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Le Samourai (1967)

"There is no greater solitude than that of a Samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle..."

Bushido (Book of the Samurai)

The film opens to an near empty room, along with the sound of a bird chirping in its cage. In the shadows we can barely see a man laying on the bed, smoking a cigarette as it coils up toward a wisp of light from the window. After a certain amount of time the man slowly gets up, and gets fully dressed, removing his hat from a stand near the door. He puts on his hat, and adjusts the brim with delicate precision, and heads out onto the street. The man hot-wires a car, and drives it down to a garage and pulls inside. A mechanic is already waiting, and immediately gets to work changing the license plates, while the driver patiently smokes and waits. The driver then extends his hand, as the mechanic takes a gun out from a drawer and hands it to him. The driver pockets it and returns the trade with cash. Then he drives away. Not one word is spoken, and like all great artists French director Jean-Pierre Melville already set the tone for Le Samourai, one of the coolest action thrillers of all time. Like a painter or musician, Melville perfectly paints the canvas with a few master strokes, all involving light and shadow, washed out colors of grays and blues, and action in place of dialogue. The man's name is Jef Costello, played by the famous French actor Alain Delon, the pretty boy of the French cinema, who knows that the most threatening face is a poker face. "A beautiful destructive angel of the dark street," film critic David Thomson called him, a killer for hire who does his work quickly, accurately, and most importantly...cool.

The audience will follow Costello with meticulous detail as he establishes an alibi, murders a night-club owner, and survives through an intense police line-up, all without barely breaking a sweat and portraying an emotion. Le Samourai is a masterful noir gangster thriller that contains calm jazz music throughout its background as you follow a man trying to figure out why he was betrayed by the people who hired him. The elements in Le Samourai which include cops, hired assassins, the underworld, good and bad women, killers with a heart of gold, and the code of the gangster, have been done time and time again, and yet what makes Le Samourai stand out above the rest is the tone, style, and aesthetic handling of the material. Most of the suspense and drama comes from the controlled existential detachment in the acting, and its subtle attention to detail, which gives this film more of an artistic feel then an artificial one. Based on a story of absurdity and a kind of male extremism this film slips into a form of dream and poetry because of it's artistic flair and gusto. Several action directors have come out stating how Le Samourai was a huge influence on their work, most importantly Hong Kong action director John Woo. In one of the most thrilling scenes of the film Costello becomes a suspect in a large police manhunt that involves a cat and mouse chase through Paris Metro between the inspector's police force. Without the need of words, audience's witness a brilliantly suspenseful action sequence where Costello is chased all over Paris with underground informants and police who have state of the art tracking devices and are placed at every subway entrance and exit, while Costello jumps in and out of cars, switches trains and platforms; trying to outsmart them.

 

PLOT/NOTES

The film opens to an near empty room, along with the sound of a bird chirping in its cage. In the shadows we can barely see a man (Alain Delon) laying on the bed, smoking a cigarette as it coils up toward a wisp of light from the window. After a certain amount of time the man slowly gets up, and gets fully dressed, removing his from a stand near the door. He puts on his hat, and adjusts the brim with delicate precision, and heads out onto the street.

The man hot-wires a car, and drives it down a to a garage where the door autmotically open for him, and he heads inside. A mechanic is already waiting, and immediately gets to work changing the license plates, while the driver patiently smokes and waits. The driver then extends his hand, as the mechanic takes a gun out from a shelf and hands it to him. The driver pockets it and returns with cash. Then he drives away.

He drives to a woman's house and knocks on her door. She opens it and he walks in sit's down and holds out his arm looking at his watch saying, "Tonight, I got here at 7:15 and left at 2:00 a.m." The woman says, "Impossible. Wiener just got back. He phoned to say he's coming at 2:00." The man says, "then I was here from 7:15 to 1:45." The woman says to him, "I like when you come here, because you need me." The man then gets up and leaves without any real emotion towards her.

