“The Road Home” - Zhang Yimou (1999)

Although deceptively simple, Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (Wo de Fùqin Muqin –  literally: My Father and Mother, 1999) is one of the great filmmaker’s outstanding works. Zhang, who has worked successfully in a variety of cinema styles and genres, including social dramas, comedies, film noir, and Chinese wuxia martial arts, here seems to have just crafted a simple love story.  But across all the wide spectrum of Zhang’s work, he has always retained a certain common signature focus on an individual’s heartfelt struggles for authentic engagement.  As I remarked when once comparing Zhang to the equally great Michelangelo Antonioni,
“although the films of both of them [Antonioni and Zhang] may touch on the social sphere somewhat, they ultimately reach a more profound level that suggests the universal struggles of the individual soul in a heartless and uncaring cosmos.” [1]
And this is an underlying theme of The Road Home, too. 

The time of production (1999) seems to have been a particularly fertile period for Zhang.  The Road Home was the second of three relatively lighthearted films – the others being Not One Less (1999) and Happy Times (2000) – that he made in quick succession at this time, all in collaboration with cinematographer Yong Hou and music composer San Bao.  Coming after his breakup with favored actress Gong Li, these films featured new performers, and The Road Home was notable for introducing 20-year-old actress Zhang Ziyi in her first starring role.  All three films, concerned as they were with the lives or ordinary people, were, to my mind, superior to Zhang’s big-budget wuxia extravaganzas that immediately followed, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which were both enormous hits at the box-office.

Zhang’s focus at this time on the lives of ordinary people and his sometimes use of amateur actor’s from the film settings’ locales, has led to comparison’s of his films with the Iranian so-called “neo-realist” renaissance during the 1990s.  In fact Zhang was an admirer of Iranian filmmakers and the way they were able to work under constraining circumstances [2]:
“Look, we think we have it hard here in China, but the pressures of Islamic Orthodoxy in Iran are far worse than anything we have to contend with here. But despite the pressures, Iranian directors succeed in making great films.”
But I wouldn’t characterize Zhang’s’ work as in any way neo-realistic.  His expressive mise-en-scene, including the music, is very carefully crafted to convey deep emotional feelings.  This is what makes The Road Home particularly moving – the naturally expressive cinematic conveyance of a person immersed in love.

The Road Home’s story concerns a young country girl’s falling in love with a new schoolteacher in a remote peasant village back in the 1950s, and it is based on the novel Remembrance by Shi Bao, who also wrote the screenplay.  It is told as a modern-day recollection of events that had happened some forty years earlier. 

In fact the film’s narrative structure is, itself, an interesting element.  The story begins in the “present” time with the schoolteacher’s son learning of his father’s recent death and returning from the city to visit his remote home village and attend to the funeral arrangements and to his grieving mother.  He then begins narrating in voiceover the locally famous story of how his parents met and fell in love.  The account then moves into a dramatized flashback, which makes up the bulk of the film.  Of course these couldn’t be the son’s memories; they could only be the mother’s recollections.  And accordingly the flashback focalization is entirely on the young woman’s experiences.  So what we see must either be a visualization of
  • the woman’s (remembered) experiences and feelings associated with that story or
  • the son’s imagination of the mother’s story that he heard her tell. 
And of course we viewers are, ourselves, imaginatively reconstructing the woman’s feelings based on the emotive visualization presented to us.  Nevertheless and given the son’s evident reserved demeanor, my inclination is to take what is presented in this film as a direct visualization of the woman’s experiences and not so much as the son’s imagined reconstruction of them.

The presentation of The Road Home comprises (a) an outer story set in the present and making up the beginning and closing portions of the film and (b) an inner story set some 40 years in the past and making up the middle portion of the film. The outer story is in matter-of-fact black-and-white and is essentially dry and mournful.  The inner story is in vivid colors (a Zhang Yimou specialty) and is full of vibrant, emotive feelings and expectation.

