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Weekly Alibi The French Attitude

Le Samourai

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  In the cannibalistic world of modern film, people often forget the roots, influences and direct ancestors of what they see on screen. Remakes, homages and simple rip-offs happen so often that few viewers even realize what they are actually watching. I know people who are surprised to learn that The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven are essentially the same movie. To really understand film, you must understand its history. Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samourai has been listed as a primary influence by just about every modern crime film maker from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino to John Woo. Lucky for us, the Southwest Film Center will show a brand new print of the original uncut 35 millimeter version. This is a brilliant chance to see a film that few people probably know, but nearly all will recognize for what it has influenced.

Le Samourai follows several days in the life of a professional hit man whose carefully maintained professional life is about to crumble to dust. Alain Delon (the Frenchy version of Alan Ladd) plays Jef Costello, our icy antihero. With his high-collar trenchcoat, gray felt hat and stolen Citroen tooling about the backstreets of Paris, Jef is the ultimate portrait of cool. He is also the "Samurai" of the title--the lonely, friendless warrior forced to walk alone in a world with no allegiances. Hired to bump off a nightclub owner, Jef is nabbed by the police, but his carefully constructed alibi holds, and they are forced to let him go. The intrepid Chief Inspector (Francois Perier) isn't willing to give up on Jef as a suspect, though, and has the man trailed. Suddenly, whoever hired Jef gets very nervous. Instead of getting paid off for his work, Jef barely survives an assassination attempt. Now he must find out who was behind the original hit in order to survive.

Sound familiar? It should. John Woo's The Killer lifts huge chunks of plot and scenery and grafts them into modern-day Hong Kong. Quentin Tarantino's black suit and razor tie-wearing hoods in Reservoir Dogs certainly owe a wardrobe nod to Alain Delon. And Jean Reno's unemotional killer in The Professional? You can guarantee that film's director, Luc Besson, saw Le Samourai about a dozen times.

With this and two other films (Le Doulos and Le Deuxieme Souffle), Melville reinvigorated the conventions of American film noir. No matter how much they say they hate us, the French have a long tradition of worshipping certain aspects of American culture. Often that culture comes back to us in strangely bastardized versions. Melville, of course, grew up watching the morally ambiguous film noir thrillers that American studios like Warner Brothers cranked out in the 1930s. When it came time to make his own, Melville mutated the genre's standardized mythology and blended it with the beat poetry, modern art and postwar ennui of 1967 France. Instead of the moody black and white of The Maltese Falcon, we are thrust into a jazzy Paris landscape filled with pop art colors. Instead of the brooding psychological depth of Touch of Evil, we are treated to a frosty world of blank surfaces and emotional emptiness.

More than any other film of its genre, Le Samourai is concerned with creating an attitude. Plot and character are background noise. The idealized figures, their stylized appearance and their ritualized behavior are what marks Le Samourai so indelibly in the minds of its viewers.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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