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Melville at 100: Le samouraï from Criterion

melville-jean-pierre

By Tony Williams.

Initially released in 2005, this new edition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s outstanding film has only one new feature to complement those that appeared earlier. They include the 2005 interviews with Rui Nogueira, editor of the classic interview book Melville on Melville (1971), and Ginette Vincendeau, author of the indispensable critical study Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris (2003), as well as archive interviews with Melville himself – conducted at various times in his office and outside the ruins of his Rue Jenner Studios that burned down after a mysterious fire – Alain Delon, Natalie Delon, Cathy Rosier, and Francois Perier. Accompanying the DVD is the same handsomely illustrated booklet containing David Thomson’s valuable essay “Death in White Gloves,” John Woo’s respectful tribute “The Melville Style” from the November 1996 Cahiers du Cinema issue devoted to Melville, as well as extracts from Nogueira’s study dealing with Le samouraï.

For those yet to discover Melville in his centenary year, purchasing this edition of one of his most celebrated films is essential. Like its predecessor it contains a new high definition digital transfer of a work that has every claim to be regarded as its director’s version of what Hitchcock termed as “pure cinema” by a talent who can also challenge Michael Powell’s classic self-definition of incarnating Cinema at its highest level, “I am Cinema!” Yet, for those who already have the earlier DVD version a question emerges as to whether the inclusion of only one new item justifies the purchase. This initially came to my mind until realizing that most of the previous 2005 critical features on this DVD were there because they have never been surpassed and replacing them by lesser new versions would do a disservice to Melville’s high reputation. Both Nogueira and Vincendeau have produced what can be honestly regarded as definitive studies of the director’s work that are essential reading as much as David Thomson’s short booklet essay accompanying this release. Thus, the 2005 video interviews with both critics remain as essential and refreshing as they were on first release.

306_DVD_box_348x490_originalThe archive Melville interviews, the last occurring when the director witnesses the destruction of his studio that also took the life of the caged canary in Le samouraï, are essential documents of a man who both embodied cinema in his own personality and expressed its highest artistic possibilities in the films he made during his brief lifetime. The remaining interviews are of mixed quality, and one wishes that others could have been found to replace them. Delon appears on a French television show before the film’s release, polite but obviously impatient, towards the usual inane questions asked by another ill-prepared talk-show host, while Natalie Delon adds little of interest to the film itself. Similarly, the obviously rare short interview with Cathy Rosier, Melville’s version of Cocteau’s “Angel of Death,” delivers little of substance. The shortest interview with veteran actor Francois Perrier expresses impatience with a director who only lived for Cinema and made him pronounce long speeches during the film. This veteran French actor, who also appeared in Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), lets off steam long after the event, but his frustration also reveals that personal discontent with any director does not prohibit an accomplished professional performance of the type he delivers in Le samouraï. Despite these reservations, if these interviews are all we have at present, then their repeated inclusion is necessary for any respected centenary DVD celebration of both its director and cinematic release of one of his major achievements fifty years ago.

The new 23-minute 2011 French TV documentary Melville-Delon: D’honneur et du nuit explores the close and intimate collaboration between director and star, both of whom have indisputable claims to be regarded as giants from a past cinematic world as opposed to today’s laughable “dwarfs” like Leonardo DiCaprio and Wes Anderson. Delon never mentions names in his Le Nouvel Observateur article cited in this documentary in which he does not appear, but it is obvious whom he refers to, and many other examples can be added to this category. Delon compared himself to a dinosaur from a different age, a judgment affirmed by Nogueira – “In our age of mediocrity, he is correct.” We also have the contributions of Volker Schlöndorff, Melville’s assistant on other films who was present at the shooting of Delon putting his hat on before the mirror, while Melville’s nephews Remy Grumbach and Laurent Groussett also appear. The new information they provide is touching and fills in the personal Melville as opposed to the explosive and meticulous director who often engaged in abrasive arguments with others such as Francois Truffaut (who probably deserved it, anyway!) At home with his family and friends, Melville was a different and gentler person. Although he had no children, he was fond of cats, all of whom appear in Le Cercle Rouge (1970). He and Delon had a close professional relationship, disrupted after the filming of Un Flic (1974) but when the actor learned of his heart attack, he immediately ordered his chauffeur to drive to Melville’s home only to find that the director had died long before. Delon collapsed on the stairs and wept, a solitary figure whom many visitors never recognized due to his hunched figure and outpouring of grief. According to Melville’s nephew, Delon looked after the welfare of his widow as long as she lived. Groussett also adds that Melville was close to very few people outside his own family, but one of those was Delon for whom he had great respect and friendship. This presents a really interesting perspective on an enigmatic actor known also for his negative qualities as opposed to his great talents onscreen.

MelvilleMelville actually died of a heart attack in a Paris hotel taking a meal with his secretary as he worked on a new project. He suddenly burst out laughing and fell on his own plate. Since his family had a strict rule about none of them ever being left to die in a hospital, they asked Schlöndorff to help them get the body back to its home. He enlisted the aid of an intern he knew to smuggle the body out of hospital on the pretense that Melville was still alive. Paradoxically they succeeded in their mission, unlike the Resistance group in L’Armee des Ombres (1969) who fail to rescue one of their mortally injured members from a German prison. As well as pursuing this code of honor, one common to Melville’s films, Delon, and the gangster world both of them knew intimately, the other aim was to get Melville’s affairs into order by his family. Apparently, Delon had suggested to Melville that he purchase some property for future security. The interesting aspect of this information is that Melville’s final laughter evokes that alternative take of a dying and smiling Jef Costello that was never used in Le samouraï.

Several decades later, Melville enthusiast Johnnie To attempted in vain to interest Delon into appearing in one of his Kowloon Noir films Vengeance (2009) that would also feature his own repertory company very similar to the Belmondo, Delon, Meurisse, and Ventura ensemble Melville frequently employed. To’s films owed much to Melville’s style as did John Woo’s earlier Hong Kong successes A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989). Evoking John Ford’s repertory company, To’s films often included recognizable faces such as Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung, and Maggie Siu. Despite Delon’s withdrawal from the project, the dream did materialize with Delon’s friend Johnny Hallyday playing his role of French gangster Francis Costello on a vengeance mission suffering from Alzheimers. Despite a tragic climax which leaves Costello (whose surname is surely not accidental) the sole survivor, the film contains a very poignant final sequence where Hallyday’s solitary samourai finds the home denied to his predecessor in Melville’s original film.

Finally, to end on another provocative note reworking Robin Wood’s comment “If you don’t like Marnie, you don’t like Cinema,” I will change the sentence into my own version to celebrate the centenary of one of the great visual and transcultural stylists of the previous century – “If you don’t like Melville, you don’t like Cinema.” This represents my personal tribute to Melville who reworked so many previous references, whether American or French, in his own inimitable way.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International and author, most recently, of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-editor, with Esther C.M. Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017; the cover of which contains an evocative shot from Johnnie To’s world of Kowloon Noir).

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