Clubland: Le Samourai

I’ll say more about my thoughts on the film later, but I thought I’d just get things rolling with a couple of topics/questions.

1. I find Melville’s film to be devastatingly emotional, beneath the laconic dialogue and cool surfaces (or should I say, “because of?”). Do genre films–or let’s say films within genres that work as a kind of apotheosis of the genre–pack more of a punch emotionally because they are playing on a set of expectations? In other words, is the constraint of genre really a kind of freedom?

2. I particularly like the way the film quietly explodes the idea of a stoic masculinity–actions are not expressions of a philosophy where gesture supplants internal life, but messages from a vast unknown territory. Of course, I am a bit taken aback when I read that Melville describes his protagonist Costello as a “psychopath.” Do you agree? If so, the film might be part of the discussion with Straw Dogs and White.

3. Does the film’s dramatization of repression have anything to do with Black Narcissus’ vision?

4. is the film particularly modern by making obsessiveness the main indicator of internal psychology? and how would one “diagnose” Melville’s own obsession with the crime/caper film, where every gesture is in its place but the outcome is death? This question goes back to genre as well–the possibility that the comparison of the way Robert Mitchum wears his hat in Out of the Past with Jeff’s wearing of his fedora is more revealing than all the agonies of Bergman. True, or auteurist claptrap?

5. Jeff follows a real path of suicide, real death in contrast to karol of White–but is he equally deluded? Is his death merely a self-involved confirmation of his fantasy or is something more going on?

6. Is it better to address the mess of the world with composure and coolness, even at the risk of a certain disconnection, or does one do better by being more open to, and hence more vulnerable to, this mess? is there a difference?

7. I am sorry this film does not include the sexy 60’s Catharine Deneuve, but I would direct your attention to Un Flic (A Cop) which may even be more abstract, more (in Mark’s words) surreal and more melancholy.

8. how do you evaluate Alain Delon’s performance? I think it is a great piece of acting, just as I think Steve McQueen is great in Bullitt. But I guess we must re-define acting to some extent?

9 and, finally, if you were a giant hot dog, would you eat yourself? it’s a simple question!!

17 thoughts on “Clubland: Le Samourai”

  1. i watched this last night. first of all, it is in japanese, not french. and there are seven samurai, not one, and none of them is named lee. i kept your comments in mind but i’m not sure we watched the same film. i think the fellow who directed this is supposed to be famous but people should know he ripped the whole thing off from the magnificent seven!

  2. I am going to be too brief, not for lack of interest but for time–having wasted precious response time on Kitten, in another thread.

    But so that Michael knows how I loved re-seeing the flick and want to follow through on his smart cues…

    Point 3 asks if we can see connections to Narcissus, and I can see ways all of our flicks so far have taken certain generic codes and reinvested them with psychological heft. As way of explicating that piece of claptrappery, the obsessive attention to the details and extension of the two-shot of melodrama, Narcissus disrupted my viewing; I got stuck–as the film lingered on the faces of the characters–trying to understand what was going on in their heads. The film used conventions as tools for redirecting my focus from the typical mechanisms of melodramatic plot and into the tangled realms of repressed desire (etc. etc.).

    Samourai worked the same way for me. Every time Jeff carefully trimmed the pitch of his hat after putting it on, I got more and more detached from the ‘meaning’ of that action–instead of seeing it as a typical sign, irrelevant detail in the crime film, it began to accrue some heft, some sense of import. The whole film’s almost luxorious pacing, lingering over Jeff’s room as he searches methodically for a bug… it stopped being, for me, a question of mere plot (would Jeff find the bug, get away from the cops) but a deeper almost existential suspense. Which is vague, but the best I’m gonna do right now.

    8. Delon’s performance is marvelous. Empty, flat, focused–I was, though, greatly swayed by memories of his (other?) psychopath in Purple Noon. There is something about people who are so damned pretty–my gaze bounces off their surfaces, and I get to assuming that they have nothing but such surface. Arnab, for instance, seems a psychopath.

