Le Samourai

tn_samouraiLE SAMOURAI is a movie I’ve meant to see for years. It just comes up so often when you’re into the shit I’m into. It was a big inspiration for THE KILLER and GHOST DOG, and probly THE AMERICAN, and since it’s both a crime movie and an instigator of that French wave that was new at the time it appeals to a broad range of movie buffs. People who wouldn’t normally watch too many French movies from the ’60s might watch it because it’s about a hitman, and vice versa. (‘Vice versa’ is Latin by the way, not French.)

So after hearing about it all these years it’s kind of a surprise still, ’cause it turns out I got the wrong impression. The way people talk about it I thought it was gonna be way more arty, way more slow and difficult, way more pretentious. But it’s a pretty straightforward crime movie in my opinion. It’s not fast-paced by modern standards, but it doesn’t have much fat on it either. Just alot of quiet. And a bird chirping.

mp_samouraiJef Costello (Alain Delon) is a killer hired by an unknown party to kill a night club owner. He walks in with his cool trenchcoat and fedora, gets into the back room, shoots the guy and leaves. He has an alibi set up, but the cops pick him up at a poker game to be in a lineup. A bunch of witnesses saw him at the club, including a pretty jazz pianist (Caty Rosier) who actually saw him go in the office and heard the gunshot. We know he’s the guy who did it, but did anybody get a good enough look at him to be sure? Or if they did, are they going to admit it?

It’s interesting, the lineups in 1967 France don’t work the way we’re familiar with. They actually have them in the same room. The suspect sees the witnesses and hears what they say. Doesn’t seem like a good system. Could lead to trouble. I hope they’ve changed it since then.

(Of course, men didn’t all wear hats in 1967 France either Melville just thought it would be cool if they did, I think. This isn’t trying to be realistic. But decades and continents removed it seems reasonable that that’s what it would’ve been like then and there. So I’m gonna go ahead and believe it.)

Jef is a stoic individual. He lives alone except for his chirping pet bird. He has a hooker girlfriend he goes to (played by Delon’s wife Nathalie), but possibly more as an alibi than even as a hooker. When he manages to (SPOILER) get cleared and released by the cops the main inspector still suspects him ’cause he’s never seen anybody handcuffed for 48 hours without saying a word. His calm badassness gives him away. If he would’ve whined about missing the poker game and been a baby they probly wouldn’t have suspected him.

You’ve probly noticed by now that despite the title it’s not about a Japanese guy with a sword. The samurai thing isn’t that big a deal. There’s just a fake quote from a Bushido text at the beginning about the solitude of the samurai. I guess the idea is since he’s such a lone wolf he’s like Lone Wolf minus the Cub. His gun is his sword, his coat is his robe, his hat is his topknot, and oh shit I just realized (SPOILS) he basically commits sepukku at the end. I guess maybe there is something there.

I like how procedural the movie is, going through processes in detail. You see how the police investigation works, how cars were stolen in those days, how a bug is planted. There are many great moments: when it looks like he’s washing his hands in the restroom and he turns around and has gloves on, the look on the bartender’s face when the guy who was released from the lineup yesterday is sitting at his bar today, the way he knows someone is about to attack him by looking in his bird’s cage.

For some reason I thought the movie was gonna be in black and white, but it’s in color with a great washed out look, grainy film, shot on location, walls always textured like they’ve been brushed over with charcoal. And that pianist is something to look at too. I looked it up and found out she didn’t really play. She was a model and did release an album at one point, but I think she just sang. Good thing because I was getting ready to invent time travel and have a crush on her, that would’ve been time consuming in my opinion. Not a pianist, though. A total fraud.

