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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.


Unknown said...

Thank you for trying to shed some light on the relationships between the characters and the plot, particularly regarding the pianist. I was starting to think that maybe she had ordered all the killings. I thought she had maybe saved Jef from being arrested, so that he didn’t give the police any information but then wanted him killed, as he knew too much. She then decided to use him again to kill her husband. Jef finally realised what had happened but couldn’t bring himself to kill the pianist. Perhaps he had fallen for her or perhaps he admired her as a fellow Samouraï.

Anyway, I like your explanation too. I was trying to find something similar online but couldn’t find anything that discussed this point.

Absolutely fantastic film. I loved the way it was set in an almost fictional world, where reality met surrealism. This sets it apart for me from any other type of film in this genre. Also, the use of music and lack of dialogue creates so much tension and suspense. It also forces the viewer to imagine the feelings that are not being portrayed outwardly. Fantastic film.

Little Meatball said...

Thanks for the comment. I don't think it's possible for her to be the person ordering all the killings. There were multiple scenes in which several men sit and discuss what to do with Jef and his contract, involving 1) the middleman who tries to kill Jef and then gives him a new contract, 2) the bartender at the nightclub, and 3) the man who is killed in that house, where the singer also lives. I think these scenes are sufficient to establish that the husband has ordered all the killings.

May I ask you how you happened upon my article? This blog is very obscure and I am surprised by the large number of visits to this post alone. I imagine someone saw this and linked it on some forum.

Unknown said...

Yes, I think you’re right. The evidence does stack in favour of your theory.

In order to find your post, I simply googled ‘discussion on the ending of Le Samouraï’ and it was one of the search results. I was glad to find something helped piece everything together.

ifh said...

I agree with your prognosis. I just wanted to offer one thought. He tells his girlfriend that he’ll fix everything. Wouldn’t we think that scene was included for us to look over later to realize that his death is what he meant? His death gets her out of the police’s sights.

Little Meatball said...

Yes, that is a good insight. At this point, Jef had made the decision to commit seppuku via police. So he is also releasing his lover from all the troubles he has caused her.

Eliot said...

Also, note the last scene with the auto license changer. His pronouncement that this is the last time and the samurai's acquiescence is certainly a foreshadowing of his death,, of his intention to end his own life.

Commodore SP said...

Thank you Little Meatball, I found this take very interesting, it does gives some new perspective, a very pleasant reading, so were the comments. I would like to point out that the fellow who said that the pianist ordered the killings might actually be up to something, the fact that she wasn’t in any of the meetings doesn’t actually implies that she wasn’t behind it all, many possibilities can and do come to mind, like what if she manipulated his lover or partner or whatever, into ordering the killings, for she wanted to take control over the club, what if she was the one who knew the middle man, but the lover paid, after all he was no gangster but she might be more familiar with the underworld giving her job, the owner could have abused her or something, and that is why she wanted him dead, at any rate it is plausible that she was behind the murder of the owner but when the police got involved the lover got scared (because he couldn’t handle the pressure) and tried to killed his girlfriend so there’s no link that can bring him down, but Jeff figured this out and felt he owned the pianist thus he protected her. Or maybe the second job was in fact killing the pianist’s lover, and the only way to do it properly as in protecting the client (after all a Samurai is to some extent a bodyguard) was to let himself be killed by the coppers, and no one will ever shed light into the case again. I don’t know many possible answers each one just as valid, and that is why this is a great film.

Kyle Rozic said...

Part 1:

Commodore SP: I don't think it's plausible that the pianist hired the hitman to kill her lover in the end. Before Jef kills Rey, Rey says: "Do you accept the next contract?". This indicates that Rey came up with a contract and sent someone to deliver it to Jef. It's a little bit too messy IMO to argue that the pianist somehow conspires behind the scenes which in turn invalidates the little information that the scene transcribes. I agree with the author, I think it's just too messy to argue that she's the hitman (at least from the arguments I've seen). The alternative allows all the dialogue to be taken truthfully at face value, and is the expected scenario.

Little Meatball: This is an insightful interpretation of the film. Something else I noticed that I thought to be very revealing was who the witnesses were and how they reacted. The witnesses were the pianist, the coatcheck, the bartender, the door greeter, and two customers. When asked about the suspect, the pianist and the bartender both strongly state that he is not the man while the coatcheck and door greeter both are unsure but still deny. The two customers do believe it is him. However by the end, one of the customers begins to doubt himself because of the employees and therefore cannot say for sure it is him.

Interestingly, the coat check also becomes unsure, while the greeter simply states he doesn't think it's him. Likely the coat check and door greeter are not in on the scheme, but are influenced by their colleagues.