1.  The Son Comes Home (B/W)
Luo Yusheng (played by Sun Honglei) returns after a long absence to his home town, Sanhetun, in the snow-covered mountains in order to make arrangements for his father’s funeral.  His grieving mother, Zhao Di (played as the old woman by Zhao Yulian) insists that her husband’s burial be carried out in the bygone traditional way: his coffin is to be hand-carried down the long road to Sanhetun, with the pallbearers shouting along the way that this is the road home.  That way his departed soul will not get lost and remember its way home.   This demand presents a serious problem, because there are not enough young people in Sanhetun to serve as pallbearers.

While mulling over this difficulty, Yusheng comes across a 40-year-old picture of his mother and father when they were newlweds, and he lapses into a visual retelling of the famous story of their  falling in love.

2.  Di in Love (Color)
The remembered story, which makes up a little less than one hour of the film, recounts how 18-year-old Zhao Di (played as a young woman by Zhang Ziyi) met the town’s new, 20-year-old schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), in 1958.  This is told in a series of cinematically lyrical passages that convey the growing ardor of Di for Changyu.  Indeed, it is these lyrical vignettes that make up the heart and soul of the film [3].

In Zhang Yimou’s films love is often  blocked by two powerful forces: the coercive control of the authoritarian Communist state and the restrictive constraints of China’s conservative “no touch” indigenous culture.  In this film those two forces are present as well, but they are only in the background on this occasion.  The focus instead is on the two young people’s tentative romantic gestures within that traditional social context.  

This section of the film begins with the exciting arrival of the handsome young man who will be the village’s first schoolteacher.  Following the tradition that the prettiest girl in the village is to weave a banner that will be mounted in the schoolhouse’s ceiling, Di is designated to perform that task.  While the men are busy working on the construction of the new schoolhouse that will be used, the village women prepare their lunches, which are served buffet style.  This occasions the first (V1) of, by my count, six visual vignettes that are featured in this section.  These visual  vignettes are flowing montages featuring multiple slow-dissolves set to music which capture the feelings of the principals involved.  In the case of V1, we see Di carefully preparing her best dishes packed in what she feels is her signature bowl in the hopes that her offerings will be selected by the new teacher, Changyu.

Di also starts fetching her water from the village’s older and more distant from her home water well located near the new schoolhouse just so she can have a chance to catch an occasional glimpse of Changyu.  And even though she is illiterate and not interested in school lessons, she is so enthralled by the teacher’s voice that she stands every day outside the schoolhouse so she can listen to him.  (And she continued doing this over the entire forty-year course of their subsequent marriage.)

Every day after school, Changyu walks some of his students home.  So Di sits along the path, but in hiding, and watches them pass by.  This pattern of hopeful watching is shown in visual vignette #2 (V2).

Since Changyu has no family, the pattern is set up to have each household in the village take turns feeding him his dinner.  Finally it is the turn of Di, who lives at home with just her blind mother, to host him.  This gives Di and Changyu the opportunity to finally go beyond fleeting glances and actually exchange some words.  She invites him for some mushroom dumplings that evening, but  suddenly Changyu is peremptorily summoned back to the city for questioning by the government . Before his departure, though, he gives the infatuated Di a pretty red hair clip.  Changyu promises to stop by before leaving for a quick bite of her dumplings, but he is prevented from doing so and has to depart immediately in a horse-drawn carriage.  Di chases after them with her bowl of dumplings in a mad dash across the meadow (V3).  She eventually stumbles and falls, breaking  her special bowl and sadly discovering that she has somewhere lost her cherished hair clip, too.  She spends days retracing her steps across the meadow in a desperate attempt to find the clip, and eventually she does run on to it.  She also engages a pottery repairman who meticulously employs traditional  techniques to screw the pieces of her shattered bowl back together.  This is shown in an extended sequence of closeups giving the viewer a feel for the old ways of the village (V4). But Di is still morose about Changyu’s absence.

