Friday 17 November 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare guardedly welcomes a new Criterion edition of Jean-Pierre Melville's LE SAMOURAI (France, 1967)

Criterion's new Blu-ray of perhaps many fans' favorite Melville picture, Le Samourai (1967) comes to us as a sort of mixed blessing. 
Alain Delon's hand, Le Samourai
The new 1080p encode is taken from quite an old master for Criterion's now prehistoric DVD, released way back in 2005. Criterion consciously dodged a bullet here for the Blu and avoided having anything to do with Pathé's relatively recent 4K restoration of Le Samourai from 2012. For those who don't already follow these things, the Pathé 4K and subsequent French Blu is one of a number of Pathé restorations which were finished and completely wrecked (there's no other word for it) with excessive filtering and DVNR (digital noise removal) in the grading and mastering process.  
In other words it was a waxy, over-scrubbed image with virtually no fine definition or grain management, or deep shadow detail. Pathé tried to make amends with a Blu-ray re-jig from a slightly less DVNR'ed master in late 2012 but both versions are hopelessly compromised by the extremely poorly executed 4K scan itself and the woeful grading on that - performed as so many of these fuckups were and still are by the French Post House Lab. Eclair. 
Alain Delon, Le Samourai
So Criterion has gone back to a reliable but less than ideal source from 2005. It had no alternative, certainly given the enormous expense of mastering a new 4K, as Pathé is the sole copyright owner and Criterion would never recoup the expense. The transfer has a couple of issues which I will comment on without getting too technical.
The new color timings and grading is, like their 2005 DVD understandably, far more "neutral" in temp and less blue in tone than the original DVD release of the movie from 2002 on René Chateau video (which was also English subbed.) Overall I think the René Chateau's color temprature and cooler blue edge is more accurate to the original 35mm prints. 
Alain Delon, pet yellow canary, Le Samourai
And god knows Henri Decaë and Melville himself are on the record over and over about how they wanted to execute a virtually "desaturated" color film as though it were black and white. They may even have gone to the extent of "flashing" the negative before exposure and filming. The experiment in paler contrast is even more pronounced in their photography for L'Armée des Ombres (France, 1969) which had a very successful Blu-ray release on Studio Canal. The cooler blue temp which Decaë favored is also apparent on the exemplary Studio Canal Blu-ray of Le Cercle Rouge (1970). And not surprisingly the blue tone is correctly replicated on the otherwise atrocious Pathe 4K of Le Samourai from 2012. 

So here's a good but not definitive new Blu of a major French title. I guess Criterion made the wise choice to do it now or never, in line with their ongoing program of revisiting all of their old DVD only titles in the HD format. And despite what I think is a too "neutral" color spectrum, it delivers a very nice viewing experience.

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