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Old School Review: “Le Samouraï” (1967)

Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.

After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.

Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.

Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).

So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!

Final Score: 1 Bird

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #17 Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

Writer/Director: Ryozo Kasahara (2nd film)/ Kenji Misumi (4th film)

Cinematographer: Chikashi Makiura (He worked on a number of Zatoichi films and all of the films that Kenji Misumi directed in the Lone Wolf and Cub series as well. I felt the need to point his name out in this review as the film is a knockout visually, and that deserves credit)

Summary: Once again Zatoichi is the guardian of a small child- but this time it’s a six year old that can walk and talk back to him. If you enjoyed “Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!”, then I’d imagine you’ll likely love this entry in the Zatoichi canon. It’s basically an upgraded version of Kenji Misumi’s earlier work, though “Fight!” had a more carefree Zatoichi in his demeanor and how he reacted to people and the world around him. Now, nine films later, Zatoichi’s a bit more apt to be somewhat curmudgeonly. Granted, he’s been through a lot in that time and seen the range of humanity from true, noble, and kind to hypocritical, greedy, and self serving. Zatoichi’s journey begins when he arrives at a crowded inn and stays with a sickly mother and her young child. When the mother unceremoniously dies in Zatoichi’s arms, it’s up to him to deliver the child to the father he never knew. On his journey to the father’s hometown, Zatoichi and Ryota encounter a mysterious ronin-like figure on several occasions, one that reveals nothing about himself or his mission, but delights in getting details from Zatoichi several times. Neither knew that they would end up fighting to the death over Ryota’s father, Shokichi’s (Takao Ito), life. Once Zatoichi finds evidence of Shokichi’s location, he’s surprised to find that Shokichi isn’t simply neglecting his child (he didn’t even know he had fathered a child), or trying to further his own selfish goals. Because Shokichi has artistic talent, he’s been forced to pay off his gambling debts by painting illegal erotica- which carries a heavy fine in this period of Japan’s history.

Notably, this film showcases real skill when it comes to the art of filmmaking. The film production crafted beautiful cinematography, gorgeous compositions, bold colors, and an excellent combination of wide landscape shots and intense close-ups. There’s also the surprise sprinkling of two musical sequences in which melodramatic vocals play over a couple of traveling montages. Kenji Misumi really pulled some beautiful performances out of his actors this time, notably, in smaller moments that allow time for the characters to process, react, and even show their true feelings about the situation at hand a few times which feels revelatory for this series. This turned out to be my favorite Zatoichi film, so far, and I’m happy to be proven wrong in the near future.

My favorite part: Besides the gorgeous cinematography by Chikashi Makiura and excellent direction from Kenji Misumi, my favorite part of this film was the villain. From the opening scene of the film until the end battle, he’s wisely spread around the plot with his true intentions only known far into the story. After Zatoichi slays several combatants in the opening scene, Akazuka (Jushiro Konoe) witnesses the blind swordsman’s skill and heartily compliments him. Zatoichi happens to bump into him on several occasions well before they cross blades, where they respect each other’s skill and are cordial enough with each other. Akazuka may seem like the usual ronin figures that accompany a lot of these films, but he’s got stone cold conviction and he’s a far more dangerous combatant than most of Zatoichi’s enemies. I had heard that this film had one of the best Samurai fight scenes of all time, and I have to say that I was impressed. It was visceral, beautifully shot against falling snow, and it was the first real time I had any real concern for Zatoichi in a fight. The way story and deep character moments are inserted into the fight, I mean, you can’t get much better than that.

Why it’s great: This film is the epitome of why the blind swordsman concept works. “Zatoichi Challenged”, out of the films in the series that I have seen this far, is the best example of the character and the film series as a whole. Everything about this film is perfect for it’s aim. If you don’t enjoy this film, you probably won’t find much else in the series that works for you.

Final Score: 1 AMAZING Samurai Fight

*For fun, check out this re:View by Red Letter Media in which they analyze this Rutger Hauer starring movie that was supposedly a loose adaption of “Zatoichi Challenged”:

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #16 Zatoichi The Outlaw (1967)

Writer/Director: Kiyokata Saruwaka, Takehiro Nakajima, & Koji Matsumoto/ Satsuo Yamamoto

Summary: Get ready, because “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is a film that breaks free from the formula of past Zatoichi films to offer one of the most complex and subversive entries in the series. This time around when Zatoichi enters yet another small town, he encounters a swordless ronin who dispatches a group of attackers with ease- and without killing anyone. Ichi also hears the rice paddy farmers singing tunes that border on hymnal, reciting the ronin’s teachings to reject the vices of life and instead lead just and simple lives. When he finally finds a gambling establishment, he partakes, but soon realizes that the losers are systematically kidnapped and submitted to debt oriented slavery. When Zatoichi discovers that a rival establishment in the next town over is paying these unfortunate patrons debts and freeing them, he’s astonished at the Yakuza boss’s altruism. When the blind swordsman is pinned for the death of two henchmen, he agrees to take the boss’ tainted money on the road and return in a year, confidant in his benevolence. Months later, word gets back to Ichi that everything in those two towns aren’t as good as he had hoped for, and heads back early when evidence to the truth begins to snowball. The benevolent boss had not been as kind as Zatoichi has initially assumed. In truth, he had guided Zatoichi into killing his rival and laid the groundwork for a particularly brutal money grabbing scheme. Eventually, Zatoichi teams up with the ronin and the townspeople to stop the madness, and enact real change- through some damn entertaining swordplay.