Your hypothesis about the bartender bringing the pianist into it is interesting and I think true. None of them planned for this to happen, and we know the bartender is part of the planning committee. It can be surmised that given the circumstances, he decided he needed one more false witness account to sow doubt in the rest (and may have predicted she saw him) and told her what was happening. This also could explain the falling out with her husband--it would imply that she was not meant to be a part of this and got pulled in through unforseen circumstances. This might be too heavy for Rey to trust his wife knowing about it.

Kyle Rozic said...

I also agree with your interpretation of Jef's phonecall to the piano player, however I think there are some key details that may provide more support to the theory. Up until this point, subtle expressions from the actors have revealed major character traits (usually following one or many scenes where the viewer is uncertain of their intentions). The first is the witness testimonies at the police station mentioned above. They reveal who is in on it, who is probably not, and who is definitely not. The viewer won't know for sure until further into the film, but on a second viewing their expressions and delivery of their lines appear to be subtle allusions to their part in the story (and later, are confirmed by supporting scenes).

The second was with the alibi girl Jane (I don't believe she can constitute as a girlfriend as Jef remains fairly distanced from her). We are unsure about her strength to resist police interrogation the first round. Then at her house, we again are left uncertain of her loyalty until she says: "In other words you want me to purjure myself...". These couple lines tell us exactly who she is and where she stands after being uncertain for half the film. There may be more but these stood out to me as well executed acting/directing.

I think these scenes are important because they show how Melville displays quiet, unresolved characters--then quickly resolves them with a clean and concise dialogue/expression. And just moves on. There's no over explanation. On the contrary, it can easily be missed on a first (even second) viewing.

I'd say the piano player has the best poker face (aside from Jef). But there is one scene
where she breaks: The phone call scene (I believe this makes it important). When the phone rings, we don't know why she doesn't pick it up. When she reaches the top of the stairs, she bites her nail with unease, contemplating a decision... But again, we don't know what it is. We cut back to Jef walking to his apartment from the phone, then we cut back to the piano player for a 3.5 second scene in which she walks confidently and calmly down a hallway, showing no sign of contemplation. We don't know where she was walking (Until the end, when we realize it was her husbands office). So within those 12 seconds off screen, she presumably came to a decision.

Given this setup and abrupt cutting of scenes I would argue that the 3.5 second scene is the key for everything that follows. What is her decision and what actually happens? That's still speculation. I think you're right to say that she probably asked Rey to call off the hit, which made him redirect the hit to her (since he would know that she won't have his back if this goes south). But we'll never know. I do, however, think that a strong argument can be made that this scene is the turning point of the relationship between the piano player and Rey, which leads to Jef's actions and the ultimate climax.

As for Jef's final actions...

Many argue sepuku (and as you mentioned, Bushido), and since the film is called Le Samourai, I am inclined to agree. I'm not well versed in the culture, but in movies and based on the wikipedia article it can be performed to restore honor. Since he killed his boss, this could be his way to reclaim honor. You mentioned that it would not make sense for him to die to save her, since Rey is gone, but there were many other men in the room who could potentially pose a threat to her.

An interaction that confused me was the bartender at the end. When Jef puts his gloves on, the bartender gets confused/worried. I don't know how exactly to read this, and I don't know what the bartender knows of the contract. But I do believe this is meant to reveal something.

There may be details I've missed to fill in more plot but I think your interpretation mostly represents something that was intended. Also, I suspect there may be more obvious parallels to other samurai films, but I haven't seen a lot other than some Kurosawa films.

Little Meatball said...

Thank you, Kyle. You have brought up some important details that I did not pick up in my second viewing. It is clear that Melville tries to maintain a delicate balance between telling the audience and hiding from the audience most characters' motivations. It works sometimes but not others.

As for Jane, it was always clear to me (perhaps because I'm a woman) that she would not betray Jef, because she loves him a lot more than he loves her.

Little Meatball said...

Also about the issue of suicide. I have not picked up any outward hint about Jef being inclined to self-destruction before the end. Therefore, Bushido (which he was reading) is the only clue. Jef differs from Japanese samurai in an important aspect -- he is a contract killer and has no bond with his employers. A samurai who murders his master/lord generally did not conduct seppuku, either, because seppuku is an honorable way to die, and a disgraced samurai would not be allowed to do that. (In later Shogun period, the way of samurai became more frayed and the old honor code/rule was no longer strictly observed.)

I am not sure how familiar Melville was with Japanese history. Here Jef's code is more reminiscent of European Medieval chivalry than samurai, in which he sacrifices himself to save a woman. Why he commits suicide by police remains somewhat obscured.

Kyle Rozic said...