While waiting for the hoped-for return of Changyu, Di goes to the empty schoolhouse and lovingly spends time refurbishing the windows, as well as cleaning and beautifying the schoolroom (V5).  Then she stations herself out on the road in the middle of a snowstorm, desperately waiting for Changyu’s promised return (V6).  The whole village is now aware of her mad love for Changyu.  Di gets a fever from being out so long in the cold, but she stubbornly runs off down the road again anyway, hoping to find her beloved.  She is eventually found fainted along the side of the road and is carried back to the village, where she remains unconscious for two days. 

When Di finally awakens, she is informed that Changyu did manage to break out from custody in the city and sneak back to Sanhetun to see her briefly while she was still asleep.  However, as punishment for his insubordination, Changyu is forcibly returned to the city and kept from joining Di for another two years.  But after this he is finally able to return and marry his beloved.

3.  Changyu’s Funeral (B/W)
The story now returns to the present, and Yusheng, after his (and our) extended contemplation of his parents’ fabled courtship, decides to do whatever he can to fulfill his mother’s wishes for his father’s funeral.  In the event 100 people from miles around come to participate in the traditional transport of Changyu’s coffin and ensuing ceremony.  They want to ensure that the greatly respected teacher’s spirit can remember its road home.

The next day, Yusheng fulfills his mother’s request to teach a class to the village schoolchildren using his father’s original notebook.  Like the old days, Di stands outside the schoolhouse listening to her son’s delivery of the lesson.  This last scene is shot in vivid color, signifying a world reinvigorated by loving passion and commitment.

To most young people their parents are stolid representatives of authority and stability.  They have difficulty imagining how their parents could once have been in the throes of romantic love.  In Yusheng’s case, the famous story of his mother’s waiting for her beloved on the “road home”, which his mother evoked in his mind when she insisted on her “road home” funeral requirements, helped him imagine his mother’s passion.  And these thoughts may have opened up his own heart to the world around him, too.

Although set in a remote and traditional Chinese village, The Road Home evokes universal feelings of how romantic love can bloom in the heart.  In Sanhetun, as in many parts of the world, marriages were all arranged by the parents, and romantic couplings were unheard of.  The shy courtship of Changyu and Di lasted only about a month and did not involve any physical embraces of even touching.  They only exchanged meaningful gazes that struck chords in their hearts.  But love is a universal feeling and indeed an experience that involves the quintessential essence of who we are.  So it can arise anywhere there are pure hearts open to its call.  Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, featuring Zhang Ziyi’s beautiful and astonishingly moving performance as Zhao Di, eloquently reminds us of that.

  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Raise the Red Lantern’ - Zhang Yimou (1991)”, The Film Sufi, (5 November 2009).   
  2. I don’t have a direct source for this quotation, but it was quoted in:
  3. Andrew L. Urban, Louise Keller, David Thomas, “Road Home, The”, Urban Cinefile, (5 October 2017).   

Ang Lee

Films of Ang Lee:

Paul Thomas Anderson

Films of Paul Thomas Anderson:

“There Will Be Blood” - Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007) is one of the most popular American films of recent years and has attracted a fervent critical following.  Film critic Murtaza Ali Khan has called the film a “haunting masterpiece” [1] and has ranked it on his lists for the “100 All-time Best Movies” [2] and the “50 Best Hollywood Movies of All Time” [3].  The film was listed tied for 75th on the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of world film directors for the “Greatest Films of All Time” [4].  And New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott this year (2017) rated it as the best film so far of the 21st century [5].  