    But McQueen in Bullitt (or just about anything) seems to have a heatedness, a sense of purpose to his actions–as did Jo in the Suzuki film I mentioned in another post. Unlike Jeff/Delon, those characters/actors seemed to have human motivations… while Jeff strikes me as almost solely concerned with existing, rather than feeling or being engaged. He tries to survive or to kill, and is (literally) moved to act around such questions, but doesn’t seem to care. (In this ways, I was also often probably foolishly thinking about Camus as I watched, and his Stranger.)

  3. Mike…I agree with both of your points. I think mark hit on the same idea when he referred to Le Samourai as surreal–the kind of “existential suspense” takes you out of standard genre expectations in a kind of dizzying way. I feel as if the scene where Jeff searches for the bug might last forever and that I will be caught up in it, in a weird trancelike state of anticipation.

    The distinction between McQueen/Delon is a good one. McQueen in Bullitt seems to be fueled by an inner rage, one that finally expresses itself in one of the best expressions of “bullshit!” on film. Delon lacks this anger–though his final actions in the film indicate that his affectless exterior masks a tumultuous inner despair. On a side note, Delon’s pretty exterior, so potentially masklike, works very well in two other films that come to mind: joseph losey’s Mr. Klein and Antonioni’s L’Eclisse.

  4. If anything, I’d compare this film – and Delon in it – as something more akin to Lee Marvin in Point Blank rather than to (anything by) McQueen. That sstrong sense of purpose crossed with the rather vague understanding of WHY there’s such a sense of purpose. Maybe more soon.

  5. delon’s performance — jeff — seems to me the opposite of flat. as michael points out several times, despair pours out of him: his rundown, peeled, discolored flat, with no life in it except for the little bird (closets and drawers are empty and the flat has an abandoned look), contradicts jeff’s elegance and stunning prettiness, revealing an inner core of existential barrenness barely kept at bay. jeff hardly lives in his house. the one time we see him sleep in it, he is thrown on the bed any old way, fully dressed, in the middle of the day.

    the bird is the tenuous fluttering heart of jeff’s life.

    this is a suicidal drama disguised as a thriller. jeff’s identity as an assassin has much less to do with plot (suspence, action) than with interiority. it is the ultimate representation of meaninglessness. i see why melville would say that jeff is a psychopath. when life is such a big nothingness that other people’s and your lives are utterly unimportant and you are an empty shell who performs routine actions, you are a psychopath. maybe being a psychopath means having lost any kind of meaning compass. in this sense, neither david (strawdogs) nor karol are psychopaths. they simply freak out. (actually, i find the concept of temporary lapses in sanity very useful in real life, where people get labelled as psychopaths with great ease. when we find out that our nice neighbors have gone postal, maybe we should not revise the history that led us to consider them nice. nice people can lose it, too).

    jeff wants to get caught and killed from the very start. his ridiculous get-up makes him stand up as a sore thumb, and his alibi is a sorry excuse. he leaves clues around with the same meticulousness with which he puts on his white gloves and loses his followers.

    prettiness works quite well here because it brings out jeff’s despair much more poignantly. have you noticed how much more difficult it is to understand the desperation of beautiful people? we expect psychopaths, lunatics, and suicides to look worn, their bodies marked by their pain. beautiful people have less of a right to be unhappy.

    alain delon performance is pitch perfect. this is a great film.

  6. I don’t know if I buy the idea that Jeff wanted to get caught / killed from the start, though it certainly would explain some of his behavior.

    In my mind, he only makes the decision to be killed near the end of the film when he realizes the person he has been hired to kill is the woman he loves. Being a man of ultimate honor – as the samurai supposedly were – he fashions a scenario that ends in his death, so that he may retain his honor.

    But yeah, he stands out as a sore thumb. On the one hand, he goes to extraordinary lengths to concoct an excellent alibi. But then he seems to do nothing that might possibly disuade the police from believing that he’s the killer. Perhaps because it would be against his code somehow to deny himself?

    As for the bird, I’d have to watch this another time or two for my suspicions to be confirmed, but I don’t think the bird acts any more or less agitated at any point in the film. I’d even guess that that particular kind of bird does not make that noise. The noise we hear is completely monotonous – there is never a change in tone, and never fewer or more chirps. It’s a singularly unmusical song for a songbird. The bird just flits about no matter if someone has bugged his room, or if it’s just Jeff getting ready to go out.

