If you missed the first edition of From the Back Row, it’s going to be an occasional editorial where I’ll take a look at films that I feel don’t get the recognition, attention, or discussion that they deserve – with hopes of inspiring people that haven’t seen the films to check them out. This edition we’re going to take a look at a personal favorite of mine, the 1967 Jean-Pierre Melville directed French film Le Samouraï.
Starring Alain Delon, whose filmography contain films by legends such as Melville, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, Le Samouraï is the reflective, deliberately-paced tale of a perfectionist hitman named Jef Costello – a man of honor, pride, and principles who abides by a strict, methodical code in every aspect of his life.
The film starts off with a long take of Costello in bed, reflectively smoking a cigarette, before a line of text from the Japanese samurai Book of Bushido appears on the screen: “There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.” With that and the callous look in Costello’s eyes, we understand what he is, who he is – a loner with an obsessive code of honor who is a part of a twisted world that he’ll never truly belong to.
The film then follows Costello on a job and his carefully planned, detail-obsessed ways are apparent – that is, until he goes to the nightclub where he shoots the owner and is seen by the club’s beautiful pianist Valérie. As fate would have it though, when he is picked up for a police line-up, the combination of Costello’s planned alibi and the denial by Valérie that he is the killer sets him free – even if the Police Superintendent isn’t convinced of his innocence. Soon after, Costello attempts to collect the money from his employer who attempts to kill him. With both the police and his employer on his tail, the prideful Costello refuses to roll over or cut his losses as he gets deeper and deeper into a hole that even his perfectionist, clever ways can’t seem get him out of.
While this has inspired the likes of Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Woo’s The Killer and Besson’s Leon: The Professional, this movie is still its own breed – one that I’ve still been unable to compare anything to. For some, it will be a tough pill to swallow, as there is very little violence and action – something that most would expect from a movie about a hitman. What left me so impressed with the film was how similar it seemed Melville was to his film’s protagonist – every single shot seems perfectly crafted and planned, the unhurried pace so deliberate, the jazzy score intentionally going hand-in-hand with the atmosphere Melville created. Looking from afar, there isn’t a whole lot to the premise, but Melville creates such suspense and mood with all of the subtleties and Alain Delon captures the essence of Jef Costello so perfectly (he gets my vote for coolest movie hitman ever) that once you delve deeper and begin to interpret and pick the film apart, you’ll be spending hours dissecting every single frame, every moment. While I won’t give it away here, the ending is one that will stick with you for days afterwards, one that you’ll mull over in your mind over and over until you finally come to your own conclusion. Then you’ll realize you’re still not entirely sure what you think.
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Jonathan is a writer and teacher constantly in pursuit of his fortune and glory. In the meantime, he graciously volunteers his genius to the internet, providing his insight on cinema and showering lessons of life upon all of those who stumble into the third row.