LE SAMOURAI (1967)

BUSHIDO LITE

This film has the indelible reputation of being a classic French film Noir; as being the inspiration for John Woo's THE KILLER, and Jim Jarmusch's GHOST DOG, and most certainly influenced Jean Reno in THE PROFESSIONAL, aka LEON. It, in turn, was probably influenced by Alan Ladd's premiere role as "Raven" in THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Director Jean-Pierre Melville was a veteran of several French crime films. This one was clearly his best. It was released in America in 1972 under the title, THE GODSON.

This is a very dark tale of a meticulous assassin living very secluded and alone in a rundown apartment house; inconspicuous, hiding in plain sight, a Spartan existance, a monk's simplicity and absolute dedication to his vocational choice. There is only one spark of life in his gray domicile...a small bird in a dirty cage. This is a color film, but most of it is shot in deep shadow, and at night; gray to black. In that sense, it does have a real Noir feel to it.

The film has been so well received, and is held in such high esteem, somehow I , as a first time viewer, expected more from it. The lexicon of assassin crime films is lengthy, so one longed to see something new, fresh, and original; something truly connected to the samurai or yakuza roots. There was an established sense of pervading doom, of fatalistic events, as we watched Alain Delon's character Jef Costello maneuvering himself into tragedy. But for me, the primary weakness of the film was Delon himself. His matinee good looks, his rumpled Bogart-like raincoat, his strained attempts at coolness...seemed wrong and off-center.

I really needed to see toughness, not stiffness and effeminate posing. I needed to see Yves Montand or Gerard Depardieu as Costello. Someone with a lived-in face; deeply lined and chiseled, and the weight of life's weariness in his slumped shoulders, and real violence springing from a killer's sinews; an explosiveness, a Lee Marvin lunge...not the awkward shuffling of Delon's pretenses. I needed to see a propensity for pain and violence behind his eyes, real anger predicated on a misspent life, manifesting itself in the destruction of other carbon units. Death. I needed to see Death in his eyes, the result of countless killings spread out from that moment to the horizon, so many Costello had lost count, even lost the need for counting; the coldness of a professional mechanic, the blank icy stare of the zero guilt psychopath; and I needed to sense fear induced merely by his penetrating stare. I think I wanted to see Costello sitting in a sweaty T-shirt, cleanin! g his weapons lovingly, like Bruce Willis in THE LAST MAN STANDING, or Christopher Walken in THE DOGS OF WAR. I longed to witness the bushido connection to Costello, and the samurai appreciation of art and nature...but with Delon what I received was just a vacuous state of disbelief, an actor trying hard to set his jaw. There was no whisper of Kurosawa, no Mifune stare, no Nakadai burst of pure violence...there was just Alain Delon posing for posters, standing prettily in shadows, and prancing in and out of stolen Citroens

Bar Owner: Who are you?
Costello: It doesn't matter.
Bar Owner: What do you want?
Costello: To kill you.
(shoots him)

Even that scene lacked the rogue wolf quality it needed. It was like watching Paul Reubens shoot someone with a water pistol.

Gunman: Nothing to say?
Costello: Not with a gun on me.
Gunman: Is that a principle?
Costello: A habit.

A verbal exchange that should have come as easy as the next breath, just a matter-of-fact. Delon delivered the lines like he was auditioning for Le Cage Aux Folles.

Nathalie Delon as Jane LaGrange had some good moments. Married to Alain Delon, this was her film debut. Her scene with the wily police superintendent, played by Roger Fradet, was very good. Her character's toughness, this beautiful woman caught up in the world of call girls and gangsters, mere inches from a descent into prostitution, came through clearly; also what appeared as geniune affection for the rake Costello.

Jane: (to Costello) I like it when you come around, because it reminds me that you need me.
Later, at the police station.
Superintendent: Don't you love him?
Jane: No.
Superintendent: Really? I'd have said you did. Laying yourself on the line for him like that. I thought you must love him.
Jane: You're not the psychologist you imagined. If I understand you right. I will have no problems if I perjure myself. But if I insist on telling the truth, then I can expect trouble. Am I right?
Superintendent: Not quite. Because the truth isn't what you say, it is what I say...despite the methods that I am obligated to employ.

Fradet, as the Chief Inspector was appropriately driven, prissy, and likewise meticulous; an excellent counterpoint and foil to Costello. Cathy Rosier, as Valerie, the jazz pianist, hit all the right notes; kind of like a black French Keely Smith. Her decision not to finger Costello, whom she clearly recognized in the lineup, seemed to imply her deeper involvement in the complexity of the murderous plot.

Costello: Why say that you did not recognize me?
Valerie: Why kill Marty.
Costello: I was to be paid.
Valerie: What had he done to you?
Costello: Not a thing. I didn't know him. I met him for the first and last time 24 hours ago.

The film has been called," beautiful, sad, and very very cool,"...le crime hot, I guess. The music itself, considering the genre, was a bit pedestrian. We needed some le jazz hot to fully punctuate the action. There were a lovely lot of triple crosses and plot twists, but it was never clear if Valerie's name was on Costello's second contract. When Jef returned to the jazz singers apartment, and he encountered the mid-level boss, and eliminated him as reprisal...was this a random act, or his first faltering step in his pre-planned walk to doom? Watching the bird in the cage at Costello's rathole of an apartment molting and dying, seemed an effective visual symbol for the killer's plight.

For me, one frustration was that the gendarmes seemed to be able to dog his tracks, bug his apartment, and monitor his movements a little too easily. This was supposed to be a tale of a hardened professional killer, a man who thrived on danger. Did Costello know that he was walking into a trap at the climatictic nightclub scene? Perhaps. He did unload his pistol before he strolled in. But was his life, his very existence so without meaning that he would sacrifice it before he could exact the full measure of punishment on his betrayers? Maybe. In the film's final flickers, we realize that we have seen a classic, much appreciated, and much imitated, but it was a shame that it also had an empty ineffectual heart in its chest.

I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars.
Glenn Buttkus
Teacher, Actor, Writer.