He arrives at a pool hall and sits down at a table of men playing cards. He asks them "How long will you be here?" One of the men playing says they rented the room for the night. The man says, "I'll be here at 2:00. Save me a seat." He then gets up and is about to leave when one of the men says, "Bring cash in case you lose." The man turns and says before leaving, "I never lose...Not really."

He then leaves and drives to a night club and calmly walks in. He walks past a few people who notice his entrance, which are a bartender, a few musicians and a woman who's playing the piano. The man walks to a back area of the night club and to a door at the end of the hall. He slowly puts on white plastic gloves then knocks on the door and walks in. There's a man sitting at a desk.

"Who are you?"

"It doesn't matter."

"What do you want?"

"To kill you."
[shoots him]

Costello leaves the crime scene with several witnesses seeing him, including a beautiful piano player. After leaving he throws his white gloves and gun in the lake and heads back to the poker game that he originally came from.

At the murder scene the police inspector calls the General to run an identity check and get 20 suspects that fit the killers description from each district. The inspector says, "What's 400 suspects in a city of 10 million?" When the police do identity checks on Costello who's playing poker at the pool hall, they ask him to come with him for a routine check.

In a classic scene in the film, Costello is now part of a large police lineup because he fits the description of the killer. When Costello is asked to step forward he has no criminal record and when the witnesses are asked if he looks familiar most of them say he doesn't fit the description including the woman piano player.

When the inspector asks Costello where he was between 12:00 and 2:00, Costello says his fiancée's. The inspector says, "the lucky lady's name and phone number?" When Costello asks if it's necessary the inspector says that a suspect without an alibi stays there. Costello answers, "Jane Lagrange, 11 Avenue Amiral Bruix."

That evening Jane is called into the police station and lies for Costello but the inspector is still not satisfied. He has the witnesses look at the line up of men once again except this time he switches Costello's wardrobe. He even calls Jane's lover Wiener in because he got a quick glimpse of the man leaving Jane's apartment that night when he was entering.

He luckily picks Costello as the man he believes he saw leaving Jane's apartment and when the witnesses at the club still don't pick Costello out a second time the inspector finally has no other choice but to let Costello go.

After being released the inspector's partner asks him what he thinks of Costello. The inspector says, "I never think."

After leaving the police station Costello loses the police's tale and goes to meet up with someone at a subway overpass. He walks up to a man who is one of his employers, and says to him, "It's done." The employer says, "I know. But you were arrested." Suddenly instead of paying Costello for the successful hit, the man pulls a gun out and tries to shoot him but hits him in the arm and runs away.

Costello returns home to wash and bandage his wound before falling asleep. When he wakes up the same evening, he returns to the nightclub, to confront the piano player on why she lied at the station when he knows she clearly saw him.

While Costello is away, men from the police department break into his apartment and place a bug under the curtain of his window. At the end of the night the piano player leaves her work with Costello and they both get in her vehicle. He then asks her why she lied for him. She then asks him, "Why did you kill Marty?" He answers, "I was told I'd be paid. I didn't even know him. The first and last time I saw him was 24 hours ago." She asks, "What kind of man are you?"

Later at the police station the men who bugged Costello's apartment bring back the bloody gauze they found in his apartment, knowing Costello is wounded.

At the piano player's apartment the two get to know each other. The piano player says her name is Valerie and when Costello asks her who hated Marty enough to want to kill him, she asks him why he cares.

He then tells her, "At the payoff, they tried to kill me. To make sure it won't happen again, I have to find them before they find me. You didn't identity me for one of two reasons. Either you enjoyed playing with the police...or you were told not to recognize me. Arrested, I'm a threat. Thus, indirectly, to the man who ordered the murder. If he's a friend of yours I'll find him through you." Valerie tells him to call her place in two hours; and so Costello leaves and heads back home.

In the meantime, police burst into Jane's apartment and ransack her place, turning her dressers inside-out, hoping to break her will and force her to testify and admit Costello really wasn't with her on the night of the murder. The police inspector tries to make a deal with Jane. He tells her that if she admits to have collaborated in fabricating Costello's alibi, she will have no more trouble with the police. Jane responds, "In other words, you want me to perjure myself, in return for which I'll be left alone. But if I stick to the truth and get in your way, then I won't hear the end of it. Is that it?"

