music friday: sun records
throwback to 1980

le samouraï (jean-pierre melville, 1967)

The title character is a contract assassin, impossibly good looking, well-dressed and stylish ... he even has a pet bird in a cage.

I'm not talking about Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer ... this is Alain Delon in Le Samouraï. But John Woo has often expressed his debt to Melville:

Melville is God to me. ...

My characters, like Melville’s, are sad and lonely, almost disconnected from reality; they always die in the end. But despite his heroes’ tragic fate, I don’t think that Melville was a pessimist. Although they look cool and self-contained, his characters are passionate and care about each other. The great thing about friendship is that you can really love someone without feeling the need to let him know; you just do what you can do for him. Even if you die in loneliness, and no one knows about it, it doesn’t matter–you have done what you had to do. Melville’s characters behave like that, and I believe that he was a man who always cared for others. ...

I’ve always tried to imitate Melville. ... 

It was when I got a chance to do A Better Tomorrow, in 1986, that I was really able to use Melville’s style and technique, since it fit with the film’s genre, a contemporary urban thriller. I based Chow Yun-fat’s performance, his style, his look, even the way he walked, on Delon in Le Samouraï. In Hong Kong, you never saw people wearing raincoats, so it was a surprise to see Chow Yun-fat in this kind of outfit. It was all part of the Melville allusions throughout the film.

It is a sign of the excellence of both directors that The Killer has obvious roots in Le Samouraï, but the films are not close to identical, each reflecting the vision of their director.

It's always interesting to come at an old classic through the experience of the films it influenced. It is as if time has flip-flopped, as if Woo's film came before Melville's, because that's the order in which I saw them. The same goes for all of Melville's work, for I have only recently begun to watch his movies. I am not alone in this ... his classic Army of Shadows, made in 1969 directly after Le Samouraï, wasn't fully released in the U.S. until 2006, more than 30 years after Melville's death, when it promptly made the Ten Best of the Year lists of several critics.

Le Samouraï is almost austere, in tone certainly, in the cinematography as well. Like The Killer, it is a reflective examination of Cool, not by dialogue but by example. (No words are spoken in the first ten minutes.) Like The Killer, it is a look at the passing of an era, featuring main characters who know the future is now and there is no place for their kind of life. Unlike The Killer, the "hero" is a loner ... there is no friend who understands. And Delon is perfect for this. It is hard to imagine Chow Yun-Fat going through life friendless ... he is the Cary Grant of HK films. But Delon's acting, such as it is, depends on detachment. This makes Le Samouraï abstract, with little connection to real life.

Ultimately, we do not want to become assassins after seeing Le Samouraï. We want to become Alain Delon. #191 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


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