    But all of this floats around specifics in the film, where Michael is addressing larger, universal themes and so on and I can’t answer any of his questions at all. I’m very glad this wasn’t a pop quiz that I’d be graded on.

  7. Gio, I love your reading, but I think it says more about you than about the film; I’m tempted to say the film’s aesthetic is designed to reflect our respective investments, Jeff as Rorschach, but I can’t (or haven’t the time now to) defend that very well.

    My main disagreements circle around how to interpret. First, Mark already noted the bird, which having seen the film before I paid a lot of attention to–and saw no particular markers of difference in its actions. In fact, I paid a lot of attention to other “markers of difference”–in the police lineup, why does Jeff get singled out by the cops? His alibi is no worse than a couple of the other people, and the witnesses are no more positive (or negative–in fact, entirely split) on his identification. What makes the head detective so all-fired intent on Jeff? As far as I can tell, nothing. Why do Jeff’s employers try to kill him? I have a devil of a time making sense of that… it defies professional sense.

    Jeff, too–despite seeming the epitome of professional–seems merely mechanical, rote in his behaviors. As Gio notes, while elaborately constructed his alibi is not particularly tight. And why go to all that trouble to make an alibi if not to exploit it? Jeff’s failure to sell it, to engage with others in an attempt to get people to buy into his trick, seems … well, unprofessional. Or professionally stupid.

    Mark’s idea that Jeff is being true to himself… well, maybe. I’m struck that Jeff simply acts–UNTIL the piano player does something that makes no sense to him, that he cannot interpret. (And why, exactly, DOES she deny him in the police station?) Suddenly, Jeff in some small way seems to have more of a sense of purpose….?


  8. well, yah, i suppose we all infuse the texts we read with our subjectivities, though, you know, it doesn’t particularly feel like that to me in this case. what i think i may be aware of doing is infusing it with michael’s expectations, being swayed (probably in a way he wouldn’t recognize!) by his reading of samourai.

    in the police station, jeff behaves strangely, and certainly differently from the one witness we are given the opportunity to see and hear. he doesn’t defend himself, keeps a tight poker face, acts tough and cool. he acts, in other words, like a killer. he’s just one of the two men who wear a beige raincoat, if i’m not mistaken, and after a while he’s the only one. he could easily have discarded the damn coat the same way he discarded the gun and the gloves. and he is the only one who keeps his collar all the way up, and his hat all the way down, shading his face. similarly, in the club where he does the killing, he moves furtively and quickly, and his get-up and demeanor are unnatural and conspicuous. if i were the police chief i would be very suspicious, too. and he does absolutely nothing to dispel these suspicions: when he shakes off his tails he’s far from cool (he runs) and when he finds the bug in his apartment he turns it off. this is not what cool killers in cool-killer films do.

    isn’t the piano player, though, in with the people who hired him? she doesn’t deny this when jeff suggests it and in fact implicitly confirms it by telling him to call her back in two hours. later, when he does call her back, she doesn’t answer the phone. when, in the final scene, jeff tells her he’s there to kill her, she’s totally unsurprised, so much so that she literally does not miss a note.

    if i had hired him, i, too, would be unhappy with his absurd way of dealing with possible discovery. even his pal the tag-changer’s had it with him, and jeff seems to be expecting that, too.

    as for the bird, well, birds are really stupid creatures, but of course the samourai is preternaturally turned in to his environment. which, by the way, makes his ‘mistakes’ all the more revealing.

  9. Is Jeff’s love for the piano player a sign that he is more than his affectless manner would indicate, or is it, as Gio suggests, that Jeff manufactures this love as an excuse for the self-annihilation he has been courting? Perhaps it would be most interesting to combine the two.

    The police in the Melville films seem to have a particular way of going after the existential criminal–perhaps that is why they single out Jeff. The police, given the metaphysical nature of their activity in figuring out things and assigning blame, guilt, etc, are something of “meaning-mongers” in a way that the criminals are not. It’s unclear whether that leaves them more or less despairing.

  10. The police in the Melville films seem to have a particular way of going after the existential criminal–perhaps that is why they single out Jeff. The police, given the metaphysical nature of their activity in figuring out things and assigning blame, guilt, etc, are something of “meaning-mongers” in a way that the criminals are not. It’s unclear whether that leaves them more or less despairing.

    excellent comment, michael.