Jane won't give in and then shows the police officers the door.

When Costello returns to his apartment he notices the birdcage has feathers scattered everywhere because the bird must have been agitated for some reason. He now suspects the room has been bugged and searches all over his apartment. He eventually finds it and turns it off.

Costello leaves his apartment to call Valerie from a phone booth, but she does not answer the phone. Back home Costello notices yet again that his bird behaves strangely, and the suspense now really picks up. While trying to figure out what could be the problem his apartment window breaks and he is held at gunpoint by the same man who shot him earlier.

The man walks in and says, "We made two mistakes. First was to think your arrest was a police trap. Second was to worry you'd be a threat to us. That's why I tried to kill you. Here's the remainder of the two million for Marty." The man then tells Costello that his boss wants to make peace and gives him a new job offering 2 million more; for another hit. When Costello is silent the man asks, "No answer?" Costello says, "I never talk to a man holding a gun." The man asks again, "Is that a rule?" Costello snaps back, "A habit."

Costello thinks it's all a trap. He quickly attacks and overpowers the man and ties him up, extracting information about the man's boss that sent him, and (the one who wanted to hire Costello for the new job) in the process. The boss is a man by the name of Olivier Rey; and he gets his address.

The inspector knows Costello found the bug in the apartment and he wants his men to stick to Costello like glue. He says to his men, "I want flawless surveillance this time. You'll all wear a gallium arsenide transmitter. When you see Costello, switch to this position. When you lose contact, this position."

In one of the most thrilling scenes of the film Costello becomes a suspect in a large police manhunt that involves a cat and mouse chase through Paris Metro between the inspector's police force; while Costtello is trying to find the man who betrayed him and hired to have him killed. With hardly any dialog you watch a complete suspenseful action scene where Costello is chased all over Paris with underground informants and police who have state of the art tracking devices and are at every subway entrance and exit, while Costello jumps in and out of cars, switches trains and platforms; trying to outsmart them. This scene was a benchmark for later chase scenes like Peter Yate's Bullitt which was released a year later and also The French Connection directed by Willian Friedkin in the early 70's.

Eventually Costello gets away from the cops trail by quickly stealing another car and heading to the garage that he entered in the beginning of the film. The mechanic in charge of the garage changes the vehicle's plates once again for him and then says to Costello when handing him a gun, "I'm warning you, Jef. This is the last time." Costello says, "OK."

He then takes off and heads to Jane's for the last time. When entering her place he realizes that the police have hassled her because of him; but she still hasn't talked. In one of the only times of him showing some sort of emotion he gives her a hug. He's about to leave but before he does he says to Jane, "Don't worry. I'll work it all out."

The next shot is Costello putting on white gloves and kicking down the door of Olivier Rey's house and when finding him Rey asks him, "You got the four million? You accept the new contract? You shouldn't have come." Costello says, "I'm leaving." In a strange edited scene you can see Costello pull out his hands without a gun; and yet when Rey quickly turns around and tries to shoot him; Costello magically already has a gun out and shoots him dead.

At the end of the film Costello now heads to the night club where Valerie is playing. As he walks in he has the front desk hold his hat as he takes a seat at the bar. The bartender of course recognizes him; as Valerie comes out and starts to play the piano. Costello slowly puts on his white gloves, and the bartender backs away; as Costello walks up to Valerie. They gaze at one another as she says to him, "Don't stay here." Costello then pulls out his gun and she asks, "Why Jef?" He answers, "I was paid to." Suddenly the inspector shoots Costello dead from behind and all the guests flee the club. After Costello is shot dead the inspector checks Costellos gun and he notices there were no rounds in the gun.