This gripping tale of greed and revenge in the early 20th century US oil industry featured excellent production values across the board, which is reflected in the fact that the film was nominated for 8 US Oscars.  Particularly notable was the Oscar-winning performance of lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who completely immersed himself in the role of a hard-driven self-made oil entrepreneur.  Day-Lewis, who first attracted attention with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), is famously selective of the acting roles he takes on, having only appeared in five films since 1998.  Nevertheless, over that time he has won two Oscars and was nominated for a third.
There Will Be Blood, which was very loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, certainly has an epic feel to it, and it has been compared to several past classics concerning overweening American ambition and greed, such as Greed (1924) and Citizen Kane  (1941).  To me an interesting film for comparison  is Giant (1956), particularly in connection with that film’s oil industry personage, Jett Rink.  But perhaps the most significant film to consider for comparison purposes is John Huston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Both Huston and his famous film about deadly greed among some gold miners in the old American West apparently had an important influence on There Will Be Blood’s writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.  Commenting on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Anderson said of it [6]:
“It’s about greed and ambition and paranoia and looking at the worst parts of yourself. When I was writing ‘There Will Be Blood,’ I would put ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ on before I went to bed at night, just to fall asleep to it.”
Anderson also gave a copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Daniel Day-Lewis and urged him to use it as a basis for developing the character he was to portray in There Will Be Blood.  Indeed some people have suggested that Day-Lewis’s deep-throated voice in There Will Be Blood even sounded a lot like that of John Huston [7].

The story of There Will Be Blood concerns the events and life of oilman Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) over a period of about thirty years – from 1898 to 1927.  Much of the action, though, is focused on a key period around 1911.  And over the course of this extended narrative, there are two main currents:
  • Material worth -- activities and interactions that have affected Plainview’s material circumstances,  his wealth and power.  For the first half of the film, this appears to be the main focus.
  • Self-worth – activities and interactions that have affected Plainview’s own sense of dignity.
It is this second current, concerning Plainview’s obsession with his self-worth, that eventually becomes the dominant theme of the film.  It centers around his interactions with three people in his life, all males, who have profound effects on Plainview’s feelings of being in control.  This all plays out over the course of the film’s four main sections or narrative acts.

1. The Rise of an Oilman 
The first 13 minutes of the film, which are without dialogue, trace the early days of Daniel Plainview and show just how gritty is his determination to succeed at all costs.  He is first seen in 1898 prospecting in his lone mineshaft for minerals.  When a broken ladder causes him to plunge to the bottom of the shaft and break his leg, he still has the pluck to discover evidence of silver there and somehow make it to the assayer’s office to stake his claim.

Next he is shown in 1902 working with hired workers on his silver mine.  An accident leads them to discover oil in the mine, and it turns Plainview into an oilman.  There is an emphasis here on showing the raw and dangerous nature of the mining work.  An accident kills one of Plainview’s workers, so Plainview adopts the man’s baby boy, named HW.

By 1911 Plainview is huckstering his budding oil well business to local landowners around the Southwest.  When making his pitch at local gatherings, he always has HW at his side to show people he is a family man.

2.  A Promising Option 
One day a young man named Paul Sunday (played by Paul Dano, who had recently starred in War and Peace, 2006) informs Plainview, for a price, about his parents modest ranch in the poor area of “Little Boston”, California, that he thinks has oil under its ground.  Plainview visits the ranch to see if he can buy the land cheaply by not  telling the family about the oil prospects.  There he meets Paul Sunday’s twin brother, Eli (also Paul Dano), who is an ambitious young preacher and faith healer and who demands Plainview invest $10,000 help him build his new “Church of the Third Revelation”.  From here on in the story, Plainview will find himself in competition with Eli Sunday for the influence and control over the local people in the area. 

There are similarities and differences between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday.  Daniel is aggressive, rugged, manly, and direct; he appeals to rationality in order to persuade people.  Eli, though, is more soft-spoken and insinuating; he appeals to Biblical revelation.  But both men, in their own ways, turn out to be equally duplicitous.

Finally a lethal accident during well drilling causes their relationship to erupts in open confrontation.  Plainview says Eli is distracting the men with his preaching and leading them into having careless accidents.  But Eli says the accident was due to the fact that he was not given the opportunity to publicly bless the new oil rig in front of his congregation.

Shortly thereafter there is an oil well blowout and gusher, the blasting force of which severely injures HW, causing him to permanently lose his hearing.  But in the event Plainview is of two minds – concern for HW and ecstatic joy over the new wealth that the gusher signifies. The filming of this blowout is spectacular and is one of the most memorable portions of the film.

But Plainview’s concern about HW seems to be more about how the boy’s deafness has interfered with his own life and pride.  He subsequently erupts in rage in front of Eli, slapping the young man around in an expression of his own frustration.