  11. Hm. Yet the image of the police that sticks for me is that one dogged detective constantly opening and closing doors, striding from room to room in that weird maze of a police station. Maybe like Jeff, acting the role, in action. He does what he does…

    … so does the piano player. You’re right, Gio–she doesn’t miss a note. People do what they do; the meaning of such events, a sense of motivation, a sense of how events alter people’s experience of their own (and others’) actions seem weirdly absent or at least detached in this film. That sounds an interesting echo off of Godard’s Alphaville — in that film, meaning is diluted if not entirely dissolved by a breakdown of narrative coherence, through disjunctive edits and absurd plotting. In this film, plot–and the edited coherence of this narrative–couldn’t be cleaner, or more detailed and precise. Yet it has a similar effect on me as a viewer.

    Unheimlich? That always makes me think of hugging the food back into the throat.

    I realized, reading this after its initial post, that I’m circling around some of Michael’s other questions. The first one: emotional impact. By emphasizing the meaning (my own personal obsession), I might seem to be displacing the feeling. I get, however, what Michael is saying about the sense of devastation he feels. I’m not quite there, and I’m curious (Michael?) why such devastation? I ask because I’m going to stick to my (ahem) guns: the lack of affect in just about ALL of the characters is what strikes me as so effective. The film’s emotional impact comes through its screwing with my normal tools for making sense of a movie, which rely habitually on certain identifications. OF a character’s moods and motives, which allow me to make more clear sense of the narrative’s objectives and purposes and (yes) meaning, and helps me to understand what I’m to feel. And this incoherently but naggingly recalls my experience of Black Narcissus, where my identification of the characters’ moods, psychology, motives is also complicated, upset. What strikes me is the contrast with someone like Godard–Melville and Powell/Pressburger do not turn to the avant-garde disruption of narrative but reveal instead a disruptive force immanent in the generic conventions of pulp narrative.


  12. I am not sure I have entirely grasped the nature of the debate between Mike and Gio. But I think the film’s power comes from the fact that a lack of affect meets its opposite so powerfully at the end of the film. The film is something like a puzzle, disrupting, as Mike says, generic expectations while nevertheless deploying them in a “pure” form (or is the affectless use of them the disruption itself?). The paradox can’t really be resolved. Our inclination toward psychological realism is teased and seemingly fulfilled by the “suicidal” action at the end, but when we go back to try to piece it together we are faced with a series of actions alone–actions that can be read as either mechanical or suffused with meaning as harbinger’s of Jeff’s final act; the actions are seamless, perfectly realized, but then, as Gio and Mike point out, they do not necessarily hold up to analysis. How is it possible for the precise actions of a sleek killer to also be the disorganized manifestations of a disordered mind, aiming itself toward annihilation? They can’t but they are in the film. I didn’t mean only emotional devastation, though that’s one aspect of the film (the part that teases us with its psychology and character motivations) but a more impersonal devastation of realism, of rational expectations of the world. We assume the reality of interiority but the only way we can know it is through external actions, but these actions themselves are hopelessly ambiguous–as I said, jeff’s precision and orderly lifestyle can be taken as its mirror opposite. Jeff’s action at the end is either the ultimate statement of self-assertion and control or it is submission to a kind of machinery, one he passively goes along with until his death. But it’s both and neither (as one seems to cancel the other). The same irresolution occurs on the level of narrative–a genre film that hits so many generic archetypes but in a way that, as Mike says, disorients the viewer as much as an more frantic attempt at the avant-garde. so, it seems that I find both Gio and Mike’s readings to be totally satisfying, somehow mutually exclusive but complementary.

  13. this is a beautiful and lucid compendium of the various ways in which this film can be read, michael. i love the insightfulness and wisdom of this sentence: “We assume the reality of interiority but the only way we can know it is through external actions, but these actions themselves are hopelessly ambiguous.”

  14. i confess: for two weeks in a row the campus cinema showed the newly restored version of Army of Shadows and i didn’t go. one day we even made it as far as the theatre’s doors, but left upon learning that the film would last 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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