 

ANALYZE

Tone and style are everything with Le samouraï. Poised on the brink of absurdity, or a kind of attitudinizing male arrogance, Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film flirts with that macho extremism and slips over into dream and poetry just as we grow most alarmed. So the implacably grave coolness of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello is audaciously mannered, as he puts on white gloves for a killing and announces that for him “principle” is merely “habit.” (The film deserves one moment, one shot, of him alone in his room, when the impassive noirist suddenly collapses in unexplained laughter.) Whereas, as we see him stretched out on his bed, the source of a silent spiral of cigarette smoke, like a patient, tidy corpse-in-waiting, he is not just Delon, or some against-type Costello minus Abbott. He is the distilled essence of cinema’s solitary guns for hire, suspended between the somnambulant calm of Lee Marvin in Point Blank and the self-destructive dedication that guides Robert Bresson’s priest in Diary of a Country Priest.

And in that strange juxtaposition you have so much of Melville: the French Jew who changed his real name (Grumbach) to that of the New England author; the defiantly lone operator in postwar French cinema (for years, Melville had his own studio, which burned down during the shooting of Le samouraï; did all that cool inspire heat?); the assiduous admirer and imitator of American tropes; and the tough guy who could appreciate Jean Cocteau and Bresson as easily as he could Dashiell Hammett and Django Reinhardt. You can imagine Melville’s rapture (a spiritual condition, not just professional satisfaction) when he outlined the story to Delon, only to be interrupted by the actor after ten minutes with, “This story has no dialogue so far—I will do it.” And then, finally, in mute recognition of kindred feelings of honor, Delon revealed his own room to Melville, with a samurai sword as its only piece of decor and its omen of fate.

It has always been a vital French tradition to film the commonplace, the clouded ordinariness of the banlieue, and make it poetic; this is a motif that reaches from Louis Feuillade and Jean Vigo, through Marcel Carné and Cocteau, to Mel-ville, Georges Franju, and Jean-Luc Godard. It is the atmospheric that lets us know we are in a city very like Paris, but in the mindscape of dream, too. Consider the auto shop where Jef has new plates put on his stolen cars: it is a twilit alley on the edge of town, where clouds gather in the desolate sky, dogs bark, and the mechanic never speaks.

That stealthy treatment of place was evident in Melville’s early films—in Le silence de la mer as well as in the greatest Cocteau film ever made, Les enfants terribles (directed by Melville from Cocteau’s novel and screenplay). It is there in Bob le flambeur (such a threshold to the new wave) and, of course, it is there in Le samouraï, a film in which Henri Decaë’s elegant color scheme is obsessed with gray, white, and black, the hues of classic still photography. And stillness is everything in this film, just as its hero wants to be a pool untouched by ripple or tremor.

As Melville himself said, when asked to explain the curious detachment of his films and his minimal attempt to fabricate decor or underline the photography: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”

And sometimes that ease is problematic: some true admirers of Melville’s (like Bertrand Tavernier) complained that Le samouraï was nearly comically removed from French realities. “Why not?” Melville might ask, when that freedom allows us time to sink into the dream and absorb the many divergent ideas that exist in the simple claim: “Alain Delon is Jef Costello in Le samouraï.”

Take Delon first: the enigmatic angel of French film, only thirty-two in 1967, and nearly feminine. Yet so earnest and immaculate as to be thought lethal or potent. He was also close by then to the real French underworld: it was in the years right after Le samouraï that Delon and his ex-wife, Nathalie (his uncertain lover in the film, but looking like a sister), were caught up in real-life scandals of association with criminal circles. (And don’t forget that when Le samouraï was released in the U.S., after the sensation of The Godfather, in 1972, it was retitled The Godson!) Delon is not so much a good actor as an astonishing presence—no wonder he was so thrilled to realize that the thing Melville most required was his willingness to be photographed. As for “Jef,” it is American but bitten off and slightly futuristic; Jeff is also the name Robert Mitchum bears in Out of the Past. As for “Costello,” it could certainly be a reference to Frank Costello, the actual mobster. And then there is samouraï, a word that was far more novel and exotic in the 1960s, and a promise of American modes being seen through a glass of Japanese ritual.