Mmm yes, I didn't pick up on Jane's love for Jef but it is there pretty early on if you're perceptive enough.

You know what? I didn't realize my subtitles weren't enabled until the dialogue started, so I thought the Bushido quote was part of the credits and could not read it in french 😂. That is a pretty important clue. Unfortunately, you might be right in saying that Melville adopted a simplefied version of Bushido/seppuku that may not hold to its true definition.

In the "47 Ronin" story, The samurai become masterless after their lord is murdered--so they commit seppuku. In this story it's to avenge the death of their master (not regain honor from killing him), but it could have been loose inspiration (or Melville did not make the distinction).

I respect the historical information regarding the master/samurai relationship and how it differs from this film, however, if we are to surmise that Melville was not privy to the nuance of Bushido/seppuku, it likely wasn't intended to be meaningful. Maybe it was intended to be, but as you said, it then gets confusing and motives become obscured.

There also may be another reason for his suicide that doesn't involve his master:

A historian (Stephen Turnbull) wrote a book called "Samurai: The World of the Warrior" and in this text states:

"In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced." (This excerpt was found on wikipedia)

I cannot speak to the accuracy of this book, but this description of seppuku does fit quite cleanly with Jef's situation and his final choice. If it's incorrect but a common misconception (based on a reductive interpretation of Bushido), it may be what Melville had in mind.

Then there is also the argument for Jef repaying the pianist for saving his life (or maybe saving her from the problems he's created) which can also be a reasonable interpretation of the scene. But as you said, this is less Bushido and more midieval chivalry. Maybe the truth resides somewhere between these theories. Maybe this is Melville's "Contemporary French Bushido". And at the same time, maybe some was meant to never by fully interpretable, left permanently mysterious. After all, Jean-Pierre Melville did have a relationship with Nouvelle Vague (albeit quite different from Truffault or Godard), and we know that the constituents of this movement were not particularly interested in a strict adherance to conventional interpretations of plot and film structure. This lack of respect for convention could also be a reason for the unfaithful adherance to Bushido (though ignorance is just as likely).

I don't know exactly how I wish to interpret it, but it's been a fun film to engage with. I do agree that the film's plot is more complex than a lot of film critics allude to. Maybe time will turn it into something else, like it did for you.

Little Meatball said...

The phrase "Contemporary French Bushido" you coined is a good one. :) One of the hallmarks of modern art is that the viewer's interpretation of a piece is a necessary part of the art or even "completes" the piece. I think this movie fits this definition. Indeed, how you wish to interpret it is more important than how Melville intended it. I seem to remember some report mentioning that Melville insisted that his actors remain expressionless, so that the audience can project onto the characters whatever emotions they are feeling.

It's very possible that Jef commits seppuku to restore his honor after he had made a mess of his job. Certainly there were plenty of examples of samurai committing seppuku as an apology for failing their duties or missions, sometimes when the failure was not entirely their fault.

As for the story of "47 Ronin" (元禄赤穗事件), it was actually a curious incident open to many different interpretations. The samurai carried out revenge for their dead and disgraced master (revenge being a huge element in the samurai code), and then were ordered to commit seppuku as a punishment, which some considered a result of the political implications of the incident. Maybe I will write about this at some point. It's extremely interesting and its meaning is similarly in the eyes of the beholders.

Rahul Rana said...

Brilliant theory that makes sense. Thank you for shedding light. Love from India.

Little Meatball said...

Thank you, Rahul.

Unknown said...

This is the most clear and coherent explanation that I've seen. Thank you.

I think his "suicide by cop" had a slightly different motivation than "protecting" the jazz singer. With her murderous lover Olivier Rey dead, she no longer needs protection.

He knew that his death would take the heat off his girlfriend, who was being threatened with five years in jail.

Also, the amazing "chase" sequence through the Metro showed that he was no longer a hitman living in the shadows, but was in a net he couldn't escape. In a sense, his life was over - he could no longer do any jobs, and he would lead the police to any person he met, Did he also assume the police would connect him to Olivier Rey's killing?

I think the final scene was a message to the singer. After he dies, she will realize (1) he lover tried to have her killed, and (2) Jef saved her - that is, when she learns of Rey's death, she will know Jef killed him.

Dr. Marsden said...

Btw, she's clearly the tiger in the jungle--look at her coat. The quote is definitely the tell. It's not love or chivalry, it's respect for another person with a code who had an unworthy boss. An act of consideration from one professional to another.

Ed Marques said...

Thanks so much for your thoughtful piece on Le Samouri. I watched it last night for the first time and though I LOVED it, I admit I was perplexed at times.
Your piece helped me digest things a bit better.
I'm going to watch it again!


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 b...