3.  Increasing Greed 
Now the relentlessly ambitious and increasingly impatient Plainview becomes even more greedy.  Rather than accepting a deal from Standard Oil to have his crude oil shipped out by railroad, he decides to have his own pipeline constructed for the distribution of his oil.  To do this, he needs to buy out the land rights between the Sunday ranch and the coast, from where the piped oil will be shipped out.  If he can succeed, he will become even wealthier.

At this point Plainview is approached by an out-or-work laborer named Henry, who purports to be his half-brother.  Plainview cautiously accepts Henry’s story and takes him on to help work on surveying for the new oil pipeline. Perhaps because of the presumed blood and family closeness he may feel for Henry, Plainview tells the man over shared whiskey things he wouldn’t tell other people.  During one such conversation he opens up to Henry about his true nature:
“I have a competition in me. . . . I want no one else to succeed.”
Later, though, Daniel becomes suspicious of Henry’s claims to be his half-brother. When Daniel finally exposes the man, he brutally kills him and buries the body in the woods.  The corpse is subsequently discovered by a neighboring rancher, and when Eli finds out about it, it gives him the opportunity to exact humiliating revenge on Plainview for the beating he had earlier suffered from the man.

Nevertheless, Plainview manages to get his pipeline built, thereby ensuring fabulous wealth to come.

4.  Finishing Off
The scene shifts to 1927 for the final half-hour of the film.  The enormously wealthy Plainview is seen living alone in his huge mansion and besotted with alcohol.  In this last act he has two final confrontations with two of the only people with whom he had had significant personal interactions – HW and Eli Sunday.   I will leave it to you to see what happens and will only comment that although both confrontations lead to narrative closure for the characters of HW and Eli Sunday, neither of these confrontations lead to any closure or self-understanding for Daniel Plainview.  His material worth is huge, but his self-worth is now abysmal. He remains what he always was: a man driven to succeed, but for what?  He, himself, doesn’t know.

There were three people in Daniel Plainview’s life who had some impact on his character, because they each in some way challenged him.  Daniel’s response in each case was hatred:
  • Henry “Plainview” fooled Daniel into believing him to be his brother.  Henry did not gain much from this trickery, but the normally savvy Daniel felt humiliated that he had been taken in.  His response was to shoot Henry in the head.
  • As a youth, HW had been used by Daniel as a prop, a tool.  When, as a grownup, HW expresses some reasonable and respectful independence, Daniel’s reaction is contempt. 
  • Eli Sunday had humiliated Daniel, which for Daniel was the ultimate crime. Daniel had already humiliated Eli once before, so on the final occasion, the inebriated Daniel couldn’t just play tit-for-tat. His pent-up resentment just had to go ballistic.
We can compare Daniel Plainview’s successful but empty career trajectory to that of Citizen Kane, but there is a difference.  Within Kane, as Roger Ebert remarked, there always lurked an inner “Rosebud” innocence [8].  With Plainview there was only selfish acquisitiveness and enduring resentment.  This points to a weakness in There Will Be Blood – Daniel Plainview’s relentless selfishness.  To him life is a sequence of competitions or games, if you will.  Each of those games is meaningless in itself and is only to be won or lost, with no larger goal in mind.  This is a character type we may sometimes encounter in life, but with which it is difficult to empathize.  And there is no countervailing or alternative character in this narrative that can attract our sympathies.  Eli Sunday is a contrasting, boyish personality, but he is just as much a phoney as Plainview.

Other less-than-ideal elements of the film include (a) the almost complete absence of women in this story, (b) the musical score, which is frequently intrusive (although the musical score does sometimes effectively back up the mood of certain situations), and (c)  the drawn-out, downbeat pace of the final act.