What is a samurai? When he wears a fedora as crisp as glass and a pale trench coat that could have been sculpted by Brancusi? He is doomed. He is an icon out of his time. He is a hired killer, yet he is a last emblem of honor in a shabby world of compromise. He is a man who believes in tiny adjustments to the perfect shadow cast by the brim of his hat, who exults in the flatness with which he can utter a line, and who aspires to the last lovely funeral of brushes on a drummer’s cymbal. His essence is in timing, gesture, and glance. And he is as close to the eternal spirit of the poet as, say, Cocteau’s Orpheus.

I made the comparison earlier with John Boorman’s Point Blank and Lee Marvin. And I think that it is important. Nearly forty years after these two films were made, the crime film has gone through such lurid flights of exaggeration and stylization, and has succumbed to such terrible, unfelt violence, that they may seem nearly Etruscan or Greek in their cultural provenance. And that is largely because the two directors had such faith in the natural dreamscape of film, and such reverence for the codes of honor or perseverance that could make a criminal’s life seem heroic. Marvin, in Point Blank, and Delon, in Le samouraï, are immense cinematic forces who are hardly there or credible in literary or realistic terms. We may decide that both films are the last dream of their central characters. But then consider how rich they are in ambivalence and how much they say about our urge to experiment with the “other” life—the life of crime—through dream and film.

The story line of Le samouraï is intricate yet very simple, and quite predictable. Jef is doomed. Like us, he wonders why the nightclub pianist (Cathy Rosier) does not give him away, for she has seen him in the act. Does she love him? In a way, yes, but she is also a kind of Death figure who has selected him as Her next client. And She chose him earlier, as their two cars paused together at a traffic light. That pianist is a throwback (black, but wearing white; wearing black, but in a white chair) to the angel of death (Maria Casarès) in Orpheus.

Yet in its acting out, this “contract” ennobles and redeems Jef. It doesn’t matter that the story is slight and unmotivated. The movie can be followed, over and over again, like music, because its configurations are so mysterious, so averse to everyday explanation. Everything is in the playing or the enactment. Seen again now, Le samouraï looks like a film from an earlier age, one made at a time when great films were necessary (and regular), because they demonstrated and fulfilled the nature of the medium. Now that the medium is in ruin or chaos, Le samouraï looks as abstract, yet as beautiful and as endlessly worthy of study, as the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi. That which seemed fanciful has become an eternal and luminous lesson in how men behaved when they believed behavior mattered.

-David Thomson

Jef Costello acts pretty cold, detached and emotionless and you can see that from his empty apartment to the one relationship that he has with Jane (who was Alain Delon's real life wife) who supposedly loves him. Costello lives a pretty lonely and isolated life emotionally disconnecting himself from any people around him. He seems to only care about two things. His job, and getting paid for the job after its completed. The other woman, a black musician named Valerie who plays the piano in the nightclub, lies at the lineup and he know's she seen him after the murder. So why would she lie for him? Is she trying to protect him or the people who hired him?

Costello is prepared to die for the men who hired him but when they turn on him for being seen at the scene of the crime and risking exposure of them, they are now out to kill him; and he won't let that happen. Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai is a masterful noir gangster thriller that contains calm jazz music in the background as you follow a man trying to figure out why he was betrayed by the people who hired him, and a lot of directors have come out and said how Le Samourai was a huge influence with them growing up. Hong Kong director John Woo, who is one of the great action directors says that Le Samourai gave him many of his themes and ideas especially with his Hong Kong action classic The Killer. Chow Yun-Fat's character Jeffery Chow was obviously inspired by Alain Delon's Costello. The inspiration, or homage, is confirmed by the similarity in the character names. Woo acknowledged his influences by writing a short essay on Le Samouraï and Melville's techniques for the film's Criterion Collection DVD release. Jim Jarmusch also paid homage to Le Samourai with the 1999 crime-drama, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, starring Forest Whitaker as a meditative, loner assassin who lives by the bushido code. In the same manner that Jef Costello has a huge ring of keys that enables him to steal any vehicle, the hit-man Ghost Dog has an electronic "key" to break into luxury cars.