So now I finally know what people are talking about when they compare GHOST DOG to this one. The homage is obvious. In fact it made me wonder if Jarmusch was re-watching LE SAMOURAI one day and started thinking it would be cool if the samurai shit was taken more literally and this guy actually used the bird to deliver messages like in ancient times. Costello has his bird, Ghost Dog has his pigeons. LE SAMOURAI has its Bushido quote at the beginning, GHOST DOG has its Hakagure quotes all throughout. Both are hitmen, both have quiet, real time-ish scenes of stealing cars, both have methods of changing license plates. I even think the sort of prog-rockish keyboard music might’ve influenced the more eerie wind-chime type sounds of RZA’s classic GHOST DOG score.

But GHOST DOG is hardly a remake. The plots and themes are entirely different. LE SAMOURAI doesn’t have any kind of master-samurai relationship, it doesn’t bring up ideas about communication, literature, outmoded codes or aging criminal empires left behind by progress or any of the other topics I always think about when I watch GHOST DOG. The villains he’s up against are more clearly threatening. He has less friends. He doesn’t read books or eat ice cream. I don’t think he cares about his bird as much as Ghost Dog cares about his, it’s more of a coal-mine type situation, a watchbird. LE SAMOURAI is more straight ahead. It’s the minimalism, the simplicity that makes it great.

Anyway, it’s good. I wish there was a sequel called LE NINJA where he was more of a sneaky asshole type of killer.


This entry was posted on Sunday, February 6th, 2011 at 12:05 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Le Samourai”

  1. Vern – The fact you never saw this before really surprises me.

  2. This is the single greatest film of all time. (Along with a bunch of others, of course.)

  3. Love to hear your thoughts on LE DOULOS or ARMY OF SHADOWS.

  4. Gotta admit, I’m also surprised you haven’t seen it until now. The way you’d mention it sometimes always gave me the impression that you had seen it.

    Anyway, it’s good to finally read your thoughts on it. Can’t imagine anyone not loving this film. One of the most influential movies ever, yet I still meet a lot of “film buffs” who’ve never even heard of it.

    Ah well, I guess we all have that one film we should have seen ages ago but never did.

  5. Yes, like others I always just assumed a Vern appreciation for this. Assumptions are for assholes. The most inspirational moment of this flick for me (among manymanymany, and maybe I’ve just forgotten many more) is when we’re inside the Blonde’s apartment… There’s a knock on her door. She asks ‘Who is it?’ There is no response. So, she knows it’s him… (Someone else would have wasted a word responding). ‘Jef?’ She opens door and he enters without saying a word. It sounds like a little thing but, as he’s defined only by what he does and what he doesn’t say, I think this awesome. Door knocking in the middle of the night, hot girl asks who it is, dude says nothing; Shit, that’s gotta be Jef Costello. That’s how cool he is. Alain Delon. He was giving a cursory nod to our rules just by knocking.

  6. Vice Versa, that was a great film.

  7. billydeethrilliams

    February 6th, 2011 at 6:46 am

    The hitman with the most keys is also one of the most badass.

  8. GHOST DOG, THE KILLER, and THE AMERICAN, for sure, but I’m amazed nobody’s mentioned the most notorious LE SAMOURAI homage of them all: Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER! This was a huge inspiration on that film and Hill over all. It was ground zero for hitman movies and pretty much created the idea of the hit man as this elite, monastic super-warrior–the rock star of the criminal underworld. You can trace stuff like the original Charles Bronson THE MECHANIC and COLLATERAL back to it as well. And it’s stylized production design may have influenced THE CONFORMIST, REPO MAN, STREETS OF FIRE, DICK TRACY, ect…

    This may have been the first film to self-conciously and deliberately present it’s characters as archetypes–The Hit Man, The Girl, The Detective–or at least, the first widely seen one to do so. In that sense, it can be argued to have been one of the foundation stones of action movies in general.

  9. Wiki says the English title of movie is “Cop Out”… Well played.

    I know it’s come up somewhere, but is there an official Vern review of Tokyo Drifter?

  10. I’m going to have to revisit this one. It’s been years but I remember really diggin’ it. I recall a cat and mouse chase through the city that reminded me of the FRENCH CONNECTION in a great way.

