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Sunday, December 29, 2019
The Ending of Le Samourai (1967), Explained
A quick online search after watching Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai confirmed my suspicion: The plot is very rarely understood by English-language critics. Even Roger Ebert's Great Movie Review and Criterion's essay by David Thomson appear to have entirely missed the point. If one assumes that these two critics both read their colleagues' writing extensively, it is safe to bet that most of their colleagues, too, remain in the dark. Why does the killer-for-hire, Jef Costello, played by the expressionless Alain Delon, show up at the nightclub and pretend to threaten the unnamed jazz pianist (Caty Rosier), thereby committing suicide-by-police? Does Costello follow some made-up samurai code of conduct and his suicide is predetermined? Everyone comments on the movie's style, but none gives a plausible explanation of the plot, especially the character's motivation.
The first time I watched Le Samourai was almost 20 years ago. At the time I too thought the plot was as stoic and incomplete as the characters. I guess in the past 20 years I have learned at least one thing --- how to pay attention to details.
The critics' blind spot, I have realized, is their failure to look closely at the jazz pianist as a key character. There is a crucial scene that is missed by everyone. Approximately two-thirds into the movie, after escaping an attempt to eliminate him by his employer/client, Jef goes to the pianist and tries to suss out from her who has employed him. We watch the pianist driving him in a car. She listens to his questions (after a bit of unconvincing coercion) in a house that we can only assume to be her home (she is wearing a bathrobe or kimono-style pajama). The living room is shown as a grand loft with 2 staircases in the back that lead to an upper deck with railings. This room --- this set --- is the key to the story.
Jef lays out his case to her in a scene that contains more words spoken by him than the entire rest of the movie. He pleads for information on who told her not to identify him in the police station. She appears to be sympathetic and sends him away with a promise to give him information later. "Call me in 2 hours," she says. Why 2 hours?
He goes away and calls her from a payphone as agreed, but she does not pick it up. Instead, she ascends the stairs and passes through a door on the left, and then enters a corridor. The white walls on both sides are lined with paintings. She pauses and bites her nail. The scene cuts away.
Not getting an answer on the phone, Jef goes back to his flat and is ambushed by his handler, the go-between guy who tried to kill him previously. However, he is no longer trying to kill Jef. Shockingly, he pulls out the money he owes Jef for the first job ... and then some more ... for a new job! Jef is skeptical but takes the money anyway (while giving the guy a beating), implying his acceptance of the new job. Importantly, the scene cuts away before we find out who the new target is, but not before we hear the unfortunate go-between guy confess the name and address of the mysterious client who hired him. "Olivier Rey," and "He's not like us." In other words, Monsieur Rey is not a gangster. Although the name has never been mentioned previously, we have seen him in a previous scene, in which he discusses the need to kill Jef so that the murder is never traced back to him. There were 3 other men in this scene: the blond go-between guy, an older bald man, and a man we recognize as the bartender at the nightclub.
In the pre-climactic scene, Jef comes out of an elevator in a building (presumably at the address provided by the go-between guy) and kicks open a rather impressive big door --- a door to something like a penthouse. Here comes the tricky part of Melville's visual game. We see Jef walking through a white corridor lined with paintings on both walls. He opens a familiar-looking white door at the end and comes out on a deck overlooking two sets of stairs. The camera pans down: we see the living room where Jef and the pianist talked the night before. This is the same house!
Because this scene begins from the front door and corridor upstairs, while the previous scene is shot completely downstairs, the audience may not recognize this is the same house, but Jef obviously knows that he was here before (perhaps he and the pianist came through the garage downstairs?). This is the point where he understands the crime(s) and the players behind it.
Jef does not descend the stairs. Instead, he retreats to the white corridor and searches the house for Olivier Rey, the client who is not a gangster. Jef shoots him dead. Before he is killed, however, Rey asks Jef whether he has accepted the second job to kill ... We will soon find out.
"Oui," says Jef, after a pause.
Jef leaves and returns to the crowded nightclub that evening. The jazz pianist comes out in a stunning dress and sits down to play. Jef walks up to the piano and looks into her eyes, then takes out a gun and points it at her. "Why, Jef?" She asks, her eyes soft and unfrightened. "Because I was paid to," he replies. Then he is shot dead by the police who have been hiding in the crowd. They rush over to find Jef's gun empty. He had no intention of assassinating her.