The elements in Le Samourai which include cops, hired assassins, chase scenes, the underworld, good and bad woman, killers with a heart, the code of the gangster/samurai have been done so many times in films before that in a way when you really think about it, the themes in the film aren't very original at all. The one thing that is original in this film and makes it stand out above all the others is the pace, style, and handle of the material. The color in the shots of the film are drained out with mostly greys and dark shadows and instead of scenes with mindless dialog there's several quiet moments that make the scene more intense. Most of the suspense and action comes from the facial expressions of the characters and what is happening on the screen, which gives this film more of an artistic feel then an artificial one.

Sometimes watching a movie with several explosions every few minutes or multiple gunfire fights going off all the time makes the film less suspenseful and the action less exciting. Less is always better and it's more exciting to wait for something to happen then to actually watch a movie where everything's happening all the time and you could really care less about any of it. The few actions scenes in this film work brilliantly because they pay off after long quite moments of tension. The dialogue in Le Samourai is sparse but the few sequences that do contain dialogue is memorable. For example:

"Nothing to say?"

"Not with a gun on me."

"Is that a principle?"

"A habit."

The director Jean-Pierre Melville was born Grumbach but renamed himself after the American novelist. He was a hero of the French resistance which his most personal film Army of Shadows is slightly based off of. After the war, by starting his own studio and making independent films on small budgets, he essentially pointed the way for the French New Wave. "I'm incapable of doing anything but rough drafts," he once said, but in fact "Le Samourai is as finished and polished as a film can be." Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the first that set a benchmark on French noir films of the late 50s to the 60s starting with his first classic Bob le Flambeur, about a gangster who's also an obsessive gambler. He also directed the drama Leon, Morin Priest about a young hansom priest who has an unspoken attraction for one of the women in a small town during WWII. Than comes Melville's most personal masterpiece and favorite film, the brilliant Army of Shadows which is about the French Resistance fighters against the Nazi Party. Last but not least is Le cercle rouge which is considered his final goodbye to the gangster crime genre which stars many of his original actors from his past crime films. French noir films became hugely popular in France around the mid 50's starting with Jacques Becker's Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, Jules Dassin's Rififi and Melville's Bob Le Flambeur. It's genre became an important staple in film noir as much as the American's contribution to the genre in the early 40's to the early 50's, and the great French actor and tough guy Jean Gabin became as legendary as Humphrey Bogart. At the end of the film Costello now heads to the night club where Valerie is playing. Costello slowly puts on his white gloves, and the bartender backs away; as Costello walks up to Valerie. They gaze at one another as she says to him, "Don't stay here." Costello then pulls out his gun and she asks, "Why Jef?" He answers, "I was paid to." Suddenly the inspector shoots Costello dead from behind and all the guests flee the club. After Costello is shot dead the inspector checks Costellos gun and he notices there were no rounds in the gun. What does this ending mean? At the end of the film Costello got a new contract to kill Valerie; but he just couldn't go through with it. I think he knew the cops were waiting for him at the club and he would rather die, then go on living the life he's been leading. In an interview with Rui Nogueira, Melville indicated that he had shot an alternate version of Jef's death scene. In the alternative ending, which is actually the original version as Melville had written in the script, Costello meets his death with a picture-perfect grin à la Delon. The scene was changed to its current form when Melville angrily discovered that Delon had already used a smiling death scene in another of his films; and still images of the smiling death exist. One of the coolest and jazziest gangster films of all time, Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai is all about tone and style. Based on a story of absurdity and a kind of male arrogance this film slips into poetry and machismo because of it's flair and gusto. Most people would agree Le Samourai is Melville's masterpiece; besides his more personal Army of Shadows. At the end of the film we wonder if Costello really loved Valerie or maybe she loved him. I believed Costello knew he was doomed from the start and this 'contract' that he received made him want to sacrifice himself; which in a way redeems his character. Le Samourai is one of the great unique French crime films, that's so calm, cool and unique, and in a time of CGI, explosions and wall to wall action; it feels more like a classic film from an earlier age.

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