But There Will Be Blood has undeniable virtues, too.  One is the ground-level and gritty presentation of early-days oil drilling. The viewer is immersed in the raw, intense nature of those activities.  Another strong point is Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Plainview’s hard-driven personality, which contrasts well with Paul Dano’s more delicate presentation of Eli Sunday.  But perhaps the film’s strongest element is the relentless, moody tempo that persists throughout the tale.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “There Will Be Blood (2007): Paul Thomas Anderson's Epic Saga of Greed, Betrayal and Obsession”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (16 March 2012).   
  2. Murtaza Ali Khan, “All Time Best 100 Movies: Author's Pick 2017", A Potpourri of Vestiges, (11 January 2017).   
  3. Murtaza Ali Khan, “50 Best Hollywood Movies Of All Time That Are A Must Watch”, WittyFeed, (2017).  
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  5. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, "The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far" , The New York Times. (9 June.2017). 
  6. Lynn Hirschberg, “The New Frontier’s Man”, The New York Times Magazine, (11 November 2007). 
  7. Philip Horne, “There Will Be Blood relations”, The Guardian, (29 July 2008).   
  8. Roger Ebert, “There Will Be Blood”, RogerEbert.com, (3 January 2008).  

“Le Samourai” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1967)

The term “film noir” was originally coined by French film critics to refer to Hollywood B-grade films of the 1930s and 1940s that concerned stories of shady characters in a dark, gloomy, and corrupt urban environment.  But the true mastery of the film noir form came later, with the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Le Samourai (1970) has become famous as perhaps the extreme, quintessential expression of the genre. Accordingly, the film’s renown led British film magazine Empire to rank the film 39th on its list of "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" (i.e. non-English-language films) [1].

Melville (nee Grumbach) was a self-made auteur who imbibed much of his craft by watching countless Hollywood films in his youth.  After serving in the French Resistance and the French military during World War II, he determinedly launched his film career by seeking independent funding on his own and even starting his own film production company [2].  From the outset his films were atmospheric, and he had early successes like Le Silence de la Mer (1949) and Les Enfants Terribles (1950); but his first full-fledged film noir was not until Le Doulos (1963).  From there on he was a hardcore “noir” filmmaker.

I have remarked that films noir characteristically encompass three basic characterological themes [3]:
  • Fatalism
    The key characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters at every turn.
  • Truth  
    The world is dark and obscure, and the truth is always elusive. At every turn, there is someone ready to double-cross you, and the police are as untrustworthy as the gangsters.
  • Loyalty  
    Because everyone, including the cops, are liars, there is a heavy demand to find someone who can be trusted – and then to remain loyal to that rare person. This leads to a professional code, the “honor among thieves”, which places life-threatening demands of loyalty on the trusted partners in the story.
In Le Samourai these three notions are particularly dominant and take precedence over basic narrative concerns of realism and motivation.  The story is about an underworld hit man, Jef Costello (played by Melville favorite Alain Delon), and his surreal world of isolation and violence.  This is no ordinary gangster thug; Costello is the ultimate icy smooth professional, and the murder he is contracted to commit in this story is for a fee of 2 million francs [4].  But we become fascinated following this severely isolated and seemingly soulless individual.  He is the ultimate loner trying to make his way in a hostile environment.  Indeed at the beginning of the film, there is a displayed title that is purported to be a quotation from the Bushido code of the samurai (but actually a Melville fabrication):
“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, . . .
. . . unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle.”
Costello is the samurai and his world is dark and dank – everything seems to happen at night in his world.  This is not gritty realism; it is an abstract expressionistic nightmare more along the lines of such noirish cartoons as Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95). Crucial to this evocation of expressionistic gloom is the cinematography of Henri Decaë, who masterfully contributed to a number of outstanding films, including several directed by Melville, during this general period – notably: Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1958); Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959); Francois Truffaut’s, The Four Hundred Blows (1959); René Clément’a Purple Noon (1960); Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybele (1962); and Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), Bob le Flambeur, (1955), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970).  The atmospheric cinematography of Decaë does not slow down the relentless pace, however, thanks to the smooth cutting-on-action editing of Monique Bonnot and Yolande Maurette.

The story of Le Samourai, which is thought to have been inspired by Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), progresses through five phases.