It's reasonable to infer that Jef chooses to commit suicide (this much is obvious) because he has decided to abort the second job. Why didn't he just turn it down? Maybe he accepted the job so that no one else can be hired to do it. Maybe when he heard the name of the second target, he did not understand why. Ergo, his purpose is to protect the pianist. In addition, we now realize that killing Olivier Rey is a part of this mission.
Now let's review the story in chronological order:
- A man hires Jef Costello (through a blond go-between guy) to kill a nightclub owner.
- Jef does his job but falls under the police's suspicion.
- To avoid being traced back to him, the client hires the go-between guy to kill Jef, unsuccessfully.
- Jef investigates through the pianist.
- Jef is ambushed and given a second job to kill the pianist.
- Jef gets the name and address of the client. He goes there and kills him.
- Jef goes to the nightclub to kill, no, to protect, the pianist.
One may argue that the "Bushido Code" (made up by Melville, probably after watching a number of Japanese samurai movies without fully understanding the culture) forces Jef to remove the last threat to the pianist, which is himself. Therefore, he has to die. Makes sense? Not really. He's killed Rey who ordered the hit. She is now safe (probably). Why does he commit suicide?
We have to return to the key revelation: Olivier Rey and the pianist live in the same house. This means that they are probably husband and wife, or at least long-term lovers.
In the first assassination, Rey hires a professional (Jef) to kill the owner of the nightclub (Martey) where his wife plays. Of course we will never know exactly why, but the common excuse in this type of stories is that the wife is having an affair with the nightclub owner and the husband is jealous. This is pure speculation. Perhaps Rey and Martey are doing some seedy business together (even though Rey is not a gangster), and Martey embezzled money, or they just had different views on how to do business. If so, it is nothing but a coincidence that the wife happens to perform at this very nightclub.
Later, Rey hires Jef to kill his wife. Why? Again we can only speculate. There are almost no clues, but we do know that the wife/pianist knows by now that her husband has ordered the murder of Martey and the attempted murder of Jef Costello. Witness elimination or blackmailing would be a usual motive.
The web of connections among Rey--the go-between-guy--Jef--the pianist can also explain why, at the beginning of the movie, the pianist did not identify Jef in police line-up. Without knowing the connections, we can be forgiven to think that she saves Jef from the police because of Delon's beauty. The real reason, as Jef himself points out, is that she was intimidated by someone (maybe the bartender) to keep her mouth shut.
Is Jef the samurai who adheres to a suicidal code of honor or a medieval knight in shining armor to the damsel's rescue? Is he in love with her? Does he choose to protect her so thoroughly to repay her initial protection of him? Yes and yes. Such a sentimental story, if it were presented in a comprehensible way.
One last missing piece in this puzzle. There is too little information to even speculate on, but I will speculate nevertheless. When Jef calls the pianist, she hesitates and chooses not to pick up the phone. She could tell Jef everything and even hire him to kill her husband. But she does not. Instead, she walks up the stairs and enters the corridor, perhaps to go to her husband's office and ... confront him? Did this confrontation lead to Rey's decision to have her killed?
Another missing piece that could fit into this one is the events between the two scenes involving Jef and the go-between guy. In the first scene between the go-between guy and Jef, Jef barely escapes death. In the second, the handler shows up with a gun but chooses to make peace. Instead, he hands Jeff a lot of dough. What happened between these 2 scenes? Is Rey's wife blackmailing him to let Jef live? "I know what you did and I want you to stop"? Why? We will never know. If this is true, however, we could reasonably say that the pianist saves Jef twice in this movie: first from the police and then from her husband.
If that's what she has done, it is entirely justified that Jef Costello should die for her, by Bushido, chivalry, or any other code.
A final note. I find it curious that even the most experienced film critics have failed to connect the dots, because they have failed to pay attention to the Caty Rosier's character. Perhaps I would not have either, if a male friend had not, many years ago, commented to me how beautiful and sexy the jazz pianist is.
A quick online search after watching Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai confirmed my suspicion: The plot is very rarely understood b...