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Rewind: 1967 in Film – Le Samouraï

I think every film deserves a certain benefit of the doubt. By that I mean, you should always be prepared to watch a film through to the end, before coming to conclusions. There may be some instances when a film either repulses or offends you in such a way that you stop watching it, or walk out of the theater. I myself have done this on rare occasions. In the vast majority of instances, however, I think you need to give a film quite a bit of leeway until you reach the closing credits.

If there is any film where you simply must stay through until the end, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samourai would certainly be it.

Now, of course, I will not be divulging what happens in the film’s ending to avoid any overt spoilers. There may be many – like myself until very recently – who have never seen this fine French film. Suffice it to say that I was completely enthralled by the ending, and the ways it made me reconsider everything that had come before.

This film tells the tale of a modern-day samurai named Jef Costello. He’s a hired hitman, and we meet him as he is about to go out on another job. The film’s opening epigraph reads – “there is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle…perhaps…”

We witness this solitude right away in a surreal opening where we watch as Costello lays in bed next to his chirping caged bird. A masterful dolly zoom commences which creates the effect of us actually being farther away from Costello though the camera remains in the same room. This opening does what any great opening must do – set up the tone of the film.

This is a film about isolation. That theme is evoked masterfully through the lead performance by Alain Delon as Costello. His face is completely blank throughout much of the film. In a few rare instances, we see some emotion. But much of the film is filled with moments that cause us to wonder what if anything is behind that blank stare.

We watch as Costello methodically carries out a murder, yet doesn’t seem to be perturbed by the fact that multiple people see him leaving the scene of the crime. He is even brought in for questioning and made to stand before the witnesses who saw him. Costello took great care to plant an alibi with his lover, Jane (Nathalie Delon). But it seems that even an alibi cannot keep all these witnesses from recognizing him.

We may accept the fact that a few of them mis-remember the situation and are not able to recognize him amid all the chaos. But when the piano player, Valerie (Cathy Rosier), who looked him in the eye just after committing the murder says that he is not the culprit, we know that something must be up.

The way Melville unravels this plot is quite impressive. The film’s pace could certainly be described as contemplative. It allows moments to linger and holds shots for much longer than most modern films.

Both the pacing and the lead performance make me think that this film was a major influence on Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece Drive, which is one of my personal favorite films. Both films consider the natures of their main characters who are hired hands for criminals. Both films are slowly paced, and both films find creative ways to use that pacing.

This is exactly why I began my review the way I did. As modern moviegoers, we are so used to having films move quickly from shot to shot and scene to scene. I myself sometimes get fidgety and anxious. And this is why I am so thankful for films like Le Samourai that remind me to linger and wait. Let the film work itself out instead of trying to push it forward through sheer force of will. Often, this patient approach to moviegoing unearths treasures that restlessness will not afford.

Though I will not say anything thematic or plot-related about the film’s ending, I must say that it affected me in ways that very few closing scenes have. It causes you to completely reassess everything you’ve seen to that point, and it is an incredible testament to the power of the image. With one shot, Melville communicates so much that pulls in so many smaller details from the rest of the film that cause you to consider everything you’ve seen. It is masterful filmmaking.

So, if you have never seen this film, I highly encourage you to give it a go. And please – watch to the end.

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