1.   The Contracted Killing
The film opens without dialogue for the fist nine minutes.  In an opening long shot, Jef Costello is lying fully clothed on his bed in his bare and dismal apartment and contemplatively smoking a cigarette.  The only sounds to be heard are the chirpings of his caged bird.  Costello then gets up and puts on what will be his signature attire, a white trench coat and a fedora, and goes out onto the street. Finding a parked Citroen that is unlocked, Costello gets in, takes out his large key ring with dozens of keys on it and quietly begins trying them in the ignition.  One of the keys works, and Costello drives off in the stolen car.  All the while Costello is in full view, but his expressionless countenance doesn’t attract attention.  Then he goes to a garage in a nondescript Parisian banlieue and wordlessly arranges with an underworld associate to purchase a gun and get a new license plate for the stolen car. 

Costello now starts making arrangements for his alibi.  He first visits his girlfriend Janine Lagrange (played by the extraordinarily beautiful Nathalie Delon, who was Alain Delon’s wife at the time). When he learns that she will be hosting her usual “customer” at 2 am, Costello then goes to visit some shady friends involved in an all-night poker game, so that he can secure his alibi for the rest of the night.  (Why Costello needed this second alibi was never clear to me.)

Costello next goes to Martey’s nightclub, where a beautiful jazz pianist, Valerie (played by West Indian Caty Rosier), is playing on stage.  Donning white gloves (to conceal fingerprints), he quietly goes to a backroom and ruthlessly murders the proprietor.  But as he is leaving Martey’s room, he runs into Valerie, and they exchange momentary glances.  So Valerie may become a key witness in connection with the later criminal investigation.  Then Costello goes out and dumps the gun and his gloves off a bridge and into the river.  Finally, he calmly returns to his alibi sites to cover himself.  All the while Costello has shown no emotion and barely said a word.

2.  The Police Investigate
Now the focalization shifts to the police investigation, which is led by police commissioner (“Le Commissaire”, played by Francois Perier).  In contrast to the solitary, existentialist sphere of Costello, the police counterforce is depicted as a vast, messy machine with almost unlimited resources.  The Commissaire orders the police to roundup 20 suspects from each of the city’s 20 precincts for a lineup.  And he is willing to compromise any principles in order to get things done.  As he tells Janine Lagrange when he is interrogating her at one point,
    “The truth is not what you say. It’s what I say. Whatever the methods I use to get it.”
But Janine is utterly loyal to Jef and stands by his alibi, which proves to be airtight. (This shows Janine  to be an ideal partner for a film-noir protagonist.) And, mysteriously, Valerie does not identify Costello during the police lineup, either.  The Commissaire still suspects Jef, though, and he orders the police to tail him wherever he goes.  They also go to Jef’s apartment while he is out and install a hidden radio bug.

3.  Betrayal
Costello goes to an arranged remote location to collect his payment for the murder from a criminal “syndicate” agent.  But he is double-crossed when the agent tries to kill him.  Costello is wounded and barely gets away.  The syndicate boss, Olivier Rey, is later shown telling his colleagues that now that Costello has become a police suspect, he is a liability to their organization.  So it is now clear that he is being hunted by two ruthless forces – both the police and the syndicate.

4.  Closing In

Costello still doesn’t know why the syndicate betrayed him, but he suspects the jazz pianist, Valerie, may hold the clue.  The few meaningful gazes they have exchanged with each other up to now have seemed to connect the two in some sort of mysterious affinity. Is it love? We don’t know, and probably those two don’t, either.  Jef now tracks down Valerie, and they go to her luxurious apartment to have a guarded conversation.  She tells him she will give him more information in a couple of hours.

Shortly thereafter, though, the same syndicate agent who almost killed him barges into Costello’s apartment and offers him another 2 million francs to carry out another murder.  Now things have become even more complicated.  Why the change of heart on the part of the syndicate? We don’t know yet who the targeted victim is, but apparently Costello now does.  So far, though, he has not known who his underworld contractors are. So he strong-arms the syndicate agent to learn the identity and location of the syndicate agent’s boss, Olivier Rey.

