris streets and walking into convenience stores, and culminates in a climactic 20-minute long sequence being casually pursued by old men and young women on the public transit system!
I suspect that my issues with Le Samourai are pretty much the same as my problems with Breathless: the movies it influenced are 10,000 times more interesting than the original. After watching the movie, I attempted to read more about it online to see if there was something crucial about it that I’d missed, some justification for its being called a “masterpiece” and warranting a Criterion edition. The writing about this movie is even more soporific than the movie itself, but the bits that I can glean before I nod off are always the same: it’s influenced dozens of other directors; and it’s not about action, but cinematography.
I can appreciate a filmmaker’s attempt to go for style and establish a mood over plot. Sometimes that approach even works. But whether it’s because Le Samourai has always been painfully dull, or because it’s had over 30 years of movies and TV expanding on the concept, the attempts at style here seem as forced, self-conscious, and self-important as a student film. Pointing to this movie as groundbreaking or influential seems pretty silly, since there are plenty of contemporary and earlier movies that do more interesting things with both the storytelling and the filmmaking.
So here you end up with a pretty and whisper-thin guy with an OCD fixation on his hat who lives alone with a tiny parakeet (c’mon, even Baretta had a cockatoo) and keeps all his car-stealing keys on a gigantic ring and reacts to a bullet grazing his arm by running back to his apartment and very carefully dressing the wound with a comically oversized bandage before hopping on Le Metro for a polite and relaxed ride through the Paris suburbs. When you try to sell me that as being a “samurai,” you just come across as being a poseur.