Le SamouraÏ (1967) & Out of the Past (1947)

100le_samouraiThe French again! Jean-Pierre Melville again! An influential film, again! Where will this all end?

Well, this is about as close to binge-watching as I get.

Once more I find myself paying for my ass-backwards journey into cinema; I’ve already seen most of the movies directly inspired by  Le Samourai, rendering it less fresh and impressive than it might have been had my movie-watching habits been more refined in the early part of my life.  Regrets like that are pretty inane, however, since my life has mostly been a journey from the rural to the increasingly urban. I was lucky to have landed in a small city with access to a PBS station when I was only 13 or 14, coinciding with a series of “Classics of World Cinema” or somesuch. That got me even more hooked on movies, but at that time – 1972 or 73 – other options were extremely limited.

I’ve always looked older than I actually am, so I managed to get into some movie screenings at the nearby college, which is where I saw King Kong for the first time (on the big screen, luckily). But again, very limited options. VCRs didn’t appear on the scene until I was in college, and then the software was still exceedingly commercial, even during the big VHS boom. It was all barbarians, boobs, blood and beasts, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, and I ate it up with a spoon. I had to special order videotapes of Rashomon and Yojimbo – such fare was still rare, even after I moved to the Big City. It got better. I discovered mail order and laserdiscs, which catered to a more sophisticated clientele, shall we say.

samourai-1967-01-gSo it’s no small wonder I saw The Killer before I saw Le Samourai. It is also a matter of no small wonder that in these times, I can bloody well watch Le Samourai whenever I damned well please. There is a lot to despise about these Modern Times, but there is a lot to be thankful for, too.

So now the trick is to find something significant to say about a well-respected movie that is almost as old as I.

In case you’re as cinema-deficient as myself: Alain Delon is Jef Costello, a preternaturally calm hitman living a spartan existence in Paris. Jef accepts a contract on the owner of a nightclub, and successfully carries it out, after engineering a complex two-part alibi involving his former lover (Nathalie Delon), an unsuspecting customer of said lover, and a hotel room of card-playing cronies. There are several eyewitnesses who saw Jef leave the scene of the shooting, but the one who confronted him face-to-face – the club’s star attraction (Cathy Rosier) – intriguingly does not finger him in the ensuing police line-up.

le-samourai-01There are two complications: the first is Jef’s mysterious employer, who panics when Jef is picked up in a wide police dragnet, and orders Jef killed. The other is that the Commissioner in charge of the investigation (François Périer) feels Jef’s alibi is too airtight, and starts devoting more and more manpower to bring pressure to bear on the young assassin.

The movie’s title is not mere affectation – Jef goes about his work with a competence and inner stillness reminiscent of those earlier warriors (significantly, the title of the original novel by Joan McLeod was The Ronin, a masterless samurai). The uniform has changed: a snappy raincoat, a fedora with a carefully-corrected brim, white cotton gloves for the wet work. What Jef finds, however, is that all this is useless against the massed might of practically an entire police department, and a maddeningly inconsistent employer who sends the same man who tried to kill him to apologize and offer a new contract. Jef will try to plumb exactly what is going on, to little avail. He is an impressive warrior, but a terrible detective. Upon finding that his lover is being harassed by the police to recant his alibi, Jef makes his final decision and promises her he will sort everything out. He does this by killing the feckless employer and carrying out his last assignment with an unloaded gun, insuring the pursuing police will gun him down.

Film_306w_LeSamurai_originalLe Samouraï is perhaps the height of the French New Wave’s appropriation of and stylization of popular American film noir and gangster tropes; if one looks askance at the commissioner’s increasing use of manpower and taxpayer money to pursue a man on a mere hunch (and fortunately for him, that hunch is correct), then it is also useful to realize that this story is in no way meant to be realistic. Melville ignores current fashion, making the movie timeless. JFK had put paid to men’s habitual wearing of hats earlier in the decade, yet everyone here still wears them, just as in the American movies that inspired it.

Le Samouraï at Amazon

out_of_the_past_1947Even though little of it can really be called new to my jaded cinema eyes, it is useful to examine one of those inspirational movies: the Jacques Tourneur-directed 1947 classic Out of the Past.