But the police are tracking Costello closely, with the Commissaire ordering 50 men and 20 auxiliaries to tail him.  Costello is aware of this surveillance, and there follows an extended cat-and-mouse chase on the Paris metro system as he tries to get clear of them.  He does just manage to elude them all, then steals another Citroen in his usual fashion, and gets ready to carry out his next contract.

5.  The Finish

Costello first goes to Olivier Rey’s apartment, which we (and presumably Costello) are surprised to see is the same place where he had conversed with Valerie.  When Costello sees Rey, he quickly shoots him dead.  Then he goes to Martey’s nightclub, where there is another surprise in store for us.  Costello’s murder target this time is Valerie. Wearing his white assassin’s gloves, he walks up to her piano, and again they exchange emotional gazes.  She urges him not to stay, but he mournfully pulls out his gun and says, “I was paid to. . .” 

Before Costello can do anything, though, there is a hail of bullets from a police ambush behind the curtains, and he is killed.  When they examine Costello’s gun at the end, they find that it was not loaded.  His last gesture was apparently an act of suicide.

There are a number of things that we never know in this story.  What were the syndicate’s motivations?  What was Valerie’s involvement with the syndicate?  Was she ultimately colluding with the police?  And what was the connection between Jef Costello and Valerie?  And, of course, what was behind Jef’s final actions?  These are mysteries that are unknown to us and probably mostly unknown to Costello, too.

What we are left with is the bleak loneliness of the film-noir samurai.  This is powerfully conveyed throughout the film by a number of metaphorical elements which seem to have an emotive significance beyond our schematic explanations:
  • The chirping bird in the cage. The mournful vitality of the bird has a haunting feel to it. It may suggest entrapment, but also hidden secrets yet to be unveiled.
  • Enclosure.  Throughout this story Jef Costello is faced with a threatening world closing in on him, such as when he is closely tracked by police spies all through the metro system, for example. The police machine is seemingly boundless and soulless.  (This metaphorical presentation of a seemingly helpless fugitive in flight from a massively resourced police machine was repeated in Melville's Le Cercle Rouge.)
  • Jef’s attire.  His fedora, trench coat, and white gloves are always carefully donned, as if they are a crucial part of his persona.  Indeed there is something absurd about this, since this “uniform” would make him more identifiable to the authorities.  This attire, though,  perhaps represents to him the mark of his samurai-like code of conduct. 
  • The gazes of Jeff and Valerie.  Although we might think of this film’s material as concerned with extreme masculine discipline, both Jef and Valerie are androgynous figures.  Valerie, for instance, has short hair and an innocent boyish look.  Delon, whose androgynous good looks have always felt a little sinister to me, in this film also has an innocent look to him (even though we see he is a killer).  When we as viewers look at each of these two figures, we are drawn to seek empathy with them, even though we are given no information about their backgrounds, goals, or concerns.  This makes them even more fascinating to look at.  The whole effect is magnified when the two of them gaze at each other.  Indeed Valerie is one of the only people in this film whom Jef look in the eye. Melville’s extended treatment in this film of the gaze, which is recognized by phenomenological philosophers as an essential instrument of self-consciousness [5], is one of the most aesthetically significant and interesting aspects of this film.
Thus because of these various considerations, Le Samourai stands as a great film.  It is not my favorite Melville film noir; his subsequent Le Cercle Rouge is.  But Le Samourai remains as one of the ultimate explorations of the film noir genre.

  1. "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema", Empire, Bauer Media Group, (11 June 2010). 
  2.  World Film Directors, V. II., John Wakeman (ed.),  H.W. Wilson Co., NY 1988, quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Jean-Pierre Melville Le Samourai 1967”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIII:6), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (10 October 2006).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Le Doulos’ - Jean-Pierre Melville (1963)”, The Film Sufi, (27 February 2009).  
  4. I would estimate this to be about US$ 30,000 in today’s currency. 
  5. Shaun Gallagher, “Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (24 December 2014).