    As far as french crime thrillers go, Vern, please check out RIFIFI from Jules Dassin. Probably the coolest caper film you’ve never seen. I hear it’s going to be remade so see it quick while it’s still cool.

  11. This RIFIFI?


    UN FLIC is also well worth checking out. Another Melville / Delon crime joint, Richard Crenna also turns up in it.

  12. No, not that one. The other RIFIFI. The one that no one has seen but me. I highly recommend it.

  13. Very cool film. If you like this and Le Cercle Rouge, check out Army of Shadows. It’s a French resistance drama that’s got Melville’s eye and chilled-out affect. The Criterions also have good special features showing JPM’s unusual character. (And didn’t he invent the book that he quotes from at the start of Le Samourai?)

  14. Yes Inspector Li. He also made up the quote attributed to the Buddha at the beginning Le Cercle Rouge (which improves any epigraph in my opinion).

  15. We have a lot to thank Alain Delon for, not least for starting Charles Bronson’s career as the toughest actor in the world with the über cool Adieu l’ami (1968).

  16. UN FLIC would rank as one of Melville’s best, I think, if it weren’t for that damn heist sequence where cheap, silly looking models are used for the helicopter and the train. It’s such a great, perfectly modulated crime film before and after that scene, but that one part is so embarrassingly shitty looking that it takes you completely out of the movie.

  17. Great review Vern, I’m glad you’re going back to the roots of Badass Cinema. Just a little anal-retentive correction though: the French New Wave was in the mid-50s, and LE SAMOURAI was hardly an “instigator” of it. However, Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR was a huge, HUGE inspiration and most definitely instigated the French New Wave. Do yourself a favor and check that one out, perhaps on a double bill with the Nick Nolte remake THE GOOD THIEF which is not on the same level in my opinion.

  18. Sorry, make that “late-50s”. We need an edit function.

  19. Dan Prestwich — really? I love that scene in LE CERCLE ROUGE and didn’t think it looked very shitty. I mean the effects are a bit dated I suppose, but in a good way, like spotting a matte painting in a Hitchcock movie.

    CC — Just watched THE DRIVER for the first time recently (holy oversight by the way, what a picture!) and noticed the LE SAMOURAI influence right away.

    Glad you finally saw this one Vern, one of my all time favorite movies. From what I’ve seen of Melville he can do no wrong. Check out LE CERCLE ROUGE, LE DOULOS, UN FLIC and LE DEUXIEMME SOUFFLE if you liked this one, they are all in roughly the same league of all time badass cinema in my humble opinion. ARMY OF SHADOWS is also one of his best, but it’s not a crime flick.

  20. Dan – oops, I mean I love that scene in UN FLIC.

  21. unfortunately I haven’t seen this movie yet either, but I have seen GHOST DOG, which is excellent and was referenced in my favorite anime of all time (the messenger pigeon thing)

  22. I second all the recommendations for Le doulos, Le deuxième souffle, Le cercle rouge, Un flic – also Army of Shadows, which is about the French Resistance, but Melville shot it EXACTLY like one of his gangster movies.

    As for Ghost Dog – have you seen Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), about yakuza hitmen competing to be Number One Hitman? Because Jim Jarmusch “pays homage to” least two scenes from that in Ghost Dog. He doesn’t even try to be original! which I always thought was strange, because surely half the fun of making a hitman movie would be having to come up with interesting new ways for the hitman to kill his target.

    All of Suzuki’s yakuza movies are worth checking out, by the way. I’m particularly fond of Tokyo Drifter.

    Another film-maker worth checking out if you like Melville is the Hong Kong director and producer Johnnie To. The Mission, Exiles, Breaking News, Mad Detective, Drug Wars, Motorway, Accident etc are all superb.

    ETA I see you’ve already reviewed a lot of these. Sorry, late to the party.

  23. Anne – Those are all directors that I’ve seen a few from and enjoyed enough that I’m foolish to not have dipped in further. I appreciate the recommendations.

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