In this, another Jeff (Robert Mitchum), the owner of a gas station in a small California town, is confronted by Joe (Richard Webb), a man in a tellingly dark trenchcoat and hat, who knew Jeff back when and insists he come to a meeting with a former employer. Jeff’s calm life as a working joe and his budding romance with local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) is suddenly upended, and he confesses to Ann his past life as a detective, hired by a mobster, Whit (Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman who shot him and stole $40,000 before vanishing.

2447041_origIn an extended flashback, we find that Jeff tracked the woman, Kathie (Jane Greer) to Acapulco, where he finds out why Whit “Just wanted her back”. He falls in love with her “like a chump”, and runs away with her to California. Whit hires Jeff’s old partner to track him down, resulting in a fist fight at the lovebirds’ cabin, during which Kathie shoots his partner in cold blood and leaves him there to take the rap. Jeff buries the body, and finds a bank book that proves that Kathie’s denials of stealing the money from Whit were false.

Now that Whit has found Jeff – and, we discover, Kathie is once more under the mobster’s roof – the affable gangster wants Jeff to do one more job for him, by way of atonement. It involves stealing some paperwork that would cause Whit to serve time for tax evasion, but Jeff begins to perceive it is all a spiteful plot to frame him for murder, with his former love Kathie as an all-too-willing accomplice.

past1Tourneur was one of the top directors for filming this sort of story, and the gorgeous black-and-white photography of Nicholas Murusaca provides visual evidence of the contrast between the wide-open spaces of Jeff’s new life and the slow entrapment and claustrophobia of his return to the Big City and attempted manipulation by everyone he meets. A fine bunch of actors make good use of a script by Geoffrey Homes from his own novel Build My Gallows High, which supplies a pleasing amount of dimensionality to some pretty stock characters. It’s obvious that Kathie really does care for Jeff, but panic for her own survival causes her to make some poor, even murderous choices, making her a much more satisfying Femme Fatale than many.

Kirk Douglas Out Of the PastKirk Douglas, in only his second movie, makes Whit a charming, smiling fellow with a nicely understated violent undertow. My absolute favorite moment in the flick happens when Jeff is in his hotel room in Acapulco, packing to run away with Kathie. There is a knock at the door, and Jeff opens it, expecting his new gal – but it’s Whit and Joe the gunsel. Douglas flashes that 40,000 watt smile and says, “I hate surprises, myself. Wanna just shut the door and forget about it?”

And if there is anything to take delight in, it’s in these movies’ snappy banter, and Out of the Past has a ton of it. Le Samouraï, on the other hand, is proud of its brevity – the first ten minutes of the movie are utterly devoid of dialogue.

ootp1The other trademark of these movies is an inexorable sense of doom following the protagonist about. You keep hoping for both Jeffs to pull it off, to deliver that final Maltese Falcon coup de grace that delivers justice to the bad guys and lets him live to fight another day, at the very least, if not get the girl (who was usually trying to kill him, anyway). Le Samouraï‘s Jef we already know about, but by the end of Out of the Past, Kathie has effectively murdered every patsy, and despite Jeff’s best efforts, he realizes he is trapped, and can think of no better recourse than to call the cops while Kathie is packing for yet another escape, so that they will encounter a heavily-armed police roadblock on their way out. Both protagonists decide enough is enough, and make sure their true loves, at least, have a chance at a better life, uncomplicated by them and their bad life choices. And sometimes that is the only choice left to you.

out-of-the-past-e1403181284954My last takeaway from this Doomed-Guy-In-A-Hat-and-trenchcoat double feature concerns Alain Delon’s and Robert Mitchum’s (once he returns to his former life) uniform, the coat and the snap-brim hat: I have that raincoat, and it is never going to look as good on me as it does on those two. And though I have a fine fedora, the Legion of Douchebags have seen to it that I can never wear it again. That this saddens me more than the fate of two likeable protagonists is a personal failing, but sometimes, as the Jeffs would tell you, personal is all you got.

Out of the Past at Amazon

1 Comment

  1. […] being seen again until Big Jim spots him at that gas station (and after last week’s movie, Out of the Past, I now know not to work at a gas station if I’m hiding from a crime boss). There are too many […]


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