My favorite part: This film in particular had a “punchy” energy to it. I loved the grit and messy nature of this one, and it isn’t just the sense that this film had something to prove- it definitely did, as leading star Shintaro Katsu’s film production company, Katsu Productions, chose to make this film their first. Throw away your old assumptions within the series, because this film doesn’t want them. Here we have the usual ronin figure, but he harbors no sword, is no villain for Zatoichi himself, and he counsels the locals to lead lives free from the trappings of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.

Why it’s great: “Zatoichi The Outlaw” is an excellent entry in the film series because of the way it shook up the formula that had dictated most of the films up until this point. There’s still the corruption of authority figures, Zatoichi catching cheating gambling establishments, and some blood splatter- but this entry in the series marks the beginning of a fascinating and highly entertaining evolution for Zatoichi.

Final Score: 2 Yakuza Bosses

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #15 Zatoichi’s Cane Sword (1967)

Writer/Director: Ryozo Kasahara/Kimiyoshi Yasuda (3rd film)

Summary: Around the usual gangsters and corruption ruining the locals lives, “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” peels back another layer of Zatoichi’s day to day life, his cane sword. After some scenes familiar to the series, Zatoichi partaking in the ever popular dice gambling, cutting down any resentful gamblers that would come after him for winning too much, and after such an incident the blind swordsman astonishes a fellow patron of a noodle stand. After Zatoichi slashes at two attackers and accidentally cuts the noodle stand in half, the old man sitting next to Ichi pleads with him to come back to his shop. There the old man, Senzo (Eijiro Tono) asks to see Zatoichi’s blade, for he’s a blacksmith and he’d like to see if his eye for swords is still intact. His suspicions confirmed, Senzo claims that the sword was made by his mentor, and, after close inspection, he points to a hairline fracture near the handle warning the blind swordsman that the blade has maybe one last fight in it before it breaks. At this news, Zatoichi takes stock of his life, and decides to leave the sword with Senzo as a memento of his master’s work. Senzo gives Zatoichi a fresh walking cane and a referral to a local inn where Ichi can work and live as a masseur. While there, Ichi hears of the upcoming visit by the provincial inspector, and once arrived, he hears more of the dynamic between upper government and the Boss Iwagoro (Tatsuo Endo). Senzo is mentioned by one of the underlings in the inspector’s crew as working on the sword once again, so Zatoichi pays him a visit. Senzo reveals that he’s the father of Oshizu (Shiho Fujimura), the woman at the center of all the drama taking place at the inn where Zatoichi works. Shamed from his descent from master blacksmith to drunken gambler, Senzo had given his daughter to the local boss at the time so that she could lead a better life. When things get dicey with Iwagoro and his underling Monji, instead of giving up the sword he had worked on for ten years, Senzo defended his blade, but lost his life to the scuffle. After Senzo dies in Zatoichi’s arms, he vows vengeance and retrieves his cane sword, knowing he only has one kill left. As the machinations of the gangs, ronin, and government officials all move towards total domination, Zatoichi eventually faces off against Iwagoro, invigorated by the theft of Senzo’s master work. Though when blades clash it isn’t Zatoichi’s cane sword that breaks, but Iwagoro’s stolen sword. It’s then that Zatoichi realizes that Senzo had switched the blades and put his greatest sword in his cane sword and Ichi’s old blade in the hilt that he knew would be stolen.

My favorite part: With this being the fifteenth film in the series, I was glad to see the filmmakers dive into the details behind another infamous aspect of the blind swordsman. There have been a few movies after Zatoichi’s killed dozens upon dozens of enemy Yakuza when even I have thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that his cane sword’s held up for so long.” so it’s kinda nice to see thought given to that.

Why it’s great: I consider “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” to be the end of the first half of the films, not just due to it’s place near the numerical center of the film series, but because the films that follow it have a noticeably different shift in style and direction. Whereas the first fifteen films have a certain flow and sense of familiarity from film to film, the ones following seem unbound by the same formula to a certain degree. While the overall structure is similar, the series seems far more likely to take big swings after “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword”. The next film in the Zatoichi saga is also the first endeavor by Shintaro Katsu’s own film production company, “Katsu Productions” where the actor produced many of the following Zatoichi films, and maintained almost complete artistic freedom.

Final Score: 10 years