Sabbath Reviews: Le samouraï (1967)
There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…
– Epigraph ascribed to the Bushidō
Le samouraï is often imitated and rarely done justice, yet still remains unknown by too large of a portion of the population. A movie of the late ’60s, this film combines the motif of the ronin with French gangster cinema and produces one of the coolest movies in a century. Film buffs applaud it, Criterion honored it, and now I’m going to do my best to convince you that if you’ve let this one slip: you need to watch it.
The very first shot of the film is of a large, sparsely decorated room occupied by hitman-for-hire Jef Costello and his pet bird. The composition of the shot is absolutely perfect and the length it is held — for the duration of the opening credits — immediately sets upon you an impression. The above quote is displayed during this time to help set the tone and it’s a welcomed addition, but without it we already know this man is a lone wolf (referenced later in the film).
Costello, played by Alain Delon, is the picture of cool. The coat, the hat, the youthful face and that dead, stone-faced stare of his make him amazing to watch in action. He’s a man of few words. In fact, it takes about 10 minutes before we get our first bit of dialogue in this movie and the rest of the film is short on dialogue, particularly in scenes with Jef. He rarely talks and everything he says seems to carry more weight because of it. Any movie focused around a charismatic professional owes a lot of thanks to Delon’s performance here.
Jef Costello is a professional — we watch him steal a car, see the ring of keys which he tries one at a time until one fits — and watch as he constructs a perfect alibi for the night’s contract killing. He’s perfect, yet when we watch Costello, it happens to be on the night that things fall apart on him. Yet, just from 10-15 minutes of watching his cool demeanor and the manner of which he goes about his day, we feel like this is the first time in a long string of successful kills that things have gone wrong for Jef. We have no actual proof of this. The film doesn’t start with a reel of his exploits. His demeanor and character are enough to convince us.
Therein lies the central plot to the film as after he completes his kill, he is witnessed and pulled into a police line-up with a large amount of other suspects. He had earlier gone to a woman’s house, one who obviously has affection for him despite his inability or lack of desire to show its return, and told her simply he was there from 7:15 – 1:45. She understood and alibi’d him for the crime, but the investigator sees right through it. Even after only one of the witnesses positively ID’d Jef and the rest claimed it was definitely not him, he still had a gut instinct that their killer was getting away.
It should also be mentioned it’s at this time we hear Jef’s criminal record: it’s clean.
The pianist at the club is the last witness to claim she never saw him, despite being the one who most obviously recognized him. This comes into play later, but it’s not important to mention now.
The hitman leaves police custody and eventually goes to collect his payment where he is reminded that he allowed himself to be brought in by the police. Jef informs the money man that it amounted to nothing and for his efforts, gets shot. He manages to escape.
His former employers now want him rubbed out and the police still think he’s the man who committed the crime. Jef bounces back and forth between the solitude of his important and searching for leads on how to get to the people who burned him. His cool, externally, never fades but internally he’s a mess. He is alone in the world, self-imposed no-less, like the caged bird he keeps in his apartment. It’s fascinating to watch him barrel through the events that have unfolded in his life all the while keeping so disconnected from them. His look never fades, even when one of the people he’s after finds him in his apartment and holds a gun to his head.
Le samouraï is beautiful to watch. The character alone is worth the price of admission and worthy of having this film shown to aspiring screen writers. Not only that though, this film is magnificently shot and decorated. It should be shown to would-be filmmakers as an exercise in composition, colors, lighting, camera movement, stage decoration — the whole kitten caboodle. Some of the shots are just stunning and the choice of camera locations in some situations feel unique despite the film being over forty years old.
I often tread the line between film snob (as a student of film, I have to try to be) and casual, dumb film lover (I can’t help it — I love some shitty movies). At times the latter wins out over the former, or makes me lazy and stops me from digging through the older films — let alone the older, foreign films. I’m glad I finally decided to pop this one in and give it a try. I wasn’t disappointed. So many films want to be this one and you can point out the films influenced by each little thing in this movie as you watch. Hell, Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai is pretty much a remake of this. Luc Besson, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino owe a lot to this movie as well. Do yourself a favor and see where it all began.
“I never lose. Never really.”
– Jef Costello