Movies You Might Have Missed: Le Samourai

Title: Le Samouraï
Release Date: 1967
Rating: N/A
Length: 101 minutes
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon
Language: French
Country: France

Le Samourai seems to come right out and explain itself at the very beginning. It’s not entirely the case, but let’s leave that to one side for now. It opens on a nearly empty room with a bed, a table, a birdcage on the table, and a bird in the cage being the only prominent objects in view before two tall windows. After a few credits, one notices the man who has been lying on the bed when he begins to smoke a cigarette. After a minute or two the credits end and words appear on the screen to describe the immense solitude of a samurai.

Il n’y a pas de plus profonde solitude que celle du samouraï si ce n’est celle d’un tigre dans la jungle… peut-être…

The inevitable and immediate assumption must be that this is intended to refer to or describe the man on the bed (Alain Delon). He gets up, looks at a thick collection of half bank notes (they have been cut, or torn, in half across the middle, top to bottom at a slight angle) and then hides them in his fireplace. He puts on his hat and trenchcoat in a very precise and deliberate manner and goes out to the street where he steals a car. He is precise, deliberate, and careful in his movements, but daring in his actions. He steals it under the nose of the traffic cop writing parking tickets along the street.

He drives to a rundown, semi-rural, semi-industrial part of Paris and turns in to a garage where he pays a man for new license plates, registration, and a gun in what is quite obviously an illicit exchange. The bills in his apartment, his behavior, his theft, his purchases now fall sufficiently into place to allow some surmises as to his profession.

Ten minutes in, we hear the first words spoken when he arrives at a considerably nicer apartment than his own and the woman (Nathalie Delon) who lives there calls him by name: Jef Costello. He tells her that she is to say he has been with her from about 7pm to about 2am, but she counters that it can be no later than 1:45 since she expects a gentleman at 2am. She clearly is devoted to Costello, but he seems cold and indifferent to her.

Costello leaves and makes some other preparations before driving his stolen car to a jazz club. He enters, uses the restroom to avoid the hat check, slips along the wall to the hall at the back, puts on white gloves and enters an office. The man at the desk asks who he is (“Doesn’t matter”) and what he wants (“To kill you”) and Costello shoots him as the man goes for a gun in a drawer of his desk.

It is at this point that things begin to spiral out of Costello’s control. Betrayal rears its head, loyalties are tested, the cops get on his trail and Costello must fight very hard to avoid the danger closing in on every hand.

Despite this, he maintains not just his cool, but his equanimity and his equilibrium in the face of ever mounting peril. The film builds to a climax that may not be what one would expect. Melville, as a writer and director, liked ambiguous endings. He wanted his viewers to leave with some uncertainty; perhaps even a little confused. Unlike, say, Inception, this movie doesn’t ever leave one in doubt about what’s happening. At the end we know exactly what Costello has done, the doubt we leave with is because we are not fully able to say why he has done it.

I’ve certainly not done justice to the greatness of this movie. The acting, directing, the story are all marvelous. This is a movie with a clean, spare feel and tightly edited. There are a dozen other important plot points and twists I’ve not included, but even then this still doesn’t feel confusing or bloated. At the end, we’re left with the man with which we began: le samouraï. Costello has a code, he is a resolute man who does exactly what he intends, but his motivations remain uncertain and mysterious.

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